chapter  19
Language and Political Economy
Pages 22

One way to survey the study of language and political economy is to consider why language seems, more than linguistic anthropologists would like, to be left out of studies of political economy. This approach considers why language and economy have sometimes been taken to be opposed (e.g., in such formulations as base vs. superstructure), and then suggests strategies for overcoming the binary, theoretically and empirically. I will, below, briefly review these arguments. This article, however, takes a different approach; it asks why, at certain moments, debates about language are so central to discussions of political economy.1 It argues that if we understand language as one means among many of making meaning, we can better grasp both why or how language does (or does not) matter in different ways, to different kinds of people, at different times. Language is one particularly important means for the construction of relations of social difference and social inequality, but not the only one and not always the most important one. This chapter is constructed around a loosely chronological account of how capitalism, as an uneven world system, has been linked to particular ways of understanding language in the production of inequality. In the template I was given for writing it, I was asked to offer an overview of historical perspectives, and then critical current themes and future directions. But this chronological approach combines these, by asking us to regard the history of work on language with a fresh eye, and to be richly attentive to the ways that current approaches, taken as critical, may occasionally be collusive in changing political situations, as some past linguistic ideas were. It suggests that a historical eye – one that asks “Why this, why now?” – needs to suffuse all of our analytic accounts.