Language Conflict: Transactions and Games in Kenya

Peer Reviewed

Essay Excerpt

Language shift amid vast socioeconomic change and the tenacity with which groups hold on to their language despite social and political change are contradictory trends that intrigue but often frustrate language planners and scholars seeking to explain patterns of language use (Rubin 1979). In order to analyze these patterns, many scholars conceive of language as a "social resource" (Eastman 1983a) that is exploited by individuals and groups to affect personal and political outcomes. This perspective has both a micro and a macro component. Socio- and anthropological linguists who take the "micro" perspective focus their attention on individual speakers who vary their linguistic repertoires to establish or adjust their identity and/or to enhance their power. Microanalysis usually involves the systematic observation of linguistic "transactions" in complex urban environments. From these transactions, we see a world in which languages are evolving, where the boundaries between languages are fluid and weak, and in which each person has his/her own repertoire of languages and dialects.

Political linguistics has developed a more "macro" perspective (see Beer and Jacob (1985) for recent papers). Its focus is on groups and nation-states. In this macro world, individuals are members of more-or-less stable language communities, and are citizens/subjects of a state that perhaps seeks the homogenization of language repertoires and/or the peaceful reconciliation of language groups. While microanalysis has prospered in its use of transaction analysis, macroanalysis remains in search of a research technique. In this article, game theory will be proposed as the macro complement to transaction analysis.

These traditions, while not antithetical, have not been reconciled. It is the purpose of this article to demonstrate both the power yet incompleteness of each perspective based on a discussion of the language situation in Kenya. A reconciliation of the two foci, it should become clear, is a necessary condition for a fully developed theory of language conflict and language change. This article takes the modest step of elaborating the differences by analyzing patterns of language shift from both perspectives. Although it focuses on the Kenyan situation, the theoretical intent is to provide categories of analysis that permit comparative analysis across areas and eras (see Laitin (1988) for the wider comparative framework). (Eastman & Laitin, 51-52)

About the Authors

David Laitin is the James T. Watkins IV and Elise V. Watkins Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. He received his BA from Swarthmore College, and then served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Somalia and Grenada, where he became national tennis champion in 1970. Back in the US, he received his Ph.D. in political science from UC Berkeley, working under the direction of Ernst Haas and Hanna Pitkin.

He has taught at three great universities: UCSD (1975-87), the University of Chicago (1987-1999) and now at Stanford. Over his career, as a student of comparative politics, he has conducted field research in Somalia, Yorubaland (Nigeria), Catalonia (Spain), Estonia, and France, all the time focusing on issues of language and religion, and how these cultural phenomena link nation to state. His books include Politics, Language and Thought: The Somali Experience (1977), Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Religious Change among the Yoruba (1986), Language Repertoires and State Construction in Africa (1992), Identity in Formation: The Russian-Speaking Populations in the Near Abroad (1998), and Nations, States and Violence (2007).

Over the past decade, mostly in collaboration with James Fearon, he has published several papers on ethnicity, ethnic cooperation, the sources of civil war, and on policies that work to settle civil wars. Laitin has also collaborated with Alan Krueger on international terrorism and with Eli Berman on suicide terrorism.In 2008-2009, with support from the National Science Foundation, and with a visiting appointment at Sciences-Po Paris, Laitin conducted ethnographic, survey and experimental research on Muslim integration into France, seeking to assess the magnitude of religious discrimination and isolate the mechanisms that sustain it. The initial results from that project were published in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences" (2010).

Carol M. Eastman was Senior Vice President and Executive Vice Chancellor and Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai'i from 1994 until her death in 1997. Dr. Eastman was an advocate for undergraduates throughout her teaching and administrative careers at the Universities of Washington and Hawai'i where she inspired students to new levels of achievement. She now has a scholarship program set up in her name at the University of Hawai'i at this link.

Her interests were language and how they reflect culture. She did fieldwork in Africa and spoke Swahili. Her most recent research focused on language and power and their interplay. 

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