A Cultural and Linguistic Anthropological Analysis of Youth Language Socialization

Project: Research project

Project Details


This project will employ cultural and linguistic anthropological methodologies to investigate how spelling bees contribute to processes of neoliberal socialization, language commodification, and the production of mediatized identities and racial imagery in the contemporary United States. Anthropology, and the social sciences more broadly, have largely overlooked spelling bees as a social phenomenon, focusing more centrally on orthography and academic learning. This project moves beyond writing conventions and grade level standards to consider spelling as a socializing institution to offer insight into central anthropological questions about language, media, race, and neoliberal subject formation, by addressing these questions: 1) How do children and parents participate together in “spelling socialization” to learn particular registers, vocal and visualization techniques, and embodied practices to not only excel at spelling bees, but also to begin to learn skills to succeed in neoliberal economies? 2) How has the increased commercialization of spelling bees through corporate branding and prime-time broadcasting transformed this language education exercise into a mass mediated, sport-like spectacle, and its participants into “mediatized” subjects? 3) How do language use, commercial media, socialization, and education intersect to shape racialization and ideologies of English monolingualism? A three-year ethnographic study will be conducted to investigate the business of the bee and spelling socialization to illustrate their connections to racialized stereotypes in the contemporary United States. Data will be collected via observations, audio recordings, video taping, and interviews at: organizations that produce the “National Spelling Bee,” the “South Asian Spelling Bee,” and the “North South Foundation Spelling Bee,” the latter two of which are exclusively for South Asian Americans; at select regional and national spelling bees; and in spellers’ (ages 6-14) homes to document their preparation practices and intergenerational relationships as they participate in the rigorous bee season of 2013-14. During 2015 and 2016, progress of select youth will be observed to provide longitudinal perspective on their “spelling careers,” and the PI will bring student mentees to observe select spelling bees. Interviews will be conducted with spellers, their parents, coaches, spelling bee organizers, pronouncers, judges, corporate sponsors, and media broadcasters. Data will be analyzed to consider the significance of the everyday acquisition and on-stage execution of spelling socialization to broader debates of capitalism, language, race, and media.
Effective start/end date9/1/138/31/17


  • National Science Foundation (BCS-1323769)


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