Speech science in social psychology

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In response to yesterday's post on "Linguistic analysis in social science", my old Bell Labs colleague Bob Krauss wrote that

There may be more language-related research being done in social psychology than you're aware of.   Attached is a chapter Jen Pardo and I contributed to a book about connections between social psych and other disciplines.

I was glad to see the chapter, which was published a few years ago as Robert M. Krauss and Jennifer S. Pardo, "Speaker Perception and Social Behavior: Bridging Social Psychology and Speech Science", pp. 273-278 in Paul A.M. Van Lange (Ed.), Bridging Social Psychology: Benefits of Transdisciplinary Approaches, 2006. But reading this chapter, and skimming the rest of the book, confirmed my view that at present, there is remarkably little language-based research in the social sciences.

Their (persuasive) abstract:

Language plays a critical role in social life, and the semantic-pragmatic levels of linguistic analysis has become an important research  focus in social psychology. Considerably less attention has been paid to the organized sound system that underlies speech.  We distinguish between speech perception, which studies the processes underlying comprehension of the linguistic content of speech, and speaker perception, which examines effects of variability in speech that is not linguistically significant. Much of the latter deals with phenomena that lie at the heart of social psychology.  We describe two broad research areas that illustrate the insights consideration of the phonological level of speech can contribute to an understanding of social behavior.

Their (inspiring) conclusion:

In this brief essay, we have argued that the sound structure of speech contains information that can contribute importantly to our understanding of social behavior.

Speaker perception studies the way a particular utterance reflects a speaker's identity and internal state, and his/her definition of the situation. The variability that these factors produce can be studied both as a dependent variable and an independent variable. That is to say, we can examine the effects on voice of inductions involving activated identities, internal state or situational definitions; we also can examine how variability in features of voice (either natural or synthetically created) affect listeners' perceptions of the speaker and the semantic content of the utterance.

I hadn't seen their chapter before, but I know most of the works in their bibliography. And in keeping with the theme of my earlier post, I'll predict that as digital audio archives become more and more available, and computational analysis and synthesis of "voice features" becomes more and more accessible, this kind of work should logically increase in prominence.

After all, when Bob and I overlapped at Bell Labs 30-odd years ago, if you wanted (for example) to compare the "activated identities" of politicians as revealed in their speeches or press conferences, you'd need to buy audio tapes from media companies, have them physically shipped to you, and then digitize and analyze them using million-dollar minicomputers. ("In the snow, uphill, both ways.") Today you can download the audio for free over the internet,do acoustic analysis and synthesis on your laptop, and run perception experiments over the net as well.

But despite Bob's 30-odd years of evangelism from positions of well-deserved authority and respect, and despite the fact that various forms of speech-and-language-based research  are becoming easier and easier, it's still not very common for social psychologists to do the sort of  research that he persuasively recommends.

The Krauss and Pardo chapter is 5 pages in a 489-page book focusing broadly on interdisciplinary applications of social psychology — and I was unable to find any other discussion in the book of research based on linguistic analysis of any sort. ("Conversation analysis" and "discourse analysis" are mentioned once each, in a parenthetical and essentially contentless sort of way.) This sampled proportion (5/489 = 1%) strikes me as a plausible estimate for the field as a whole.

Again, I predict that this is certain to change, as social-science researchers (and social psychologists in particular) respond to their changing environment. But the cultural conservatism of the academy means that it's going to take a while.


  1. Robin Queen said,

    August 11, 2009 @ 9:20 am

    It's also going to take a while on the linguistics end of things, I think, as many linguists (still) do not regard the kinds of work that social scientists, comm. studies folks, etc. might be interested in as within the realm of linguistics. Nice analysis of the Laffer quote in your earlier post.

    [(myl) It's odd to view the attitudes of the discipline of linguistics as having any crucial relevance to what social scientists might choose to do, or not to do, for their own reasons. Bob Krauss isn't suggesting that social psychologists use speech data in order to win the approval of phoneticians and phonologists, but because he believes that such data is an important source of information about the issues that social psychologists themselves care about.

    Claude Shannon didn't need Leonard Bloomfield's approval in order to investigate the distribution of letter-sequences in English text. Nor did Zellig Harris need Claude Shannon's approval to develop transformational grammar. Disciplinary differences may often be counter-productive, but they also allow intellectual pluralism to coexist with intellectual rigor.

    As it happens, I don't know any phoneticians who would object to joining social psychologists in carrying out the program that Bob recommends. On the contrary. But it shouldn't matter if they did. ]

  2. elinar said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 5:37 am

    I’m sorry to go on about this, but I happened to come across a paper (published in 2003), according to which, in the past 15 years, “discourse analysis has had a major impact on social psychology, especially in Britain” and that “for an increasing number of academics discourse analysis is the prime way of doing social psychological research”.

    Here is the link:

    So I don’t think it’s entirely accurate to claim that there is remarkably little language-related research in social psychology (and in the social sciences in general). Or maybe things are very different across the pond.

    [(myl) If I search the APA's PsycNET site for "discourse analysis" in any indexed field for any journal with "social" in the title, I find just one article, by William Stiles from 1978.

    Looking through recent volumes of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, I don't see any obvious examples of "discourse analysis". Nor does that journal's search feature turn up anything much since the 1978 Stiles paper, though there are a couple of things that involve some kind of linguistic analysis without using the term "discourse analysis" as such.

    Turning to the British Journal of Social Psychology, I skimmed the 26 "pre-print" articles queued up, and found just one that seems to involve something like discourse analysis.

    So there might be a trans-Atlantic difference, but it hardly seems to be true that discourse analysis is "the prime way of doing social psychological research" for very many UK social psychologists. ]

  3. Robin Queen said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 10:10 am

    Uh, I wasn't sufficiently clear in my point. I wasn't suggesting that linguists need to approve of what any other group of researchers does or doesn't do or that linguists need to do something other than linguistics. Rather, I was suggesting that linguists may play a role in the fact that other disciplines don't see linguistics as potentially relevant because of narrow definitions of the discipline. You noted the cultural conservatism of the academy in relation to social psychologists and I was agreeing with you, but in relation to linguists (as well).

    [(myl) I'm certainly in favor of "big tent" linguistics, but we shouldn't exaggerate the effect on other fields of attitudes within the discipline of linguistics. Until recently, for example, most (narrow-definition) linguists weren't very interested in frequency effects, but this didn't stop the psychologists and engineers.

    To the extent that linguistics-internal developments will play a role, it's largely because some linguists develop concepts, categories, or methods that researchers in other disciplines find useful, not because linguists overall define their field more narrowly or more broadly.

    There have been several recent contributions of this kind in the booming field of "sentiment analysis": e.g. Stephan Greene and Philip Resnik, "More than Words: Syntactic Packaging and Implicit Sentiment", NAACL 2009; or Noah Constant, Christopher Davis, Christopher Potts, and Florian Schwarz, "The pragmatics of expressive content: Evidence from large corpora", Sprache un Datenverarbeitung, 2009.

    But one of the curious things about "sentiment analysis" is how little interest and attention it seems to have attracted among academic social scientists. You'd think it would be right in their sweet spot, but (for example) searching The American Journal of Sociology and The American Journal of Political Science and The International Journal of Communication for "sentiment analysis" turns up nothing whatever. ]

  4. Robin Queen said,

    August 12, 2009 @ 11:16 am

    "(myl) To the extent that linguistics-internal developments will play a role, it's largely because some linguists develop concepts, categories, or methods that researchers in other disciplines find useful, not because linguists overall define their field more narrowly or more broadly."

    I think this is absolutely right. I guess it's an open question whether or not those developments are helped or hindered (or some of both) by linguists' own perceptions of their field. I was arguing for the latter, but clearly there's evidence for both historiographically. I'm partially thinking in the context of this being another potential moment when linguists have a pretty good hand but may not be able to turn that hand into a "busting out" (as you've put it elsewhere).

  5. pc said,

    August 13, 2009 @ 8:51 am

    It doesn't seem to have been mentioned in this discussion at any point, so I just wanted to bring it up–is the existence of the Journal of Language and Social Psychology of relevance here? Or is it only further evidence of the state of affairs you're pointing to?

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