Contextualization (sociolinguistics)

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For other uses, see Contextualization.

Contextualization in sociolinguistics refers to the use of language and discourse to signal relevant aspects of an interactional or communicative situation. Basil Bernstein (1990 [1971]) uses (re)contextualization when referring to the reformulation of scientific knowledge in pedagogical contexts, for instance in textbooks. John Gumperz (1982a, 1982b) and others in interactional sociolinguistics study subtle "contextualization cues", for instance intonation, that allow language users to infer contextually adequate meanings of discourse (see also Eerdmans, Prevignano & Thibault, 2002).

Gumperz (1982a) suggests that in the following interaction the linguistic style used by the interviewer signals a context different from that expected by the husband. The interviewer, an African-American graduate student in educational psychology, has been sent to interview a woman at her home in a low-income neighborhood. The interviewer rings the door bell and the woman's husband opens the door.

Husband: So y're gonna check out ma old lady, hah?
Interviewer: Ah, no. I only came to get some information. They called from the office.

The husband addresses the interviewer in an informal style, marking their interaction as friendly. When the interviewer responds in a more formal style, the context becomes more formal. As a result, the interviewer reports that the interview was "stiff" (Gumperz 1982a: 133).


  • Bernstein, B. (1990). Class, codes and control. Vol. IV. The structuring of pedagogic discourse. London: Routledge.
  • Eerdmans, S., Prevignano, C., & Thibault, P. (2002). Language and interaction. Discussions with J. J. Gumperz. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
  • Gumperz, J. J. (1982a). Discourse strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Gumperz, J. J. (Ed.). (1982b). Language and social identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.