instagram pinterest linkedin facebook twitter goodreads

Thoughts and Hallucinations

Linguistics oriented bio statement

Michael Agar is a well-known researcher in linguistic anthropology. In the field of applied linguistics more generally he is especially known for his path-breaking work on “languaculture”, a concept that calls attention to the inextricable bond between language and culture.
He was born in Chicago on May 7, 1945, moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1956. That same year his parents decided on a vacation in Mexico where he learned that “being a kid” was different, and preferable, in that country, an experience to which he attributes his lifelong interest in culture. As a high school student he became an AFS (American Field Service) exchange student to Austria. When he later enrolled at Stanford University and took an oral placement exam, the northern German professor didn’t know where to place him, since he spoke fluently in dialect about soccer but had never heard of Goethe.
As an undergraduate he majored in anthropology and spent his junior year work-ing with anthropologist Alan Beals in Karnataka (then Mysore State) in South India. He worked in the Kannarese language. Later, in 1973, he taught at the Central Institute of Indian Languages for the summer in Mysore City and had the odd post-colonial experi-ence of interpreting between local residents and other faculty and students from North India unfamiliar with Dravidian languages.
Undergraduate work at Stanford, followed by graduate work at the Language-Behavior Research Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, connected him with the then exciting development in American cultural anthropology, variously called “ethnoscience,” the “new ethnography,” and “cognitive anthropology.” Cognitive anthro-pology, in its early form, upgraded the Whorfian tradition of linguistic anthropology with the argument that culture is knowledge and much important knowledge is encoded in lexically labeled categories. His planned return to South India, though, was altered by the Vietnam War when he was offered a commission in the uniformed service of the U.S. Public Health Service and sent to work at a national center for narcotics addiction treatment in Lexington, Kentucky. To his surprise, the linguistic ethnography that he had learned worked as well in his new project--ethnography with urban American heroin ad-dicts--as it did in traditional anthropological research. His dissertation, later a book called Ripping and Running (1973), presented a lexical study of addict jargon as a means to the end of understanding their world.
He left Berkeley in 1971 for a series of academic positions--University of Hawaii in 1971, University of Houston in 1975, University of Maryland in 1981. Two years of work with the state narcotics treatment agency of New York interrupted the academic trajectory from 1973 to 1975. There were numerous visits, to the Institute in India, de-scribed above, as well as to the University of Surrey, the University of Vienna, and the University of California. And in 1995 he resigned his professorship at Maryland with an emeritus title to work independently as Ethknoworks, first in the Washington DC area, since 2005 in northern New Mexico near Santa Fe.
His projects, whether short or long term, have always been linguistic and ethno-graphic at their core. In many writings about ethnography, he introduced the concept of “rich point” (1996), meaning a difference based on experience that indexes a major cul-tural difference worthy of attention as a research focus. The concept was used by col-leagues as part of a field-oriented year abroad program for undergraduate language learners (Roberts 2001). However, this biography will only describe a few periods of concentrated linguistic work.
The first period came courtesy of a Research Career Development Award from the National Institutes of Health. During research with heroin addicts in New York City in the early 1970s, he did an extensive series of life history interviews with Herbert Huncke, a lifelong heroin addict who was the street connection for the post WWII Beat Generation. Agar began a collaboration with Jerry Hobbs, a natural language artificial intelligence researcher at Stanford Research International. While both were focused on the problem of how to make background knowledge for text understanding visible, Hobbs worked on axiomatic formalization of a knowledge base for computational im-plementation while Agar aimed for interpretive adequacy for a particular social category of outsider/audience in accessible prose. Out of this collaboration came several articles describing an approach to discourse analysis in three dimensions of coherence (or lack of it)--local (utterance by utterance), global (utterance in the context of text as a whole), and thematic (the recurrent threads of particular ethnographic interest). One contribu-tion, “How to Grow Schemas out of Interviews” (1985), summarizes a result of particular interest to anthropologists, something that would later be called the language-based analysis of “cultural models” in anthropology.
A second period of concentrated work resulted from several visits to the Univer-sity of Vienna, with support from Ruth Wodak, professor in applied linguistics at the In-stitut fuer Sprachwissenschaft. During these visits Agar researched, taught and at-tended conferences, working in Austrian German, and finished up with a sabbatical year in 1989 where he started his book Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Con-versation (1994). In that book he modified Paul Friedrich’s concept of “linguaculture” into the core concept of “languaculture,” meant to call attention to the inextricable bond be-tween the two. That concept proved useful as different applied linguistic fields took a “cultural turn,” such as second language instruction's move away from a focus on litera-ture and lexicon/syntax to communicative competence in contemporary life. The book from 1994 has gained a wide public in language studies, and its interdisciplinary ap-proach and many illustrative examples have been an inspiration for scholars and stu-dents alike.
The third period of work is now in process. As he phased out of academia in the 1990s, Agar experimented with possible linguistic anthropological applications, reflected in publications on peace negotiation (1996), intercultural communication (1994), drug research (2005), and organizational discourse (2006). But for many reasons not impor-tant for this biography, he spent several years on an NIH funded project that combined ethnography, economic history and epidemiology, as well as doing various workshops and consults around complexity and organizational development for social services. What is relevant to mention is that several projects and presentations took place in Latin American settings, in Spanish, a language he has worked at learning since that child-hood trip to Mexico
Recently he has returned to language, this time as a central component in human social research, beginning with a public lecture on what makes for a “real” ethnography (later revised and published as (2008)). He revisits the notion of ethnography as transla-tion, an interest that dovetails with the exponential growth of the translation field (in press). Courtesy of a reconnection with Jerry Hobbs, mentioned above, he works with a team charged with figuring out how to enrich computer-based language instruction with “culture,” the scare quote meant to signal how difficult and contentious that concept has become in our post-structural era. This line of work is ongoing, linked to his general pro-ject to “upgrade” the culture concept for use in a globally connected world, with a re-newed interest in the mix of human universals and local specifics that makes translation possible at all.
Agar currently lives with his partner Ellen about 15 miles outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Beside his work as Ethknoworks and his emeritus appointment at Mary-land, he is an affiliate of the Anthropocaos institute at the University of Buenos Aires and a Distinguished Scholar at the International Institute of Qualitative Methods, Univer-sity of Alberta. In addition to his current languaculture project, he also works with biology faculty at the University of New Mexico on the integration of human social research and urban ecology into their program. Information on recent talks and short term projects can be found on the Ethknoworks web site at He recently won second prize in the Santa Fe Reporter fiction competition.

Agar, Michael. Ripping and Running: A Formal Ethnographic Study of Urban Heroin Addicts. New York, Seminar Press, 1973.

-----. The Professional Stranger: An Informal Introduction to Ethnography. New York, Academic Press, 1996. (second edition, orig, 1980).

-----. Language Shock: Understanding the Culture of Conversation. New York, Wm. Morrow, 1994.

-----. The Intercultural Frame. International Journal of Intercultural Relations 18:221-237, 1994.

-----. Linguistic Peace Work. Peace and Change 21:424-437, 1996

-----. Local Discourse and Global Research: The Role of Local Knowledge. Language and Society 34(1):1-22 2005.

-----. Telling It Like You Think It Might Be: Narrative, Linguistic Anthropology, and the Complex Organization. E:CO 7(3-4):22-34, 2006.

-----. A Linguistics for Ethnography: Why Not Second Languagaculture Learning and Translation. Journal of Intercultural Communication, Issue 16,, April 2008.

-----. Making Sense of One Other for Another: Ethnography as Translation. Language and Communication, in press.

----- and Jerry Hobbs. How to Grow Schemas out of Interviews. In Directions in Cognitive Anthropology, ed. Janet Dougherty. Urbana, Univ. Illinois Press, 1985.

Roberts, Celia, Michael Byram, Ano Barrio, Shirley Jordan, and Brian Street. 2001. Language Learners as Ethnographers. Multilingual Matters, Clevedon.
Be the first to comment