Sonia Neela Das

Grant Type

Post PhD Research Grant

Institutional Affiliation

New York U.

Grant number

Gr. 9695

Approve Date

October 5, 2018

Project Title

Das, Dr. Sonia N., New York U., New York, NY - To aid research on Fighting Words or Speech Rights? A Linguistic Ethnography of Police Discretion in the U.S. South'

Preliminary abstract: This research investigates the language ideologies and interactional practices informing the sociolegal principles of police discretion and the classification of conversational routines as ‘fighting words’ or ‘free speech’ in the context of law enforcement in South Carolina. Based on my preliminary analysis of an undisclosed corpus of recorded DUI and traffic stops demonstrating that police officers differently interpret the verbal and non-verbal behavior of Blacks, Whites, Asian Americans, and Latinx, I propose the use of ethnographic methods to further investigate the legal adjudication process involving archives of legally mandated surveillance recordings of police officers with dashcams and bodycams. I will also conduct interviews with subjects, officers, and lawyers, attend bond hearings, and observe how police departments and academies teach protocols of de-escalation, redirection, and responses to anticipated violence to understand the models of language that law enforcement draws upon to identify verbal and non-verbal provocations. Recent incidents of police shootings, beatings, and killings of unarmed black people in South Carolina that made national headlines over the last three years frame a particular moment in U.S. history and present an opportunity to examine how the discourses and practices of white supremacy are perpetuated in small cities, towns, and rural regions, which have not received the same attention as large cities when discussing violence and racial conflict. This research seeks to advance anthropological knowledge about the social and mutual construction of language and law. By proposing a theoretical framework through which to evaluate the role of verbal and nonverbal interactions and language ideologies in influencing legal outcomes, it ascertains the forms of violence mitigated or made possible by security regimes of surveillance and police accountability.