Interview with Terra Edwards

Terra Edwards is a Ph.D. student in Anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley. Her project, entitled “‘Language, Embodiment, and Sociality in a Tactile Life-world: Communication Practices in Everyday Life among Deaf-Blind People in Seattle, Washington,’ supervised by Dr. William F. Hanks, received a Dissertation Fieldwork grant from the Wenner-Gren Foundation in May 2010. Currently in the midst of conducting her research, the Wenner-Gren blog reached out to Ms. Edwards to answer some questions about her research and academic interests. 

1. Whom or what has inspired you in choosing your specific research topic?

I began studying Visual ASL as an undergraduate at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. In my second year of school, I was hired as wait staff at The Ragin’ Cajun, a restaurant in Seattle’s Pike Place Market owned and operated by a Deaf-Blind man. Everyone on staff was either Deaf, Deaf-Blind, or fluent in Visual American Sign Language. I spent five months there learning Visual ASL and learning how to use it with Deaf and Deaf-Blind people. The experience was different than any language learning I had done in a classroom, and it inspired me to learn more about the Seattle Deaf-Blind community. In the years following, I went on to study interpretation and translation, and I took on many roles in the community—visual interpreter, friend, colleague, political ally. I developed long-lasting relationships, and in the mean time became fluent in Visual ASL and comfortable with tactility. I was fascinated by learning to translate not only between languages, but between sound, sight, and touch. I was caught up in imagining what tactility, as a mode of experience, meant. I was intrigued by the plasticity of human perception, and its capacity for being restructured in such surprising ways. However, difference was not my only interest. My teachers and mentors in this community helped me see that the social condition of Deaf and Deaf-Blind people was a manifestation of recognizable patterns and processes of inequality, and that language and communication were at the heart of these processes. I was affected by the urgency with which Deaf-Blind people were fighting for recognition of this fact, and I wanted to contribute to, rather than hinder their efforts. However, it seemed that despite my best intentions, I, as a hearing sighted person interacting with Deaf-Blind people, often reproduced power asymmetries through unreflective patterns of language use and communication. This led to the formulation of a problem that I went to graduate school to study, and which still motivates my work:  How do asymmetrical social orders come to seem concrete and natural thereby resisting attempts to change or subvert them, and how do language and the body mediate these processes?


2. Could you briefly explain how your work with Seattle’s Deaf-Blind community speaks to larger concerns in anthropology and communication studies?

Socio-cultural anthropologists assume that individuals are not free to act in any way they choose, but are, rather, constrained. However, there are many different theories about the nature of those constraints. One such theory that has focused in particular on the role of the body in the production of naturalness is Bourdieu’s practice theory (1990[1980])). Hanks (2005a, 2005b, 2009, 2010) reinterpreted this theory to account more specifically for the role of linguistic systems and language use. One of the theoretical aims of Hanks’ approach is to understand how social, deictic, and semantic phenomena come into relation with one another in practice, and according to what generalizable principles those relations are organized. Inquiry aimed at articulating these principles gets to the core of many issues that interest linguistic anthropologists, including the role of language use in shaping subjectivities, the relationship between form and context, the embodied dimensions of interaction, the social foundations of semantic change, and the means by which new linguistic systems emerge.

Taking a practice approach to the Seattle Deaf-Blind community has yielded preliminary findings that promise to contribute to our understanding of these problems. In most ethnographic settings individuals enjoy stable sensory orientations. Deaf-Blind people in Seattle, however, undergo consistent sensory change. As their sensory capacities shift, their world ceases to be populated by the well-circumscribed objects and encounters common to a “seen” world, and must be continually reconfigured in tactile terms. While I was conducting my fieldwork, a social movement known as the “pro-tactile” movement took hold, which called for the cultivation of tactile dispositions regardless of sensory capacity. In less than one year, this movement had a significant effect on the organization of the deictic field, including new participant frames and frameworks, modes of mutual access, and practices for referring to objects in the immediate environment. These changes are, in turn, giving rise to new correspondences between linguistic forms and meanings in Tactile ASL. In fact, preliminary analysis suggests that there are grammatical sub-systems emerging in Tactile ASL that are formally distinct from systems in Visual ASL that correspond functionally, such as the classifier and deictic systems. Observing and describing this process of change provides a unique perspective on the nature of language and its social foundations on the one hand, and the role of language and communication in producing particular kinds of social beings on the other.


3. What has been the biggest surprise you have encountered in the course of your fieldwork? How has it changed the tack of your research?

The most surprising fact about the Seattle Deaf-Blind community is that prior to 2007, Deaf-Blind people rarely communicated directly with one another. I had been involved for more than a decade when I began my fieldwork. However, even while socializing with Deaf-Blind people, I always assumed the role of translator to some extent or another. I thought that the lack of direct communication coincided with my presence as a sighted person, but that in the absence of sighted people, Deaf-Blind people did communicate directly. This turned out to be a false assumption. In an interview, one of the leaders of the pro-tactile movement took a critical stance. She said, “Deaf-Blind to Deaf-Blind communication is rare. There are always interpreters there. As nonsensical as it seems, you will often find two Deaf-Blind people communicating with one another, each through their own tactile interpreter. The absence of direct contact makes no sense at all. How are we supposed to build our community without that?” Once it became clear that Deaf-Blind people rarely communicated directly with one another, I began to inquire into the history that led to the naturalization of this strange fact. I conducted a series of interviews, and found that in the early 1980’s there were no conventions for group communication in place at all, mediated by interpreters or not. This made social and political organization impossible. To address this problem, sighted professionals started experimenting with mediation strategies so that Deaf-Blind people could meet in groups. Since then, a sophisticated network of sighted interpreters (both Deaf and hearing) has been established. For Deaf-Blind people, the knowledge that was necessary for fluid participation in their community largely consisted of knowing how to use these interpreters to access fields of engagement organized along visual lines. Therefore, although political and social organization were made possible, asymmetries were also established. Tactile modes of engagement were inadvertently treated as compensatory strategies for accessing visual fields. This had the further and more profound effect of rendering knowledge produced from a tactile perspective subordinate to knowledge produced from a visual perspective. Tactile ASL became something that you used only if you “had to”, so conversations were often conducted in two different modes of reception. Deaf-Blind people would use tactile reception, while sighted people and Deaf-Blind people with a remaining tunnel of vision would use visual reception. Therefore, the forms and structures of Visual ASL were, until recently, largely kept in tact.

The second surprise (although I was only asked for one!) came in later phases of fieldwork. As a result of my earlier inquiries, it became clear that history had yielded two contrastive social roles: sighted and blind. Greater forms of authority accrued to the sighted role, and legitimacy accrued to visual modalities. Therefore, in an attempt to take up more powerful social positions in interactions within their community, many Deaf-Blind people tried to use Visual ASL long after it failed to represent the world in which they lived. Once I was attuned to this separation between experience and representation, I was surprised at its ubiquity: directions given in Visual ASL to the kitchen in a friend’s house were misunderstood. Stories vivid with visual detail conjured one-dimensional, faded scenes. Grammatical relations and phonemic distinctions that relied on the discernment of relative spatial locations became ambiguous. But to admit this was to relinquish the only social role from which legitimate knowledge about the world could be produced. What had previously seemed to me to be understanding of linguistic forms, was actually a pragmatic skill that many Deaf-Blind people had mastered of filling in the blanks (until there were more blanks than not). Up until now, a discourse of “denial” has been invoked to explain the resistance of Deaf-Blind people in transitioning to more tactile modes of communication. Now, a pro-tactile discourse is taking hold, replacing psychological explanations with social ones and opening up new possibilities for social change. In following through on a few surprising discoveries, then, my dissertation research changed course, focusing more specifically on the pro-tactile movement and its effects on language and communication. This transformed my object of analysis as well. Rather than studying a compensatory strategy, I was watching Deaf-Blind people calibrate a linguistic system to the contours of an emergent, tactile world in which and about which legitimate knowledge could be produced.


4. What are the next steps in your research?

Since the completion of my dissertation fieldwork, I have been receiving emails from members of the community, saying that the pro-tactile movement is “catching like wildfire”. In less than one year, the effects of this movement on communication practices and language structure have been significant. However many of these effects have not stabilized as conventional communicative practices or linguistic structures. In post-doctoral fieldwork, then, I would like to return to Seattle to see how changes in language and communication are unfolding. If, as my dissertation fieldwork suggests, Tactile ASL does continue to develop into a distinct, conventionalized system, I plan to continue documenting the process and explore its implications. For example, a problem that has long interested scholars from many disciplines, and is currently of renewed interest, is the relationship between language and thought. For Sapir, an influential thinker on the topic, each form in a language has a corresponding “feeling” that is derived from its relation to other forms in the same language. Therefore, although two words in two different languages might refer to the same object, their “form-feeling” will always differ. These kinds of differences build up, so that users of a language orient to objects in the world through distinct sets of form-feeling coordinates. These coordinates, through continual use, lead to a certain “feeling for relations”. This relational intuition begins in speaking a language, but it extends further with use to constrain conceptualization and organize sense-perception. This is why for Sapir, the study of grammar is to some degree the study of the way the world appears to the language-user.

Deaf-Blind people in Seattle started out using Visual ASL. They moved to Seattle because they were losing their vision and wanted to be part of a community where they could participate. Since the inception of the pro-tactile movement, participation has included communicating directly with other Deaf-Blind people who share modes of access to the immediate environment. As was mentioned previously, this has resulted in a reorganization of the social and deictic fields. In Sapir’s view, a relational intuition derived from the language is primary and thought and perception follow from there. If this were the procedure for Deaf-Blind people, the language they came to Seattle with would have remained the same, despite changes in the fields to which it articulates. This does not appear to be the case, which begs the question— If the relationship between thought and language doesn’t work the way Sapir envisioned, then how does it work? Continued fieldwork will be particularly important in answering questions like this, since the divergence of Tactile ASL from Visual ASL is just beginning. Halting research now would leave the rest of the story un-told.



Bourdieu, P. 1990 [1980]. The Logic of Practice. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Hanks, W. F. 2005. Pierre Bourdieu and the Practices of Language. Annual Review of Anthropology 34.

—. 2005. Explorations in the Deictic Field. Current Anthropology 46:191-220.

—. 2009. Fieldwork on Deixis. Journal of Pragmatics 41:10-24.

—. 2010. Converting Words: Maya in the Age of the Cross. Berkeley: University of California Press.



One comment

  1. Barb Stephens says:

    Wow, Terra, thanks for this wonderful explanation of what you are doing.

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