The Power of Words: A Preliminary Critical Analysis of Concepts Used in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences

The Power of Words: A Preliminary Critical Analysis of Concepts Used in Speech, Language, and Hearing Sciences

Yvette D. Hyter (Western Michigan University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7134-7.ch004
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Recently, speech, language, and hearing sciences (SLHS) programs became increasingly aware of structural racism, inequity, and injustice in the professions and world. Although a consistent experience for many people of color, this current reality requires scholars and educators to interrogate concepts and employ more transformative concepts fitting for this new era. Concepts are the basis of thought, essential for communication, necessary for building knowledge, and the building blocks of theory. Critical theory was used to conduct a preliminary analysis of five concepts used in SLHS. The concepts were analyzed keeping in mind the historical, political, and cultural influences on how the concepts are used and understood in SLHS. The analysis revealed that these concepts were typically not defined in SLHS literature, and without collective critical reflection, the continued use of those concepts could lead to inequities and/or exclusion. Suggestions for more equitable concepts are provided.
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Children in the 1960s often sang a rhyme - “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This rhyme was used to let people know that if they called a person a bad name or bullied a person with words, that person would be able to shirk it off and go on with life, unaffected. It is common knowledge now that the words in that little rhyme ring hollow. Words, and more importantly the concepts or underlying meanings of words, are powerful. Two different words can refer to the same concept, such as Ναί in Greek and Si in Spanish. Although these words are different, they express the same concept - agreement or affirmation (e.g., yes in English).

Concepts are important in thinking, communicating, learning, and in theory building and implementation (Giddens et al., 2020). Without concepts humans would not be able to communicate ideas with others. Also, concepts provide a link between thinking and behaviors. The meanings (underlying concepts) that we have for things, drives how one behaves or acts toward those things (see Hamilton et al., 2018 as an example). Let’s review two concepts (riot versus rebellion [or insurrection]) that will be helpful in understanding the impact that the underlying meaning of concepts have on behavior. Generally, both are considered a response by the populace to an injustice, perceived or real, committed by an authority such as the government. Riot is typically perceived to be a disorganized violent outburst that is not a legitimate form of expression. The media typically labels rebellions initiated by people of color as riots and the police respond with extreme violence and suppression. The riot that took place on 6 January 2021 in the U. S. at the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., by mostly white people was labeled by the media as an insurrection – a legitimate form of expression. The police response was a much kinder, gentler, non-violent response to the 6th January event when compared to the police response to the largely organized and peaceful protests of groups that are comprised of primarily people of color.

Concepts are not understandable in isolation. They “must be related to contexts such as theories, discourses or speech communities” (Risjord, 2009, p. 685). To fully understand concepts, it is necessary to determine how they are used in a particular context (Risjord, 2009; Wittgenstein, 1953). When the context changes the concept’s underlying meaning also changes (Risjord, 2009; Rodgers, 1989; 2000). For example, in linguistics and speech, language and hearing sciences, the concept used to refer to a language variation spoken by many (but not all) African Americans has changed in concert with changes in the social and political context. Such concepts have included Negro dialect, American Negro speech, Black English, African American vernacular English, and African American English (Green, 2002).

Concepts are also an essential component of learning and implementing what is learned across diverse contexts (Giddens et al., 2020). The power that concepts hold is dependent on the systems/social structures that maintain the inherent meaning of those concepts. For example, a racialized slur is meaningless without the history of systemic racism and racialized exploitation, oppression, and exclusion (Santiago-Valles, 2019).

The objectives of this chapter are to:

  • 1.

    Identify five concepts used in SLHP that have outlived their usefulness for the time in which we are living

  • 2.

    Critically analyze those five concepts, and explain how their continued use can oppress and exclude members of the SLHP discipline

  • 3.

    Argue that SLHPs need transformative concepts, and without these concepts we will be relegated to policies and practices that continue to exploit, oppress and exclude people of color in the discipline.

Key Terms in this Chapter

Transformative: A complete change/shift in perspective and thinking, followed by a similar shift in behavior.

Equity: When all people in a society have what they need to be effective contributors to that society.

Relevance: Working in ways that deconstruct the common way of thinking (the status quo); recognizing that politics (having the power to make decisions within a group in the interest of those in your group), social justice, and equity, are necessary elements in the work we do as SLHSs, and that we are accountable to the communities in which we work and should always engage in efforts to dismantle inequities, injustices, and exclusion in our discipline.

Social Justice: A concept that refers to the valuing of every life so that all people regardless of social status or identity characteristics have access to all resources and opportunities. The Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership says it best, “Social justice recognizes the inherent dignity of all people and values every life equally. It calls for both personal reflection and social change to ensure that each of us has the right and the opportunity to thrive in our communities, regardless of our identities. When we acknowledge that oppression exists and work together to end systemic discrimination and structural inequities, we increase the promise of a more just world.” (Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership, 2018 AU106: The in-text citation "Social Justice Leadership, 2018" is not in the reference list. Please correct the citation, add the reference to the list, or delete the citation. , Retrieved from ).

Human Rights: Privileges that all human beings should have regardless of social situation, identity, or racialized background. Such privileges include such things as a right to housing, health care, healthy food, and an ability to communicate in one’s preferred language.

Structural Racism: When policies, standards of practice, and social norms systematically penalize members of the global majority and systematically privileges people who identify as white. Structural racism perpetuates racial inequities in all forms and is inherent in economic, political, and social systems.

Global Majority: Refers to the group of people (people of color) who make up the majority of people in the world. This concept supports an interconnected and international perspective.

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