• Linguistic ethnography;
  • sociological realism;
  • social categories;
  • ethnicity

This article engages with linguistic ethnography from the perspective of sociological realism. It begins by reviewing some of the positions expressed in the linguistic ethnography (LE) literature about the extent to which LE is defined by theoretical orientation as well as by method. The article is then framed around a kind of ‘generic’ sociolinguistic research question –‘Which people use which kinds of language in what circumstances and with what outcome(s)?’. Taking each element in turn, it explores the ways in which an ethnographic approach contributes to the processes of: classifying speakers as members of various kinds of social groups; identifying language varieties; accounting for the influence of ‘context’; and identifying ‘outcomes’. I suggest that each of these aspects of social linguistic research stands to benefit from the methods developed in ethnography, and from the theories and principles underlying the approaches it uses. However, drawing on the work of contemporary realist social theorists, the article concludes that ethnography is a method suited to illuminating certain aspects of such questions better than others.