Formality and Informality in Communicative Events


  • Judith T. Irvine

    1. Brandeis University
    Search for more papers by this author
    • 2

      JUDITH T. IRVINE is associate professor of anthropology at Brandeis University where she has taught since 1972; she has also held a visiting appointment at the University of Texas (Austin). Before coming to Brandeis she studied anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania and received her Ph.D. in 1973. Her field research, which mainly concerns the role of language in social action, has been conducted among the Wolof of Senegal (1970–71, 1975). Among her recent papers is “When is genealogy history? Wolof genealogies in comparative perspective” (American Ethnologist 5:651–674).


This paper examines the analytical utility of the concept of “formality” in social-cultural anthropology, particularly the ethnography of communication. A survey of literature indicates that “formality” actually incorporates several distinct descriptive dimensions that do not necessarily correlate. Separating these dimensions facilitates the comparison of social occasions, viewed in terms of their communicational structure. The occasions compared here are political meetings among Wolof (Senegal), Mursi (Ethiopia), and Ilongots (Philippines). It is suggested that formality in communicative events can serve not only the force of tradition or the coercive power of a political establishment, but also creativity and change. [formality, political meetings, ethnography of communication, sociolinguistics, situational analysis]