Shirley Brice Heath is professor emeritus of linguistics and English at Stanford University and has made significant contributions to both cultural and linguistic anthropology. Her focus is primarily within the United States, but she has also taught and carried out research in such diverse settings as Stockholm, Johannesburg, and Papua New Guinea. Her deeply engaged, longitudinal studies across a variety of cultural and institutional settings have contributed greatly to anthropology’s understanding of children and youth in postindustrial societies, as well as to the role of language, cognition, and organizational structures in learning. The common thread among her various foci has been a concern for how the linguistic practices of children and youth from subordinated groups contribute to the development of learning and identity, both within and beyond school.
Though she has also written on the history of language policy in both the United States and Latin America, Heath is best known for her classic ethnography Ways With Words, which has become a standard work in university courses in ethnography of speaking and educational anthropology. Ways With Words examines in vivid detail how children from two neighboring communities in the southeastern United States learn to use language at school. It combines insights from child development and language acquisition, literacy studies, anthropology, and social history to contrast the linguistic practices of two working-class communities, one African American (Trackton) and one White (Roadville), and to show how both differ from the practices of the “mainstream” townspeople (White and Black), who hold social and political power in the region. Heath’s analysis of the uses of literacy and oral narrative in both communities sheds light on how cultural differences manifest themselves as communication problems in school settings, with unfortunate results for working-class students. The book stresses possibilities for bridging the cultural differences between home and school, while also recognizing the structural and institutional constraints that make this difficult.
Like much school ethnography from the 1970s and 1980s, Ways With Words locates the principal causes of minority school failure in the cultural differences between mainstream and minority groups, rather than in political-economic structures or racist ideologies. This has been grounds for criticism from anthropologists of a more explicitly political bent; nevertheless, the work remains a touchstone of linguistic and educational anthropology for its detailed comparative analysis of the communicative practices of neighboring social groups and how these practices lead to social stratification over the course of students’ educational careers.
Heath later turned her attention to learning among older adolescents in nonschool contexts, with particular attention to young people’s involvement in community organizations and the arts. She directed the prize-winning documentary ArtShow, which has been shown in numerous prestigious galleries in the United States and Europe. The film, which is accompanied by a book/resource guide, highlights the ways in which certain kinds of organizations can aid young people in challenging the public perception of youth as apathetic, disengaged, and “at risk.” Intended for a broader audience than most of her scholarly work, ArtShow continues and expands Heath’s focus on the symbolic representations and linguistic practices of youth, showing how culturally based programs in the arts can help youth “practice adulthood” while they develop their own leadership and initiative in solving problems within their communities. In this, as in other studies, Heath has made a point of including her young research subjects as members of the research team.
- Heath, S. B. (1972). Telling tongues: Language policy in Mexico, colony to nation. New York: Teachers College Press.
- Heath, S. B. (1983). Ways with words: Language, life, and work in communities and classrooms. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.
- Heath, S. B., & Smyth, L. (1999). ArtShow: Youth and community development. Washington, DC: Partners for Livable Communities.