On Whorfian Socioeconomics
58 Pages Posted: 7 Feb 2019 Last revised: 9 Sep 2021
Date Written: January 23, 2019
Whorfian socioeconomics is an emerging interdisciplinary field of study that holds that linguistic structures explain differences in beliefs, values, and opinions across communities. Its core empirical strategy is to document a correlation between the presence or absence of a linguistic feature in a survey respondent’s language, and her/his responses to survey questions. This essay demonstrates — using the universe of linguistic features from the World Atlas of Language Structures and a wide array of responses from the World Values Survey — that such an approach produces highly statistically significant correlations in a majority of analyses, irrespective of the theoretical plausibility linking linguistic features to respondent beliefs. These results raise the possibility that correlations between linguistic features and survey responses are actually spurious. The essay concludes by showing how two simple and well-understood statistical fixes can more accurately reflect uncertainty in these analyses, reducing the temptation for analysts to create implausible Whorfian theories to explain spurious linguistic correlations.
Keywords: linguistic relativity, Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, linguistic anthropology, values, public opinion
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