Collocation is a tool commonly used in Corpus Linguistics. It involves the study of which words are particularly likely to occur with other words. For example, the adjective 'strident' might be found to collocate frequently with 'feminism', or 'lazy' might be a collocate of 'student'. The study of collocation has benefited from recent advances in computer corpora technology, with programmes such as WMatrix allowing researchers to access statistics compiling the common collocates of particular search terms.
The idea that collocation can be of use in understanding how we use and comprehend language is acknowledged by Firth (1957) in his suggestion that "You shall know a word by the company it keeps". Just as a dictionary describes a word using other words, so our own internal understanding of a word is connected with our understanding of other words. This helps explain why different people have different understandings of words: those who mainly read about 'feminism' in academic journals might understand the word as meaning 'the importance of equality between the sexes', whilst those who mainly see the word mentioned in the tabloid press might associate it with bra-burning and 'political correctness gone mad'. Corpus studies have sought to provide linguistic evidence for how we gain these understandings by looking at spoken or written language to investigate what certain words' most common collocates are. For example, Gabrielatos and Baker (2008) find that many of the collocates of terms such as 'refugees' and 'asylum seekers' in British news articles have to do with entry and legality, e.g. 'influx' and 'trying to break into'. It follows that these sorts of connotations could colour people's view of the world: for example, the fact that the adjective 'Islamic' is often used to pre-modify nouns such as 'extremist' or 'terrorism' may colour people's view of Islam as a whole.
Studies in collocation tend to work on the assumption that collocations can become 'ingrained' in people's minds. For this reason, collocation is of interest to those who study Critical Stylistics. Particular words and phrases often become 'buzzwords' in politics and the media, and one can get the impression that a word's meaning is changing or expanding when it becomes more common in a particular genre of texts. In their study of the rising use of the word 'choice' in British politics, Jeffries and Evans (2011) look at collocation to identify some of the words that contribute to the changing meaning of the word 'choice' in politics. For example, 'choice' is often pre-modified by words such as 'greater', 'increased' and 'more', hinting at the quantifiability of 'choice' and its employment by politicians as a potential vote-winner which they assume voters will see as a good thing (you might think you have plenty of choice now, but we'll give you even more!). Another collocate of 'choice' is the adjective 'real', which suggests that choice is becoming something that can be judged in terms of its veracity: as well as the standard, 'genuine' sort of choice, there must also exist some sort of 'false' choice.
You can spot interesting collocations in news reporting. When reading or listening to articles on demonstrations or riots, for example, look out for the kind of words that occur in collocation with terms such as 'demonstrators', 'riots' or 'feminist' — what do they tell you about the worldview of the reporter? How do they affect your impression of the people and events being described?
The following article uses collocation to look at the way in which refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants and migrants are discussed in British news articles:
Baker, Paul, Costas Gabrielatos, Majid Khosravinik, Michal Krzyzanowsk, Tony McEnery and Ruth Wodak. 2008 "A Useful Methodological Synergy? Combining Critical Discourse Analysis and Corpus Linguistics to Examine Discourses of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK Press." Discourse & Society 19 (3), 273-306.
For ideas on the importance of collocation to our understanding of words, see:
Hoey, Michael. 2007. "Lexical Priming and Literary Creativity." In Text, Discourse and Corpora: Theory and Analysis, ed. by Michael Hoey, Michaela Mahlberg, Michael Stubbs and Wolfgang Teubert, 31-56. London: Continuum.
Evans, Matthew and Lesley Jeffries. 2011. "The Rise of Choice as an Absolute 'Good': A Study of British Manifestos (1900-2010)." University of Huddersfield: unpublished article.
Firth, John Rupert. 1957. Papers in Linguistics. London: Oxford University Press.
Gabrielatos, Costas and Paul Baker. 2008. "Fleeing, Sneaking, Flooding: A Corpus Analysis of Discursive Constructions of Refugees and Asylum Seekers in the UK Press, 1996-2005." Journal of English Linguistics 36 (1), 5-38.