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Date: Tue, 15 Feb 2005 10:02:12 -0000 From: Heather Hewitt Subject: Applied Linguistics as Social Science
AUTHORS: Sealey, Alison; Carter, Bob TITLE: Applied Linguistics as Social Science SERIES: Advances in Applied Linguistics PUBLISHER: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd YEAR: 2004
Heather Hewitt, Theoretical and Applied Linguistics, University of Edinburgh
"Applied Linguistics as Social Science" is a collaborative venture in which Alison Sealey, an applied linguist, and Bob Carter, a sociologist, explore the relationship between their two disciplines from the perspective of realist social theory. As well as making a case for regarding applied linguistics as a social science, Sealey and Carter reassess existing applied and socio- linguistic research in the light of realist theory and address a number of central issues in social analysis. In doing so they provide an account of the relationships between social structures, human agency and cultural products, particularly linguistic ones, while at the same time questioning the validity of existing theoretical constructs and raising what Derek Layder describes in the Foreword as "protean questions of epistemology and ontology" (p. xi). The book is organised as follows: In Chapters 1-3 the theoretical position of the authors is described in the context of an overview of salient themes and currents of opinion in both applied linguistics and social science. In Chapters 4-7 the discussion is developed using examples from different areas of applied linguistics, namely language teaching and learning, the identification of social groups, intercultural communication, language and literacy education and global and threatened languages. In Chapter 8 the theoretical and empirical strands of the argument are brought together.
The book begins with a short but important Introduction in which Sealey and Carter state their theoretical position. The starting-point of their discussion is their conception of applied linguistics as a discipline in which language use is regarded as a social practice. They point out that, in common with social science, applied linguistics makes certain claims: ontological ones about what exists in the world, epistemological ones about the extent and manner in which objects in the world can be known and methodological ones about appropriate means of accessing this knowledge. They go on to suggest that, in the light of this similarity, linguistic knowledge should be informed by social theory and vice versa, though neither should subsume the other. They also make it clear that the social theory which they have in mind is social realism, in which the social world is understood to be a stratified system consisting of social structures, human agents and emergent cultural products (including language), each with its own 'properties and powers' (p.1). The introduction is completed by an exposition of how the authors' views are explained and exemplified in the chapters which follow.
Chapter 1 consists of a rapid overview of what are considered to be key issues respectively in social theory and linguistics. In the first, social theory, section the focus is on the structure-agency debate with particular emphasis on the social realist position. The concept of objectivity is also discussed, with reference to the ideas of Popper and Bhaskar, and the notion of emergent properties introduced. The second section covers both autonomous and applied ends of the linguistic spectrum with the emphasis, as one would expect, on the latter. This section is slightly marred by the confusion of the terms 'syntagm' and 'paradigm' in the survey of language rules on page 21. Social science and linguistics are brought together in the concluding paragraphs, where the authors suggest that language should be seen as an interplay between structure and agency, conditioned on the one hand by material relations (structure) and on the other by the individual's biological attributes and engagement with the world (agency). Here and elsewhere Sealey and Carter also emphasise that language is paramount amongst culturally emergent properties since it enables the creation of all other products of the engagement of human consciousness with the world.
In Chapter 2 sociological approaches to the relationship between language and society are reviewed. Approaches are grouped under three headings: language and social interaction, which includes symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, viewed here through the work of Mead, Schutz, Cicourel and Schegloff; language and discourse exemplified mainly by the poststructuralist theories of Foucault and his followers, including exponents of critical discourse analysis; and the dualist approach to language, which is explored through a discussion of the contributions of Habermas, Bourdieu and Bernstein. The last group is treated most sympathetically since its members provide frameworks which take account of both structure and agency while also placing language at the heart of their analyses. Their position is thus seen to be more compatible with the authors' emergentist model than either interactionism, which places too great an emphasis on individual agency, or post- structuralism in its strong version, which virtually eliminates the role of the individual agent.
The social realist view of language as a culturally emergent property is developed further in Chapter 3, which begins with a discussion of definitions of the term 'real' as applied to language. Sealey and Carter point out that, in contrast with ordinary speakers, both nativists and sociolinguists of varying hues base their attitudes on theories of language. These underlying theories are discussed further in relation to their impact on language pedagogy. Should learners be given invented or attested examples? What, if any, is the pedagogical value of language corpora? There follows a more abstract, philosophical discussion of the term 'real', which draws on Bhaskar's (1978) tripartite distinction between the real (mechanisms), the actual (events) and the empirical (experiences). The chapter ends with a demonstration of how complexity and emergentist theories reinforce the notion that languages are "products of the engagement of human practice with the material world" (p.82) and the suggestion that this is true both of their phylogenesis, their ontogenesis and their performance as social practice.
Chapter 4 is the first in which the authors demonstrate in detail how their views can be related to applied linguistic practice. In it they survey research into what they term instructed language learning (ILL), chosen because it is the field in which they consider the majority of applied linguists have worked. Both variables-based studies and ethnographic accounts of ILL are found to provide inadequate representations of the complexity of the learning process but studies in which it is acknowledged that language learning is a complex, non-linear process are more favourably viewed. In this category the authors include research in which language learning is seen predominantly as social action, research influenced by the thinking of Vygotsky, research with an ecological perspective and research in which it is noted that language learning has an implicit political context.
The linkage of theory with practice continues in Chapter 5 in which, using specific examples, Sealey and Carter aim to demonstrate that sociolinguistic (and social) categories such as age, ethnicity and class are used without rigour on the basis of underlying theoretical assumptions which remain unacknowledged and unexplained. It is suggested that greater clarity and epistemic authority would be achieved if, following Greenwood (1994), a distinction were drawn between two categories which are often conflated: social aggregates, non-negotiable categories whose members can be assigned according to objective criteria, and social collectives, membership of which is an agentive choice involving voluntary adherence to sets of conventions and norms. Sealey and Carter also favour case-led rather than a variables-based methodology, claiming that, though still involving methodological problems and a degree of researcher bias, it eliminates some of the pitfalls of the use of pre-selected categories.
In Chapter 6 attention is turned to intercultural communication. The authors put forward a dynamic, non-essentialist, view of the social world, proposing that both macro and micro cultures, though constrained structurally by institutional and relational structures and unevenly accessible individually, because of what Bourdieu terms the 'habitus', are open-ended and emergent rather than normative, homogeneous and in neat correspondence with nations, ethnic groups or languages. Sealey and Carter go on to illustrate their point in a detailed re-analysis of the intercultural misunderstanding experienced by an Australian student at the beginning of an exchange year in Germany (see Boas 2001). Drawing on Layder's (1997) theory of social domains, which are experientially linked but analytically separable, they argue persuasively that features of both structure -- the domains of social settings and contextual resources -- and agency -- the domains of situated activity and psychobiography -- contribute to the student's discomfort.
In Chapter 7 the focus is on language policy and planning. First it is claimed that language is an autonomous system, with certain effects which are independent of both structure and agency. Secondly, a distinction is drawn between orality and writing, a "second-order emergent property" which is shown to create new constraints and enablements. This leads on to an analysis of literacy policies in the UK over the past two decades, including a commentary on the contrast between populist and specialist attitudes to standard language and a detailed examination of the actions of one Secretary of State for Education. Finally there is a contribution to the debate about global and threatened languages, in which Sealey and Carter take issue with, for example, those who equate linguistic diversity with biodiversity, on the grounds that languages are cultural products in constant flux rather than fixed natural kinds.
In the final chapter there is a recapitulation of key points and an exploration of the potential role of social realist ideas in the design of applied linguistic research studies. Although they reject methodological prescriptivism, Sealey and Carter nevertheless situate themselves somewhere between extreme quantitative and qualitative positions and, because they are only able to find one paper (Belz 2002) which adheres closely to contemporary versions of realist theory, describe a number of applied linguistic studies which have elements in common with their approach, before going on to cite sociological studies using methods which may be transferable to applied linguistics.
'Applied Linguistics as Social Science' is an ambitious, densely argued and demanding book, emphatically not for newcomers to either of the disciplines it deals with. Although it is the work of only two authors who concentrate on one social theory, rather than a series of contributors each of whom deals with a different aspect of theory, it can best be compared with 'Sociolinguistics and Social Theory' (Coupland et al. 2001) and seen to complement the earlier volume both in its wide scope and the attention it brings to bear on thorny critical issues. From my own perspective as a linguist it seems to lean towards social theory rather than applied linguistics. However, the authors provide numerous examples to clarify theoretical points and have a comprehensive knowledge of the applied linguistic themes with which they engage. It will make challenging reading, particularly for those who research decision-making about language, whether at the level of the classroom or in relation to social and political policy. There is a small bias towards examples from the UK, where both authors work, but the book has a non-parochial outlook and aims to be of general relevance.
Because Sealey and Carter aim for breadth of coverage in both their disciplines, in their own admission, they run the risk of risk superficiality, while the inevitable omissions also entail a certain loss of authority. For example, in the survey of sociological ideas about language in Chapter 2 there is no mention of the work of Berger and Luckmann (1967), whose social constructionist theories have been influential in linguistic circles. Similarly, the critique of sociolinguistic categories in Chapter 5 makes no direct reference to the community of practice (see Wenger 1998), a theoretical formulation which has achieved wide currency in recent years and goes some way towards countering Sealey and Carter's view that sociolinguistic categories are too rigidly conceptualised. A more serious concern is that, in their determination to make the case for realist social theory, Sealey and Carter are reinventing the wheel. While their comments on the work of, for example, Sarangi and Candlin demonstrate their awareness that the structure-agency debate has not been neglected in linguistics, though not always cast in these terms, they give insufficient acknowledgement of the ongoing engagement with critical theory by linguists whose research involves direct observation of social practice. They also make their doubts about the use of quantitative paradigms in ILL research appear more radical and controversial than is really the case, at the same time not making it entirely clear how their own, alternative ideas would work in practice.
Sealey and Carter should nevertheless be congratulated for bridging disciplinary boundaries and attempting to provide a sociological and linguistic theory of everything. 'Applied Linguistics as Social Science' will come as a welcome addition to the literature of social/linguistic theory for both social scientists and applied linguists. For the former it adds new dimensions to the agency-structure debate and points to ways in which an engagement with linguistics might enhance understanding of the nature of culturally emergent properties. For the latter, it challenges received wisdoms and sheds new light on how theoretically complex representations of society can be used to underpin research practice.
Belz, J. 2002. 'Social dimensions of telecollaborative foreign language study'. Language Learning and Technology 6.1: 60-81.
Berger, P. and T. Luckmann. 1967. The Social Construction of Reality. London: Penguin.
Bhaskar, R. 1978. A Realist Theory of Science. Sussex: Harvester Press.
Boas, G. 2001. 'Cross-cultural misunderstandings and culture teaching'. Unpublished MA assignment, School of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, University of Reading.
Coupland, N., Sarangi, S. and C. Candlin (eds.) 2001. Sociolinguistics and Social Theory. Harlow: Pearson Education.
Greenwood, J. 1994. Realism, Identity and Emotion: Reclaiming Social Psychology. London: Sage.
Layder, D. 1997. Modern Social Theory: Key Debates and New Directions. London: UCL Press.
Wenger, E. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Heather Hewitt is currently completing a PhD at the University of Edinburgh, where she also teaches. Her PhD dissertation focuses on interaction between receptionists and patients in general practice surgeries, reflecting her interest in service encounters and the micro-analysis of talk in institutional contexts.