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Review of  Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics

Reviewer: Thomas Amundrud
Book Title: Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics
Book Author: David Block John Gray Marnie Holborow
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 23.3659

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AUTHORS: Block, David, Gray, John, and Holborow, Marnie
TITLE: Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Routledge
YEAR: 2012

Thomas Amundrud, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, Sydney

This monograph seeks to encourage an applied linguistics that is ''more
interdisciplinary, more politically engaged, and ... more fit for the times''
(p.12) through engagement with political economy in the examination of how
language, its study, and its pedagogy are articulated under neoliberalism, the
market-centered regime that has come to global domination over the past three

This monograph contains six chapters including the introduction, plus notes,
references, and index.

The introduction places this project in the lineage of Rampton (1997), Brumfit
(1991), and Hymes (1974), positioning applied linguistics as a ''socially
constituted linguistics'' (ibid.) whose investigations start with ''the study of
culture and social structures'' before looking at how language realizes social
actions. Despite the growth of postcolonial, critical discourse analysis (CDA),
and other socially-engaged tendencies within applied linguistics, the authors
decry the lack of overt investigation within them into the effects of

Chapter two, by Marnie Holborow, explains neoliberalism in more detail,
disambiguating it into four definitions: as economic theory, as a novel mode of
capitalism, as discourse, and as an ideology. For the first, Holborow follows
Harvey (2005), defining neoliberalism as an economic theory asserting that human
well-being is best served by “liberating” individuals from state intervention
and regulation within an institutional framework of free markets, free trade,
and strong property rights. In discussing neoliberalism as a new system of
capitalism, the author notes how even within “critical” writings in social
research, there has been an unquestioned acceptance of the motif of
society-as-network that, in the continuous search for novelty, effaces
underlying continuities to long-established modes of production and privilege.
Similarly, applied linguistics’ failure to engage neoliberalism is, according to
Holborow, a symptom of the system’s naturalization, whereby free-market
economics is presented as a mere social fact. Neoliberalism’s simultaneous
discursive enactment and inculcation has, however, received considerable
attention in CDA, particularly by Fairclough (2006 & 2002), and its connection
to the spread of English attracted Philipson (2008). Holborow finds Fairclough’s
blurring of language and ideology problematic for two reasons: first, it “robs
ideology” (p.23) of its reference to competing social interests, leaving a
seemingly-inescapable “discursive regime”, and second, because its overreliance
on individual texts forces “temporal closure” (Blommaert, 2005, p.37) and
coherence on often incoherent events whose interpretations become frozen and
whose meanings can only be surmised (pp.23-24). Fairclough’s lineage from
Foucault is presented as a source of this problem, since Foucault’s formulation
of reproductive discourses as modes of individuation and self-regulation
throughout society obscures the role of material power in their reproduction,
thus making this regeneration an individual, rather than collective, matter.
Regarding connections between the spread of English and neoliberalism, Holborow
is quite critical of what she sees as Philipson’s (2008) equation of the
dominance of English with neoliberalism itself, arguing that English can be used
as either a weapon against or a buttress for neoliberalism (p.28) and that, like
CDA, Philipson’s more recent theorizations on linguistic imperialism make
language deterministic of society. Holborow therefore concludes that, for
analyzing neoliberalism and language, a conception is needed of ideology as a
one-sided representation “articulated from a particular social class”, but
presented as universal, which its subjects, though their beliefs and actions,
both believe and reject, and which is pervious to real-world events. This
conception of ideology is coextensive but distinct from language; indeed, citing
Volosinov (1973), that discourse is a site of struggle within neoliberalism
“points to ideology being something other than sign” (p.31).

Holborow starts chapter three speculating that perhaps the 30-year dominance of
neoliberal ideology is how “ideology-as-discourse” came to be since, before the
2008 financial crash, neoliberalism seemed so hegemonic. This in turn obscured
ideology as “a linkage of ideas” to specific social classes with specific
interests, though the faltering post-2008 may have (temporarily?) reduced this
obfuscation. To show how ideologies influence language, Holborow uses the notion
of “keywords” advanced by Williams (1986). These “ideologically sensitive words”
(p.35) cannot be understood through just etymological or other linguistic
analyses, but are indicative of particular perspectives that, over time, result
in significant shifts in the meaning of the words. The “constant repetition” of
keywords “through powerful communications channels” (p.41) doesn’t mean that, as
in crypto-Marxian characterizations of ideology, people are duped about the
‘true’ nature of society; rather, while ideology’s omnipervasiveness makes its
assertions seem natural, people nevertheless have contradictory views.
Ideological fluctuations and inconsistencies are particularly visible in times
of economic and social turmoil, which Holborow demonstrates through analyses of
the changing values of ‘deregulation’, ‘human capital’, and ‘entrepreneur’ in
Irish news media, particularly in the post-2008 context that has seen tremendous
human and economic losses, and in comparison with the prior “Celtic Tiger”
period. With the current crises in Europe and elsewhere, the cracks in the
long-dominant neoliberal ideology are demonstrated by Holborow’s examination of
how these three terms have experienced diminished valence as their legitimacy
has faltered. She also shows how ‘entrepreneur’, specifically as ‘social
entrepreneur’, has been “re-semanticized” (Hasan, 2003) as a means of restoring
legitimacy to market ideology, though with as-yet indeterminate consequences.

In chapter four, David Block proposes a revised scope for applied linguistics
that goes beyond present “culturalist” concerns with identities to include a
more materialist outlook bringing in questions of social class and its material
impacts on social life, including language. Block first discusses and
problematizes the term ‘globalization’, alongside attendant terms like
‘hybridity’ and ‘glocalization’, finding an often romantic fascination with
these and other notions associated with postmodernism, which often “marginalize”
the more material aspects of culture. Block acknowledges that culturalist
approaches to the linguistic results of globalization are indeed often
warranted, but that doing so exclusive of research that includes more
materialist concerns reduces the influence that applied linguistics might have
in solving social problems. The chapter then takes a turn away from applied
linguistics per se to discuss schools of political economic thought, like World
Systems Theory, which argues against the presumed novelty of contemporary
globalizing socioeconomic processes, before briefly charting the course of
capitalism and imperialism from its Dutch origins to the neoliberal present. In
this present, where the fundamental truths of the market remain infallible under
the continued reign of TINA (There Is No Alternative), questions of social class
have largely been ignored, and this, Block demonstrates, has been no less true
within applied linguistics. This erasure of class as a category for respectable
social inquiry is due not only to the triumph of a “more individualistic
approach to work” that devalue solidarity, but also to the rise of discussions
concerning multiculturalism and identity politics. Although highly critical of
the former, Block defends the latter as an benefit to the populations concerned,
but nevertheless holds that rather than “jettisoning all that suggests
universalism,” some structural and historic factors may yet shape the cultural
flows of interest to social researchers (pp.72-74), and that acknowledging this
means paying attention to class. The rest of the chapter is concerned with
definitions of “class”, from the basic categories of Marx, to greater
stratification in Durkheim, then to the more variegated and fluid definition of
Weber, and last to the notions of habitus, field, and social capital in
Bourdieu. While acknowledging some continued salience of conventional
definitions of class based on, for instance, wealth, education, consumption
patterns, or “symbolic behavior”, Block notes that the “rules of engagement have
changed” under neoliberalism such that, for instance, traditionally white collar
jobs, such as teaching in higher education, have become increasingly
proletarianized (pp.74-82). The chapter closes by profiling recent work by
Rampton (e.g. 2006), showing that “class still matters” when examining how
language is used.

Chapter five, by John Gray, takes a sharp turn from the previous chapter in
looking at the meaning and use of “celebrity”, its increasing permeation into
individual habitus, the incorporation of celebrity into the “aspirational
content” of contemporary ELT materials, and how all these are viewed and
inflected by a small sample of English teachers from around the world. Gray’s
essential definition of “celebrity” is “the capacity to embody and generate
affect-whether admiration, desire, envy, fear, (or) loathing” (p.88). Amongst
celebrities thus defined, there are those that may be born to their position
while others may rise to it or have it attributed to them by the media (for
instance Charles Manson); there may even be fictional characters, like Bart
Simpson, that may nevertheless serve as “cultural reference points” (p.90) to an
array of discourses. Gray then examines Frankfurt School-based criticisms of
celebrity, which argue that celebrities are “empty spaces” to hold the values of
the interests that produce them, and that their widely-publicized lives of
exaggerated individualism at the same time enable spectators to “project their
need for autonomy” and agency denied under capitalism. Gray acknowledges the
weakness of the School’s initial approach as denying spectators the agency to
disagree with the values represented through celebrity. However, he sees the
hyper-individualistic agency of celebrity as the “point of connection” between
it and neoliberalism (p.94). Nowadays, atomized individuals must “brand”
themselves into a unique, marketable product, like Oprah or Martha Stewart, and
each of us has the chance to attain true fame and acclaim through reality TV. In
all these, we are equally capable of success, which is “ideologically
convenient” under neoliberalism; moreover, the celebrity we should long for is
divorced from any exploitation or oppression needed for the riches that fuel it,
and instead becomes a symbol of fun to be desired. Coterminous with this
individualization of celebrity has been the rise of celebrity used as
“aspirational content” in contemporary ELT publishing. Gray presents a content
analysis of UK-published intermediate-level ESL textbooks, contrasting the late
1970s and early 2000s, which shows a marked rise in the use of celebrity for
content and activities. Gray then interviewed 15 teachers from around the world,
following their response to a short questionnaire, on their views regarding the
use of celebrity in ELT. These respondents were largely uncritical or
indifferent to this usage, with one teacher saying that he’d be happy to use
“anything legal” if it makes studying English more interesting (p.106). Gray
attributes these attitudes to the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideology such that
celebrity is merely an unquestioned contemporary social reality, and to the
as-yet unsubstantiated assumption that students themselves aspire to ideals of
Anglocentric celebrity. Another attributing factor is that, as language teaching
itself is increasingly seen as entrepreneurial and apolitical, it is
increasingly “divorced” from education (pp.109-111).

This last theme is further explored by Gray in the final chapter, where he
examines the “McDonaldization” (e.g. Ritzer, 1996) of language teacher training
in the PGCE (Postgraduate Certification in Education) in the UK, and the global
Cambridge CELTA (Certificate in English Language to Adults). Following Wallace
(1991), Gray first follows the development of teacher education in the UK from
the pre-WW II craft model, to the post-war applied science model, and last to
the reflective model that has developed since the 1980s. However, Gray then
asserts that present teacher training paradigms bear closer resemblance to the
technocratic instrumental rationalism, aka. “McDonaldization”, which are
employment norms spread from the fast-food industry that dictate “systems of
organization which are more efficient, predictable, calculable, and which are
controlled either internally or externally or both” (p.122); in education, this
results in standardized curricula designed to produce a “teacher-proof” product.
Through interviews from a longitudinal study with two PGCE trainees from Spain,
and through discourse analytical and stimulated recall data from trainers and
trainees in a Dublin-based CELTA course, Gray demonstrates the practice of
McDonaldization within two teacher-training programs that ostensibly encourage
teacher reflection, showing instances where opportunities for critical
reflection on teaching practice are turned into either routinized exercises
lacking face validity, or into reiterative disciplining into the use of the
commercial EFL materials used in language teaching today.

“Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics” is certainly a volume whose title
clearly indicates potential audiences who might support or oppose its overall
premise. Nevertheless, especially in its criticisms of CDA and “critical”
discourses more broadly, it is a unique contribution to a socially-aware applied
linguistics, though not without a few problems.

Apart from a thematic interest in a more socially engaged applied linguistics,
the authors don’t seem to share much in terms of method or focus. Though this is
not a problem in an edited volume, it isn’t really a single, coherent work.
While this does not detract from its arguments, it would be a tighter collection
were there a conclusion to the book that tied it together, much as Gray
attempted at the end of the final chapter.

Moreover, in light of its stated goal of setting a research focus for others to
follow, the authors could have provided a greater number of vectors for readers
interested in the praxis of the project the authors propose. That
systemic-functional linguistics is barely alluded to in this volume despite its
long years housing a critical orientation and praxis is a crucial weakness in
this regard. Furthermore, while chapter five is quite critical of textbooks and
teachers that use images of celebrity, noting also that more recent textbook
writers and publishers are shying away from its use since celebrity is
notoriously temporary and culture-sensitive, it doesn’t give any suggestions of
how the topic of celebrity, or similarly problematic points like brands, might
be treated in language classes. Since readers, especially those working in
alienating workplaces where they have little curricular control, might find
themselves having to use such celeb-laden materials, hints embodying possible
alternatives would make this critique more worthwhile.

Finally, in terms of methodology, though the size of the volume is a necessary
limitation, readers may still be left wondering about the providence of the
interview samples used in Chapter 6. A larger segment showing how that talk
emerged through discussion with the interviewer, as shown in Talmy (2011), would
enhance its validity.

Despite these points, “Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics” does succeed in
asking crucial questions, and in imagining what a more materialist applied
linguistics might look like. As a part of the recent turn towards Marxian
political economy in the academy, it is certainly a timely work. Holborow
provides substantial critical responses to Fairclough in arguing against the
discursive overdetermination of ideology, and further work within CDA should
take up Holborow’s challenge. Gray’s depictions of contemporary textbooks,
teacher training, and pedagogy within the place of corporatized “learning
environments” will ring true to anyone who was worked in the private language
teaching industry in the past decade or two. Such a stark depiction of today’s
language teaching realities should be more widely incorporated in writings on
contemporary pedagogy.

In closing, this book offers a distinctive vision of what a more
socially-engaged applied linguistics might look like. Those who disagree with
such a project should read it so they can sharpen their arguments, and those in
favor should read so they can help bring about the changes they seek within the
discipline, and perhaps larger ones too.

Blommaert, Jan. 2005. Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.

Brumfit, Christopher. 1991. Applied linguistics in higher education: Riding the
storm. BAAL Newsletter 38. 45-9.

Harvey, David. 2005. A brief history of neoliberalism. Oxford: Oxford University

Hasan, Ruqaiya. 2003. Globalization, literacy and ideology. World Englishes,
22(4). 433-448.

Hymes, Dell. 1974. Foundations in sociolinguistics. London: Tavistock.

Fairclough, Norman. 2006. Language and globalization. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, Norman. 2002. Language in new capitalism. Discourse & Society,
13(2). 163-166.

Phillipson, Robert. 2008. The linguistic imperialism of neoliberal empire.
Critical inquiry in language studies, 5(1). 1-43.

Rampton, Ben. 1997. Retuning in applied linguistics. International Journal of
Applied Linguistics 7(1). 3-25.

Ritzer, George. 1996. The McDonaldization of society, revised edn. Thousand
Oaks: Sage.

Talmy, Steven. 2011. The interview as collaborative achievement: Interaction,
identity, and ideology in a speech event. Applied Linguistics, 32(1). 25-42.

Volosinov, Valentin. 1973. Marxism and the philosophy of language. New York:
Seminar Press.

Wallace, Michael. 1991. Training foreign language teachers: A reflective
approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Williams, Raymond. 1986. Keywords, 2nd edn. London: Fontana.

Thomas Amundrud is a discourse analyst and language teacher working in Japan interested in the study of the social construction of language classrooms. He is presently a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Macquarie University.

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