LINGUIST List 23.3659

Mon Sep 03 2012

Review: Applied Ling.; Sociolinguistics: Block, Gray & Holborow (2012)

Editor for this issue: Joseph Salmons <>

Date: 03-Sep-2012
From: Thomas Amundrud <>
Subject: Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Announced at

AUTHORS: Block, David, Gray, John, and Holborow, MarnieTITLE: Neoliberalism and Applied LinguisticsPUBLISHER: RoutledgeYEAR: 2012

Thomas Amundrud, Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University, Sydney

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

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 ''sociallyconstituted linguistics'' (ibid.) whose investigations start with ''the study ofculture and social structures'' before looking at how language realizes socialactions. Despite the growth of postcolonial, critical discourse analysis (CDA),and other socially-engaged tendencies within applied linguistics, the authorsdecry the lack of overt investigation within them into the effects ofneoliberalism.

Chapter two, by Marnie Holborow, explains neoliberalism in more detail,disambiguating it into four definitions: as economic theory, as a novel mode ofcapitalism, as discourse, and as an ideology. For the first, Holborow followsHarvey (2005), defining neoliberalism as an economic theory asserting that humanwell-being is best served by "liberating" individuals from state interventionand regulation within an institutional framework of free markets, free trade,and strong property rights. In discussing neoliberalism as a new system ofcapitalism, the author notes how even within "critical" writings in socialresearch, there has been an unquestioned acceptance of the motif ofsociety-as-network that, in the continuous search for novelty, effacesunderlying continuities to long-established modes of production and privilege.Similarly, applied linguistics' failure to engage neoliberalism is, according toHolborow, a symptom of the system's naturalization, whereby free-marketeconomics is presented as a mere social fact. Neoliberalism's simultaneousdiscursive enactment and inculcation has, however, received considerableattention in CDA, particularly by Fairclough (2006 & 2002), and its connectionto the spread of English attracted Phillipson (2008). Holborow finds Fairclough'sblurring of language and ideology problematic for two reasons: first, it "robsideology" (p.23) of its reference to competing social interests, leaving aseemingly-inescapable "discursive regime", and second, because its overrelianceon individual texts forces "temporal closure" (Blommaert, 2005, p.37) andcoherence on often incoherent events whose interpretations become frozen andwhose meanings can only be surmised (pp.23-24). Fairclough's lineage fromFoucault is presented as a source of this problem, since Foucault's formulationof reproductive discourses as modes of individuation and self-regulationthroughout 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, Holborowis quite critical of what she sees as Phillipson's (2008) equation of thedominance of English with neoliberalism itself, arguing that English can be usedas either a weapon against or a buttress for neoliberalism (p.28) and that, likeCDA, Phillipson's more recent theorizations on linguistic imperialism makelanguage deterministic of society. Holborow therefore concludes that, foranalyzing neoliberalism and language, a conception is needed of ideology as aone-sided representation "articulated from a particular social class", butpresented as universal, which its subjects, though their beliefs and actions,both believe and reject, and which is pervious to real-world events. Thisconception of ideology is coextensive but distinct from language; indeed, citingVolosinov (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 ofneoliberal ideology is how "ideology-as-discourse" came to be since, before the2008 financial crash, neoliberalism seemed so hegemonic. This in turn obscuredideology as "a linkage of ideas" to specific social classes with specificinterests, though the faltering post-2008 may have (temporarily?) reduced thisobfuscation. To show how ideologies influence language, Holborow uses the notionof "keywords" advanced by Williams (1986). These "ideologically sensitive words"(p.35) cannot be understood through just etymological or other linguisticanalyses, but are indicative of particular perspectives that, over time, resultin significant shifts in the meaning of the words. The "constant repetition" ofkeywords "through powerful communications channels" (p.41) doesn't mean that, asin crypto-Marxian characterizations of ideology, people are duped about the'true' nature of society; rather, while ideology's omnipervasiveness makes itsassertions seem natural, people nevertheless have contradictory views.Ideological fluctuations and inconsistencies are particularly visible in timesof economic and social turmoil, which Holborow demonstrates through analyses ofthe changing values of 'deregulation', 'human capital', and 'entrepreneur' inIrish news media, particularly in the post-2008 context that has seen tremendoushuman and economic losses, and in comparison with the prior "Celtic Tiger"period. With the current crises in Europe and elsewhere, the cracks in thelong-dominant neoliberal ideology are demonstrated by Holborow's examination ofhow these three terms have experienced diminished valence as their legitimacyhas faltered. She also shows how 'entrepreneur', specifically as 'socialentrepreneur', has been "re-semanticized" (Hasan, 2003) as a means of restoringlegitimacy to market ideology, though with as-yet indeterminate consequences.

In chapter four, David Block proposes a revised scope for applied linguisticsthat goes beyond present "culturalist" concerns with identities to include amore materialist outlook bringing in questions of social class and its materialimpacts on social life, including language. Block first discusses andproblematizes the term 'globalization', alongside attendant terms like'hybridity' and 'glocalization', finding an often romantic fascination withthese and other notions associated with postmodernism, which often "marginalize"the more material aspects of culture. Block acknowledges that culturalistapproaches to the linguistic results of globalization are indeed oftenwarranted, but that doing so exclusive of research that includes morematerialist concerns reduces the influence that applied linguistics might havein solving social problems. The chapter then takes a turn away from appliedlinguistics per se to discuss schools of political economic thought, like WorldSystems Theory, which argues against the presumed novelty of contemporaryglobalizing socioeconomic processes, before briefly charting the course ofcapitalism and imperialism from its Dutch origins to the neoliberal present. Inthis present, where the fundamental truths of the market remain infallible underthe continued reign of TINA (There Is No Alternative), questions of social classhave largely been ignored, and this, Block demonstrates, has been no less truewithin applied linguistics. This erasure of class as a category for respectablesocial inquiry is due not only to the triumph of a "more individualisticapproach to work" that devalue solidarity, but also to the rise of discussionsconcerning multiculturalism and identity politics. Although highly critical ofthe former, Block defends the latter as an benefit to the populations concerned,but nevertheless holds that rather than "jettisoning all that suggestsuniversalism," some structural and historic factors may yet shape the culturalflows of interest to social researchers (pp.72-74), and that acknowledging thismeans paying attention to class. The rest of the chapter is concerned withdefinitions of "class", from the basic categories of Marx, to greaterstratification in Durkheim, then to the more variegated and fluid definition ofWeber, and last to the notions of habitus, field, and social capital inBourdieu. While acknowledging some continued salience of conventionaldefinitions of class based on, for instance, wealth, education, consumptionpatterns, or "symbolic behavior", Block notes that the "rules of engagement havechanged" under neoliberalism such that, for instance, traditionally white collarjobs, such as teaching in higher education, have become increasinglyproletarianized (pp.74-82). The chapter closes by profiling recent work byRampton (e.g. 2006), showing that "class still matters" when examining howlanguage is used.

Chapter five, by John Gray, takes a sharp turn from the previous chapter inlooking at the meaning and use of "celebrity", its increasing permeation intoindividual habitus, the incorporation of celebrity into the "aspirationalcontent" of contemporary ELT materials, and how all these are viewed andinflected by a small sample of English teachers from around the world. Gray'sessential definition of "celebrity" is "the capacity to embody and generateaffect-whether admiration, desire, envy, fear, (or) loathing" (p.88). Amongstcelebrities thus defined, there are those that may be born to their positionwhile others may rise to it or have it attributed to them by the media (forinstance Charles Manson); there may even be fictional characters, like BartSimpson, that may nevertheless serve as "cultural reference points" (p.90) to anarray of discourses. Gray then examines Frankfurt School-based criticisms ofcelebrity, which argue that celebrities are "empty spaces" to hold the values ofthe interests that produce them, and that their widely-publicized lives ofexaggerated individualism at the same time enable spectators to "project theirneed for autonomy" and agency denied under capitalism. Gray acknowledges theweakness of the School's initial approach as denying spectators the agency todisagree with the values represented through celebrity. However, he sees thehyper-individualistic agency of celebrity as the "point of connection" betweenit and neoliberalism (p.94). Nowadays, atomized individuals must "brand"themselves into a unique, marketable product, like Oprah or Martha Stewart, andeach of us has the chance to attain true fame and acclaim through reality TV. Inall these, we are equally capable of success, which is "ideologicallyconvenient" under neoliberalism; moreover, the celebrity we should long for isdivorced from any exploitation or oppression needed for the riches that fuel it,and instead becomes a symbol of fun to be desired. Coterminous with thisindividualization of celebrity has been the rise of celebrity used as"aspirational content" in contemporary ELT publishing. Gray presents a contentanalysis of UK-published intermediate-level ESL textbooks, contrasting the late1970s and early 2000s, which shows a marked rise in the use of celebrity forcontent and activities. Gray then interviewed 15 teachers from around the world,following their response to a short questionnaire, on their views regarding theuse of celebrity in ELT. These respondents were largely uncritical orindifferent 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). Grayattributes these attitudes to the pervasiveness of neoliberal ideology such thatcelebrity is merely an unquestioned contemporary social reality, and to theas-yet unsubstantiated assumption that students themselves aspire to ideals ofAnglocentric celebrity. Another attributing factor is that, as language teachingitself is increasingly seen as entrepreneurial and apolitical, it isincreasingly "divorced" from education (pp.109-111).

This last theme is further explored by Gray in the final chapter, where heexamines the "McDonaldization" (e.g. Ritzer, 1996) of language teacher trainingin the PGCE (Postgraduate Certification in Education) in the UK, and the globalCambridge CELTA (Certificate in English Language to Adults). Following Wallace(1991), Gray first follows the development of teacher education in the UK fromthe pre-WW II craft model, to the post-war applied science model, and last tothe reflective model that has developed since the 1980s. However, Gray thenasserts that present teacher training paradigms bear closer resemblance to thetechnocratic instrumental rationalism, aka. "McDonaldization", which areemployment norms spread from the fast-food industry that dictate "systems oforganization which are more efficient, predictable, calculable, and which arecontrolled either internally or externally or both" (p.122); in education, thisresults 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 andtrainees in a Dublin-based CELTA course, Gray demonstrates the practice ofMcDonaldization within two teacher-training programs that ostensibly encourageteacher reflection, showing instances where opportunities for criticalreflection on teaching practice are turned into either routinized exerciseslacking face validity, or into reiterative disciplining into the use of thecommercial EFL materials used in language teaching today.

EVALUATION"Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics" is certainly a volume whose titleclearly indicates potential audiences who might support or oppose its overallpremise. Nevertheless, especially in its criticisms of CDA and "critical"discourses more broadly, it is a unique contribution to a socially-aware appliedlinguistics, 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 isnot 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 collectionwere there a conclusion to the book that tied it together, much as Grayattempted at the end of the final chapter.

Moreover, in light of its stated goal of setting a research focus for others tofollow, the authors could have provided a greater number of vectors for readersinterested in the praxis of the project the authors propose. Thatsystemic-functional linguistics is barely alluded to in this volume despite itslong years housing a critical orientation and praxis is a crucial weakness inthis regard. Furthermore, while chapter five is quite critical of textbooks andteachers that use images of celebrity, noting also that more recent textbookwriters and publishers are shying away from its use since celebrity isnotoriously temporary and culture-sensitive, it doesn't give any suggestions ofhow the topic of celebrity, or similarly problematic points like brands, mightbe treated in language classes. Since readers, especially those working inalienating workplaces where they have little curricular control, might findthemselves having to use such celeb-laden materials, hints embodying possiblealternatives would make this critique more worthwhile.

Finally, in terms of methodology, though the size of the volume is a necessarylimitation, readers may still be left wondering about the providence of theinterview samples used in Chapter 6. A larger segment showing how that talkemerged through discussion with the interviewer, as shown in Talmy (2011), wouldenhance its validity.

Despite these points, "Neoliberalism and Applied Linguistics" does succeed inasking crucial questions, and in imagining what a more materialist appliedlinguistics might look like. As a part of the recent turn towards Marxianpolitical economy in the academy, it is certainly a timely work. Holborowprovides substantial critical responses to Fairclough in arguing against thediscursive overdetermination of ideology, and further work within CDA shouldtake up Holborow's challenge. Gray's depictions of contemporary textbooks,teacher training, and pedagogy within the place of corporatized "learningenvironments" will ring true to anyone who was worked in the private languageteaching industry in the past decade or two. Such a stark depiction of today'slanguage teaching realities should be more widely incorporated in writings oncontemporary pedagogy.

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

REFERENCESBlommaert, Jan. 2005. Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: CambridgeUniversity Press.

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

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

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 ofApplied Linguistics 7(1). 3-25.

Ritzer, George. 1996. The McDonaldization of society, revised edn. ThousandOaks: 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 reflectiveapproach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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

ABOUT THE REVIEWERThomas Amundrud is a discourse analyst and language teacher working inJapan interested in the study of the social construction of languageclassrooms. He is presently a PhD candidate in Linguistics at MacquarieUniversity.

Page Updated: 03-Sep-2012