LINGUIST List 32.513

Wed Feb 10 2021

Review: Applied Linguistics; General Linguistics; Sociolinguistics: McNamara (2019)

Editor for this issue: Jeremy Coburn <>

Date: 14-Aug-2020
From: Nicole Mazzetto <>
Subject: Language and Subjectivity
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Book announced at

AUTHOR: Tim McNamara
TITLE: Language and Subjectivity
SERIES TITLE: Key Topics in Applied Linguistics
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2019

REVIEWER: Nicole Mazzetto


“Language and Subjectivity”, written by Tim McNamara and published in 2019 by Cambridge University Press, aims at contributing to the debate about the role of language in shaping subjectivity. By mingling existing theoretical approaches with innovative theoretical and empirical insights, the author offers to the scientific community a book that investigates the relationship between language and subjectivity in a thorough way.

The book is composed of 10 chapters, each of which tackles a different aspect of the main topic by encompassing numerous examples and a concluding section that pursues the goal of summarizing the content of the chapter, highlighting its most relevant parts, as well as showing possible interconnections among the theoretical approaches. The book is organized in such a way that the reader can first explore the macro dimension of discourses and, subsequently, understand their micro dimension, that is their role in everyday interactions. The structure of the book aims at guiding the reader in the discovery of subjectivity, its inner nature, and its self-recognition. As it is possible to notice since the very first pages, the author unfolds a complex topic in a gradual way, providing the reader with the appropriate terminology thanks to a glossary and the explanation of fundamental theoretical approaches.

Based on the work of poststructuralist philosophers, such as Foucault, Derrida, and Butler, “Language and Subjectivity” explores the micro and macro levels of the discourses in a detailed way, while aiming at describing social categories not as immutable, but as socially constructed categories, which are, therefore, liable to disruption. Although discourses participate in the definition of the Self and the Other, they can be subverted from the inside and be part of the manifestation of the inconsistency of their binary aspect. Regardless of the direction that the discourse takes, the author always returns to two main assumptions: People are defined and recognize themselves as members of specific social categories, whereas language is a site for the iteration of violence. Although the link between language and social domination is analyzed through the lens of the poststructuralist tradition, this perspective is compared to other theoretical approaches in order to unveil its weaknesses and its peculiarities. In the end, the reader will understand that language must not be ignored when dealing with group categorization. The effects of this power can be perceived at a practical level in language learning processes, language tests, and the like.

Chapter 1 introduces the main topic of the book starting from its core: “The construction of the subject” and the role of language in the recognition of the subject. By focusing on the poststructuralist perspective, subjectivity is intended as a phenomenon linked to the outside world. In particular, Foucault’s approach plays a crucial role in the analysis of subjectivity, as it highlights the influence of society and history on beliefs and understanding. This approach to subjectivity entails the notion of discourse, within which social categories are shaped. By offering terms of recognition of the Self and the Other and, consequently, building the stigma, discourses make people identify themselves in both normal and abnormal social categories. This introduction lets the author tackle two other controversial topics: the awareness related to the constitution of the subject and the role of agency. Through the comparison of different theoretical approaches, the chapter lastly concludes that these unanswered questions in applied linguistics do not undermine the fact that the individual is controlled by the power inscribed within the discourse.

Discourses of gender are explored through the insightful analysis of women’s and men’s speech: the primary goal of Chapter 2 is to enhance their peculiarities and evolution in conversational interactions. Gender-appropriate speech implies another type of discourse: the discourses of sexuality. As it is possible to understand by means of an example concerning the gay liberation movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s, discourses of sexuality can be “reversed” and significantly contribute to causes supported by the Other (Foucault 1978). From a poststructuralist perspective, the rejection of the binary terms constructed within discourses and the recognition of the instability of gender and sexuality categories are at the basis of this phenomenon. Through further examples, the author succeeds in showing how discourses of gender prescribe the terms within which gendered behavior is recognized and defined as normal or abnormal.

Chapter 3 focuses on the role of language in the construction of racism in colonial settings. The implications for subjectivity provoked by language are discussed as visible in the past as well as in the present: meaningful examples concern, among the others, Frantz Fanon’s experience in colonial Martinique and the author’s own experience in London. As Edward Said (1979) explains, language has participated in the construction of the representation of the Orient in the Western culture and, therefore, in the adoption of specific colonial political actions. In particular, the impact of certain language policies on colonized communities is explained through the direct experience of members of indigenous families, the so-called victims of “linguistic imperialism” (Philipson 1992).

As suggested by the previous chapter, racism is not exempt from the power of language. Chapter 4 tackles the topic of everyday racist discourse, intended as a site for the reproduction of racist violence. In the first part of the chapter, the analysis of the subjectivity of German citizens under Nazism aims at further exploring the power of language, namely the iterated racist discourses embedded in everyday interaction. The second part is dedicated to the empirical study of racist discourses. Exposed to everyday anti-Semitism, Jewish immigrants, who moved from Israel to Australia, are the informants of an interview study, which establishes a correlation between a potential crisis of subjectivity derived from the awareness of anti-Semitic attitudes and the adoption of strategies aiming at denying the racist factor in discourses.

“Language Learning and Subjectivity” are the protagonists of Chapter 5, which investigates the origins of the process of language learning and the meanings ascribed to the language studied. As the author underlines, social context plays a crucial role in the field of language learning. Nevertheless, the subjectivity of the language learner, which is also fundamental in the learning process, is still under-investigated. In this case, national and gender identities are two examples of the most relevant discourses when dealing with the language process. The study of the impact of politics on language policy and the meanings ascribed to a given language is accompanied by the fine-grained analysis of how gendered identity can structure and influence learning opportunities. The involvement of subjectivity in the understanding of the learning process questions the reliability of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR), which measures and defines the goals and achievements of language learning without taking into account the subjectivity of language learners, the impact of socio-cultural and historical contexts on the learning process, and learners’ motivation. By means of meaningful similes and metaphors, the author stresses the fact that the CEFR needs to consider the subjective aspects of the learning process, as well as the meanings ascribed to languages.

The main focus of Chapters 6 and 7 is the interaction, which is conceived as the site for the macro and micro social orders. The method of microanalysis formulated by Harold Garfinkel and Erving Goffman, called Conversation Analysis (CA), is the starting point to understand the concept of face-to-face interactions and how macro-level roles can be identified in institutional talks. Utilizing concrete examples, the author shows how interactional patterns and behaviors are based on social categories and macro-level institutional roles. Despite the critics coming from the adherents of Critical Discourse Analysis and Discursive Psychology, CA proves to be the right method to investigate the concept of gender performativity. The analysis of further examples throws light on the naturalized aspect of the performativity of gender, of which people are hardly aware.

As it is possible to deduce, social category is one of the key concepts of this book. In Chapter 8, the author offers an in-depth analysis of it, focusing on the identity categories deployed by conversational participants. The tools provided by the Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA), a form of poststructuralist discourse analysis developed by Harvey Sacks (1992), are employed to study the use of category terms in casual conversations. According to this approach, membership categories and category-bound activities are constructed in discourses: This phenomenon can be explored by examining linguistic strategies, such as the use of pronouns in conversations.

Another implication of the relationship between language and subjectivity resides in language tests. Chapter 9 mingles modern historical examples with contemporary ones and investigates the functions of language tests according to the different political and socio-cultural climates. The attention is drawn to the determination of asylum claims and the categories to which claimants belong, namely the bureaucratic procedure, called Language Analysis for the Determination of Origin of asylum seekers (LADO), used to determine whether a migrant requires protection or not. Through the analysis of people’s speech, information about claimants’ language socialization and origins can be obtained. Nevertheless, language evidence cannot provide an accurate portrait of the origins of claimants, namely because linguistic borders rarely coincide with political ones in postcolonial settings. Despite the guidelines aiming at improving the level of accuracy of this language analysis, the risk of arriving at unjust conclusions is always present and inevitable. The book introduces some theoretical approaches, whose goal is to make language analysis a less ambiguous and unfair practice, highlighting the fact that the lack of research in this field is not the only reason why failures are so abundant: In this regard, crucial roles are played by the social values embedded in tests and by policy decisions, which often aim at reducing the number of admitted claimants or at selecting the category of claimants that a country is willing to welcome. Therefore, the author insists on the urgent need to administer the refugee law and to include experts in the development of language tests.

Chapter 10 returns to the starting point: poststructuralism. Other examples are employed in order to show and contextualize the disciplining effects of discourses. Although the field of subjectivity in discourse has not emerged recently, the author concludes the book by stating that further research in language study is necessary to achieve theoretical and methodological clarity.


In “Language and Subjectivity”, the author Tim McNamara provides the scientific community with a thorough and exhaustive contribution about a field whose relevance can be seen at a theoretical and practical level. Despite the broadness of the topic, the author has succeeded in keeping the focus always on the main topic, while helping the reader identify the key concepts and the appropriate methodological tools.

Drawing on the work of poststructuralist theorists, this book aims at exploring the pivotal role played by language in the creation of the Self and the Other. Through the analysis of discourses and social categories based on the tools of CA, the author pursues his study by showing the vulnerability of the subject and the self. One of the main goals of the author is to show the connection between language and subjectivity throughout daily experience and day-to-day interactions, which embed macro-level social actions and participate in the creation and iteration of social categories.

By mingling theoretical approaches with insightful examples based on the author’s life, historical events, and contemporary societies, “Language and Subjectivity” is capable of turning a complex topic into a phenomenon that can be observed in the reader’s everyday life. Despite the heterogeneity characterizing the examples in the book, they all suggest the same concept, that is the need to reject the binary idea of “them and us”.

Encompassing the analysis of different types of discourse, namely nation, sexuality, gender, and race, this book shows their implications at a practical level, namely in the language learning process and the procedures related to the determination of asylum claims, which, as the author underlines, serve as a mechanism of inclusion or exclusion. The focus gradually shifts from a purely theoretical study of social categories and discourses to specific behaviors and actions affecting people’s daily lives and decisions. While reading this book, the reader can identify himself in certain social categories and understand his role in society.

To conclude, this book is undoubtedly a welcome addition to the fields of applied linguistics and sociolinguistics. Presenting state-of-the-art research, “Language and Subjectivity” is highly recommended to scholars and students involved in the study of subjectivity from a linguistic perspective. Readers would benefit from this book not only because it adds clarity to this topic, but also because it suggests numerous research directions that still need to be explored.


Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality. New York: Pantheon Books.

Phillipson, Robert. 1992. Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sacks, Harvey. 1992. Lectures on Conversation (Vols. I & II, G. Jefferson, Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Said, Edward Wadie. 1979. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.


Nicole Mazzetto is a PhD candidate at Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, Germany. Her research interests include the study of phraseology in Romance languages from a cognitive and comparative perspective, conceptual phenomena in language, namely conceptual metaphors, as well as the impact of socio-cultural factors on linguistic codes.

Page Updated: 10-Feb-2021