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Review of  Political Economy and Sociolinguistics


Reviewer: Jennifer Martyn
Book Title: Political Economy and Sociolinguistics
Book Author: David Block
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Sociolinguistics
Issue Number: 30.336

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Review:
SUMMARY

‘Political Economy and Sociolinguistics: Neoliberalism, Inequality and Social Class’ by David Block is a call for sociolinguists to adopt a more robust approach to political economy in their research, and emphasises the importance of, what Monica Heller (2011) has called, “critical sociolinguistics” (Block 2018: 172). Block, who has focused increasingly on issues of political economy in the last decade, argues, however, that although many sociolinguistic researchers have indeed centralised political economy in their work, much of it does not sufficiently engage with the human impact of some of the central issues of our times - neoliberalism, social class, and inequality.

The book is divided into a preface, six chapters, and an epilogue. The first chapter introduces the application of political economy in sociolinguistic research, followed by three chapters that unpack the concepts included in the title, and two further chapters that analyse various texts from the Catalan and Spanish sociopolitical contexts.

In the preface, Block acknowledges that sociolinguistics has become a “broad church” (2018: ix.), also alluding to a divide in research which orients either towards the “socio” or the “linguistic”. For many, research which is too “socio” is not sociolinguistic research at all - for others, including Block, such disciplinary rigidity is “tedious” (2018: x) and even limiting. For the former, Block’s interpretation of sociolinguistics in this book may be too broad, as he uses theories and strategies associated with critical discourse studies (CDS) to construct his argument.

Chapter 1 presents and synthesizes research relating to political economy in sociolinguistics. The first section, entitled ‘Political economy in sociolinguistics’ notes that in 1989 both Judith Irvine and Susan Gal (in separate articles) anticipated the growing interest in the relationship between language(s) and political economy, and called for a “synthesis of the material and the symbolic” (Block 2018: 4). Such an approach is at the heart of Block’s thesis - that the material realities of citizens and communities must be foregrounded in sociolinguistic and political economy research. The remainder of the chapter identifies five key areas of (socio)linguistics in which political economy is applied: the ‘English divide’ - those who speak English having access to greater social and economic capital than those who do not; Language in the workplace; Economics of language - which uses economic theories to explain linguistic phenomena (e.g. Grin 2016); Language and tourism; and, Critical Discourse Studies (Critical Discourse Analysis).

Chapter 2, entitled ‘Political economy: Background and approach’ marks the first of the book’s three theoretical chapters. It introduces the concept of political economy, tracing its origins to the eighteenth century and eventually to Marxist interpretations. Block takes a humanist approach to political economy, placing the conditions of human existence at the centre. Following Fourcade, Ollion and Algan (2014), he critiques contemporary neoclassical economics and those working within the field, who “enjoy more prestige, resembling physical scientists more than social scientists”, whose work abstracts from human behaviour, and for whom the goal is, ultimately, “propaganda” that perpetuates neoliberal capitalism (Block 2018: 40). Block argues that poststructuralist thought, so dominant in sociolinguistics and the social sciences today, does not well serve the study of political economy due to its tendency to, to greater or lesser degrees, assume the ongoing construction of reality through discourse and practice, which conflates “representations of social reality (...) with social reality itself” (Bhaskar 1989, in Block 2018: 46). Situating his own theoretical viewpoint within a critical Marxist global political economy and adopting a critical realist lens, Block turns his attention to neoliberalism.

The book’s third chapter, ‘Neoliberalism: Historical and conceptual considerations’ provides an excellent introduction to the concept and its evolution, necessary given the sweeping application of the term today. Noting that it is a “variegated phenomenon” which is too often treated as uniform, neoliberalism instead plays itself out “in different ways in different contexts, as local historical, political, social, cultural and geographical characteristics come together to constitute local varieties of capitalism” (2018: 51). Block goes on to explain how Keynesian policies of the mid-twentieth century were subject to two phases of eradication: ‘roll back’ - the deregulation, devolution, and democratization of power structures, cut-backs, and privatization of public services designed to dismantle the welfare state. The second stage, ‘roll out’, has meant that the fallout from the ‘roll back’ has had to be in some way repaired - in many cases by quangos and other NGOs, increasing the levels of bureaucracy and number of stakeholders involved in the deployment of public services. The chapter goes on to provide an historical overview of neoliberalism and the rise of neoliberal thought, with von Mises, Popper and Hayek instrumental in advocating for varying degrees of market-rule. Again, Block turns his attention to contemporary economists whose work does not critique neoliberal capitalism, but rather works within it, rendering them, alongside their political contemporaries - a neoliberal thought collective (NTC).

The author briefly mentions the effects of neoliberal regimes on education systems and the competition for resources, e.g. places in schools and universities, funding, etc., and goes on later in the book to discuss European research funding. At this point, however, the effects of neoliberalism in education are not discussed in detail (see, for instance, Flubacher and Del Percio (2017), a volume on language, education and neoliberalism; and Busch (2017) on the neoliberalization of higher education).

Chapter 4, ‘Stratification, inequality and social class’ investigates the effects of neoliberal policies on individuals and communities. Turning first to stratification, he discusses rising inequality across the world and within nation-states - inter and intranational inequality - over the past decades. Turning to the concept of inequality, Block presents the historical conceptualisations of the term by prominent philosophers and other scholars, before presenting Therborn’s (2006) model: vital inequality, existential inequality and resource inequality, and Grusky and Ku’s (2008) typology of eight key “assets” which identify advantaged and disadvantaged groups, or, in other words, social classes (2018: 81-83). Block himself presents social class as a “constellation of interrelated dimensions” (2018: 92-3), factoring in material life conditions, economic resources, sociocultural resources, behaviour, sociopolitical life conditions, and spatial conditions. The categorisation and quantification of social class in recent years has led to the inclusion of a new “class”, the precariat, a group of people whose situation transcends traditional classes. However, Block is unwilling to categorise the precariat as a class, given that it is more of a “condition that is characteristic of an increasing number of work regimes in the world today” (2018: 101).

The fifth chapter, ‘The neoliberal citizen: Conceptualizations and contexts’ is the first analysis chapter of the book and aims to demonstrate the discursive construction of neoliberal subject positions and representations. Here, Block conceptualises subject positions in terms of citizenship. The neoliberal citizen is defined in terms of “citizenship as status” - a rights-based status; “citizenship as feeling” - individuals’ affiliation to the imagined and “real” nation-state and its policies; and “citizenship as practice” - the degree to which individuals participate in constructing the nation-state and its policies, e.g. memberships of trade unions or voting in elections (2018: 104). Following a more in-depth discussion of what it means to be a neoliberal citizen, the chapter traces the rise of the entrepreneur and self-branding, the latter of which must be employed at least some degree to engage with the jobs market.

Using Aaker’s (1997) dimensions of brand personality - sincerity, excitement, competence, sophistication, and ruggedness, Block analyses the way in which the French as a foreign language textbook ‘Édito - Niveau B2’ (B2 level of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) represents the neoliberal citizen, as well as shapes the neoliberal citizenship of its readers, whose language skills and intercultural competence have become just one more string to add the “brand-me” bow. Of particular note for this book’s readership is the subsequent analysis of the European Commission’s ‘Horizon 2020’, whose funding calls are replete with neoliberal expressions (e.g. “innovation”), soliciting “research with clear practical outcomes” (2018: 125). As readers of this book will be aware, such calls favour certain kinds of scholarship over others. Finally, this chapter discusses the case of a Spanish broker and iron-man athlete, Josef Arjam, applying Aaker’s five dimensions of brand personality to his speeches and talks, which mark him out as a “neoliberal citizen in the flesh” (2018: 130), and a model citizen to which we are supposed to aspire.

Chapter 6, ‘Inequality, class and class warfare: Discourse, ideology and ‘truth’’ uses CDS strategies to analyse discourses of home evictions and protests in Spain in the wake of the global economic crisis and the austerity measures introduced in 2013. Block firstly presents an overview of how CDS can be used to analyse class warfare and “classtalk” - “an ideological position that ‘ignores structural conditions and causes of poverty’” (Turgeon et al 2014, in Block 2018: 143) and which is realised via six discursive strategies. The response to “escraches” - civil demonstrations at home evictions - by the conservative Partido Popular (PP) - presented by Block is a chilling portrait of anti-protest rhetoric often favoured by neoliberal regimes. In particular, members of the PP discursively construct protestors as, ironically, “an undemocratic mob” and followers of Nazi ideology, “in an attempt to shift the debate away from class warfare perpetuated by the ruling elites on the popular classes to a dubious debate about democratic principles” (2018: 152). As the author notes, such discursive strategies have elsewhere been termed “anything goes” by Ruth Wodak - “discursive and rhetorical strategies which combine incompatible phenomena, make false claims that sound innocent” and saying “the unsayable” (Wodak 2013: 32-33), creating the effect of a “camera obscura” (Marx and Engels [1846] 1998: 42) or inverted reality.

EVALUATION

‘Political Economy and Sociolinguistics: Neoliberalism, Inequality and Social Class’ is written in Block’s readable style and is suitable for graduate student level research and above. Through the initial three theoretical chapters which dissect the principle concepts of the book, Block succeeds in providing a strong foundation for the analyses that follow. The accessible case studies and succinct discussions will be of use to educators wishing to demonstrate to students of all levels the prevalence and depth of the discursive construction of neoliberalism, inequality, and “classtalk” in ‘western’ societies. It will also be of interest to linguists hoping to integrate political economy in their research, particularly those seeking a history and a firm theoretical foundation in the area. The case study analyses are more discursive than traditionally ‘sociolinguistic’, meaning that analytical methods will not be of interest to all; however, the case studies in question - including a language textbook; various texts from the Spanish and Catalan sociopolitical contexts; and self-branding in the neoliberal age, will be extremely familiar to those working and living within neoliberal regimes, and will provide frameworks for scholars hoping to analyse similar texts from their own institutions and regions.

This book is particularly necessary at this juncture in time, when market rule appears absolute, and with the rise of far-right parties and groups across Europe and North America. Mainstream economists are implicated in this book as being vehicles, rather than critics, of neoliberal regimes (aside from, for example, Piketty 2014). In light of this, the book calls for increased collaboration between linguists interested in political economy and economists of language, bridging the ontological and epistemological differences in each field. Such collaborations could lend weight to the exposition of ever-increasing material inequality and the discursive “camera obscura” with which citizens are confronted.

REFERENCES

Block, David. 2018. Political Economy and Sociolinguistics: Neoliberalism, inequality and social class. London: Bloomsbury.

Busch, Lawrence. 2017. Knowledge for sale: The Neoliberal takeover of higher education. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Flubacher, Mi-Cha and Alfonso Del Percio. 2017. Language, education and neoliberalism. Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Grin, François. 2016. 50 years of economics in language policy: Critical assessment and priorities. The Economics of language policy ed by M. Gazzola and B.-A.Wickström, 21-52. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels. [1846] 1998. The German Ideology. London: Lawrence and Wisart.

Piketty, Thomas. 2014. Capital in the twenty-first century. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Wodak, Ruth. 2013. ‘Anything goes’ - The Haiderization of Europe. Right-wing populism in Europe ed by R. Wodak, M. Khosrav Nik and B. Mral, 23-38. London: Bloomsbury.
 
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Jennifer Martyn is Assistant Professor in the School of Applied Languages and Intercultural Studies at Dublin City University, Ireland. Her research interests include the sociolinguistics of language education, ideologies of language learning, and gender and language learning. She is the author of 'Language, Identity and Migration: Voices from Transnational Speakers and Communities' (2016, Peter Lang), and the forthcoming monograph 'Gender, Identity, and Ideologies of Foreign Language Learning'.

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