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Review of  Applied Linguistics as Social Science

Reviewer: Heather Hewitt
Book Title: Applied Linguistics as Social Science
Book Author: Alison Sealey Bob Carter
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing (formerly The Continuum International Publishing Group)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.467

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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.


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.

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