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«Linguística Aplicada das Profissões VOLUME 16 nº 1 - 2012 Applied Linguistics and Professional Discourse Studies1 Srikant Sarangi Cardiff ...»

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Linguística Aplicada das Profissões

VOLUME 16 nº 1 - 2012


Applied Linguistics and Professional Discourse Studies1

Srikant Sarangi

Cardiff University (UK)


My focus here is Applied Linguistics and Professional Discourse Studies, more

specifically, the connective ‘and’ between these two disciplinary activities which can be

strengthened further. I will not go into definitional labour (in more than one sense):

definitions of Applied Linguistics have been attempted by so many in the past, but no one seems happy with someone else’s characterisation of what Applied Linguistics is or what applied linguists do (Candlin and Sarangi 2004). The questions persist however: What is it that we practise in our everyday working lives? How do we spot applied linguistic talent amongst us?

My colleague asked me as I walked in: “Should I introduce you as an applied linguist or a sociolinguist or a discourse analyst or what is it?” This series of hyper-questioning is suggestive of real and potential disciplinary boundaries – that there are marked divisions of expert labour and that each one of us carries only one label and does not inhabit across the boundaries. If one were to embrace the label of ‘applied linguist’, there is the tendency to interpret such a label along the lines of so-called mainstream Applied Linguistics, i.e., 1 This paper is primarily based on a presentation given at UFJF, Juiz de Fora, Brazil, 05 June 2007. Given the lapse of time, it has been thoroughly updated, with relevant references included, while retaining the informal tone of the oral presentation.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- VEREDAS ON-LINE – TEMÁTICA – 1/2012, P. 1-18 – PPG LINGUÍSTICA/UFJF – JUIZ DE FORA - ISSN: 1982-2243 1 language education and language acquisition. I would like to suggest that Applied Linguistics is much more than language education in the classroom setting or language acquisition in natural settings. We can extend the circumference of Applied Linguistics to the clinic, the courtroom, the corporate business sector, the public spheres and professional spaces more generally, where we have something to offer, where we can apply our knowledge and hopefully bring about a difference. Such an impact will of course depend on how we conceptualise our interventions, on whose sides we position ourselves (Becker 1967) and whether or not we feel welcomed rather than imposing ourselves (Bosk 1992). I am reminded of Watson (1997) reporting the challenge he faced when carrying out an interview-based study in an organisational setting, focusing on the middle management. Consider the following excerpt from an interview (M1 and M2 are managers; TJW is the academic and the


–  –  –

(Watson 1997: 211-212) What we see here is that the researcher’s identity as an impartial, ‘professional stranger’ (Agar 1980) is being challenged; the managers' strong feelings about outsiders posing as consultants are being ventilated; a distinction is being made between the posh academic researchers and the managers/workers on factory floors (lads, blokes). We can see that two different languages (discourses) – marking the boundary between the researcher and the researched – are evident in terms of presentation of selves and priorities, with attendant concerns about trust and credibility. In a sense, the managers’ threat to use their vernacular in the presence of the researcher is compatible with the researcher’s search for authentic, naturalistic data, which is preferable to the informants appropriating the ‘fancy management and business college talk’ in an attempt to ‘play’ or ‘play at’ the research game.

Turning now to Professional Discourse Studies, which is the second part of my title, this research tradition has been around for thirty/forty years covering fields as diverse as medicine, law, social work, mediation, journalism, business firms and so on (for an overview, see Candlin and Sarangi 2011). However, there is little evidence of explicit orientation within this tradition to application of discourse-based findings as is the case within Applied Linguistics. In a nutshell, these two fields of study – Applied Linguistics and Professional Discourse Studies – have been developing in parallel, with little cross-over or marriage of interests. Having regularly crossed these boundaries (for a detailed account, see Sarangi 2002, Sarangi 2005), I would like to share my perspective based on first-hand research/collaboration experience in the professional contexts of healthcare, social work and education.

–  –  –

Let me begin with a very broad characterisation of four kinds of research paradigms within which to position Applied Linguistics and Professional Discourse Studies. The first paradigm is pure, fundamental research, which is a distant cousin of applied disciplines such as Applied Linguistics. The primary motivation for undertaking pure research is to gain knowledge, to push the boundaries, and to be enlightened, as has been the case with the first wave of Professional Discourse Studies. Pure research can be framed, to draw a parallel, as art for art sake, or for that matter, as science for science sake. Routinely concerns are raised about heavily funded science research which does not address everyday societal concerns in their immediacy. Pure, blue sky research has its value in society, but not in an applicable sense.

In juxtaposition to pure research stands applied research which is driven by a practical, hands-on mentality. It is a form of engineering, with targeted intervention by the researchers during or following the research process. Through applied research one wants to make a difference that is tangible and, if possible, immediate – the teacher teaches better, the doctor communicates more effectively, the patient understands risk prior to making decisions etc.

What is known as ‘action research’ or ‘participatory research’ is applied research par excellence. Seen this way, Applied Linguistics can potentially be transformative, with planned and unplanned consequences.

The third paradigm is ‘consultancy’, which lies at the bottom end of the research continuum. It has a problem-solving mentality, similar to applied research, but may not be informed by specific research findings as such. Skilled expertise is involved in both paradigms, except that in the case of consultancy immediate problem-solving takes priority.

David Crystal’s (2004) profiling of the applied linguist as a ‘jobbing linguist’ fits this scenario. Applied research, as we know, is more than consultancy; it goes beyond quickfixing the problem as a plumber or an electrician would do. I would suggest that consultancy relies on prior knowledge and skills whereas applied research is more contingently framed, with the application-minded researcher professing an interest to learn and revisit their knowledge base when applying their expertise.

This takes me to the fourth paradigm, which is ‘consultative’. It involves two-way reflexivity – on our part as researchers as well as those who we are engaged with in our research. A key condition for consultative research is collaboration, i.e., presenting problems are approached jointly with the people whose work we want to transform. Professional Discourse Studies in more recent years seem to embrace such a perspective (for sample case studies, see Candlin and Sarangi 2011) which includes a readiness on our part to question our own knowledge and assumptions when steering intervention.

2. Aborting the pure-applied dichotomy

Having set up a four-fold distinction, I retrace my footsteps to suggest that the boundary between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ is never clear-cut. The same research can be either basic or applied depending on two things: the site of research and who might use the findings generated through the research. So even if we label our work as ‘applied’, the lack of visible uptake or impact will render our findings unapplied. Even when research findings have potential applicability, they fall short of being ‘applied research’. A professed or tacit motivation may underpin such research endeavour, but it retains its status as basic, pure research. Research findings that do not travel remain static, even frozen.

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------VEREDAS ON-LINE – TEMÁTICA – 1/2012, P. 1-18 – PPG LINGUÍSTICA/UFJF – JUIZ DE FORA - ISSN: 1982-2243 3 According to Brooks (1967: 24), “As definite categories, basic and applied tend to be meaningless – in themselves – but as positions on a scale within a given environment they probably do have some significance”. In essence, pure and applied are not two different categories, they are two different points on a scale, they are part of a continuum. Anything one does as applied research has an element of purity in it; it is unlikely that any research can be atheoretical. So, rather than think of applied and pure research as either-or, one should consider ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ in terms of more-or-less. On a temporal dimension, research that is considered pure today can potentially attain the status of applied research tomorrow.

The prefix ‘applied’ does not only characterise the discipline of Linguistics, it also characterises many other disciplines: Applied Physics, Applied Biology, Applied Biotechnology, Applied Engineering, Applied Psychology, Applied Ethics etc. How do other discipline-driven applied practices correspond (or not) with ours? Let me provide an illustrative example from Anthropology. Radcliffe-Brown, back in 1929, addressed the Science Congress of the Pan-Pacific region with the following words to stress that

Anthropology is an applied discipline:

–  –  –

Anthropology thus is not just about studying exotic cultures and their everyday ritual practices from an emic perspective. In studying such practices anthropologists can apply their knowledge for the betterment of the people under investigation: “This development has raised the question ‘what sort of anthropological investigations are of practical value in connection with such problems of administration?’” (Radcliffe-Brown 1958: 39).

As applied linguists, if we think that our knowledge is going to be of value then we have to first pause and think what kinds of research questions we should ask; by extension, what type of research methodology we should adopt; and what type of practically relevant knowledge we should generate. Within Anthropology, Radcliffe-Brown suggests a distinction between historical and functional methods. Anthropology tends to be historical as it tries to capture what happened developmentally. But if one were to foreground a functional purpose, this should be signalled in a different framing of the research questions, accompanied by a matching methodological and analytical mindset. To quote Radcliffe-Brown again: “if anthropological science is to give any important help in relation to practical problems of government and education it must abandon speculative attempts to conjecture the unknown past and must devote itself to the functional study of culture” (1958: 41).

Let me turn to the domain of science where the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ is more pronounced. The following quote represents the code of practice of the

National Academy of Sciences in the USA:

–  –  –

----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------VEREDAS ON-LINE – TEMÁTICA – 1/2012, P. 1-18 – PPG LINGUÍSTICA/UFJF – JUIZ DE FORA - ISSN: 1982-2243 4 In many academic scientific circles, applied researchers wearing the label ‘applied’ are looked down upon and are marginalised as being second-class cousins compared to those who work in laboratory settings with their white coats on to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Underpinning this hierarchically motivated division of expert labour is the symbolic status of the specialised, in-depth, knowledge of the laboratory scientist vs. the generalised, eclectic knowledge of the applied researcher. We should acknowledge that the applied scientists harbour a different attitude to knowledge: knowledge that is functional rather than historical in Radcliffe-Brown’s terms. Imagine if every doctor were expected to know everything about the human physiology, the patient’s psyche etc. rather than being committed to using the limited knowledge s/he has for a particular purpose in the immediate context. The generalist knowledge of the professional most often finds a context-driven outlet.

3. Pursuit of intellectualism or expertise?

A useful distinction here is between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘experts’ (Shills 1968) on the grounds of differential distribution of knowledge and differential commitments to knowledgeuse, similar to the pure-applied distinction. Merton (1957) maps the distinction between ‘intellectuals’ and ‘experts’ as follows: intellectuals generate knowledge and experts apply knowledge. In other words, expert knowledge is essentially functional. Professionals such as teachers, doctors, lawyers, social workers, mediators therefore fall under the expert category as they mediate knowledge generated by intellectuals for the benefit of their clients. Applied linguists and professional discourse analysts, in this sense, can be regarded as experts, without claiming for themselves a rigorously intellectual platform.

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