A glance inside the social change toolbox


By engaging in the discipline of educational linguistics we’ve made it pretty clear– we care about social realities, about people, power-structures, parole, and how they intertwine. We’re out to make the world– or at least the multilingual classroom– a better and more equitable place. Across academia there are plenty of scholars who would say they’re not out to change the world, just aiming to describe or understand it. To be clear, that’s fine with me, this post is not intended to change anyone’s mind. Rather this post is directed at those of us who are trying to figure out how to create real social benefits through our actions as scholars, individuals and community members. There are many of us who agree with Hymes’ assertion that “Ethnography must be descriptive and objective, yes, but not only that. It must be conscious of values and goals. It must relate description to analysis and objectivity to critical evaluation. […] [E]thnography that ignores values and goals is sterile” (Ethnographic Monitoring. 1980, p. 104). We could extend this to any kind of social research that does not engage with the context in which it occurs.

Having chosen this discipline, what is the best way to pursue social engagement? There are many different areas of activism that aim to address social, political, environmental, economic, and countless other imbalances & injustices. When I interact with people who are working towards social justice from other angles, such as food security, public health, or government transparency, I often find myself wondering what my discipline can contribute to the conversation. As Educational Linguists, what are the tools we bring to this larger effort? Here are a few thoughts in response:

  1. Paradigms

We have certain ways of thinking about language & education (and these ways of thinking can lead to certain kinds of inclusive, pluralist language education & policy actions). These include, but aren’t limited to:

  • Human communication (language use) is inherently diverse
  • Communicative diversity is a resource
  • Hierarchy or prescription of language use is always political; Language use is inherently equal outside of context
    • (This principle of relativism can come in conflict with social change agendas that set priorities & take sides, but it is ultimately an important check-and-balance that ensures the local relevance of the form of social change pursued. This is a complicated balancing act that warrants plenty of discussion in its own right, but I’m going to skirt around it here.)
  • Humans are capable of, and generally benefit from acquiring & using multiple systems of communication
  • Learners are not blank slates, but bring funds of knowledge with them
  • Social realities are negotiated and co-constructed by all participants; imposing a top-down change will always be problematic
  1. Legitimate knowledge

We can produce evaluations of the effects of social programs or processes, and make recommendations that are socially validated or recognized due to the status of our discipline as a social science. In reality, the ‘knowledge’ produced may not have immediate or direct effects if it’s only shared through limited genres, jargon, or among a narrow audience.

  1. Action research

Forms of practitioner and action research are fairly well accepted within the discipline of education and allow for direct efforts to create improvements.

  1. Education practices

As teachers we have the opportunity to put our paradigms into practice directly.

So we have a few conceptual and practical tools, as well as some social capital to back up our work.

As Educational Linguists what tools do we need to develop to be more effective in supporting positive social change? The above list already implies the importance of disseminating knowledge more widely and finding ways to join in policy and planning conversations. Colleagues who are forging new directions in multimedia research are contributing to improvements in this area. The humble contributors of this very blog make similar efforts. In fact there are colleagues doing all kinds of great outreach, advocacy and action research, but we don’t always share our strategies or consolidate our lessons learned. We would benefit from more conscious reflection and study of social change itself in order to improve our ability to pursue positive changes as a discipline. An activist or advocacy agenda can fit fairly comfortably within the scope of the Educational Linguistics or interactional Sociolinguistics discipline, yet the how of activism and change is not given the focused attention and concentration that it deserves.

Hymes reminds us that “To achieve equality within a given language, it would never be enough to change the way people speak. One would have to change what the way people speak is taken to mean” (Ethnographic Monitoring. 1980, p. 110). Meaning is a slippery thing, and changing social meanings (e.g. prejudices) seems like a daunting task. It is one part of the social change puzzle which Educational Linguistic tools may help to achieve, however, through analysis and deconstruction of naturalized (yet arbitrary) hierarchies, through the construction of egalitarian discourses, and through educational practices that recognize and strengthen diverse voices.

I think there’s plenty of room for more social change tools in our disciplinary toolbox– I’d love to hear what other people find useful, and I hope we can all keep a conscious look-out for new tools to try our hands at.

3 thoughts on “A glance inside the social change toolbox

  1. I think the list of paradigms you’ve laid out is very inclusive of many of the insights we cherish in Educational Linguistics. It’s important to keep in mind what feel like the essential contributions of our field of study, and I agree that more thinking of how we approach “knowledge sharing” is needed. For example, I think it’s often unhelpful to identify or analyze harmful ideologies merely as knowledge (rather than as being related to material relations and interests). But I think this impulse has a long history in language researchers efforts to do outreach–like all those pieces you can find written about “myths” about language, or grammar, or bilingualism, or whatever. To consider the _how_ of activism like you suggested, we need to more carefully theorize exactly what it is we’re activisming against. I say theorize but this isn’t necessarily a “research” endeavor. Activists whether academic or not always create and refine theories of their work in ways that fit. But within language research generally, it sometimes seems that theories of what we’re trying to change haven’t been that carefully laid out.

  2. Thank you Mark, you’ve articulated really well something that I’ve been thinking about just recently. I’ve actually given a public talk on ‘Myths & realities’ of multilingualism, using a framework developed by colleagues doing outreach in promotion of multilingual education in Mexico. It seemed to work well for my outreach purposes (judging from audience response), but I started rethinking it when I recently read Silverstein making a critique along the same line as yours– he questions studies “in which ideologies are measured for “error” against a presumed “factual” base or are exposed to and denounced on the grounds of some politicoeconomic advantage accruing to those holding them” (1998, p.124, in Schieffelin, Woolard & Kroskrity (Eds) Language Ideologies). I’m not totally in agreement with him (he goes on to promote basically the anthropologist-king-observer who’s beyond it all, it seems to me), but I am grateful for the nudge to think more carefully. Binaries are just so darn useful when you want to summarize & get a message across to a diverse audience. In a more extended outreach talk I changed ‘myths & realities’ to ‘exclusionary ideologies’ & ‘inclusionary ideologies’ (my current understanding of what my work is against & for), and I think I’m happier with that framing. I agree it’s tricky to tease out what we might mean in practice by ‘equality’, ‘social justice’ or the usual activisming agendas, especially in the abstract.

  3. Based upon my 14 year research and study pertaining to social change, my findings are as follows:- To understand the cycle of social change, one must be in the position to distinguish between logical and non-logical imitation. Hereby acknowledging, that imitation is the greatest contributing factor in human development, where society itself got its beginning when man first patterned his behavior on that of other people. This saying, that society is therefore a group of males and females, who basically imitate one another within the avenues of global competition.
    With this, there are 3 psychological processes which lead to human progress: namely; repetition, opposition and adaption. Repetition appears in the physical, biological, physic and social environments. All resemblance’s are due to repetition and imitation. Opposition is twofold, which comprises of conflct and rhythm. Conflict as in war, crime and cultural differences, where antithetical habits of imitation meet, or as in religious controversies. Rhythm as in cyclical fluctuation such as in the rise and fall of civilizations. Adaption is a balance of social phenomena after opposition, after antithesis, synthesis and re-organization result.
    The old distinction between stagnant and active societies is one of degree, rather than one of a kind. While change is more rapid in some societies, it is present in all. Old customs are giving way to the new, which is completely transforming the beliefs, ideas, ideologies and social structures of the world. New approved and disapproved elements are continuously being introduced into society, and this results in a series of positive and negative imitative adjustments.
    While these new trends along with rapid advancement is taking place, more and more social problems are arising, forcing its way into every level of the home environment. These social problems involve considerable numbers of people in ways which interfere with the satisfaction of biological and socially conditioned needs along the socially approved lines. Regarding these increasing social problems, modern scientific research indicates, that in this problem as in others, the search for a single cause is to say impossible. Thus! The fact is, social change is a complex process that involves reciprocal interaction among the various factors which are assosiated with it.
    This is only part of one of the chapters from my book which I am currently writing titled; DON’T KILL THE WORLD.

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