Reading Alastair Pennycook’s ‘Incommensurable Discourses?’ (1994) I was struck by how it beautifully echoes the fissures (or should I say canyons?) within EAP. Julie King visited our department recently to talk about the BALEAP TEAP Competency Framework, which she had been part of developing alongside other members of the BALEAP TEAP working party (including Steve Kirk). She spoke about the framework for the first 60 minutes of a two hour session. We then sat with Julie and talked about what we do and how we see ourselves as EAP practitioners. It soon became apparent that the gulf between some colleagues in belief and identity is vast. I had started reading Pennycook’s article a few nights before this session and while I listened to my colleagues I heard the same arguments surface that existed 20 years previous in discourse analysis, the topic of Pennycook’s article. All I really heard though, was his phrase ‘political quietism’ and it struck me how perniciously prevalent this is, not just in discourse analysis then, but also in EAP now.


This article exists to explore definitions and interpretations of discourse analysis. Pennycook saw this as a key area to explore 20 years ago as discourse analysis was fast becoming a discipline in its own right. Being conscious of Foucault’s work on “the foundation of disciplines [which] has shown, it is this process of discipline formation that is crucial in determining which forms of knowledge are to be valued and upheld and which are to be devalued and discarded” (p120), Pennycook thought it pertinent to discuss the value within very differing approaches as to what discourse analysis is, or should be.

Firstly there is the term as employed by applied linguists. The catalyst for Pennycook’s exploration was a conversation he had had with a fellow applied linguist which resulted in the realisation that “for him [Pennycook’s colleague], discourse was an instance of language use; for me [Pennycook], language use was an instance of discourse” (p115). So for Pennycook the idea that discourse analysis did not stray beyond the parameters of langauge was problematic; for him, language only exists within the cultural and political sphere it inhabited.

Pennycook then comprehensibly guides the reader through three broad views on discourse starting with how it is understood by pragmatists.

Pennycook marvels at the consensus, at the time, as to what discourse and discourse analysis are, highlighting that many view discourse analysis as a concern with the relationship between language, its use and its context. Pennycook is keen to point out the limitations of this view, explaining that, traditional conceptions of discourse and discourse analysis are concerned mainly with “decontextualized contexts” (p118). They also, somewhat narrowly focus on the form and function at the expense of meaning. Pennycook also points out that this view is rooted in pragmatism, and that while this is understandable, it should not be ignored that pragmatisim is itself an ideology.

Pennycook then describes attempts to move beyond this rather limited understanding discussing the work of Widdowson (1978) and McCarthy (1991) as examples of how there was a move toward a “reparation of the structuralist linguistic/ semantic split”. What is missing here for Pennycook is “an exploration of the wider context of ‘contexts’, the formation of background knowledge, or why and how a person comes to say certain things” (p119). The most pertinent of Pennycook’s observations of applied linguistics is that there exists a “political quietism”, a refusal to discuss language from an ideological point of view.

Pennycook then goes on to explore much more politicised views of the “language-using subject” who is “called into being – ‘interpellated’ in Althusser’s (1971) terms – by discourse or ideology” (p.119). Looking at critical discourse analysis, Pennycook explains that “it does not seem sufficient to stop with a version of discourse analysis that posits a completely free-willed subject and language use free of ideological conditions (p.121). What interests Pennycook in the work of critical discourse analysis (CDA) is, despite differences, there is a commitment to “going beyond linguistic description to attempt explanation, to showing how social inequalities are reflected and created in language, and to finding ways through their work to change the conditions of inequality that their work uncovers” (ibid). CDA differs from the previous understandings of discourse analysis presented in this article in two key ways. Firstly that language is seen in CDA as social practice which relates to other social practices rather than being treated as separate/ isolated and secondly, that language is socially determined, texts are social products. Discourse analysis under the CDA umbrella, then must “always look to social power, history, and ideology to understand meaning” (p.122). Pennycook is quick to illustrate Fowler et al’s disassociation with sociolinguistics, quoting Fowler et al’s suggestion that sociolinguists are “‘at best naive in accepting the social structures they describe as neutral; while at worst they collude in a view of existing social structures as unchangeable'” (quoted on p. 122).
Pennycook goes some way in detailing the diametric oppositions bewteen CDA followers and the traditional discourse analysists, making reference to the likes of Fairclough, Kress and Urwin in the process.

In its developemnt CDA gains a ‘Marxist flavour’ (p124). Herein lies a flaw in CDA for Pennycook, who rightly highlights that this “neo-Marxist perspective in which power is … located in the relationship between social classes and economic production, which is taken to be … causative of all other relations” p.125)leads to an “over-simplified version of society” (ibid) which places too great an emphasis on economic class relations at the expense of considerations of other “sites of inequality” – gender and race to name two. For Pennycook, “a concomitant result of this view is that it tends to posit a ‘real’ world that is obfuscated by ideology” (ibid). Another of Pennycook’s criticisims of CDA is that it tends to “operate with a problematically static view of both language and society” (p.126)

So then Pennycook turns to Foucault. Foucault permits critical analysis in an ‘anti-Marxist’ mode, enabling a much needed focus on relations other than those solely led by and defined by class. While other writers on discourse analysis also look toward Foucault (Kress and Fairclough at least), Pennycook argues that they differ to his interpretations in that, for the likes of Kress and Fairclough, discourse remains a socially embedded linguistic entity. Also they believe that ideology determines discourse and that power can only be in the hands of one group. Finally, they differ in the view that “discourse … [is] only concerned with the delimitation and regulation of what can be said, rather than also with the production of what can be said” (p. 127). Pennycook proceeds to explain that “Foucault’s approach … avoids an ontological or teleological search for an ultimate determinant such as class or relations of production” in favour of looking “to a multiplicity of social, cultural, political, economic, technical, or theoretical conditions of possibility for the emergence of discourses” (p.128). Pennycook sees Foucault as offering a view of discourse that places meaning within discourse itself, in contrast to the CDA and the ‘traditional’ notion of discourse analysis which orientate meaning within a relationship between “linguistic form, function, context, or social structure/ideology” (p.130). Ultimately Pennycook warns, “we need to be very aware both of the discourses into which we are asking our students to move and of the discourses in which we as teachers are engaged” (p. 132).

Pennycook’s article offers a great insight into the different approaches to discourse analysis, going into great detail; much more so than I can do justice to here. I am struck though, by the fact that this article is now almost 20 years old, but still I find it so infuriatingly pertinent. The three core readings of discourse analysis offered in this article – the pragmatist’s view, the CDA view and the Foucauldian – are still as ghettoized as they were then. Pennycook concludes by saying that perhaps these approaches are incommensurable as they are grounded in epistemology and therefore are coloured by how one approaches the question of how best to analyse discourse. Pennycook then throws down the gauntlet and suggests that others run with some of the points made in this article “so that the chasms that sometimes exist between us can be more easily traversed” (p.134).
So far I have not come across any such work. I think this is telling of how deep this chasm is, not just in discourse analysis but also in EAP. Which poses the question, should we even try to traverse it? I view EAP (actually any flavour of English language teaching) with Foucauldian tinged glasses, but some of my colleagues see EAP as a purely linguistic endeavour. They are ardent in their beliefs, and I in mine.

It is apparent that political quietism has been a value upheld and still is pretty dominant in EAP. Talking to my colleagues revealed how few of them see EAP as an ideological endeavour. While this is disheartening for me, what was great about that Friday afternoon session with Julie King was that as a department we talked about who we are and how we view what we do. We don’t get to do that very often. Perhaps that is how we traverse the chasm of which Pennycook speaks? We talk.

I do want to shout out though – EAP IS SO MUCH MORE THAN LANGUAGE TEACHING.

Pennycook, A. (1994) Incommensurable Discourses? Applied Linguistics 15 (2) 115-138.

Image taken by (cup)cake_eater (flickr)


6 thoughts on “Shh! Political Quietism in EAP

  1. I wonder…….

    Does one need to explore the values of ones students before employing a non pragmatic approach in the classroom? What if students are not interested in exploring power relations but simply wish to accept and endorse the status quo and learn only the dominant discourse patterns? It seems to me that most of my students are simply not interested in Benesch/Pennycook style criticality and would rather spend the time understanding how to replicate the dominant discourses. Criticality of this sort, it seems, can wait until they are more integrated members of the academic tribe.

    You may disagree but how important are your values compared with those of your students? Do you have the right to impose a critical syllabus of Benesch’s style or explore the issues Pennycook raises in his articles with your students if you have not first established the academic values of your students? Can you justify spending less classroom time on unquestioningly integrating your students into the dominant academic discourses if you have not first established that this is how your students wish to spend the time? Could you guarantee that you are not potentially harming their academic journey by encouraging too much ‘soft’ criticality or wasting their time exploring a ‘hard’ criticality they have no interest in? Does one not first need to learn a dominant discourse before one can credibly criticise and subvert it? Is it not legitimate to have academic values which sideline ‘hard’ criticality?

    • I see a lot of value in your comments, especially when questioning whether a student needs to be familiar with the ‘dominant discourse’ in order to be equipped to criticise it. My issues with a more pragmatic approach is that it is often at the root of a very genereric and, I would argue, ineffective EAP syllabus.
      In the contact I have had with disciplines I have observed a move to analyse the way the academy approaches international students, indeed teaching and learning for any student. There is a realisation that the old ways of the academy are not sufficient and that there needs to be evaluation of and discussion about pedagogy. I am of the opinion that if EAP, students and disciplines debate what change needs to take place then only positive HE experiences can follow for both staff and students (whether NNS or not).
      I would like to think that my students know I do put them first and I do not try to be evangelical about criticality (although I find it hard not to ;)). There is this idea that a critical approach is forcing a student to be something they do not believe in; but if they do not know that they could and SHOULD question the dominant order then aren’t we equally straightjacketing students? We are all ‘imposing’ a syllabus of one kind or another – you must to this or that to be a member of ‘the tribe’ – can’t we have some energy in the classroom debating it too? Criticality absolutely must start in EAP in my opinion as international students do not have the luxury of the usual 3-4 year lead into developing a critical stance that home students have.
      The dominant discourse does need to change because as it stands it is failing everyone. But, I wonder, if a student is truly against being critically involved in discourse, questioning it and challenging it, then should they really be in UK HE at all?
      Thank you very much for your comments Ben. 🙂

    • Very interesting comment Ben!

      Now let’s get onto whether we should be teaching language or content and we could have a really good slanging match -hoho!

  2. I think that this discussion is really valuable and I can see that the answer to this issue (critical vs pragmatic EAP) is not an easy one. However, having just completed a case study in precisely this topic, I can see how pragmatism is still prevalent (at least in the two institutions where I carried out my project) and I could observe how this practical way of teaching EAP generates conflicts and issues within the field which students do question. My findings allowed me to see how EAP is still viewed as a “tool box” which will allow students to “get better marks”, as a set of practical techniques “in service of disciplines” and as a result, students (and often EAP teachers) miss the fact that it is more than that: it enables students to manipulate language in order to create meaning.

    I also believe that EAP is going through a bit of an identity crisis with regards to what it is, what role it plays within academia and how it should be taught. Nevertherless, discussions like this, in my opinion, are helping EAP and EAP professionals to move forward and I think that introducing activities which offer students the possibility of developing ideas and thinking critically are the starting point to help EAP move from vulgar pragmatism, from “just language teaching”, and define itself as a discipline.

    • Sorry for the tardy response – the pre-sessional got in the way! Thank you for your comment – I completely agree with you. I have a real concern about the “tool box” nature of EAP, the more we think we have identified the magical components of EAP, the more we direct students further away from being equipped to be masters of anything, let alone the English language. I would love to read your case study – is that possible?

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