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.
Image taken by (cup)cake_eater (flickr)