Commentary: Mobility, contexts, and the chronotope


Jan Blommaert

(Commentary to a special issue of Language in Society on “Metapragmatics of Mobility”, eds. Adrienne Lo & Joseph Park)

I must emphatically thank Adrienne Lo and Joseph Park for inviting me to comment on the exceptionally insightful collection of essays presented in this volume. The essays, I believe, mark and instantiate the increasing maturity of what has become a sociolinguistics of globalization in which the various, highly complex challenges caused by mobility are being productively addressed.

Of these challenges, perhaps that to our established notions of “context” might be one of the most pressing ones. Rigorous and disciplined attention to context is what separates social and cultural approaches to language from formal linguistics; it is the thing that defines disciplines such as sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, pragmatics and discourse analysis. And an increasing awareness of mobility as a crucial ontological feature of “language” – or more broadly, meaning making – in today’s world goes hand in hand with an awareness that something is wrong with our well-weathered mainstream conceptualizations of “context”: they are too simple and fail to do justice to the complexities we observe. All papers in this volume can be read as illustrations and expressions of that unease. I propose to explore Bakhtin’s concept of “chronotope” as a possibly fertile and certainly more precise tool for addressing these challenges (cf. Blommaert 2015a).

Let me first define the scope of the issue; two preliminary remarks may be useful for what follows.

  • One: in a sociolinguistic approach to meaning making, context cannot ontologically be separated from language (or other semiotic modalities), for it is a fundamental part of the meanings constructed in language; context is what turns language in a “social fact” (to quote Durkheim).
  • Two: notions of context are built on, and invoke, imaginations of the social world and of the place of social actors and activities therein. So context is always more than just an operational-analytical category: it involves an ideological a priori (which, as we shall see, is always a moral a priori).

From that perspective, two things can be observed – and I regret that space restrictions prevent me from entering into detail here. One, context remains quite poorly integrated in several branches of the social and cultural study of language (Silverstein 1992; see for a review Blommaert 2005, chapter 3). And two, the social imagination underlying many forms of usage of context appears to be “sedentary”: context is local, stable, static and given. Obviously, a notion of context adjusted to mobility needs to transcend this and stress its continuously evolving, multiscalar and dynamic aspects, as well as the intrinsic unity of context and action.

There are several available building blocks. John Gumperz (1982) never stopped reminding us that context is always contextualization, and Aaron Cicourel (1967; 1992) insisted that context was always multifiliar, overlapping and scaled. In addition, the union between context and action,we now realize, is metapragmatics: language-ideologically ordered indexicals are at the core of the dialectics of contextualized meaning making (Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007; also Blommaert 2005). The papers in this volume have all drawn extensively on these sources. The complication offered by mobility as a given has been well phrased by Lo and Park in their introduction (this volume): in an era of physical and technological mobility, people need to navigate multiple worlds. They cannot any longer be viewed as sedentary members of a (single) closed, integrated and stable Parsonian community and are subject to the normative judgments in vigor in very different places among very different people – simultaneously.

This is where the chronotope might come in handy. Recall that Bakhtin (1981) defined the chronotope as a timespace configuration – an “objective” bit of context, one could say – which was characterized, and joined, by ideological, “subjective” features. Specific times and places placed conditions on who could act, how such actions would be normatively structured, and how they would be normatively perceived by others. A knight in a medieval legend, for example, is expected to be chivalric and inspired by the noblest of motives, and his concrete actions would be expected to emanate such characteristics; if not, he’s not a “real” knight. Bakhtin, thus, offered us a heuristic unit in which timespace configurations are simultaneously orders of indexicalities, and in which the multiplicity of such units is a given of the dialogical and heteroglossic reality of social life. Chronotope, thus, is a “mobile” context enabling not just precise ethnographic description but explanatory potential as well.

We begin to see, for instance, how physical and social mobility operate synergetically – moving across timespace configurations involves a reshuffling of the social and cultural capital required for identity construction, prestige and power, through what Hymes called “functional relativity” (1996: 44-45). It explains, thus, why forms of speech indexically anchored in one timespace configuration – that of the colonial past, for instance – can be re-entextualized into another, in ways that involve entirely different indexical valuations. We can observe this in the essays by Vigouroux and Collins, where the indexical valuations of the speech forms deemed emblematic of the colonial (racialized) past dance up and down once they are moved into different timespace configurations. A descriptive stance – observing a particular accent in students’ speech (Collins), or a grammatical pattern perceived as “substandard” (Vigouroux) – is turned into a racialized-historical stereotype in ways described by Agha (2007) whenever such an accent is produced “elsewhere”. Mobility, we can see, involves indexical re-ordering, or to be more precise, indexical restratification.

Observe that such restratifications have an outspokenly moral character. The ideological load attributed to specific forms of social action turns them into moralized behavioral scripts normatively attached to specific timespace configurations. The essays in this volume are replete with examples in which judgments of speech are formulated in terms of locally articulated claims to legitimacy, i.e. in terms of a projection of behavioral features onto “the right to do X, Y or Z here and now”. Chun’s analysis of perceived mispronunciations of Korean names by “foreign” fans illustrates this: such fans are “not from here”, and their actions are therefore subject to normative judgments “from here”. Being “(not) from here” becomes an absolute normative benchmark: a non-negotiable one that offers no bail. Ideologies of correctness and standardization, we can see, are chronotopically organized (cf. Silverstein 1996). They require a distinction between “from here” and “not from here” that can be activated as a chronotope of normalcy: here-and-now, “normal” behavior is X, Y and Z, and this is an absolute, “ideal” benchmark. And Park’s excellent essay shows how people who are by definition “not from here” – expatriate executives – negotiate and renegotiate the issues caused by mobility itself, shaping a separate chronotope of normalcy among themselves (transnational business, after all, is a distinct “world” in Lo and Park’s terms).

Obviously, such distinctions are identity distinctions – indexical order is always a template for identity, and identities are chronotopically grounded, by extension (Blommaert & De Fina 2016). Park’s managers construct themselves in their elaborate metapragmatic discourses of mobility; Chun’s Korean fans ascribe identities to the mispronouncing transnational ones; Collins’ teachers construct their pupils in similar ways, and the discursive pathways analyzed by Vigouroux lead to a projected stereotypical identity of Sub-Saharan Africans drawn across timespace from the colonial imagination. Note that in each of these cases, moral judgments constitute the moment of identity-shaping. The “corrections” offered by Chun’s Korean fans come, as said earlier, with judgments of legitimacy, and legitimacy extends from minute features of language into categorical identity diacritics. Moralized behavioral scripts are the on-the-ground realities of indexicality, and thus of identity-making. Typically, those who are “not from here”can achieve “approximations” of the normative “standard” order (Vigouroux); they can therefore also only approximate the “standard”identities. “Standard” and “correctness” are inevitably evaluative judgments, and they fit into a package of profoundly moral-evaluative notions such as “true”, “authentic”, “real” and so forth. Language-ideological literature is replete with such terms, and in public debates on such topics one continually trips over collocations between terms such as “correct” and “true”, and “(not) from here”. Collins’ delicate analysis of racialized enregisterment in South-African schools can serve as a textbook example of this.

Lo and Choi’s case study of an internet debate on the “truth” in the story of the Korean rapper Tablo brings together several of the points mentioned here, and lends profile to another one. The critics who doubt rapper Tablo’s educational credentials (using, unsurprisingly, details of his English “accent” as evidence) draw on a chronotope of normalcy: normally, one can’t finish degree work at a US institution at the rhythm claimed by Tablo; normally, his English should be immaculate of he’s taken a degree in the US, normally he shouldn’t sound like “us” after his US-based education, and so forth. They base themselves on a “normal” behavioral script, adherence and deviance of which are profoundly moralized. The data are bursting with moral-evaluative statements that are simultaneously statements of identity ascription, and driven by the “from here-not from here” diacritic that defines globalized mobility.

But there is more, and Lo & Choi’s paper shows it in full glory. The general chronotope of normalcy, we observe, can be broken down into an infinite number of micro-chronotopes specifying the indexical order of specific bits of behavior (Tablo’s performance in a talkshow, his translation of a poetry book, and so forth). So we see a fractal connection across differently scaled chronotopes, in which the order of indexicality from the highest scale (the chronotope of normalcy) is carried over into microscopic and infinitely detailed lower-scale ones. We see, if you wish, chronotopes nested within chronotopes, with specific points and general ones interacting nonstop. Goffman’s “frames within frames” (1974) are never far away here, of course, but it is good to remind ourselves that “frames” are, in themselves, chronotopically organized.

All the essays in this volume thematize such cross-scalar connections, and call them, for instance, “discursive pathways” (Vigouroux), “re-entextualizations” (Lo & Choi), or “interdiscursivity” (Park). Such terms remain useful, and understanding them as descriptors of cross-chronotope processes of uneven (scaled) quality can deepen their analytical force and make them far more precise than the “cross-contextual” label we now stick onto them. Such connections – the “polycentricity” of communicative environments, in short (Blommaert, Collins & Slembrouck 2005) – are inevitable in the sociolinguistics of mobility, and we have to be able to get a more precise grasp of them. This leads me to a final, brief, remark.

In the essays by Chun and by Lo & Choi, the internet, or (to use an epic misnomer) the “virtual world” is the context of the data offered. The analyses are outstanding; but we should not overlook the fact that the online context is the least well understood one in our fields of study, and that a careful investigation of how this context shapes and determines online social action remains to be undertaken. We know that it has exceptional scalar qualities (think of virality), and that, as a chronotope, it stands in complex polycentric relationships to “offline” ones (see Blommaert 2015b; Varis & Blommaert 2015). But the exact characteristics of these phenomena await profound focused study. Note that all the subjects discussed in the essays in this volume live in the internet age, and that, consequently, we can assume that all have been influenced by the circulation of cultural material enabled by such technologies. Precise how this influence plays out in their actual day-to-day discourses, how it modifies them and grants them yet another dimension of metapragmatic mobility, raising new issues of polycentric normativity, looks like a worthwhile topic for a follow-up volume. It is to the credit of the present volume that such fundamental questions emerge, and I repeat my sincere thanks to the editors for affording me the chance to engage with them.


Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan (2005) Discourse: A Critical Introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bakhtin, Mikhail (1981) The Dialogical Imagination. Austin TX: University of Texas Press.

Blommaert, Jan (2015a) Chronotopes, scales and complexity in the study of language and society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44: 105-116.

Blommaert, Jan (2015b) Meaning as a nolinear effect: The birth of cool. AILA Review 28: 7-27.

Blommaert, Jan & Anna De Fina (2016) Chronotopic identities: On the timespace organization of who we are. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 153. Tilburg: Babylon.

Blommaert, Jan, Jim Collins & Stef Slembrouck (2005) Polycentricity and interactional regimes in ‘global neighborhoods’. Ethnography 6/2: 205-235.

Cicourel, Aaron (1967) The Social Organization of Juvenile Justice. New York: Wiley.

Cicourel, Aaron (1992) The interpenetration of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti & Charles Goodwin (eds.) Rethinking Context: 291-310. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goffman, Erving (10974) Frame Analysis. An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New Tork: Harper & Row.

Gumperz, John (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hylmes, Dell (1996) Ethnography, Linguistics, Narrative Inequality: Toward an Understanding of Voice. London: Taylor & Francis.

Silverstein, Michael (1992) The indeterminacy of contextualization: when is enough enough? in Peter Auer & Aldo DiLuzio (eds.) The Contextualization of Language: 55-76. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot “standard” in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Donald Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds.) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder Co: Westview Press.

Silverstein, Michael (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language & Communication 23: 193-229.

Varis, Piia & Jan Blommaert (2015) Conviviality and collectives on social media: Virality, memes, and new social structures. Multilingual Margins 2/1: 31-45.



Superdiversity and the neoliberal conspiracy


Jan Blommaert 

The problem

In a stimulating paper published in 2014, Ryuko Kubota expresses her concern about what she calls the “multi/plural turn” in the study of multilingualism (within Applied Linguistics, note), and cautions scholars “celebrating”  multi-, plural- or metrolingualism for entering a high-risk zone: that of “complicity” with neoliberalism.

However, as this ‘turn’ grows in popularity, it seems as though its critical impetus has faded and its knowledge is becoming another canon—a canon which is integrated into a neoliberal capitalist academic culture of incessant knowledge production and competition for economic and symbolic capital, and neoliberal multiculturalism that celebrates individual cosmopolitanism and plurilingualism for socioeconomic mobility. (Kubota 2014: 2)

Kubota appears to be highly skeptical of work addressing contemporary forms of multilingualism and multiliteracies from the perspective of complexity. Such work, she suggests without much elaborate argument (or definition), is “postmodern”, and postmodernity, ostensibly, is to be approached with extreme caution, for it appears to render a critique of fundamental (“real-world”) inequalities and hegemonic pressure very difficult, if not impossible:

Although metrolingualism problematizes hybridity as superficial celebration, it is still grounded in the postmodern affirmation of multiplicity and fluidity, which keeps it from critiquing how inequality is often solidified or intensified within multiplicity and fluidity. (Kubota 2014: 4)

And this, then, risks enlarging and deepening the gulf between “theory and practice” in Applied Linguistics. “Postmodern” approaches are “theoretical”, they “celebrate” hybridity, fluidity, flexibility in language-and-identity work, and thus overlook the harsh realities of, for instance, the struggles of indigenous people to retain their endangered native languages – one case of “real world” hegemonic pressure – and the global dominance of English – another such instance.

Since I share many of Kubota’s “real world” concerns (she favorably cites some of my work on African asylum applicants), I intend to assist her in this mission. I shall do this from the specific viewpoint of sociolinguistic superdiversity (henceforth SSD; cf. Arnaut et al. 2016; Blommaert 2013).[1] The reason for that is that much of the work on SSD might be vulnerable to Kubota’s critique since such work would pay attention to complex forms of spoken and written code-mixing called “languaging”, and would emphasize mobility, flexibility, instability and fragmentation in most of its outcomes. I will structure my attempt around three theoretical assumptions in Kubota’s argument, which invite a critical scrutiny precisely from the viewpoint of SSD. Kubota, we shall see, opts for traditional, static and hence anachronistic versions of such assumptions. When reformulated from an SSD perspective, some of her fears can, one hopes, be alleviated. The first point conditions (and will clarify) the two subsequent ones.

Note, for clarity’s sake, that I do not necessarily endorse all the work currently being done under the label of sociolinguistic superdiversity (nor, more broadly, that done within the “multi/plural” trend identified by Kubota – because, yes, there is work that foolishly presents new forms of diversity as an unqualified good news show). But I can speak for myself and have the luxury of drawing on the efforts we collectively undertake within the INCOLAS framework.[2] And it is good to remind readers of what it is we do in such work. We describe contemporary sociolinguistic phenomena and patterns, in an attempt to arrive at an accurate and realistic ontology for contemporary sociolinguistic analysis – what are the objects of analysis exactly? And from such descriptions, we try to distill the theoretical generalizations that they afford. To the extent that we produce “theory”, therefore, our theory is a descriptive theory, not a normative one or a predictive one. And we do all of this (a) drawing on a broad range of inspiring work in macro-sociolinguistics, interactional sociolinguistics, linguistic anthropology, linguistic ethnography, discourse analysis, literacy and multimodality studies, new media studies, sociology, critical theory and cultural studies; and (b) with a very strong preference for “applied” sites of research in which the big issues of contemporary social struggle are played: education, immigration, the labor market, popular (online) culture and information economies, policing and surveillance. The essays in Arnaut et al (2016) can serve as a sample of our approach, the series of working papers we edit offer a wider panorama.


The concept of ideology utilized by Kubota in her paper is the “political ideology” one – where “ideology” stands for things such as neoliberalism, capitalism, Marxism and so forth and is closely connected with institutions and centers of power.[3] Thus, when she points towards the “ideological” effects of certain kinds of academic work, such effects could be “complicity with neoliberalism”, for instance. As in “the problematic ideological overlap between the multi/plural turn and neoliberal multiculturalism” (Kubota 2014: 2). She adopts, one could say, the version of “ideology” widespread in Critical Discourse Analysis: something that does not operate in language-in-society, but on language-in-society, as an external force operating hierarchically through institutional power.

She seems to find little value in (or at least: has not used) the work on language ideologies – perhaps the most momentous theoretical intervention in the study of language and society of the past decades (e.g. Silverstein & Urban 1996; Kroskrity et al. 1998; Kroskrity 2000; Agha 2007). Kubota does mention the “standard language ideology”, but not in a language-ideological analytical sense: this phrase refers to a top-down institutional hegemony, to an institutionally enforced normative and prescriptive “regime of language” in other words. This is a great pity, for one of the crucial effects of language ideology research is that it has shaped a new sociolinguistic ontology. “Language” – that clumsy modernist notion – can now be seen as a “laminated” object consisting of practices joined, organized and structured by beliefs about practices – pragmatics and metapragmatics always operate in conjunction whenever people produce and exchange bits of “language”. The term “standard language ideology”, in language-ideological terms, would stand for the socially ratified belief that specific forms of language are “standard” forms and thus better than other “nonstandard” forms (cf. Silverstein 1996), not for the prescriptive institutional normativity imposed, for instance, on school systems, public administrations or law courts. Such language ideologies – take the “standard language ideology”, exist and persist with a degree of detachment from observable sociolinguistic practices. A strictly enforced “standard language ideology” in schools, for instance, may be “adhered to” (and even vigorously defended) by teachers who, in actual fact, produce tremendous amounts of  “substandard” speech in class.

The laminated object of language ideologies research enables us to see broad, and socio-politically highly significant, gaps between observable language behavior on the one hand, and beliefs about such behavior on the other hand. People very often act in outright contradiction with firmly held beliefs about such actions. This does not lead language ideology scholars to dismiss such language-ideological beliefs as “false consciousness”, i.e. wrong and therefore irrelevant beliefs: it is precisely the tension between such beliefs and the characteristics and patterns of actual activities that leads such scholarship to robust, critical and innovative statements on the relationships between language and social structure (Agha 2007).

Kubota writes, referring to some of my work:

Contrary to the postmodern sociolinguistic idea that language is no longer fixed at a certain location (…), claiming to belong to ancestral land constitutes important means for language preservation or revitalization and for resistance in indigenous communities. (Kubota 2014: 9)

In view of what was said above, I see no contradiction. I see two different objects: one, an empirically observable detachment of actually-used-language from locality (hard to deny when one considers, for instance, the global spread of different forms of “English” and new modes of online diasporic life); and another one referring to strongly held beliefs denying such forms of mobility. Both require attention and disciplined inquiry, for precisely the capacity for delocalization may contribute to successful struggles for “local” language revitalization. The fact that people are emphatic in claiming a unique local authenticity for their language does not, in no way, predict their actual patterns of language usage. In fact, nowadays such powerful claims are often made in English, and on the internet rather than in the village.

Failing to observe such distinctions, and take them seriously, obscures both the actual ways in which power operates, and the precise loci of such power. As for the former: a strongly stressed monoglot regime can, in actual fact, prove extraordinarily lenient and flexible when observed in practice (we very often see the curious balance between “orthodoxy” and “orthopraxy”, described by James Scott, with various forms of “hidden transcripts” emerging – Rampton 2006). As for the latter, I know that there is a strong tendency to see power regimes as “total”; but I know that in actual fact, even very “total” ones contain cracks and gaps – something we should have learned from Bakhtin and Voloshinov. This is not to minimize power, on the contrary: it is taking it absolutely serious by being absolutely precise and factual about it. No social cause is served by shoddy work, Dell Hymes famously said. I couldn’t agree more.

The dated and altogether extremely partial conceptualization of ideology by Kubota makes her overlook such crucial features of contemporary sociolinguistic economies, and closes lines of creative thinking about solutions for sociolinguistic inequality. One such line, we shall see, has to do with how we conceptualize “language”. To this I can presently turn.


I have read – but forgot the locus – that I “deny the existence of language”. This would be a pretty disconcerting allegation for a scholar of language, were it not that I have a reasonable and reasoned answer to that. I do not deny or reject anything, I refute, usually on generously evidenced grounds, a particular conceptualization of language as a unified, countable and closed object. The “modernist” version of it, in short, that characterized the synchronicity of structuralism in its Lévi-Straussian varieties.[4] This modernist version of “language” is entirely inadequate for describing sociolinguistic phenomena and patterns as currently practiced by subjects in very large parts of the world. To my repeated surprise, I have seen prominent scholars in Applied Linguistics subscribing to precisely such modernist versions, particularly when they discuss the areas where such a version is least applicable: endangered languages and the global dominance of English. Kubota is one of them, even if she is at pains to argue the opposite.

In order to understand the problem, we must outline the SDD position – again largely influenced by the language ideologies insights discussed above. First, I must repeat what I said above: we must distinguish between two different ways of using the term “language”. One is Language with a capital L – the named objects of lay discourse such as “English”, “Chinese” or “Zulu” – which is real as an ideological artifact because people believe it exists. It exists as a belief system and has often been given an institutionalized reality. The second is language as observable social action – the specific forms people effectively use in communicative practice. These forms are infused with language-ideological beliefs, but, as we saw earlier, they can contradict such beliefs, and such contradictions are not necessarily noticed. People in practice use a wide variety of resources, some of which are conventionally (i.e. indexically) attributed to some “Language” (e.g. English) even if the connection between such resources and the codified, standardized form of that “Language” is highly questionable. To which “Language”, for instance, must we assign globally used emoticons?

Two, this means that when we focus on the second “language” – the actual practices – we notice that established labels – such as “English” etc. – become a burden. For what we see in actual communicative practices is that people produce ordered sets of resources (attributed, sometimes and not necessarily, to some Language) governed by specific social norms specifying “orderly” social behavior in a specific social space. Different resources will be used, for instance, by the same person when addressing his mother than when addressing his school teacher. And the highly specific and situated (but structured!) nature of such practices enables us to understand why the same resources can have an entirely different value and effect in different situations – take a Jamaican accent in English, negatively valued in the classroom, neutrally in the ethnically heterogeneous peer-group, and positively in the after-school Reggae club (Rampton 1995). We see, thus, registers in actions, not Languages (cf. Silverstein 2003; Agha 2007), and such registers operate chronotopically, in the sense that we see them being put to use in highly specific timespace configurations, with specific identity-and-meaning effects in each specific chronotope. Shifts from one chronotope into another involve massive reordering of norms, resources and effects – Goffman’s “footing shifts” on steroids, one could say.

Registers, as a descriptive and analytical concept of immense ethnographic accuracy, allow us to explain otherwise contradictory phenomena as structured, in the sense that different phenomena must be situated in different spheres of social life. Above, I quoted Kubota’s pointing towards an alleged contradiction related to my work. In her text, she elaborates that tension as follows:

Indeed, it is difficult to negotiate two opposing poles: political efforts to seek collective rights to identity and attempts to support indigenous youths who negotiate their hybrid identity. (…) Additionally, who proposes either hybridity or authentication as a goal to be sought on what grounds? (Kubota 2014: 10)

We can only speak of “opposing poles”  when the totality of social life is imagined as one straight line, as a singular and homogeneous thing in which just one set of norms dominates. There is no opposition, of course, when one sees both options as belonging to entirely different spheres of social life – one a tightly organized and scripted community struggle for identity recognition often based on “invented traditions” of purity, heritage and authenticity; the other a small peer group encounter in which youngsters discuss hiphop, for instance. No choice is required – there is no “either-or” scheme – for what happens is that the same youngsters participate in the first activity between 10 and 12 in the morning, after which they leave the larger group and congregate around a sound system in some friend’s room. Bakhtinian heteroglossia with an interactional-sociolinguistic twist, one could say. Ethnographic accuracy (and sociological realism, I’d add here) solves what looks like an intricate political puzzle here.

Observe, at this point, three massively important things.

  • One: I fail to see how such analyses could “celebrate [neoliberal] individualism”. I will elaborate this point below, but we can already see that whatever is observed here is entirely social and can only be understood as such. Referring to my earlier point about the precise loci of power: we will begin to understand where power actually operates oppressively, and where it can be liberating and enabling, when we accept that social life does not proceed along one simple set of rules and norms, but demands an awareness of several sets of norms, to be played out in highly diverse social fields, some of which will be institutionally highly policed (think of the classroom above), while others obey very different power actors (think of the Reggae club). Power is a polycentric social fact.
  • Two, this also counts for the inevitable notion of “repertoire” – too often dismissed as the hallmark of individualism whenever it’s being used. Repertoires are always strictly unique, for they bespeak an individual’s life trajectory. But – see above – since such trajectories, whenever they involve communication are by definition social, we shall see that repertoires are structured in the sense of Bourdieu: repertoires reflect the specific social history lived by individuals, and both the “social” and the “historical” need to be taken into account. Whatever is in someone’s repertoire reflects norms valid in some social sphere, and such norms are both specific (not generic), and dynamic (not static). Which is why academics of the present generation – and I do suppose I can generalize here – are able to write on a computer keyboard, while a mere three decades ago this form of literacy was the specialized (and often exclusive) skill of departmental secretaries, “typists”, as they were sometimes called – people who could type, a thing most people couldn’t. It also explains why “typists” have all but disappeared as a niche in the labor market in large parts of the world.
  • Three: it is precisely such a view – the SSD view, as I announced it – that deals a devastating blow to that scientific pillar of neoliberalism: methodological individualism, the theoretical assumption that every human process must in fine be explained from within purely individual means, capabilities, concerns and interests. Responding to one axiom with another axiom is not a refutation, so claiming that people are social beings does not constitute a rejection of methodological individualism. It is the analysis of the delicate and complex interplay of resources, norms and social niches that constitutes an empirical refutation of neoliberal scientific assumptions. In that sense, the SSD approach continues, and expands, the “savage naturalism” of which symbolic interactionist sociologists such as Blumer, Becker, Cicourel and Goffman were so often accused by their rational-choice opponents, and it does so with a more powerful theoretical and analytical toolkit.

We can now return to Kubota’s concerns. In the field of endangered languages, a register-and-repertoire view of what goes on may relieve some of the anxieties often voiced by activist researchers. For what we see is that members of such endangered language communities usually construct “multilingual” repertoires that are, in effect, heteroglossic: specific resources are allocated to specific social environments, in the ways described earlier. A “dominant” (or “imperialist”, for some) Language can be used for certain forms of business, while the heritage Language is used for others. The heritage Language is not “replaced”, strictly speaking, by the dominant one, but it is “shrunk” and reduced to highly specific (often ritualized) social environments where it can appear in often minimal forms (cf Moore 2013). As for English – the “killer language” in Phillipson’s two decades-old jargon – it moves in alongside the other parts of the repertoires, usually also as a “truncated” and functionally specialized register. For some people and in some contexts it will be experienced as oppressive and constraining, for others in other contexts it will be experienced as a liberating, creative resource enabling forms of identity development previously not available. One can debate whether the heritage language, in such a scenario, has lost “vitality” or has, sometimes, consolidated or even strengthened precisely the functions it can realistically serve in the (again: social and historically structured) lives of its community members. Let us not forget that Lévi-Strauss published Tristes Tropiques in 1955, and Georges Balandier l’Afrique ambigüe in 1957: social and historical processes of this kind are generic, not specific.

Am I now again minimizing power – the effect of colonialism, for instance, or of neoliberal capitalism? I don’t believe I am. I am pointing, precisely, to ways in which people can make the best of a bad job, maximizing the limited space of autonomy and agency they effectively have in a restrictive sociopolitical configuration. For those who believe that replacing coercion with “free choice” by the “people themselves” will result in fundamentally different sociolinguistic patterns may be disappointed: freedom of choice always plays in a tightly organized and structured field and often generates the same outcomes as coercion. At this point I vividly remember the heated and frustrated discussions in early post-Apartheid South Africa, when activist scholars began to realize that the African “mother tongues” were not all that popular with many of their “native speakers” who now had acquired the right to use them in education, but who wanted (more than anything else) to send their sons and daughters to university in Johannesburg or other major cities – and wanted (as well as “frreely chose”) “good English” for that.

The fact remains that under the conditions I specified, endangered languages do not “die”. This insight may be shocking to the more extremely activist scholars involved in these debates; I hope it provides perspective and hope to the more realistic ones, and to the communities looking for ways to retain their valuable heritage. For combining a firm and convinced position on heritage and authenticity with “negotiating hybrid identities” is not just possible: it is the best that can happen in any community. Framing such intricate processes – the stakes of which far transcend language alone – in the simple either-or schemes I quoted from Kubota’s paper creates a political cul-de-sac as well as a sociological absurdity, and extends the life of the anachronistic concept of language I discussed earlier.


The difference between the SSD viewpoint outlined here and Kubota’s conceptualizations of groups and identities should be predictable by now. Given the two previous points, Kubota sticks to highly traditional notions of groupness and related features – the last quote above sketched a paralyzing and mistaken opposition between collective “authentic” identities and hybrid ones, as if both are incompatible; and she adds:

(…) hybridity tends to be more focused on individual subject positions than on group identity. (Kubota 2014: 11)

We see methodological individualism cropping up here – subject positions can hardly be strictly “individual” when they are achieved through the eminently social fact of meaningful social interaction and would, thus, better be called intersubjective positions. And as for “group identities”, they appear to are confined to the usual suspects: language, ethnicity, class, gender, nationality. Furthermore, whatever is “individual”, in Kubota’s view, reeks of neoliberalism:

An ideal neoliberal subject is cosmopolitan. However, critics argue that cosmopolitanism reflects individualism and an elite worldview of people with wealth, mobility, and hybridity in global capitalism, while undermining the potentially positive role of the nation, which could provide opportunities for workers and other groups to form solidarity.(Kubota 2014: 14)

Thus – here is a three-step chain of assumptions – scholars who (i) describe hybridity will, in some way, (ii) describe something “individualistic”, and thus (iii) implicitly subscribe to a neoliberal elite view of the world. Taking my own preferred research subjects, asylum seekers and other disenfranchised migrants (Bauman’s “vagabonds”), I see two things that contradict this claim. First, such people are entirely “cosmopolitan” and replete with features of “hybridity” but not at all wealthy or privileged. And, secondly, for such people the nation-state is extraordinarily powerful (and threatening) as an institutional environment. The nation-state has been written off so often, but this write-off stands in an uneasy relationship with the available evidence.

To add a third small point to this: the cosmopolitan and hybrid character of the subjects I mention does not exclude intense practices of informal solidarity and conviviality (Blommaert 2013), and the nation-state is often an enemy in this – very little solidarity is provided by the EU nation-states to asylum seekers presently, for instance. These subjects are “ideal neoliberal subjects”, though: ideal victims of a neoliberal world order. And while the unhampered mobility of elite migrants (Bauman’s “travelers”) may give them the impression that nation-states are no longer a relevant unit in shaping their life trajectories, the vagabonds live in a world controlled by usually hostile state bureaucracies. In the age of neoliberal globalization, nation-states operate with extreme selectivity when it comes to allocating solidarity: they display utmost flexibility and generosity for some – the Business Class, usually – and act punitively and mercilessly towards others. If Kubota is intent on “critiquing how inequality is often solidified and intensified within multiplicity and fluidity” (2014: 4), she may want to take a closer look at this ambivalent and socially discriminating role of the nation-state, as well as at the patterns of social, often grassroots solidarity that attempt countering it (Blommaert 2013; 2015). An empirically unsustainable dichotomy between individualist hybridity and nation-state solidarity is not just intellectually but also politically of little use.

The thing is that – and I return to an earlier point – the elementary social fact of communication should disqualify any interpretation of  “individualism” in our fields of study as rubbish. One cannot be understood in isolation, it takes someone else to ensure that we are understood as someone specific – here comes identity. And one can only be understood as someone when the process of understanding is directed by mutually ratified codes and norms – even momentary, fluid or ad-hoc ones – and situated in an appropriate social event allowing such a process. But this also means that “groups”, in actual social life, cannot be restricted to the “big” ones defined in the Durkheim-Parsons sociological tradition (and reified by statistical demography): we pass through a myriad of “groups” on a daily basis, and most of these groups are not experienced as groups – they’re just “people” we share the station platform, the cinema or the cafeteria with, or whose memes we retweet and “like”. The fact that we share a specific space with those people should put us on a trail of understanding what that sharing actually involves – and discover, so doing, that it’s actually quite a lot.

In our own field, Michael Silverstein (1998) introduced a highly useful distinction between “language communities” and “speech communities”. The distinction must be understood by reference to the dual laminated concept of language produced by language ideologies research. Language communities, Silverstein argued, were communities who subscribed to the Language-with-capital-L, the ideological object (say, “English”) we believe we “all speak”; speech communities, by contrast, were communities of people who effectively behave in ways that show sharedness of indexical (normative) codes and conventions. Where languages and groups are at stake, Kubota’s discussion is largely confined to “language communities”, and she shares that restriction with very many scholars in Applied Linguistics. The failure to distinguish between two separate forms of sociolinguistic groupness and their complex interactions (Silverstein 2014), again, leads to a failure to identify the precise forms of power and the precise loci of power (language communities typically being far more static, restrictive, regimented, institutionalized and coercive than speech communities). It also provokes a predictable conceptual fuzziness when “hybridity” is discussed – since such hybridity violates the one form of groupness conceivable in this field, the language community, it must be “individualistic”. While, of course, it can be all kinds of things but not an act of individualism, for it takes others to ratify someone as “hybrid”, and such “hybridity” only emerges as a counterpoint of established (“non-hybrid”) social norms and diacritics.

I believe it was Edward Sapir who already stated that there are far more groups than there are people. It is amazing to see how scholarship in our fields still appears to avoid the exploration of new forms of groupness, identity and solidarity, even if the explosive rise of social media and other mobile ICT’s has enabled people to shape forms of social life, of communities and networks unimaginable, of course, in the days of Durkheim and Parsons, with observably new and unpredictable modes of identity practice (Blommaert & Varis 2015). The “social” in “sociolinguistics” and “sociology” is being restructured as we speak, and the profound challenges to, for instance, the enduring legacy of structuralism in our sciences are both massive and inevitable. Yet, we seem to avoid the subject. For there is a risk that it might demonstrate that

  1. our traditional, and cherished, “thick” group identifiers of gender, class, ethnicity and so forth are actually shot through with all kinds of different, “light” but nontrivial and highly mobilizing forms of community membership in a way most of us seem to navigate quite unproblematically; and
  2. that all of us are, in fact, hybrid to the bone, even if we feel extraordinarily “mono”-this-and-that; that all of us have to be “hybrid” in the sense of being “integrated” in a multitude of different communities; and that few of us seem to be troubled, confused, lost or torn by that.

Both factors taken together, and taken seriously, will deny us the comfortable clarity of “group identities” we often assume in research, and take us into a messier field of analysis. Obviously, in this messier field some established simplistic analyses of power will be up for critical inspection as well – including, perhaps, even the Big Bad Ones: racism, sexism, ethnocentrism and … neoliberalism. But this messier field will offer, in return, far more accuracy and precision than the one we deserted.

The neoliberal conspiracy

Many of us, and this includes me, abhor the kind of social, political and economic order described by the term neoliberalism. And many of us regret its hegemonic position in our contemporary societies, and are convinced that something should be done about that. I believe, however, that quick-and-easy discussions of it, carried along by superficial and insufficiently precise evidence, are not useful. And facile, overdrawn accusations of  “neoliberal complicity” extended to the work of people often involved in the detailed description of this neoliberal order serve only rhetorical in-group purposes. They do not advance our understanding of neoliberalism in any way and do not shape the intellectual tools we need in order to demystify it and dislodge its status as the contemporary doctrine of “normality”. Only a profound and rigorous engagement with neoliberalism will do, and such an engagement must accept an unpleasant truth: that neoliberalism has changed our societies, probably in an irreversible way; that a return to the pre-neoliberal order is probably impossible, and perhaps not even desirable. It must – and will – be followed by something different. And in the meantime, we need to adjust our intellectual tools and our focus of inquiry to these changing phenomena and processes, describe them meticulously and analyze them with the most demanding precision possible. The SSD approach grew out of exactly such an effort, and continues to develop rapidly and dynamically on that basis. I believe there are results that merit a serious debate, and deserve a lot better than what they get in most of the critical texts I read on SSD.

I said at the outset that I share many of the concerns voiced by Kubota and others; this was not just posturing. I have spent my academic life as well as my public and private life addressing inequalities, both at a macro-scale level and at the level of concrete cases, working invariably in what is usually called “the margins” – among those who systematically fall victim to the pressures of neoliberal globalization and governmentality. If today I advocate what I called here the SSD approach, it is certainly not out of naiveté or a lack of exposure to very many forms of injustice and inequality. It is out of a commitment to dig deeper into the mechanisms of injustice and inequality, to grasp the core of such mechanisms and to defend their victims. As I said above, within INCOLAS we have an outspoken preference for work in the “frontline” sectors of social struggle; none of us works on the “cosmopolitan, wealthy and privileged” people we have encountered in Kubota’s critique.[5] One may of course judge my own attempts in that direction to be misguided, silly or useless; but even so I really share the concerns of scholars such as Kubota. My comments are thus written with profound empathy, and with the desire to engage others in a dialogue in which serious attention is given to theoretical, methodological and empirical detail. I am tired of reading half-informed and less-than-half-reasoned critiques of what SSD actually is, does and stands for. Those who write such critiques should get tired of them as well.

The concerns voiced by Kubota are not new at all. In fact, they are old and worn out, certainly when their treatment triggers powerful déjà-vu effects for those who have been in the business for a while. It should be clear that the old modernist mantras, the static and stale theoretical assumptions and methodological blueprints have outlived their usefulness. For that reason, I am amazed when I read, once more, a critique of SSD or related developments in which the authors, at the end of their exercise, appear happy to withdraw back into the safety of modernist structuralism – the science doctrine that marked the era of colonialism. Contrary to popular belief that scientific postmodernism fuels neoliberalism, the same forms of modernist structuralism sustain the neoliberal scholarly imagination – just observe how the transition from “man, the social animal” as the consensus in the 1970s to “the selfish gene” as that of the 21st century was executed by means of one simple set of modernist-structuralist tools: statistics and experimental research, in the act also turning “scientific” into a synonym for “unrealistic”. Getting out of that corner, therefore, looks evident to me; but this involves a readiness to put everything back on the drawing board and risks being an unpleasant and taxing endeavor. In the meantime, let’s stop this nonsense about neoliberal conspiracies and scholars being complicit in them, either as creepy strategists or as naïve dummies. That, too, is unrealistic.

My own preference is: if you intend to destabilize a hegemony, try to understand it; don’t simply dismiss neoliberalism as a mirage or just another “political ideology”, but study it. Study the effects it has on the moral order that infuses the behavioral templates guiding people’s behavior and their appraisals and valuations of the behavior of others, and look for the cracks and fissures in that system – the small spaces of antagonism and agency-in-resistance that can provide empirical counter-arguments in analysis and building blocks for counter-activism. As scholars of communication, we should be uniquely equipped for that.


Nelson Flores, in a recent article, adds to the cottage industry of uninformed and shallow criticism of sociolinguistic superdiversity. I and my colleagues are accused of:

three limitations of the super-diversity literature: (a) its ahistorical outlook; (b) its lack of attention to neoliberalism; and (c) its inadvertent reification of normative assumptions about language.

Most of the arguments developed above are entirely applicable here, so no new elaborate argument is required. Just speaking for myself, I invite the reader to apply Flores’ critique to the following works.

  • Discourse: A Critical Introduction (2005) revolves around a theory of inequality based on mobile, historically loaded and configured communicative resources I call voice (following Hymes);
  • Grassroots Literacy (2008) describes in great detail how and why two recent handwritten texts from Central Africa remained entirely unnoticed and unappreciated by their Western addressees. Literacy inequalities in a globalized world, thus, for reasons that have their roots in different histories of literacy in different places.
  • The Sociolinguistics of Globalization (2010) addresses exactly the same phenomena: globalization expanding old inequalities while creating new ones due to a reshuffling of historically emergent linguistic markets, combined with a renewed emphasis on reified normativity by nation-state and other authorities.

In each of these books, the practical question guiding the theoretical effort, and significant amounts of data, is that of the systematic discrimination of large immigrant and refugee populations in Western countries such as mine. Ahistorical? Neoliberal? Reified normative assumptions about language?

This is n’importe quoi criticism in which the actual writings of the targets of criticism, strangely, appear to be of no material importance. And in which critics, consequently, repeat exactly what I said in my work, and then claim that I said the opposite.

One word about the “ahistorical” point in Flores’ criticism (and that of others). He equates “historical” with “diachronic”, a very widespread fallacy often seen as – yes, indeed – the core of an ahistorical perspective. “Historical” has to be “old”, in short, and whoever works on old stuff does historical work, while those who work on contemporary stuff are not historical in their approach. Since I work on issues in the here-and-now, I am “ahistorical”. Please read some Bloch, Ginzburg, Foucault or Braudel, ladies and gentlemen. Or some Bourdieu and Hymes, and even Gumperz and Silverstein: “historical” means that every human action, past and present, is seen as the outcome of historical – social, cultural and political – paths of development, and derives much of its function and effect from that historical trajectory. Which is what I emphasize systematically while working in the present. And find a lot of work on old stuff entirely ahistorical.

Further commentary in “defense” of what I am claimed to argue is a waste of time.


Agha, Asif (2007) Language and Social Relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Arnaut, Karel, Jan Blommaert, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti  (eds. 2016) Language and Superdiversity. New York: Routledge

Blommaert, Jan (2009) Language, asylum and the national order. Current Anthropology 50/4: 415-441.

—– (2013) Ethnography, Superdiversity and Linguistic Landscapes: Chronicles of Complexity. Bristol: Multilingual Matters

—– (2015) Superdiversity old and new. Language and Communication 44: 82-88.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identies. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 139.

Kroskrity, Paul (ed. 2000) Regimes of Language. Santa Fe: SAR Press

Kroskrity, Paul, Bambi Schieffelin & Kathryn Woolard (eds 1998) Language Ideologies: Theory and Method. New York: Oxford University Press.

Kubota, Ryuko (2014) The multi/plural turn, postcolonial theory and neoliberal multiculturalism: Complicities and implications for Applied Linguistics. Applied Linguistics 2014: 1-22.

Moore, Robert (2013) ‘Taking up speech’ in an endangered language: Bilingual discourse in a heritage language classroom. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 69.

Rampton, Ben (1995) Crossing: Language and Ethnicity Among Adolescents. London: Longman

—– (2006) Language in Late Modernity: Interactions in an Urban School. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

—– (2014) Gumperz and governmentality in the 21st century: Interaction, power and subjectivity. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 117.

Silverstein, Michael (1996) Monoglot ‘standard’ in America: Standardization and metaphors of linguistic hegemony. In Don Brenneis & Ronald Macaulay (eds) The Matrix of Language: 284-306. Boulder: Westview.

—– (1998) Contemporary transformations of local linguistic communities. Annual Review of Anthropology 27: 401-426.

—– (2003) Indexical order and the dialectics of sociolinguistic life. Language and Communication 23: 193-229.

—– (2014) How language communities intersect: Is “superdiversity” and incremental or a transformative condition? Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 107.

Silverstein, Michael & Greg Urban (eds. 1996) Natural Histories of Discourse. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.



[1] I must be emphatic: my comments start from sociolinguistics and not Applied Linguistics. I therefore have the advantage of not having to carry the burden of concerns – theoretical and practical – characterizing much of Applied Linguistics, it seems, and – I venture an interpretation – sometimes related to a degree of bad conscience about being in (or close to) the for-profit language industry. In my field, consequently, there is less unease about a possible tension between “theory” and “practice”. Most of what we do is to describe and explain.

[2] INCOLAS stands for the International Consortium for Language and Superdiversity. See, for information,  this website.

[3] Kubota, like many others, appears to have an a priori negative appraisal of institutions and power as necessarily oppressive and “bad for people”. Foucault’s more sophisticated views of power-as-productive and institutions-as-enabling have not been taken on board.

[4] In that sense, and contrary to what Kubota writes, there is nothing “postmodern” about my view, since I reject modernism, which is of course not the same as Modernity. Like Zygmunt Bauman, who speaks of “liquid Modernity” and Scott Lash using “another Modernity”, I do not believe that Modernity has come to an end, but that it has transformed itself. I do believe therefore that classic-modernist frameworks for understanding the present stage of Modernity are hopelessly dated and that this conceptual anachronism constitutes one of the greatest problems of contemporary Modernity, and is one of its most prominent sources of injustice and inequality. See Blommaert (2009) for an illustration of the excluding powers of such dated frameworks.

[5] INCOLAS has made issues of security, policing and surveillance its programmatic priority, and the last INCOLAS meeting (London, Fall 2015) was entirely devoted to these matters. See Rampton (2014) and the introduction to Arnaut et al (2016).

Interview: Jan Blommaert on English, multiligualism and the EU

There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent.

Published on:


Jan Blommaert (Dendermonde, Belgium, 1961) is known as one of the world’s most important sociolinguists and linguistic anthropologists. He is a professor of Language, Culture and Globalisation, as well as the director of the Babylon Center at Tilburg University, the Netherlands. He has significantly contributed to the sociolinguistic globalisation theory, focusing his work on historical and contemporary patterns of the spread of languages and forms of literacy, and on lasting and new forms of inequality emerging from globalisation processes.

1. Let us start with a general question: having studied African history and philology, how did you end up in the more general branch of sociolinguistics?

Africa is an absolute paradise for sociolinguists. In Europe we have all grown up in a monolingual context: ‘normal’ people have just one ‘mother tongue’, which they may possibly supplement with ‘second’, ‘third’ and further languages after they have acquired that first language. Simultaneous multilingualism is regarded as a deviation from the norm, an abnormality, and Belgium is a classic example of this – a multilingual country where simultaneous multilingualism is seen as politically, socially and culturally exceptional and is actively discouraged as being undesirable. Well, if you go to Africa with that kind of ideology of language, you will not understand a thing that is going on around you, because simultaneous multilingualism is the norm there. People have several ‘mother tongues’, so they do not distinguish between languages A and B, although they do distinguish between social contexts A and B. So in fact I had to become a sociolinguist in order to understand language and society there, and my first fieldwork in Tanzania was simply a crash course in advanced sociolinguistics.

2. You clearly seem to be in the Eurosceptic camp. To give an example, let me cite one of your articles: “(…) the levels of language skills laid down by the EU (A1, A2 etc.) are abstractions which have nothing to do with the reality of communication[1]”. Why do you regard them as abstractions which have nothing to do with reality?

I am Eurocritical, but not a Eurosceptic, and I adopt that position on the basis of a strong belief in the potential of Europe. I want it to work and keep its promises, and, as a concerned European citizen, I am critical when it fails to do so. The example of the levels of language skills is typical: a bureaucratic and standardised solution is chosen for something which essentially is amenable only to ‘made to measure’ approaches and flexibility. There are various reasons why I say this. Firstly, there can be no conceivable language test that will unequivocally measure the practical language skills of the language user in real situations. A person who scores 100% in English at school will not necessarily – and not on that account – understand English as it is spoken in Leeds or Belfast, or the texts of rappers such as Snoop Dogg. That is a general fact: what language tests may perhaps indicate is competence at language learning; but they do not test the reality of communication. Secondly, and this is something which is already implicit in the first point: as a rule, people are tested for competence in using a standard variant of a language, and as we know, a standard variant is one that no one genuinely uses. There is no language without an ‘accent’, because what we call ‘accent-free’ is generally in fact the most prestigious accent. In that respect, the learned standard variant, paradoxically, is often extremely marginal in society, and it is necessary to learn the local accents and variants in order to be ‘integrated’.

Take Leeds or Belfast again, in the case of English. When you learn to communicate, after all, you do so in a real social environment, and during the learning process it is vital to absorb the ‘local colour’ as well, the language variants which really make us part of a particular social complex. Why? That is the third point: because language is the major, unmistakable social filter which serves as a basis for all manner of categorisations – both positive and negative. A ‘Moroccan’ accent which a person speaking Dutch has failed to overcome at level A1 will not be eliminated by passing the C1 test, and in that respect too, the European levels of language skills are an abstraction which has nothing to do with the reality of communication. If one has the impression that a newcomer speaks Dutch inadequately when he has passed level A2, the impression will not change when they pass level B2. In reality, language use has an emblematic impact: certain features, no matter how minimal, result in acceptance or exclusion – think of the spelling mistakes that people make in Dutch when writing the identical-sounding endings -d and -t, which, if they are applying for a job, are quite likely to result in their being rejected out of hand. To the extent that levels of language skills are associated in people’s minds with expectations of actual social and cultural ‘integration’, they are a fiction.

3. How then could one – ideally – assess a person’s language prowess in a meaningful way?

It is not really clear to me why one should even want to assess levels of language skills. What level should be taken as the yardstick, anyway? What one needs at the hairdresser’s or the baker’s? At work (and in that case, which work)? At a parents’ evening at school in order to speak to the maths teacher? There is no such thing as ‘a’ (single and unequivocal) level of language skill. Each of us combines in himself a whole range of different levels of language skills at any given moment in our lives. I am highly articulate when discussing language matters with a fellow researcher, yet struggle to converse with an insurance agent, a car dealer, a software developer or a neurologist. So how would you define my level, and how can we assess it?

4. In the past, the EU Institutions imposed jargon and terminology on the Member States, the ‘prescriptive’ approach. Nowadays, the situation has been reversed, and specific terms are supplied to the terminology databases of the EU Institutions from the Member States – the ‘descriptive’ approach. Do you favour the prescriptive or the descriptive approach?

When it comes down to it, this is a practical question: what works best? The EU has always adopted a very inflexible (and therefore unrealistic) attitude towards language and languages, due to the sensitivities of a number of Member States. For a time therefore, imitating scientists, and in order to be ‘objective’, it was thought that a completely standardised jargon would ensure the greatest clarity, but then it came to be realised that the resultant texts alienated local target groups emotionally, and that it was therefore necessary to permit greater diversity. Languages are not interchangeable on a one-to-one basis, social and cultural systems even less so, and with the increase in the number of Member States, the volume of potential differences in meaning and misunderstandings increases objectively. Only a relaxed and realistic attitude towards language issues can provide a solution here: we need to accept that the language situation is a complex of elements which is always in flux and that the response constantly needs to be changed and adapted to new circumstances, and with one practical question in mind: what works best?

5. English is a lingua franca at the EU Institutions, for example. What do you think that this victory of English means for all the other languages in the EU?

That is only partially true: the ‘lingua franca’ is not a single language but a stratified and functionally structured multilingualism. In the jargon we call this ‘languaging’: doing language, language as a verb. People use one language or another, or mixtures of them, as dictated by the situation, the interlocutors or the subject, and they immediately switch to a different code if these factors change. The use of certain forms of English has not eliminated the other languages, nor will it in future: English has taken up a position alongside the other languages as a practical instrument for certain forms of interaction in certain settings, with certain interlocutors and on certain subjects. But a conversation in English with a counterpart from another Member State is interrupted by excursions into one’s own language with colleagues or other people from one’s own country, in between times we greet other colleagues in yet other languages, and the memoranda and minutes on discussions which were conducted in English circulate in various languages and are discussed in just as many. It would be mistaken to think that the ‘official’ language is also a language which eliminates every other. In reality, it is merely the language of the official part of the communication, the part which assumes an urbi et orbi role. But that is in reality only a small fragment of the world of communication in which we live and move and have our being. Here too, as far as I am concerned there is only one guiding principle: what works best? And a relaxed attitude is the best compass for navigating in an extremely complex multilingual environment.

6. And what does the status of English as a world lingua franca mean for the development of the English language itself?

The answer is the same as that to the previous question: English – in a wide range of forms – is becoming part of the multilingual repertoires and the ‘languaging’ practices of more and more people, and in such contexts it is used for certain forms of communication, while other languages continue to be used for others. For example, English has become the worldwide language of academic publishing. But there are two observations to be made about this. Firstly, the English in question is of a highly specific kind – academic English – and that is not the kind of English you can use if you need to explain a problem with the outflow pipe from your bath to a plumber in Chicago. Secondly, it is the language of academic writing, but not of academic speech. We still mainly teach in local or national languages, while nowadays writing in English. Our academic work has therefore, strictly speaking, not been ‘anglicised’, but it has become multilingual. That is the stratified and functionally structured multilingualism that I mentioned earlier, and in that sense we have all become English-‘languagers’.

What consequences does this then have for English itself? There is a sociolinguistic rule which states that a language which grows very large disintegrates into innumerable new variants, and that is precisely what we are witnessing in the case of English around the world. ‘English’ now stands for an extremely motley and rapidly changing continuum of variants, ranging from varieties which merely resemble English to others which actually are English, and in the latter category we observe an enormous innovatory dynamic which to a large extent is operating within a new globalised popular culture and through social media. This is incidentally the first time that a great deal of change in language usage has started to originate not in the spoken variants but in the written forms. Consider, for example, the new ways of writing that we use in text messages and chats, such as “CU” “w8” or “thx”.

7. Many cities in Europe are increasingly becoming places of superdiversity, such as Brussels, London, Luxembourg, etc. Is language a divisive element or is it on the contrary what binds people together in cities with superdiversity?

Not surprisingly, that is a complex issue, because there are various levels to be examined here, and we must be sure to bear in mind the previous observations. Firstly, there is a political and ideological level, and at that level, superdiversity is regarded as a problem and an obstacle. An emphasis on uniformity and homogeneity is the classic response of modernity to growing diversity. Secondly, there is an objective potential for growing communication problems which are simply due to demolinguistic change in our society, where a hundred or more languages are sometimes represented within a very small area. That is not only a source of potential, it is also an operational problem which expresses itself in so-called ‘frontline sectors’: education, the police and judicial system, health care and officialdom. There we encounter an escalating translation problem which is virtually insoluble. Let us take a simple example: refugees from Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen are nearly all classified as ‘Arabic’-speakers. However, official court interpreters – many of whom come from Moroccan backgrounds – often have great difficulty in understanding their varieties of Arabic, which creates both practical and political/legal problems.

But there is, thirdly, the factor which we discussed previously: ‘languaging’. In superdiverse environments, it is rare to find a confusion of tongues such as we associate with the Tower of Babel: rather, what one finds is an extremely flexible and tolerant attitude towards multilingualism, in which seriously deficient forms of Dutch often form the backbone. So people find their own way in the situation of extreme multilingualism which we can observe emerging in practically every city, and in that sense we see, contrary to the first two points, that it is in fact perfectly possible to have social cohesion, social interaction and a sense of community in superdiverse environments. The language problems that occur need not be underestimated, but we should not overestimate them either. We certainly need a more effective multilingual infrastructure in our cities, that much is clear – even if politicians do not agree. But we should also be aware that our society will not collapse if it becomes superdiverse. Indeed: in the past 15 to 20 years, our society has in fact become superdiverse in a way which has hardly been noticed. In lectures on the subject, we present statistics on the increase in the foreign nationalities represented in Ostend in the past 20 years. That increase is quite remarkable, and people tend to be very surprised when their attention is drawn to it, because it has never actually struck them before. That seems to me to be good news.


About the interviewer

CorineKlipCorine Klip, study visitor at TermCoord. Born in the Netherlands in 1973 (Amsterdam), she moved to Luxembourg in 1984 and attended the European School as a child of a EU-official. After graduating from the European School, she obtained a Bachelor’s Degree in Communication Sciences in Ghent and worked for nearly 18 years in the financial industry in Luxembourg. Being always fascinated by language and multilingualism in all its forms, she decided to take a double sabbatical break from the financial industry in order to continue studying multilingualism and multiculturalism. She is currently doing a Master Degree in Learning and Communication in Multilingual and Multicultural Contexts at the University of Luxembourg.

Sociolinguistic superdiversity under construction: A response to Stephen May.

ScreenHunter_736 Feb. 10 12.00

Jan Blommaert

I have read with great interest the summary of a talk given by Stephen May at the MOSAIC Centre in Birmingham, entitled “Linguistic Superdiversity as a ‘new’ theoretical framework in applied linguistics: Panacea or Nostrum?”

Stephen is critical of sociolinguistic superdiversity work because it overlooks several issues, many of which revolve around the position of indigenous (and endangered) languages, neglected, it seems, by an overly urban and metropolitan (ethnocentric) set of preferences in research – “metronormativity”.

I would say the following in response to this summary (not having access to Stephen’s own words).

  1. There appears to be some stereotyping here of the “superdiversity tradition”, which is seriously premature, in my view, since no bibles of it have been published and the field is moving continually and very rapidly; and which consequently also misses some crucial recent work. I’m thinking in particular of the special issue of Language and Communication (2015), which, to some extent, represents the “American” take on superdiversity; and of the recently published volume “Language and Superdiversity” (Arnaut et al, 2016). See and
  2. In both sources, an earlier made point (but often overlooked in commentaries) is given even more weight: the fact that, for us working on sociolinguistic superdiversity, the internet is a key to understanding the paradigmatic ramifications of superdiversity. See for instance, in the L&C issue, the paper by Paja Faudree in which Mexican traditions are given a new lease of life, in a constantly transforming shape, in the diaspora through online re-modulation; and several papers in the Arnaut et al volume. For concise statements on this issue, see also and
  3. Note that this particular emphasis on “virtual” space represents an important departure from most of traditional sociological and anthropological thought, but also from the phenomenology used in what could be called the “Vertovec tradition” of superdiversity research, which concentrates on migration flows in “offline” space. This fundamental difference is usually and remarkably overlooked, and work such as that of Rampton, Blackledge/Creese and myself is wrongly placed in a direct lineage with Vertovec’s classic definitions of superdiversity. The introduction of the Arnaut et al volume is nonetheless clear in this respect:  and this alternative emphasis has been there right from the very first formulations of our approach. See for the earliest formulation
  4. The focus on the online space is of tremendous theoretical and methodological relevance; the frequency with which it is overlooked as a crucial feature of our approach is amazing, especially since it is exactly this online-offline nexus which is entirely new (no such thing existed in sociocultural, political and historical phenomenology until the final decades of the 20th century – this, I hope, shall not be disputed) and offers a formidable potential for empirical and theoretical reformulation. It questions and at least qualifies, for instance, widely used conceptualizations of social space, including, prominently, traditional distinctions between “centers” and “peripheries” (and thus also ideas of “metropolitan” versus “indigenous” languages, and between “urban” and “rural”). See for a statement on the increasingly problematic notion of the “urban”,
  5. It also qualifies and amends widespread notions of “culture”, “identity” and “social groups”. Ben Rampton’s work, as well as that of Blackledge & Creese and others, has been influential in this. For my own views on this, see the following papers: and and the collection of essays in
  6. As for the fact that the “margins” are no longer immune to “metropolitan” developments, again there are emphatically clear statements on this. See for instance,
  7. In view of the ways in which this paradigm dislodges the established spatial imagination in social research, pace the previous points, I wonder what the claim of “metronormativity” would be about. I’m afraid it can only be held by those who stick to pre-virtual spatial ontologies and conveniently choose to overlook what the presence of the e-space (the largest social space on earth) has done to contemporary societies: “Eurocentrism” is no longer a stable term in the era of Facebook and Google. In case the response would be that precisely the focus on the internet constitutes metronormativity, I’d like to remind those who take this view of something established by Braudel and Wallerstein in consecutive versions of World-Systems Analysis: that the presence of a new infrastructure in parts of the world system affects the entire system: those who lack access to it are pushed deeper into the periphery, for instance. The Wang et al paper mentioned in point 6 above develops this point at length.
  8. Observe also (and this is now widely acknowledged) that the paradigmatic potential of sociolinguistic superdiversity compels us to focus on registers rather than languages. We arrive at a far more specific and nuanced view of the objects of sociolinguistic processes – their ontology – and this shift does not in any way preclude work on “marginal” languages, sites or communities. A prime example of this is Fie Velghe’s dissertation on mobile phone texting as a tool for literacy instruction in a marginalized township near Cape Town. See, for a sample,
  9. There is, then, the issue of “dehistorization”. This critique, I believe, is justified when applied to some of the “Vertovecian” work, in which we do see snapshot ethnography coupled with a kind of ”diversity euphoria” which I shall comment on below. It is also justified when applied to some superficial Linguistic Landscape Studies. Our own work, however, has been absolutely clear and explicit on the fact that superdiversity, precisely, forces us towards historicizing ethnographic work on the present. See, for instance, and
  10. Finally, there is the often heard allegation that sociolinguistic superdiversity would turn a blind eye to issues of power and inequality, contemporary as well as historical – the “diversity euphoria” mentioned above. Again, the introductory chapter of Arnaut et al. can serve as a reminder that it is precisely the institutional response to superdiversity – increasing surveillance, negation and erasure of difference – that should occupy researchers presently. In the Arnaut et al. volume, the entire final section is devoted to “policing complexity”. In the L&C volume, one can turn to the contributions of Marco Jacquemet (on asylum applications) and Rob Moore (on EU language policy) for illustrations. The fate of “minority” languages is elaborately addressed there. See also Rampton’s pretty outspoken position on issues of power and inequality in sociolinguistic superdiversity:
  11. Just as an illustration of the analytical potential of inquiry informed by this perspective, the following example. Few would consider Mandarin Chinese a “minority” language, let alone an “endangered” one. In a diaspora situation, however, it may become a minority language both in official-administrative status (nonexistent) and in sociolinguistic position within the space of the nation-state (marginal). We know that globalization, in that sense, creates and reshuffles language hierarchies. And this means that there is nothing static or absolute to the status of a language as “minority” language – any language can be “minorized” by being moved from point A to point B. But that is not the end of it. In a diasporic situation – take The Netherlands as an example – Mandarin Chinese can be a minority language but simultaneously (here comes the scalar fractality which is so often central to our analysis) a majority language vis-à-vis the Cantonese of the previously dominant “Chinese” diaspora community, who see themselves forced to learn and use Mandarin in the “offline” public space, while (here comes a third scalar-fractal level) maintaining it in online spaces. Similar processes affect other migrant “minorities” whose (very large) heritage language is subject to similar patterns of fractal restratification – think, e.g., of the Gujarati and Bengali communities investigated by Creese and Blackledge. Such complex processes of scalar-fractal restratifications illuminate the predicament of “minorities” in important (if not always welcome) ways and teach us that functional stratification across different scale levels may be the direction to look at in studies on language endangerment. See for examples and

I do fully understand the concerns voiced by Stephen May and others, but I also insist on a fair and informed reading of the work they propose to put under critical scrutiny. Because, often, I encounter “absences” that are in actual fact richly developed presences, and “blind spots” that are in actual fact explicitly stated foci of attention – an attack on work that one would wish to see lacking of these foci, it thus appears. We are quite impatient with those (not including Stephen, though) who, on the basis of such incomplete readings, consider our views refuted and recommend staying within the safe perimeter of a Durkheimian-Parsonian (methodologically nationalist and empirically anachronistic) sociolinguistics in which nothing needs to be changed.

I do not wish to argue here that sociolinguistic superdiversity work, in its present state, has provided all the answers to all the questions. Far from that. Sociolinguistic superdiversity, in my view, is neither a panacea nor a nostrum. It’s just a potentially fertile idea which people such as I have chosen to explore and develop, if for nothing else just to see what its limits are. It’s very much under construction, and I often have to react to criticism premised on an imagined “codex” of work which upon closer inspection is all but absent. There is a growing body of explorative, inquisitive and bold research which has yielded several results that have acquired a degree of currency – think of translanguaging, the focus on registers rather than languages, and the redefinition of “speakers” of languages. Furthermore, the impact of such work on higher-level theorizing about language and society is becoming clear as well and awaits a first synthesis. Some of the references given above could serve as pointers towards such a synthesis. For it would be wrong to qualify the work on sociolinguistic superdiversity as “micro” in nature: it is a nano-science of very big things.

Thus the fact that not everything has been done does not mean that nothing has been done. I take Stephen May’s critical comments therefore as an exhortation to do more and better, and to take on topics until now rarely addressed from the paradigmatic angle of sociolinguistic superdiversity.


New forms of diaspora, new forms of integration

Migrants smartphones

Jan Blommaert 

“Integration” continues to be used as a keyword to describe the processes by means of which outsiders – immigrants, to be more precise – need to “become part” of their “host culture”. I have put quotation marks around three crucial terms here, and the reasons why will become clear shortly. “Integration” in this specific sense, of course, has been a central sociological concept in the Durkheim-Parsons tradition. A “society” is a conglomerate of “social groups” held together by “integration”: the sharing of (a single set of) central values which define the character, the identity (singular) of that particular society (singular). And it is this specific sense of the term that motivates complaints – a long tradition of them – in which immigrants are blamed for not being “fully integrated”, or more specifically, “remaining stuck in their own culture” and “refusing” to integrate in their host society.

Half a century ago, in a trenchant critique of Parsons, C. Wright Mills (1959: 47) observed that historical changes in societies must inevitably involve shifts in the modes of integration. Several scholars documented such fundamental shifts – think of Bauman, Castells, Beck and Lash – but mainstream discourses, academic and lay, still continue to follow the monolithic and static Parsonian imagination. I what follows I want to make an empirical point in this regard, observing that new modes of diaspora result in new modes of integration.

In a splendid MA dissertation, Jelke Brandehof (2014) investigated the ways in which a group of Cameroonese doctoral students at Ghent University (Belgium) used communication technologies in their interactions with others. She investigated the technologies proper – mobile phone and online applications – as well as the language resources used in specific patterns of communication with specific people. Here is a graphic representation of the results for one male respondent (Brandehof 2014: 38).

ScreenHunter_732 Feb. 03 11.42

This figure, I would argue, represents the empirical side of “integration” – real forms of integration in contemporary diaspora situations. Let me elaborate this.

The figure, no doubt, looks extraordinarily complex; yet there is a tremendous amount of order and nonrandomness to it. We see that the Cameroonian man deploys a wide range of technologies and platforms for communication: his mobile phone provider (with heavily discounted rates for overseas calls) for calls and text messages, skype, Facebook, Beep, Yahoo Messenger, different VOIP systems, Whatsapp and so forth. He also uses several different languages: Standard English, Cameroonian Pidgin, local languages (called “dialects” in the figure), and Fulbe (other respondents also reported Dutch as one of their languages). And he maintains contacts in at least three different sites: his own physical and social environment in Ghent, his “home environment” in Cameroon, and the virtual environment of the “labor market” in Cameroon. In terms of activities, he maintains contacts revolving around his studies, maintaining a social and professional network in Ghent, job hunting on the internet, and an intricate set of family and business activities back in Cameroon. Each of these activities – here is the order and nonrandomness – involves a conscious choice of medium, language variety and addressee. Interaction with his brother in Cameroon is done through smartphone applications and in a local language, while interactions with other people in the same location, on religious topics, are done in Fulbe, a language marked as a medium among Muslims.

Our subject is “integrated”, through the organized use of these communication instruments, in several “cultures” if you wish. He is integrated in his professional and social environment in Ghent, in the local labor market, in the Cameroonian labor market, and in his home community. Note that I use a positive term here: he is “integrated” in all of these “zones” that make up his life – he is not “not integrated”, I insist – because his life develops in real synchronized time in these different zones, and all of these zones play a vital part in this subject’s life. He remains integrated as a family member, a friend, a Muslim and a business partner in Cameroon, while he also remains integrated in his more directly tangible environment in Ghent – socially, professionally and economically. This level of simultaneous integration across “cultures” (if you wish) is necessary: our subject intends to complete his doctoral degree work in Ghent and return as a highly qualified knowledge worker to Cameroon. Rupturing the Cameroonese networks might jeopardize his chances of reinsertion in a lucrative labor market (and business ventures) upon his return there. While he is in Ghent, part of his life is spent there while another part continues to be spent in Cameroon, for very good reasons.

I emphasized that our subject has to remain integrated across these different zones. And the technologies for cheap and intensive long-distance communication enable him to do so. This might be the fundamental shift in “modes of integration” we see since the turn of the century: “diaspora” no longer entails a total rupture with the places and communities of “origin”; neither, logically, does it entail a “complete integration” in the host community, because there are instruments that enable one to lead a far more gratifying life, parts of which are spent in the host society while other parts are spent elsewhere. Castells” “network society” (1996), in short. We see that diasporic subjects keep one foot in the “thick” community of family, neighborhood and local friends, while they keep another foot – on more instrumental terms – in the host society and yet another one in “light” communities such as internet-based groups and the labor market. Together, they make up a late-modern “diasporic life”.

There is nothing exceptional or surprising to this: the jet-setting European professional business class does precisely the same when they go on business trips: smartphones and the internet enable them to make calls home and to chat with their daughters before bedtime, and to inform their social network of their whereabouts by means of social media updates. In that sense, the distance between Bauman’s famous “traveler and vagabond” is narrowing: various types of migrants are presently using technologies previously reserved for elite travelers. And just as the affordances of these technologies are seen as an improvement of an itinerant lifestyle by elite travelers, it is seen as a positive thing by these other migrants, facilitating a more rewarding and harmonious lifestyle that does not involve painful ruptures of existing social bonds, social roles, activity patterns and identities.

What looks like a problem from within a Parsonian theory of “complete integration”, therefore, is in actual fact a solution for the people performing the “problematic” behavior. The problem is theoretical, and rests upon the kind of monolithic and static sociological imagination criticized by C. Wright Mills and others, and the distance between this theory and the empirical facts of contemporary diasporic life. Demands for “complete integration” (and complaints about the failure to do so) can best be seen as nostalgic and, when uttered in political debates, as ideological false consciousness. Or more bluntly, as surrealism.


Brandehof, Jelke (2014) Superdiversity in a Cameroonian Diaspora Community in Ghent: The Social Structure of Superdiverse Networks. MA dissertation, Tilburg University (unpublished).

Castells, Manuel (1996) The Rise of the Network Society. London: Blackwell.

Mills, C. Wright (1959 [1967]) The Sociological Imagination. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Teaching the language that makes one happy


Jan Blommaert 

During my time at the London Institute of Education (2005-7), I was deployed in the TESOL section and worked with an outspokenly international group of students. These students were recruited after a rigorous selection in which superior IELTS scores were mandatory. All were, consequently, “fluent” in “English” when they arrived in London. The scare quotes around both terms above will become clear as we go on. For the thing is: all of these young people were highly skilled globalized junior academics, but many of them were unhappy in London.

I talked to a great many of them and started making observation notes on their English conversational proficiency. I also asked them how they felt about their English proficiency, and when one of them replied “I can’t understand their [i.e. UK English] jokes and that frustrates me”, my curiosity was triggered. I started talking to them on the specific bit of English they felt they lacked in London. The answers were highly diverse, but some stood out. One recurrent answer was: I don’t have the English that can help me find a boyfriend/girlfriend – the English one needs to flirt and enter into a love relationship with someone. Another was: I don’t have the English I need to understand entertainment shows on British TV. And yet another: when I go out for drinks with British friends, I just can’t understand a lot of what they’re saying in the pub. Many articulated frustrations about the fact that their limited English proficiency made it very difficult for them to come across as an interesting, witty, creative and nice person. Many felt socially awkward and lonely, and had the impression that making real friends was terribly hard, given the constraints they experienced in informal social interaction with others.

Their responses reminded me of my own experience teaching and living in Chicago in the Winter of 2003. From 9 to 5, I would be talking shop there, and interlocutors would have perceived me as highly articulate and confident, perhaps even eloquent in English. As soon as I left the UofC campus and went shopping, however, I felt I was lacking almost all of the English I needed to identify the right meat cuts, vegetables or cleaning products. And one of my most catastrophic communicative experiences was when I had to call a plumber about a drainage problem in my bathroom: I lacked literally every bit of English required to adequately explain the problem and was reduced to begging the plumber to come over and see for himself. On campus, I was a “near-native” user of English, while in the supermarket or with the plumber I must have sounded like just another immigrant struggling with basic English vocabulary.

Such anecdotes are relevant for at least three reasons.

  1. They show us that “language learning” is effectively register learning. My students and myself had acquired the academic register characterizing contemporary globalized academic practices and culture; we had not, au contraire, acquired the registers that controlled specific informal social and cultural communication modes, and could consequently not perform the roles we were supposed to play in and through them.
  2. In the case of my students, they also show that “language” testing is in actual fact register testing: high IELTS scores indicate a high level of active and passive proficiency in a limited set of registers and genres qualified with a  (rather unhelpful) umbrella term as Academic English. They do not indicate a general socioculturally adequate competence in English, and do not as such announce a generative or cumulative competence. That is: having achieved high levels of academic register-genre proficiency does not automatically generate (or even facilitate) competences outside the domains covered by such registers and genres; such specific register-genre competences must be learned separately.
  3. And most importantly, they show us a thing or two about integration. Let me elaborate that latter point.

There is, in the context of migration and superdiversity, a policy response which is widespread across Europe (and further afield) in which language learning is proposed as the key to “integration”. The latter is a word in search of a clear definition (and has been for decades), but in actual practice, it is usually paraphrased as “participation in social life”, with some emphasis on facilitating entrance into the labor market. Observe that “integration” is usually presented as one single process in which someone presently “not part of society” will become part of that society by a unilateral effort of adaptation, in which language learning is crucial since – one frequently reads – one cannot participate in the life of a community without communicating with other members.

What we now know is that

  • Integration is not a single process but a multiple one, in which several very different forms of “integration” need to be achieved, into numerous specific social milieux and niches, each organized and characterized by their own sociocultural normative codes, in order to be, let us say, happy as a social and cultural being.
  • Integration into the “most important” social milieu – academic work in the case of my students, the labor market in the eyes of many policy makers – does not guarantee integration into the different milieux and niches that make up social life outside the “most important” segment of it. As my own experience showed, one can be highly integrated in the segment of labor and the sociocultural milieu that sustains it, and poorly integrated (even highly marginal) in several other social milieux. In fact, this assemblage of different degrees of “integration” in which one is simultaneously very well integrated in some segments of sociocultural life, less integrated in some others and not integrated at all in another set of them – is perhaps the default mode of “integration” any person would have in social life in general, at any point of time.
  • Consequently, teaching competences and skills deemed useful for “integration” would seem to require a very precise diagnostic stage in which the specific register-genre needs valid for targeted social milieux (and thus defining a range of very different integration processescan be identified and followed up by more precise and specific knowledge transfer.

Being “fully integrated” as a person, when one investigates it in some detail, actually refers to a set of experiences of satisfaction – happiness, let us say – derived from a perceived smoothness in social contact beyond the borders of narrowly conceived and functionally defined social milieux such as that of labor. It actually means that one is integrated into the full set of social milieux experienced as crucial for a satisfying social life. When we teach people the language they need for this purpose, we have to teach them the specific bits of language that make them happy. The term “happy” sounds funny, perhaps, and there is no tradition in language teaching where it has ever been central. I suggest we take it very seriously.


Chronotopic identities


Jan Blommaert 

In their seminal study on the unequally accessible cultural capital of French university students, Bourdieu and Passeron made the following remark:

“Sans doute, les étudiants vivent et entendent vivre dans un temps et un espace originaux” [“Undoubtedly, students live and expect to live in an original time and space”] (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 48)

The specific time they live in is measured by the academic year, with its semesters, lecturing times and exam sessions. And the way they live it is relaxed, slightly anarchic and down to themselves when it comes to organizing their days, weeks and months – “le temps flottant de la vie universitaire” [“the fluid time of university life”] (id: 51). The specific spaces include, of course, the university campus, its buildings, lecture halls and staff offices; but also “des quartiers, des cafés, des chambres ‘d’étudiants’” [“’student’ neighborhoods, cafés and rooms”], cinemas, dance halls, libraries, theaters and so forth; the Parisian Quartier Latin, of course, serves as a textbook example here (id.: 51). It is no miracle, then, that a walk through the Quartier Latin during the academic year would reveal a specific demographic pattern –a dense concentration of young people who would be students and middle-aged men who would be senior academics – different from, say, people shopping along the fashion stores on the Champs Elysées or taking the commuter trains out of Paris at 5PM.

According to Bourdieu and Passeron, due these specific timespace givens, students acquire a sense of shared experience which, invariably, becomes an important part of their autobiographies later in life – “in my student days”, “we met when we were students…” The specific timespace of student life involves specific activities, discourses and interaction patterns, role relationships and identity formation modes, particular ways of conduct and consumption, of taste development and so forth, most of which are new, demand procedures of discovery and learning, and involve the mobilization of existing cultural and social capital in the (differential) process of acquiring new capital. References to similar timespace elements (a charismatic or dramatically incompetent lecturer, a particular café or a then-popular movie or piece of music) create a shared sense of cohort belonging with others, which co-exists with pre-existing belongings to social groups and which enters into posterior forms of belonging. In that sense, our student days do not compensate for or replace pre-existing class memberships (which the book documents at length), and neither is it the sole bedrock for posterior identity formation – it is, in Bourdieu & Passeron’s view, a relatively superficial phenomenon, “[p]lus proche de l’agrégat sans consistence que du groupe professional” [“closer to an aggregate without consistency than to a professional group”] (56), let alone “un groupe social homogène, indépendant et intégré” [a homogenous, autonomous and integrated social group”] (49), which reproduces underlying (class) differences while constructing one new layer of shared biographical experience. Thus, while students share almost identical experiences and develop particular, and similar, identities during their days at the university, the meanings and effects of these shared experiences will differ according to the more fundamental social and cultural identity profiles they “brought along” to university life.


Probably without being aware of it, Bourdieu and Passeron provided us with one of the most precise empirical descriptions of what Bakhtin called a “chronotope” (Bakhtin 1981: 84-258). Bakhtin coined this term to point towards the inseparability of time and space in human social action and the effects of this inseparability on social action; in his work he identified the “literary artistic chronotope” where “spatial and temporal indicators are fused into one carefully thought-out, concrete whole”, such that the chronotope could be seen as “a formally constitutive category of literature” (1981: 84). By means of chronotopes Bakhtin could address the co-occurrence of events from different times and places in novels, the fact that shifts between chronotopes involved shifts of an entire range of features and generated specific effects. He saw the interplay of different chronotopes as an important aspect of the novel’s heteroglossia, part of the different “verbal-ideological belief systems” that were in dialogue in a novel, because every chronotope referred to socially shared, and differential, complexes of value attributed to specific forms of identity, as expressed (in a novel for example) in the description of the looks, behavior, actions and speech of certain characters, enacted in specific timespace frames. Bakhtin, importantly, assumed that chronotopes involve specific forms of agency, identity: specific patterns of social behavior “belong”, so to speak, to particular timespace configurations; and when they “fit” they respond to existing frames of recognizable identity, while when they don’t they are “out of place”, “out of order” or transgressive (see Blommaert 2015 for a discussion).

In a more contemporary and applied vocabulary, we would say that chronotopes invoke orders of indexicality valid in a specific timespace frame (cf. Blommaert 2005: 73). Specific timespace configurations enable, allow and sanction specific modes of behavior as positive, desired or compulsory (and disqualify deviations from that order in negative terms), and this happens through the deployment and appraisal of chronotopically relevant indexicals (i.e. indexicals that acquire a specific recognizable value in a specific timespace configuration). Thus, one can read Goffman’s Behavior in Public Spaces as a study of the orders of indexicality operating in public spaces and not elsewhere, while his description of poker players in Encounters can be read as a study of the orders of indexicality valid in places such as the poker rooms of Atlantic City or Las Vegas (Goffman 1963, 1961). Obviously, Howard Becker’s (1963) Outsiders also operate the way they do in clearly demarcated timespace configurations such as the nighttime jazz club, as much as studies of doctor-patient interaction typically are set in the timespace configuration of medical centers and consultation times therein (Cicourel 2002).

In such timespace configurations, Goffman situated specific actors enacting specific roles (poker players can never have met each other elsewhere, and they gather just to play poker and do that competently), enacting specific, relatively strict “rules of engagement” and normative assumptions (focus on the game, play the game by its rules), as well as identity judgments (a “superb” poker player). Goffman, like Bourdieu & Passeron, Becker and others, described the indexical organization of specific chronotopes: the ways in which specific socially ratified behavior depends on timespace configurations, or more broadly, the ways in which specific forms of identity enactment are conditioned by the timespace configurations in which they occur. The “gatherings” described in Behavior in Public Places are such timespace configurations, and the specific modes of behavior Goffman describes and analyzes are the ones that “fit” this specific configuration. The careful description of such nonrandom chronotopic connections, by the way, bears a well-known academic label: ethnography.[1]


This is the central idea that I wish to elaborate in what follows: we can see and describe much of what we observe as contemporary identity work as being chronotopically organized; it is organized in, or at least with reference to, specific timespace configurations which are nonrandom and compelling as “contexts”, and “chronotope” enables us to avoid an analytical separation of behavior and context which is not matched by the experiences of people engaged in such activities. In its most simple formulation, the idea I’m attempting to develop here is that the actual practices performed in our identity work often demand specific timespace conditions; a change in timespace arrangements triggers a complex and massive change in roles, discourses, modes of interaction, dress, codes of conduct and criteria for judgment of appropriate versus inappropriate behavior, and so forth.

Take a pretty simple example: a group of colleagues who share their 9-5 daytime in the same office; all of them have mutually known names and roles, often hierarchically layered, and specific shared codes of conduct govern their interactions (the shortcut term for such codes is often “professionalism”). Men are dressed in suits and neckties, ladies wear similar formal-professional dress. The group, however, has developed a weekly tradition of “happy hour”. Every Thursday after work, they jointly leave the office and walk to a nearby pub for a drink or two. The moment they leave their office building, men take off their neckties, and the tone, topics and genres of talk they engage in with each other change dramatically. “Professional” and job-focused talk may be exchanged for banter, small talk about family life, joke-cracking or flirting. And the roles and relationships change as well: the office “boss” may no longer be the “coolest” person, and a very competent worker may turn into a very incompetent drinker or joke-teller. We see the same people engaging in entirely different social practices and relationships, embodying entirely different roles and identities – due to a change in the timespace configuration in which they move. “Happy hour” behavior is intolerable during office hours, and office behavior is intolerable in the pub (“no job talk!!”) – timespace reordering involves a complete reordering of the normative codes of conduct.

after work drink HK

Such phenomena, once we start looking for them, occur constantly. In fact, one may be hard pressed to come up with modes of social conduct that are not conditioned by nonrandom timespace arrangements. My suggestion here is to take this kind of “context” seriously – that is, let us address it in a systematic and meticulous way and see what purchase it has. Doing so may increase the accuracy of our analyses of the dynamic and changing nature of social life and of the groups that organize it. And as to these groups, identifying chronotopically organized identity work might contribute to a clearer understanding of the “light” communities we witness in so much contemporary work (see Blommaert & Varis 2015). Let me now try to outline some aspects of this issue.


At the most basic level, it is good to point out that the chronotopic nature of specific forms of identity is already entrenched in our everyday vocabularies. Thus, when we speak of “youth culture”, we obviously speak (be it with perplexing vagueness even in published work) about a complex of recognizable cultural phenomena attributed to a specific period in human lives – “youth” – which is often also specific to a place or a region. Talcott Parsons’ (1964: 155-182) discussion of American youth culture, thus, differs from that of French youth offered at the same time by Bourdieu and Passeron. “Youth culture”, therefore, is always a chronotopically conditioned object of study.

Let us take this commonsense observation as our point of departure. Identifying something as “youth culture” in terms of its chronotopic conditions involves and explains certain things. I shall first look at what it involves.

It involves generalizability. If specific forms of cultural practice mark specific periods of life, all such periods must have their own forms of cultural practices. In other words, a chronotopic qualification such as “youth culture” could (and perhaps must) be extended to any other form of cultural practices describable as tied to and conditioned by specific timespace configurations. In fact, there is nothing more special to “youth culture” than to, say, the culture of young parents, mature professionals or retired senior citizens. In each case we shall see specific forms of practice and identity construction conditioned by the specific stage of life of the ones who enact them, and usually also involving trajectories through specific places (think of schools for teenagers, banks for young people taking their first mortgage, kindergarten for young parents). And just as youth cultures typically set themselves apart by specific forms of jargon and slang (now both in spoken and written forms), other age groups similarly display such discursive and sociolinguistic characteristics.

Generalizability, in turn, implies fractality. There is no reason why chronotopic cultural practices would be confined to the “big” stages of life only, because even within narrower timespans we can see nonrandom co-occurrences of timespace configurations and forms of cultural practice and identity enactment. Think of the timeframe of a week, for instance, in which specific days would be reserved for “work” (involving specific trajectories through time and space) and others for, say, religious services, family meetings, shopping and leisure activities. The timeframe of a single day in such a week, in turn, can be broken down into smaller chronotopic units, with activities such as “breakfast”, “dropping kids off at school”, “going to work”, “being at work”, “returning from work” and eventually “watching TV in bed” all marked by nonrandom collocations of time, space and behavioral modes. The rules of macroscopic conduct also apply to microscopic behavior.

And if we take this second implication through to analytical strategy, we can see that in actual analysis, different chronotopes interact. The macroscopic chronotopes intersect and co-occur together with the microscopic ones, and the different chronotopes need to be constantly balanced against each other. To be more precise, the chronotope of youth culture, when looked at in practice, is composed of a large quantity of more specific chronotopic arrangements. Students, for instance, can perform much of their student practices from Monday till Friday in a university town, but perform their practices of friendship, family life, love relationships, entertainment and local community involvement during the weekend in their home town. And this is dynamic as well: the freshman student will organize his/her life differently from the senior and more experienced student, just as the junior professional will act differently from the “old hands” (and note that the transition from newcomer to old hand can happen very quickly – the literature on the experiences of frontline soldiers in the Great War is replete with stories of “aging” overnight during their first battle).

Different chronotopes interact also in ways that may shed light on contemporary forms of cultural globalization in which local and global resources are blended in complex packages of indexically super-rich stuff. Hip Hop is a prime example, of course (Pennycook 2007, Westinen 2014), where the global AAVE templates of Hip Hop are blended with deep sociolinguistic locality – often strictly local dialects – and lyrics that bespeak the (chronotopic) condition of local youth-in-the-margins. Chronotopes, thus, also involve scalar distinctions, and such scalar distinctions can be seen as the features that enable relatively unproblematic co-occurrences rather than conflictual ones.


The chronotopic nature of cultural practices explains a number of things as well. It explains generations, anachronisms and obsolete cultural practices, for instance.

Except for census sociology, generations are notoriously fuzzy and puzzling units of sociocultural analysis. As Bourdieu and Passeron pointed out, the joint experience, several years long, of being a student in the same university and program does not cancel the power of reproduction of inequalities across “generations”. Thus upper-class and working-class people may have attended the same schools, the same lectures and movie or theater performances, and spent time in the same cafés and neighborhoods – none of that would reshuffle the transgenerational cards of social class difference, for the same experiences have different meanings and effects depending on this slower process of transmission and social dynamics. The “generation” of social class, therefore, is a slower and longer one than that of, say, “intellectuals”, “engineers” or “jazz lovers”.

I would suggest that we can get a more precise grip on “generations” when we consider what was said above: that at any point in time, we organize our lives within interacting macroscopic and microscopic chronotopes. This means that at any point, our cultural repertoires might contain obsolete elements that no longer “fit” into the social order we now incorporate. Middle-aged people typically still have (and upon request, can perform) a vocabulary of slang obscenities developed during adolescence and hugely functional at that stage of life as symbolic capital for “cool” or “streetwise” peer group identities, but for the deployment of which very little occasion can be found in life at present. Similarly, many people still know small bits of mathematics jargon, of Latin and Ancient Greek, learned in high school but never used again since the last day of school. Such resources remain in the repertoire and can, perhaps, be invoked on nostalgic storytelling occasions, but would have very little other function or value. As we move through “generations”, the cultural stuff that defined the chronotopic arrangements of earlier stages remains in our repertoire, but becomes obsolete.

Such forms of obsoleteness, I would propose, might be of interest if we wish to get a precise understanding of sociocultural change. Entirely new phenomena are often tackled by means of very old and obsolete cultural resources – they are often tackled by means of anachronisms, in other words. Thus, the key social identifier on Facebook – something entirely new, see further – is “friends” – one of the oldest notions in the vocabulary of social relations anywhere. The entirely new social community configuration of Facebook “friends” is thus anachronistically addressed and molded in the terms of an entirely different social community configuration. The example can be infinitely multiplied: new events, processes and phenomena can be normal for a younger generation and simultaneously abnormal for an older one, while it is the older one that holds, in many social domains, the power to define, regulate and judge these new things, and will typically do this by taking refuge in old, obsolete concepts or discourses. Such anachronisms are often the stuff of public debate and social conflict, as when the “Baby Boomers” are blamed for the creation of economic bubbles and overspending, the “Woodstock generation” is getting crucified for their tolerance of soft drugs, or the soixante-huitards (those who were students in May 1968) are coming under attack for a lofty leftism or the “decay” of the moral order.

It is this layered (heteroglossic) co-presence of chronotopically organized practices, in a sometimes unbalanced and anachronistic way, that may lead us towards the finer grain of social order and social conflict. What exactly is contested across generations? And how exactly does this contestation operate? Those are questions we might begin to explore now.


Similarly, an awareness of the layered co-presence of such practices may enable us to get a more precise understanding of the complex balance between “thick” and “light” communities and forms of membership therein. In earlier work, we pointed towards the – in our view growing – importance of “light” communities on social media (Blommaert & Varis 2015), where people gather and jointly act while focusing on lifestyle objects, meanings and practices. Such “light” groups were never really privileged by sociology: the Durkheimian and Parsonian tradition had a marked preference, precisely, for the mechanisms of cohesion and integration that brought multiple disparate “light” communities together into a “thick” community (the nation, the tribe, the region, the family, the religious community etc.). And we have seen above how Bourdieu and Passeron disqualified students as an “aggregate without consistency” which could surely not qualify as a “real” social group.

Bourdieu and Passeron argued that in decent sociological study of students, due to the ephemeral character of this community, should not address the student community in isolation, for it could never be seen as entirely autonomous with respect to the larger, deeper forces of social class distinction (Bourdieu & Passeron 1964: 56). Thus, while students could be studied as a group, they could not be studied as a group in itself; the “groupness” of students must, rather, be constantly checked as to its features and characteristics against the “thick” community structures upon which it was grafted. I suggest that we can considerably refine Bourdieu and Passeron’s relatively rough base-superstructure model by paying attention to the specific chronotopic organization of behavior judged to be characteristic of specific groups. It would enable us, perhaps, to see that the “thick” structures, while perhaps determining, are not necessarily dominant in explaining the social valuation of cultural practices typical of “light” communities – the precise mode of valuation will be an effect of the specific chronotopic arrangements we address.


The largest social space on earth these days is the virtual space. And it is entirely new as a sociological and anthropological fact. I already mentioned how entirely new social environments such as social media are often approached from within anachronistic modes of social imagination; and the world of social analysis does not differ too much from that of lay practices in this respect.

I can only point towards the possibility of an extraordinarily interesting line of research in the vein sketched here. There are specific timespace challenges raised by online culture: contrary to the social imagination of classical sociology and anthropology, the social practices developed online involve no physical copresence but a copresence in a shared “virtual” space of unknown scale-dimensions, involve often an unknown number of participants (also often of unknown identity), combined with a stretchable timeframe in which temporal copresence is not absent but complemented by an almost unlimited archivability of online communicative material.

Thus, determining the specific chronotopic nature of cultural practices in a virtual cultural sphere promises to be a stimulating and thought-provoking exercise. Issues of scale – the internet is an immense social space – will call for ethnographic precision in analysis, so as to avoid rapid but unfounded generalizations of the kind “Facebook is a family of 2 billion people”. Using a far more refined research tool, directed with great precision at the specific context-situatedness of any form of social practice, must help us ditch such sociological (as well as political) illusions and replace them with a more complex, but also far more accurate, image of what really goes on in that colossal social space, what exactly contributes to modes of social organization there, and how patterns of organization change over time.


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Becker, H. (1963) Outsiders: Studies in the sociology of deviance. Glencoe: Free Press

Blommaert, J. (2005) Discourse: A critical introduction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Blommaert, J. (2015) Chronotopes, scale and complexity in the study of language in society. Annual Review of Anthropology 44 (in press).

Blommaert, J. & P. Varis (2015) Enoughness, accent and light communities: Essays on contemporary identities. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies paper 139.

Bourdieu, P. & J-C. Passeron (1964 [1985]) Les Héritiers: Les Etudiants et la Culture. Paris: Minuit.

Cicourel, A. (2002) Le Raisonnement Médical (eds. P. Bourdieu & Y. Winkin). Paris: Seuil.

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Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters: Two studies in the sociology of interaction. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill

Goffman, E. (1963) Behavior in Public Places: Notes on the organization of gatherings. New York: Free Press.

Lukes, S. (1973) Emile Durkheim: His life and Work – A historical and critical study. Harmondsworth: Penguin

Parsons, T. (1964 [1970]) Social Structure and Personality. New York: Free Press.

Pennycook, A. (2007) Global Englishes and Transcultural Flows. London: Routledge

Westinen, E. (2014) The Discursive Construction of Authenticity: Resources, scales and polycentricity in Finnish Hip Hop culture. PhD Dissertation, Tilburg University & University of Jyväskylä.

[1] Or ethnomethodology and related disciplinary labels. In a similar vein, one can see the structuralist attempts at generalization and universalization as dechronotopicalizing attempts trying to transcend the levels of chronotopic situatedness inherent in all social behavior. Durkheim’s definition of “social fact” is an obvious and extremely influential case in point (Durkheim 1895: 99-113; see also Lukes 1973: 8-15). Saussure’s concept of “Langue” is a domain-specific application of Durkheim’s “social fact”.