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: http://termcoord.eu/2016/02/interview-with-jan-blommaert/

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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.

[1] https://jmeblommaert.wordpress.com/2013/01/17/voor-de-onderzoeker-hoe-vlaanderen-in-2013-argumenteert/

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.

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Sociolinguistic superdiversity under construction: A response to Stephen May.

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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?”

https://tlangblog.wordpress.com/2016/02/05/linguistic-superdiversity-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 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/02715309/44 and https://www.routledge.com/products/9781138844582
  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 https://www.academia.edu/10371446/Commentary_Superdiversity_old_and_new and https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/ba515695-257b-4dd0-b030-b52a158c7a42_TPCS_160_Blommaert.pdf
  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:  https://www.academia.edu/11260611/Superdiversity_and_Sociolinguistics  and this alternative emphasis has been there right from the very first formulations of our approach. See for the earliest formulation  http://www.mmg.mpg.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Subsites/Diversities/Journals_2011/2011_13-02_art1.pdf
  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”,  https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2015/05/20/marxism-and-urban-culture-a-review/
  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: https://www.academia.edu/10789675/Commentary_Culture_in_superdiversity and https://www.academia.edu/15620712/Conviviality_and_collectives_on_social_media_Virality_memes_and_new_social_structures and the collection of essays in https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf
  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, https://www.academia.edu/6772025/Globalization_in_the_margins_Toward_a_re-evaluation_of_language_and_mobility._Wang_et_al._2014_
  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, https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/cdcdd501-1a7b-4af2-803d-dd51dd6623cd_tpcs%20paper6.pdf
  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, http://www.multilingual-matters.com/display.asp?K=9781783090402 and https://alternative-democracy-research.org/2016/01/05/the-conservative-turn-in-linguistic-landscape-studies/
  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: https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/research/institutes-and-research-groups/babylon/tpcs/item-paper-117-tpcs.htm
  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  https://www.academia.edu/8482298/Dutch-Chinese_repertoires_and_language_ausbau_in_superdiversity_A_view_from_digital_media._Juffermans_Blommaert_Kroon_and_Li_2014_ and  https://www.academia.edu/18066964/Towards_a_sociolinguistics_of_superdiversity

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.

by-nc

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.

References

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

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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.

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Chronotopic identities

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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.

References

Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination (ed. M. Holquist). Austin: University of Texas Press

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. https://www.tilburguniversity.edu/upload/5c7b6e63-e661-4147-a1e9-ca881ca41664_TPCS_139_Blommaert-Varis.pdf

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.

Durkheim, E. (1985 [2010]) Les Règles de la Méthode Sociologique. Paris: Flammarion.

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”.

Indonesia, its youth and “light communities”

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Jan Blommaert

Comments on the panel “Margins, hubs and peripheries in decentralizing Indonesia” (part 1), Conference on ‘The Sociolinguistics of Globalization”, Hong Kong University 5 June 2015. Panel convenor: Zane Goebel. Line-up: Michael Ewing, Dwi Noverini Djenar, Lauren Zentz, Meinami Susilowati.

All of the papers in this part of the panel focused on youth language and the sometimes problematic ways such “new” forms of speech clash with strong nation-state institutional cultures of standardization. Over and beyond this general focus, three points merit deeper engagement; let me review them briefly.

1. Youth language, universally, is an example of how societies (in spite of often very strong homogeneistic self-imaginations) in effect contain numerous “niches” developing at different speeds, occupying specific spatiotemporal arenas, and operating along specific normative frameworks projected onto behavioral scripts in which specific forms of language are part of what counts as accepted/acceptable behavior. It was Cicourel who stated that what people effectively do when they do the work of interpretation is to try and make sense of situations by reading social structure into it. I shall have more to say on social structure in a moment, but the point can already be made that social structure is manifestly plural: different structures interact and intersect, triggering often unbalanced confrontations of normative frames – what is “meaningful” and therefore socially and politically expectable – with often unexpected outcomes.

2. Furthermore, the papers all showed how such confrontations of different normative frames represents the experience of change. Indonesia, like any other place on earth, changes fast as an effect of globalization (and, in this case, also because of momentous national political shifts), and the on-the-ground experience of such change often takes the shape of conflictual discourses of normativity (again projected, concretely, into behavioral scripts encompassing specific forms of language usage). These normative frames provide a sense of “order” (recall Cicourel’s idea bout understanding as reading social structure into situations), and it is the clash of different “orders” that creates the sense of insecurity, anguish and destabilization we often see and encounter in data on people’s actual social experiences. In our own jargon, it is the immersion in a polycentric social environment that constitutes the baseline experience of macro-changes triggered by globalization. It is the encounter with not one single, transparent and hegemonic social structure, but with multiple structures in competition over spaces, membership and socially ratified meaningfulness with the potentially threatening effect of restratification, that consitutes the lived experience of “change” for many.

3. But even more importantly, what are these contrasting and conflicting “orders” like? In order to answer this question, we need a distinction between nation-state and globalized forms and representations of “community”. Remember that, in the tradition of Durkheim, Weber and Parsons, the nation state was typically a local, “thick” community – a community in which people shared vast amounts of resources through common backgrounds, institutional governmentality and socialization.

The papers in this panel, however, showed invariably “light” communities often tied together by shared “niched” practices (Goffman’s “Encounters” can also inspire us here). These light communities, remarkably, are local – see the emphasis on locally grounded youth vernaculars in the papers here – but translocally infused and framed, which is why they are often seen and decried as “westernization” while strictly local vernaculars and indexicals are used. The new globalized order, thus, with its intense physical and virtual mobilities, appears to stimulate and even privilege the formation of “light”, local communities whose orientation is not towards the nation-state but towards ideals and imageries drawn from the wider world, and involving specific spaces of deployment, specific actors and specific codes of meaningful practice. To return for a moment to the issue of structure: the “light” communities represent a “light”, flexible, volatile and fast-moving structure, interacting with and often only perceptible from within “thick” and slower-moving structures. Our disciplinary traditions have consistently emphasized the “thick” structures, while “light” ones tended to be dismissed as insignificant or superficial.

I’m afraid we can’t afford this any longer. The tremendous importance of “light” communities, and the fact that for those inhabiting them they often experientially, emotionally and socially prevail upon the traditional “thick” communities of family, religion, ethnicity or nationality, is perhaps the most pressing theoretical and descriptive issue in the study of globalization nowadays. From practices and their performers and performing conditions, over the kinds of communities they generate, to specific modes of social structure they propel: this to me sounds like a research program of considerable interest. The papers in this session provide excellent and substantial food for thought in this direction.

Links

The conference program, including the panel lineup and the abstracts, can be accessed via http://programme.exordo.com/slxg2015/

https://www.academia.edu/10789675/Commentary_Culture_in_superdiversity

https://www.academia.edu/8403164/Conviviality_and_collectives_on_social_media_Virality_memes_and_new_social_structures_Varis_and_Blommaert_

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Citizenship, language and superdiversity: towards complexity

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Jan Blommaert 

(Journal of Language, Identity and Education, Forum on ‘citizenship’ (Vaidehi Ramanathan, ed.) 2013.)

The issue

There is a dramatic need to unthink and rethink some of the most basic concepts in social science – notions such as community, identity, and indeed citizenship. The reason for this is that since the early 1990s, some fundamental changes have taken place in the ways in which all of these notions take shape in real life. Vertovec (2007, 2010) has described these changes as a transition from ‘diversity’ to ‘superdiversity’, a diversification of diversity due to changes in the migration patterns worldwide. People from more places now migrate to more places, causing unprecedented forms of social and cultural diversity especially in the large urban centers of the world (for an early appraisal, see Cohen 1995, 507ff). Adding to this complexity, the emergence and global spread of the Internet and other forms of mobile communication technologies – synchronous with the new forms of migration – have created a ‘network society’ (Castells 1996) in which people live and act in relation to long-distance, ‘virtual’ peers in sometimes enormous online communities. Taken together, these two forces have re-shaped social life around the world, and the most sensitive index of these transformations is the emergence and development of new forms of human communication – the social transformations go hand in hand with sociolinguistic transformations yielding degrees of complexity hard to imagine previously, and prompting an escalation of new terminology to describe them: languaging, polylanguaging, transidiomatic practices, metrolingualism, supervernacularization and so forth (for a survey see Blommaert & Rampton 2011).

The problem is one of imagination: how do we imagine these new forms of complexity? Static, horizontal-distributional and synchronic images and metaphors fail to do justice to the phenomena we encounter, because dynamic and historical processes are observed, most often featuring ‘vertical’ patterns of stratification and restratification. Linguistic resources enter a specific environment, acquire an indexical value relative to existing norms within that environment, thus shape new norms, and so acquire a potential to perpetually reshuffle the linguistic-symbolic hierarchies. Social lives are thus organized not in relation to one single complex of norms but in relation to many competing and/or complementary ones – a feature of sociolinguistic superdiversity we call polycentricity (Blommaert 2010: 39ff); individual repertoires bear the traces of such perpetual reshufflings of norms in a polycentric environment (Blommaert & Backus 2012), and complex forms of identity work can draw on the resources that orient towards the multiple sets of norms present in someone’s ‘communicative competence’ (cf. Rampton 2006; Jorgensen et al 2011). The latter notion must now be understood as the capacity to acquire multiple normative orientations and shift from one set of norms (those of the classroom, for instance) into another (say, those of Facebook) and back (the classroom), then forth to yet another one (age and gender group norms, say) and back again. The resources deployed in these moves are each time specific and specialized: we call them ‘registers’ (Agha 2007). We select from our repertoires the registers that are functionally adequate within the specific niches in which we intend to deploy them. This is why I speak in a different way to my mother than to my wife or to my colleagues, and this explains why these various modes of communication are not interchangeable. If I would speak to my mother the way I would speak to my colleagues, or vice versa, chances are that I will be perceived as socially awkward by all.

The key terms in what I just said define the lines of inquiry into such processes: resources, norms in relation to other norms, identities anchored into such sets of norms, and rapid shifts to-and-fro between normative orientations within a polycentric environment. Understood throughout this is the fact that such complex communicative and identity work comes with entitlements and constraints – people, thus, perform such complex work because it comes with a price and this price is different for each of the social niches between which people move.

Citizenship and dis-citizenship

If we imagine a social world in the terms sketched above, several well-established notions invite revision. To start with, a notion such as ‘integration’ used in relation to immigrants can be redirected from its usual monofocal bias – integration in the ‘majority’ social system, integration into ‘our’ culture and values, and so forth – into a more nuanced, plural and surely more accurate direction. ‘Being integrated’, we can see, means being capable of making oneself understood in a wide variety of social environments.

These environments include not just the ‘dominant’ culture but also various ‘sub’-cultures. Immigrants need to ‘integrate’ in the many niches that compose their actual social environment, and they have to acquire the resources to do so – they have to ‘enregister’ the resources adequate for the various specific niches (Agha 2007; Moller & Jorgensen 2012). These niches are of course not just those of their ‘host societies’, but also those of émigré communities in a diaspora, of their ‘home’ cultures, of gender, age, social class, profession, workplace, religion, consumption, hobby, media etc. niches. It is not sufficient to be ‘well integrated’ in the administrative culture of the ‘host society’, for instance, because this kind of integration does not necessarily appear useful when the results of one’s child need to be discussed with a school teacher, or even when performing mundane tasks such as shopping. One set of resources – always specific and specialized – does never suffice for the totality of social life; no single set of resources has the generative potential to cover all aspects of social life in which ‘integration’ is mandatory, desired or useful.

Thus, learning ‘a language’ is never enough. Immigrants are increasingly subjected to pressures to acquire the standard varieties of the national languages of their host societies, and this pressure is driven by a monofocal and generative view of ‘standard’ as the unique instrument for integration. However, acquiring that standard language in practice means acquiring one specific and specialized register, suggested to be universally deployable in all and any social environment.

This, then, is the current institutionalized sociolinguistic face of citizenship in a growing number of countries; evidently it is inadequate (see e.g. Spotti 2011). Superdiverse social environments are intensely polycentric and, thus, put high demands on register development for those who live and act in them. The traditional notion of ‘citizenship’ (always related to institutionalized trajectories of ‘integration’) suggests that integration into one aspect of social life – the administrative and public culture of the nation-state acting as ‘host’ to the immigrant – is sufficient for the immigrant to lead a successful life.

This is sociolinguistically ludicrous, and it also runs counter to what is in actual fact expected and/or demanded from immigrants. We expect them not just to pass the mandatory language test administered by the administration in charge of immigration; we also expect them to be fluent in the register of education, of labor, of gender, age and so forth – we expect them to be ‘fully’ integrated in every niche we detect in society. Failing that, immigrants will perpetually be regarded as ‘dis-citizens’, even sometimes anti-citizens as in the case of more radical Muslims in various countries of the West. In placing such demands, we usually overlook the complexities specific to immigrant social life – the fact that apart from ‘our’ culture and values, immigrants also have to orient towards niches of ‘their own’ culture present in diaspora contexts. Forms of Muslim identity articulation – take the hijab as an intensely debated example – can simultaneously be understood as ‘not integrated’ into the ‘dominant values’ of the host society and as ‘fully integrated’ into the religious culture of the diaspora, or even into a global aesthetics of femininity among a particular female peer community (see Blommaert & Varis 2012). The simultaneity of contrasting interpretations here is an effect of the polycentric environment in which (in this case) young Muslim women in the West currently live; their practices, consequently point towards very different orders of indexicality at the same time. The conflicts, thus, are intrinsic to the increasing complexity of contemporary social systems.

If we understand citizenship as a particular degree of ‘integration’, thus, we must realize that superdiversity has created unprecedented levels of polycentricity in social systems, causing the kinds of contrasting and conflicting understandings described above. Some signs, consequently, will inevitably be seen as signs of citizenship as well as dis-citizenship, and it is likely that the political dynamics of citizenship in superdiverse societies will hinge on the degrees to which people – experts, legislators, opinion makers – are capable of imagining the levels of complexity that characterize the real social environments in which people ‘integrate’. The capacity to replace the simple imagery of structuralism by an imagery of complexity and change will decide the debates on citizenship in the future.

References

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

Blommaert, Jan (2010) The Sociolinguistics of Globalization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Blommaert, Jan & Ad Backus (2012) Superdiverse repertoires and the individual. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 24.

Blommaert, Jan & Ben Rampton (2011) Language and superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 1-22.

Blommaert, Jan & Piia Varis (2012) How to how to: The prescriptive micropolitics of Hijabista. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 30.

Blommaert, Jan, Ben Rampton & Massimiliano Spotti (eds.) (2011) Language and Superdiversity. Special issue, Diversities 13/2: 1-83

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

Cohen, Robin (ed.) (1995) The Cambridge Survey of World Migration. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Jorgensen, Normann, Martha Karrebaek, Lian Madsen & Janus Moller (2011) Polylanguaging in superdiversity. Diversities 13/2: 22-37

Moller, Janus & Jens Normann Jorgensen (2012) Enregisterment among adolescents in superdiverse Copenhagen. Tilburg Papers in Culture Studies, paper 28.

Rampton, Ben (2006) Language in late Modernity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Spotti, Massimiliano (2011) Ideologies of success for superdiverse citizens: The Dutch testing regime for integration and the online private sector. Diversities 13/2: 38-52.

Vertovec, Steven 2007. Super-diversity and its implications. Ethnic and Racial Studies 30/6: 1024-1054.

Vertovec, Steven 2010. Towards post-multiculturalism? Changing communities, contexts and conditions of diversity. International Social Science Journal 199: 83-95.