Engaging Superdiversity? Yes, Very Engaging.

Channel View Publications and Multilingual Matters

This month we published Engaging Superdiversity edited by Karel Arnaut, Martha Sif Karrebæk, Massimiliano Spotti and Jan Blommaert. In this post, Jan explains more about the background to the book.

Engaging SuperdiversityAs all of us know, there is a tremendous pressure in the academic system at present to operate as an individual in a competitive ‘market’ of science focused on deliverables – or more precisely, a market of money for science and other more symbolic and status-related perks. All of these elements – individualism, competition and result-driven orientation – are fundamentally unscientific, and render our lives as science workers increasingly less interesting. Science is a collective endeavor characterised by solidarity and focused on processes of knowledge construction. Why else do we need references at the end of our publications, than to illustrate how we have learned from others in a perpetual process of critical and productive dialogue?

This critical reflex was the motive, almost a decade…

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Ahistorical? Yes, right…


Jan Blommaert

Nelson Flores, in a recent article, adds to the cottage industry of uninformed and shallow criticism of sociolinguistic superdiversity. my colleagues and I are (once more) 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 in some earlier texts 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, deal with the systematic discrimination of large immigrant and refugee populations in Western countries such as mine, on grounds of sociolinguistic inequalities. 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. Or come up, finger in the air, with insights others and I developed, published and defended in the 1990s.

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 and analyzed as an 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 viewpoints I myself categorically reject is a waste of time. Discussion of profoundly uninformed opinions is also something for which I have very little patience.



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).

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 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.


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.

Indonesia, its youth and “light communities”


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.


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