Social, racial, and economic justice in applied linguistics and beyond: What is to be done?


Christian W. Chun (he/him/his), University of Massachusetts Boston
Invited colloquium panel organizer
Suhanthie Motha (she/her/hers), University of Washington


Colloquium panel abstract


Those in power have long sown divisions among people by co-constructing inter-affecting economic, racialized, gendered, and sexual hierarchies. However, there have been popular-led movements throughout history that have attempted to transform – or attempted to do so – political, economic, and societal structural relations in the name of equality, freedom, and justice for all. These movements were enacted through discursive practices defying certain hegemonic beliefs. Some of these beliefs, held by particular segments of the populace and which were circulated by institutions such as the state, school, religion, and the media, perpetuated the notion of specifically-targeted humans as being (much) less ‘worthy’ than others, thus justifying an ideologically-socialized order of humanity at historical junctures. Throughout centuries, White supremacist discourses framed enslavement of others as being a natural and necessary condition for a society to exist and thrive. And yet, after millennia of enslavement, it was finally overthrown starting in the mid-19th century. This was due to not only the enslaved people who revolted, but also also the people who were not enslaved  who began to question and then challenge the prevailing dominant belief-systems, resulting in their ensuing fight to change society in solidarity with those who were enslaved. What led those who were fighting slavery but were not enslaved themselves to confront heretofore materialized discourses that had been in social circulation for significant periods of time? How did they defy and transform their previously-held beliefs that had been taught, learned, and embodied in their schooling, communities, and societies? How can people transform their views about conditions of injustice that are perpetuated by those in power? This panel of speakers will be discussing not only the need of applied linguists to address these questions, but also how we should re-examine what needs to be done with the economic and social relations in our discipline and beyond.



Sonic atmospheres Language, politics and solidarity

Ana Deumert (she/her/hers), University of Cape Town



            In this paper I turn the gaze to questions of affect and look at the role that affect plays in what Paulo Freire called conscientização, that is, the development of critical consciousness or conscientization. How can applied linguistics contribute to the development of a critical – and I would even say – revolutionary consciousness? A consciousness that challenges all forms of oppression and injustice?

            I will argue that building solidarity inside and outside of the academy is central to such a consciousness. Attempting to understand how solidarity is built, I turn to non-representational theory (and methodology), looking, especially, at the concept of atmospheres and Webb Keane’s (2003) concept of ‘semiotic bundling’. I will argue (following Chakrabarty 2000 and, especially, Thurlow 2016) that we need to ‘provincialize language’ and recognize that meaning-making involves much more than ‘language’ as it has been conventionally understood in Applied Linguistics (also Pennycook 2018). In exploring the ‘more than language’ position, my focus will be on music and politics: how songs create subjectivities and collectives not only through their lyrics (which tend towards the representational side of signification), but also – and even more so – through the creation of sonic atmospheres (Eisenlohr 2018). Following the radical scholarship of Robin G. Kelley (2002), I will explore the political imagination that is articulated in such sonic atmospheres, and how they move not only our minds but also our bodies. 



In search of hopeful futures? Struggle, critique and futurity in the language disciplines

Miguel Pérez-Milans (he/him/his), University College London (UK)
Guo (Grace) Xiaoyan, University of International Business and Economics (China)



Research in the humanities and social sciences has turned a general sense of despair about rising inequalities into a new research focus that aims to open our imaginations to a radically different set of future possibilities for survival and revival – see, for instance, Lear’s (2006) radical hope or Lempert’s (2018) generative hope. Following on Heller & McElhinny’s (2017) invitation to keep an eye on emerging new alliances by searching “for sources of hope, movements, ideas, and people who use language to challenge capitalist and colonial logics and imagine different futures” (p. 21) while remaining “mindful of the ways in which most efforts have perverse and unintended consequences to which [we must] attend” (p. 258), this paper engages with recent socio- and applied linguistics work that foregrounds the relevance of ethnographic and semiotic lens in the exploration of these issues (Silva & Lee 2020; Hiramoto, Borba & Hall 2020; Garrido 2021). We examine the entanglement of trajectories of transnational education and religious conversion among Chinese overseas students who move to the UK before returning to China as they cope with a general state of disillusion with social beliefs of global competition and success. By arguing for the need of intellectual frameworks that avoid deactivating critique through celebration of conviviality and which re-center lived struggles, we focus on a complex interplay of self-transformation experiences, collective practices of refusal, and capitalist logics of market expansion fueled by higher education.



Genealogies of applied linguistics and imaginaries of social change

Beatriz P. Lorente (she/her/hers), University of Bern



In Jose Rizal's 1887 novel, Noli Me Tangere, a nameless schoolmaster narrates how he tried to reform how village children were being taught. Instead of forcing the children to memorize parts of books or even whole books in Spanish without them understanding a word, he taught them Spanish with “…the simplest of methods, phrases and names, without focusing on too many rules, hoping to teach them grammar after they had understood the language.” His efforts were in vain; parents clamored for the old system and the powerful village priest warned him not to ruin Spanish and to be content to speak his own language. This excerpt (and more) from a novel that is now considered to be the first major artistic manifestation of Asian resistance to Spanish colonialism shows how questions about the redistributive politics of language and language learning have long animated (revolutionary) imaginaries of social change in the ‘Global South’. In confronting social, racial, and economic injustice in Applied Linguistics and beyond, it will be important to walk backwards into the future (Heller & McElhinny 2017). In this paper, I will use archival, literary, scholarly, and other sources from or on the Philippines to trace an unorthodox genealogy of Applied Linguistics that is rooted in such imaginaries of social change. I will ask what theories of social change (Tuck 2019; Tuck & Yang, 2013) and politics of solidarity (Mohanty 2003) underpin the language questions or projects of 'applied linguists' like Jose Rizal, Maria Luisa Canieso-Doronila (Tupas 2008) and the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People's Army or CPP-NPA (Tollefson 1991).




A posthumanist applied linguistics or a postcapitalist one?

Christian W. Chun, University of Massachusetts Boston


            In the past 30 years, various critically-oriented researchers in Applied Linguistics have adopted the latest fads in academia: postmodernism, poststructuralism, and now, posthumanism (e.g., Pennycook 2018). However, have these approaches helped in any way to overturn the social and economic injustices in our societies and the views of those in the general public that support these inequalities although not all benefit from them? The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted once again that a capitalist economy is a capitalist society in which profit will always take precedence over people in “the best of times” and “the worst of times”, which exposes the shallowness of academics who do not address the economic and social relations in our lives.

Rickford (1986) noted the “almost total neglect within sociolinguistics” (p. 216) regarding conflict models and called upon sociolinguists to employ ethnographic and conflict perspectives in addressing class antagonisms and struggles. Thus, the question that needs to be asked in these times of demagoguery is: what are the ways in which we as sociolinguists should seek to investigate how to use heretofore discourse analytic approaches (e.g., Blommaert 2005; Chun 2017; Fairclough 1992; Heller 2003; Jones 2016; Scollon & Scollon 2003) with the aim of developing and facilitating on-the-ground discursive frameworks and methods to cultivate and advance class-for-itself consciousness for progressive and indeed, revolutionary projects seeking social, racial, and economic justice for all working people?


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