The Discursive Construction of EAP: Affirming Key Concepts and Values

This blog post was written by my collaborator and co-author Ian Bruce. I am sure you’ll find plenty to think about and comment on.

EAP has often been subject to reductive and potentially misleading definitions from cognate fields despite its own growing body of scholarship, research, innovative pedagogies and frequent academic events. The usual oppositional trope claims that EAP has a narrow, technical focus on text, and that it is not concerned with the context or writer of the text. Recently I again encountered these ideas being ventriloquated uncritically in the work of novice researchers. These encounters have motivated this post. Here I wish to revisit the issue of defining EAP and its scope with a particular focus on considering what is central to teaching and learning in EAP courses. Following that, I will express my thoughts on some current structural issues that may act as constraints upon EAP.

In supporting EAL students’ pathways into, or current trajectory within English-medium university education, I propose that EAP is concerned with the development of two areas of knowledge that are closely related although I see one as subsidiary to the other. These are: academic discourse competence and academic processes and values. My position is that the first area should be at the centre of what we do in EAP.

The core knowledge area of developing academic discourse competence may involve subject epistemologies, assignment genres, processing and creating extended texts, textual grammar (including key elements that relate to cohesion and coherence), metadiscourse devices and academic lexis. Development of academic discourse competence knowledge is achieved through the implementation of an analytic (top-down) syllabus with holistic objectives, based around genres or text types. Most EAP practitioners are familiar with genre-based pedagogy as a means for developing discourse competence.

The second, closely-related knowledge area of academic processes and values involves becoming familiar with the university’s organisation, hierarchies, methods of communication, course documents, modes of course delivery, academic integrity, accessing and processing information and the development of student autonomy. This area of cultural and dispositional knowledge is developed on an ongoing basis through the tasks and routines of EAP courses. For example, this could involve exposure to lectures and tutorials along with requirements to undertake larger, assessed academic tasks that integrate the desired skills and values. Such tasks provide a vehicle for the scaffolded development of skills related to accessing, reporting and synthesising knowledge, and expressing analytical (critical?) thinking.

One of the problems in EAP is that some tend to define the field in terms of only one of these two areas. A few years ago, I was confidently told by a colleague that our in-sessional EAP programme was solely about study skills development, and that it had nothing to do with language. In response, I would argue that language is at the absolute core of what we do. However, it is language that is used to achieve discursive academic purposes, which is what differentiates EAP from other types of general English language teaching.

Structural issues that can mitigate against EAP courses developing these two core knowledge areas may relate to materials, course organisation, teacher knowledge and experience and the institutional commercial imperatives placed on EAP units.

Materials (textbooks) can be branded as EAP, but if they employ a synthetic syllabus and are benchmarked to CEFR proficiency levels, it is likely that they are based on a TESOL materials model, and that they are not framed in ways that support pedagogy that develops discourse competence. This type of proficiency benchmarking of materials also obviates the need to undertake needs analysis, an activity that has always been at the heart of EAP. As we know, needs analysis may potentially involve understanding the culture, identities, expectations, educational experiences and prior cognitive training of our students. It also involves investigating the academic contexts which students are preparing to enter, or are already participating in, in terms of their epistemologies, genres, processes and academic values. Undertaking ongoing needs analyses utterly refutes the fallacious argument that EAP is only focused on the text and not the writer of the text.

Course organisation can be another structural feature that undermines EAP. For example, EAP courses can be organised in much the same way as traditional language courses with no requirement to attend a lecture or participate in a tutorial or undertake larger course assignments. Therefore, thought needs to be given to how EAP courses are structured so that they better reflect the modes of course delivery that students are preparing to (or already) participate in.

Much has been written recently about teacher knowledge and EAP teacher development. For a long time, there has been a growing level of scholarship of teaching and learning, research and community involvement by EAP practitioners. This willingness to engage with the literature, participate in debates and online discussions, attend events and undertake scholarship and research are essential for ongoing teacher knowledge development. Gemma Campion (2016), when reflecting on her case studies of practitioners making the transition from general English teaching into EAP, notes that a TESOL background and training provides a basis for building EAP teacher knowledge, but ongoing mentoring and development are needed as part of the transition.

Finally, there is the issue of the creeping commercialisation and commodification of EAP programmes and universities, which may have a profound effect on the content and modes of delivery of EAP courses. Greg Hadley (2015) and Alex and I (Ding & Bruce, 2017) have attempted to address these issues in previous book publications. We have argued that within the field, the practitioner response should include an active scholarship of teaching and learning. However, there are also larger educational policy and political issues here. Advocacy concerning these issues needs to come from practitioner organisations as well as individuals.

EAP is a developed field of academic activity and academic inquiry, and as such, requires practitioners to participate in scholarship and research as well as contribute to the academic and political debates that relate to our field. Occasionally, it also requires us to offer a refutation to those who attempt to define the fields as something quite different from what it actually is.

Campion, G. C. (2016). The learning never ends: Exploring teachers views on the transition from General English to EAP. Journal of English for Academic Purposes, 23, 59-70.
Ding, A., & Bruce, I (2017). The English for academic purposes practitioner: Operating on the edge of academia. Cham, Switzerland: Springer
Hadley, G. (2015). English for academic purposes in neoliberal universities: A critical grounded theory, Heidelberg, Germany, Springer International Publishing.


Keeping a Focus on the EAP Practitioner: Further Building the EAP Knowledge Base

A blog post written by Ian Bruce and Alex Ding

A discussion thread on the BALEAP list during the first few days in May raised concerns that BALEAP events related to CPD are often staged over weekends, during the practitioner’s own time rather than during their working hours. Some of this discussion also raised other issues relating to the academic status and workplace conditions of EAP practitioners. Liz Hamp-Lyons, as a former editor of JEAP, commented about “the failure of us as Editors to tackle the professional issues in the field” and suggested a special issue of JEAP as a way of focusing on some of these issues. Hilary Nesi, a current editor of JEAP, agreed to set up a link for proposals for a special issue. However, she offered the caveat “that issues surrounding the status of EAP within Higher Education, and all the attendant concerns might be better discussed in a journal read by those involved in administration and policy-making at university management level, so that managers can be made aware of, and take action to address, the plight of EAP practitioners in its various manifestations”. The link that Hilary provided was an Elsevier link (not specifically a JEAP link), so any proposals in this area may be directed to another higher education journal rather than be taken up by JEAP itself.

This list discussion is interesting as it raises the matter of the scope of the current range of research within EAP/ESP and, importantly, who disseminates research that examines the development, praxis and career trajectories of EAP practitioners. The advertised scope of JEAP includes the practitioner areas of ‘teaching methodology’ and ‘teacher education’, which one could argue includes initial teacher education and ongoing teacher development (including CPD). However, it does seem that the larger socio-economic and ideological contexts of EAP within higher education, contexts that frame the whole activity of EAP and influence its implementation, have largely remained outside of the perceived remit of JEAP. Our recent book focusing on the EAP practitioner was an attempt to address this situation. Also responding to the theme of the recent BALEAP conference in Leeds, there were a number of presentations that focused on the practitioner, their working life, their development, self-perceptions and their concerns.

We are hoping to continue this focus as part of our ‘New Perspectives for English for Academic Purposes (call for proposals flyer), recently contracted with Bloomsbury. Currently we are making plans to have around six edited titles, two of which will offer scope to address issues relating to EAP practitioners, their working lives and trajectories. One of these titles will address the area of politics and public policies as they impact on EAP (and on the practitioner); the other will deal with aspects of practitioner identity. We are hopeful that these two forthcoming edited volumes will offer opportunities for publication of research and theoretical contributions that address these areas from a broad range of contexts. At this stage, we wish to encourage practitioner-researchers working in this area to continue to collect your data, to do your analysis and proceed with your local presentations and publications, perhaps with the view of bringing your work together in a book chapter as the series unfolds.

In Chapter 3 of our 2017 book we acknowledged the rich depth of textual work that has contributed to the existing knowledge base of EAP, drawing as it does on a number of research and theoretical traditions. Much of this falls comfortably within the scope of JEAP. However, we would also argue that it is now time to broaden the focus of EAP theory and research to include the EAP practitioner as well as EAP curriculum, something that we are determined to include in our forthcoming series. Keep researching and writing, and keep watching this space.

Alex and Ian

PS If evidence was ever needed of the imperative to explore and communicate the socio-economic and ideological structures that shape (and distort) the development of EAP practitioners then readers need look no further than recent events at the University of Essex where senior management have make changes entailing:

  1. reducing the number of teaching staff despite growing student numbers,*
  2. removing scholarship and programme development from Tutor workload calculations,
  3. forcing full-time tutors to go part-time (shifting them from 1.0 FTE to 0.8 FTE) without reducing teaching loads,
  4. subsidising this loss with new staff on fixed-term contracts in a process of casualisation,
  5. reducing admin support,
  6. closing the TDC helpdesk–an important focal point for students seeking academic help.

Why this and other pressing material concerns that impact the teaching of EAP are not part of the research and scholarship landscape (which JEAP, for example, aims to capture) is more than regrettable: it ignores, distorts and obfuscates the practice(s) of EAP and hinders the collective discussion that may lead to improvements for all practitioners and students.

# If you wish to sign the petition against the proposed changes at the University of Essex click here.

The Language Educator as Practitioner: Examining agency, identity and knowledge

A few months ago I gave a talk at the University of York – ‘The Language Educator as Practitioner: Examining agency, identity and knowledge’ – and I have posted it here. It covers quite a lot of theoretical ground and might be of interest. It is broader in scope than the usual focus on this blog but the issues raised here are drawn from EAP.

If you don’t feel like watching this (I fully understand!) I have included the PowerPoint slides: The Language Educator as Practitioner YORK 

As per usual your thoughts and comments most welcome.

The Micropolitics of EAP Centres: Opening Pandora’s Box

Our ‘professional’ literature prefers not to deal with the ‘unprofessional’.
Alderson, 2009:11.

[T]he core values of professional communities revolve around the expectation that we do not keep secrets, whether of discovery or of grounded doubt.
Shulman, 2000:50.

This blog post is an invitation to consider, critique and respond to what follows. And what follows is very speculative and tentative for reasons that will become clear.
The prompt for writing this blog entry are a series of questions:

What makes one EAP centre different from another?

How can we explain the culture, identity and ethos of an EAP centre?

Why do some EAP centres appear to flourish (despite often unfavourable structural forces) when some/many appear to struggle? Without wishing to suggest that ‘flourishing’ becomes yet another vague metric and opportunity to measure the unmeasurable, it does seem to me in my many conversations with colleagues in EAP in the UK and elsewhere over a number of years that some centres seem to thrive and others don’t. Some practitioners are happy others much less so.

I am not going to answer these questions as I don’t feel I am able do that but I am going to suggest that understanding the micropolitics of EAP centres might be helpful in providing part of a very complex response.
What EAP centres do share are the same structural forces that shape (but not wholly determine) EAP. I’ve blogged about the pernicious effects of neoliberalism already and won’t repeat the arguments here. EAP centres share the same contested and unstable knowledge-base (see this post for more information) and EAP practitioners across institutions often share similar educational backgrounds, aspirations, experience and transitions into EAP (although not as uniform as some commentators would have us believe). In other words, there is plenty that we do share, plenty that suggests we share similar social practices and plenty to suggest that our praxis is inspired from a shared and evolving understanding of theory, research and practice.
Where we do diverge is where we are located within the university: within a peripheral (from an academic perspective) service sector of the university, an independent profit-making unit, part of an academic school and ever more frequently in what is euphemistically called a ‘joint venture’ (rather than the more accurate ‘outsourcing’). Where EAP centres are housed will have some (and perhaps a great deal of) impact on the power, recognition, agency and perception of the centre (and those practitioners that work in them). The highly symbolic location of the EAP centre can only provide a partial explanation though of why EAP centres differ. Two comparable universities with EAP centres located in very similar university structures can nonetheless be and feel very different. Structural forces do not hammer down so hard that there is an undifferentiated mass of centres. Culture, context, history, people and micropolitics all contribute to shaping the ethos and identity of centres.
One way of beginning to unpack EAP centres is to account for the ethos, histories and practices of centres with the perceptions, beliefs and actions of those that work in them. Examining the micropolitics of EAP centres might help achieve this. Although we (with Ian Bruce) were largely interested in the effects of micropolitics on practitioner development and scholarship the following quote captures our understanding of micropolitics:

Micro-political studies are largely taboo within EAP and TESOL more widely (a notable exception being Alderson, 2009), and discussions are usually relegated to the margins of gossip at conferences and events. What is clear from our long experience in EAP is the significance of personal politics, the motivations of multiple actors and the complex and competing agendas and relationships that unfold and interact over time and contingently to shape a specific work environment and its response to structural forces. However, we know of this only experientially and anecdotally. Although controversial and not without risks, we would like to see more studies and expertise in understanding and exploring the culture and politics of centres. We know too little of how EAP centres function, why some centres are supportive of development and others not, why some thrive and others, many, struggle, why and how some managers and directors (and practitioners) embrace the market, why practitioners, at times, appear to reject or embrace scholarship.
Ding and Bruce, 2017:157.

Micropolitics is controversial and risky and opens up a potential Pandora’s box of partial insights, recriminations, libel, misunderstandings and damage to both institutions and people. Yet, there is a real imperative to understand how and why some centres can and do much more than survive and for this knowledge to be made available for scrutiny, critique and possibly used by others to influence or attempt change in their own institutions. Also we do need, collegially, with rigour and in good faith, to examine and understand poor practices and dysfunctional work cultures to change them and support those practitioners who are struggling with the micropolitics of work. And not just practitioners – it is too facile and unreflexive to assume that all cultural/political issues in EAP centres are not in part our own responsibility. We do have some agency and we also contribute to the ethos of where we work through our everyday interactions, conversations with others, our (mis) use of officious (contra official) power that we have, how we talk about what we do and each other, our everyday actions and how empathetically we try to understand those with different roles and perspectives. How we treat each other is significant in this respect.
There are ethical risks in undertaking this sort of research and there are methodological issues too – which is better emic or etic viewpoints? Are ethnographic/anthropological research methodologies the most helpful to uncover and analyse micropolitics? I don’t know the answers to this but I do feel that despite the serious risks attached to micropolitics we need to have the conceptual tools as well as the research to understand and improve where (and how) we work. It has got to be better than gossip and partial truths.

Knowledge and the EAP practitioner

This blog post is unlike others that have been posted. Next week (Saturday 28th of January) we (Bee Bond and I) are hosting a symposium on Knowledge and the EAP practitioner as part of a series of events for BALEAP ResTES.  The central question we shall be discussing is:

what knowledge do practitioners need to master to inform and direct not only their teaching but also, more broadly, their professional activities (including understandings of academia in both its epistemological and sociological dimensions)?

We asked three researchers in the field of EAP – Ian BruceNigel Harwood, and Jackie Tuck – to consider the relationship between knowledge and EAP and asked them to write up their thoughts in short papers prior to the event.

You can find their papers here:

Ian Bruce’s Paper

Nigel Harwood’s Paper

Jackie Tuck’s Paper

These papers form the basis of their presentations for the day. Each paper/presenter has a respondent to challenge and probe their views on the day. All participants on the day will also have the opportunity to question and discuss these papers.

In addition, we would like you to pose your questions and comments here before and after the event. We wanted to make their papers available to all whether you can attend or not. So please feel free to comment and discuss here


Our ResTES symposium poses a central question for EAP practitioners: what knowledge do practitioners need to master to inform and direct not only their teaching but also, more broadly, their professional activities (including understandings of academia in both its epistemological and sociological dimensions)?

Considering this key question leads to a further, fundamental questioning around the adequacy of orthodox and established research strands in EAP – which have defined EAP as a discipline – to act as influential sources for, inter alia, curriculum development, materials creation and pedagogic activity.

How do influential theories and research shape and/or constrain EAP praxis?

What are the limitations of established theories for practice?

What is gained and lost when theory is translated into pedagogy? What else is needed?

These questions highlight a disjunct between research(ers) and practitioners – a gap between on the one hand what we know and how we frame this knowledge, and on the other what is ‘teachable’, useful, effective and transformative.

As a contrast to more research-led, theory-based practice, one common alternative is to emphasise and rely on experiential and reflective practice as the source of socially constructed knowledge to direct practice. Yet, attractive as this might appear, there are limits to what knowledge can be generated in this way, the veracity and warranty of this knowledge, and the perspectivism and relativism that this disposition to knowledge generates.

The aim of the symposium is to explore these key questions and to assess the claims and limits of the mainstream theories and research that define EAP and its practitioners. What do we need to know?

Each speaker has been asked to write a 2,000 to 3,000- word discussion paper. The week before the symposium, we’ll send participants the papers. On the day, speakers will expand on their papers for about twenty minutes. A respondent will have the opportunity to question and critique each paper. There will be plenty of time for all to contribute and participate.

We are looking forward to a lively, engaging and thought-provoking day.

Sponsored by the Leeds Institute for Teaching Excellence (LITE)

Bob Dylan, impact & the blurring of boundaries

Academic and author Paul Breen writes a guest blog on the growing importance that universities are attaching to the notion of real world impact, without a clear definition of what this means.

WINNING the 2016 Nobel Prize for Literature has placed Bob Dylan firmly in the analytical spotlight this past couple of days. It has also opened up a debate centred around the fact that this prize, historically, has been awarded as much for the realisation of idealism (in the original Swedish sense of the word) as it has been for the mastery of language, at which Dylan undoubtedly excels. There is rarely a day that passes without one of his phrases or lyrics cropping up in everyday thought and conversation.

For some, Bob Dylan is the 20th century Shakespeare. There is little doubt that the impact of his music has been a major determining factor in this noble, for some, break with tradition. Others see this as further evidence of the gradual dumbing down of society, where depth of knowledge is replaced by breadth of popular appeal. We only have to look at the content of the current American Presidential campaign and debates to garner evidence for such claims about the dumbing down of public debate.

Yet the reality is that Bob Dylan and many other musicians will have far broader impact in their lifetime than many academics could ever hope to even get within touching distance of. Indeed some would argue that academia has been pushed further out of touch with real world impact because of slowness to adjust to the speed and immediacy of the digital age. Despite that, impact is seen as a critical element of REF 2020, the great guiding light and set of goalposts for all our activities over the next couple of years.

This new emphasis on impact though is not simply talking about our impact in the academic or specific disciplinary context. It is suggesting that we have impact in the real world, which suggests that we as academics are to be measured not just on our professional achievements within work but on our personal achievements outside of it. Does this mean that the university can lay claim to those things we achieve in our spare time that help to boost our profile? For example, shaping political policy at national level can be seen as part of our impact. Thus if we are members of political parties in our spare time and we are invited to join committees that shape or challenge government policy, our unpaid work could have an impact of benefit and relevance to the REF.

In the same way, articles that we write outside of the work context can also be drawn upon in terms of real-world impact, which again asks questions of where the boundaries lie in terms of the professional and the personal. For me this is totally acceptable by the very nature of the jobs we do and the communities of practice in which we operate, but there seems to be a contradiction in this, and the increasingly corporate direction in which universities are moving. Many of us find our time being strictly measured and quantified in workload allocation models, which very often bear little resemblance to the actuality of what we do. Similarly, in theory, any work that we produce in a professional capacity belongs to the institution that we work for, though only technically if done within work time. In theory that should then mean we keep possession of those lessons and materials we produce on Saturday mornings of coffee and a hangover, but you may also find contractual clauses that define our work allocation more qualitatively as being the time it takes us to fulfil the duties of our roles. Therefore the Saturday morning shift still belongs to the university courtesy of the fact that we were not quite able to meet all the demands of our role in our regular Monday to Friday slot.

Similarly too, in some workplaces, there is a ban on use of personal email or on using the university postal service for personal purposes. So let’s say I am a member of the Green Party (hypothetically) and I use the university’s mailing service to distribute some promotional material to a newspaper. The folks in the post room may see this as personal, nothing to do with my job if I am a lecturer in English Language for example. Yet, let’s say I climb up the ranks of the party in terms of reputation as a consequence of my promotional efforts and end up becoming invited to join a government focus group on sustainability in higher education. My contribution to this group could count as impact.

Impact though remains a difficult phenomenon to measure, which brings me back to Bob Dylan. A lot has been written about the impact of his music upon culture and the changes to attitudes he has brought, particularly in his highlighting of social injustice. It is these changes to attitudes that satisfy the idealism criteria required by the Nobel judging panel. But did he really chronicle the fate of the African-American community in the manner of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin, the man she credits as one of the inspirations for her writing? Has he devoted his life to championing minority causes in the same manner as Ken Saro-Wiwa the Nigerian writer and environmental activist executed in Nigeria in the 1990s? Neither Baldwin nor Saro-Wiwa won Nobel Prizes, and nor have countless other minority voices, particularly those further inhibited by being female. Bob Dylan holds the cultural capital of being from a global superpower and presents his message through the highly commercialised and commodified medium of the music industry.

But to conclude I do think Bob Dylan deserves the prize because he is a master of language whose voice and lyrics cycle through our popular consciousness on a daily basis, and who reminds us all that writing belongs to those who poeticise, rather than prophesise. It would be wrong to deny the greatest lyricist of our age this prize on the basis of those who might also have deserved it either in the past or the present, but did not get it. This award has been a powerful statement on a contemporary redefinition of literature in an age when people are reading less and less, and on the importance of real-world impact.

That seems to be the buzz word/phrase of our era, though impact can be such a subjective factor, and the measurement of it raises as many questions as it offers answers. That’s no less true in the university environment than it is on the judging panel for literary prizes. The times they truly are a changing, as higher education redefines its own sense of impact.


The Limits of Identity Theory

The question of EAP practitioner identity is one that has proved to be a leitmotif (if often tackled obliquely) to many of the posts on this blog.  I have already noted Belcher’s (2012:544) recent observation that the ‘community that ESP professionals know the least about is their own’ ( and it would be interesting to speculate as to why this is the case. However, the purpose of this post is to point a way away from how identity has been theorised and why this is important work.

Given that the EAP practitioner is largely invisible in the EAP literature an obvious way to begin would be to turn to the research in teacher identity in TESOL, of which there is an abundance of articles and books examining teacher identity, for theoretical and methodological guidance. However, in this post I suggest that this leads to an impoverished understanding of the self and a very particular and very partial understanding of the politics of identity.

Varghese et al. (2005) claim that interest in TESOL teacher identity arose from two perspectives; the first is that teacher identity is crucial to understanding the language classroom, and the second, sociocultural and socio-political dimensions of language teaching (the so-called sociocultural turn in applied linguistics) came to the fore with a particular focus on identity as a key interest in language education. These claims made by Varghese et al. are, at best, myopic and reveal fundamental problems in theorising teacher identity (which I believe we in EAP would do well to avoid).

Identity theory in TESOL is largely parasitical on existent (and past) debates and frameworks in, inter alia, philosophy, politics and social theory. However, rather than suggesting a plethora of theoretical inspiration taken from elsewhere two associated theories dominate research in TESOL: poststructuralism and postmodernism. TESOL research is largely a reworking, repetition and reiteration of poststructural and postmodern theories of identities and, to use a poststructual expression, operates as theoretical hegemony in discourse on teacher identity in TESOL foreclosing other more promising avenues of research.

Perhaps the defining characteristics of postmodernism can be distilled as follows: an antagonism to any meta-theory (particularly Marxism); promotion of ethical, ideological and epistemological relativism; sensitivity to and celebration of identities, difference and diversity; a focus on context, discourse and practices; a lack of belief in social progress; an anthropomorphic understanding of knowledge and, most importantly, a deconstruction and dissolving of the self.

 [Postmodernism] stressed the fragmentary, heterogeneous and plural character of reality, denied human thought the ability to arrive at any objective account of that reality and reduced the bearer of this thought, the subject, to an incoherent welter of sub- and trans-individual drives and desires.

Callinicos, 1989:2


TESOL research on teacher identity parrots (almost to the point of parody) many of the concerns of poststructuralism and postmodernism:

… the concept of multiple subjectivities as dynamic, shifting, often conflicting and situated in particular sociohistorical contexts

Glodjo, 2016:5


[identity is} multiple, shifting, negotiated and contingent on external factors and protagonists

Cheng et al. 2015: xvi


Identity is not a fixed, stable, unitary and internally coherent phenomenon but is multiple, shifting and in conflict

Verghese et al 2005: 22-23.


Whether by ‘asphyxiation by social forces’ (Archer, 2000:18) or dissolution in discourse there seems to be only remnants of the self; an ontological self lacking both in coherence and initiative (Callinicos, 1989:6). This is what TESOL research, by and large, offers as a model for identity.

A second point to make here is that TESOL research on identity in general repeatedly focusses specific features of identity notably race, gender and sexual orientation, but almost never on social class. This means that the sociocultural turn in applied linguistics has, as David Block (2014) has noted ‘erased’ social class from applied linguistics (again following trends in the social sciences). Why? Block’s speculative answer to this is interesting (but incomplete) adopting Bourdieu’s notions of intellectualcentricism or scholastic fallacy to suggest:

An important aspect of researcher’s life stories and trajectories is their middle class condition, it is not surprising that there is often a tendency to impose on a view of the world that emanates from and reflects middle class position…  This means that when focusing on identity, as a lot of applied linguists have done in recent years, there is a strong tendency focus on issues around gender, race, religion, and sexuality because these are dimensions of identity that are most salient to applied linguists in their daily lives and middle class people in multicultural societies.

Block, 2014: 170.


Whilst Block gives a highly plausible (and damning) explanation of the erasure of social class from applied linguistics and Varghese et al. (2005) give an equally plausible (but very narrow) explanation for the growing interest in teacher identity in TESOL, what has not been explained is why identity has become so indispensable in politics and social theory in recent years.

Izenberg (2016) and Moran (2015) offer complimentary accounts of the historical emergence of identity. Moran argues that identity is an ideological keyword – a cultural materialist concept developed by Raymond Williams (1985) – and the core premise is that ‘words change their meaning over time in relation to changing social, economic and political pressures’ (Holborow, 2015:71) and the ‘problems of its meanings [are] inextricably bound up with the problems it [is] used to discuss’ (Williams, 1983:15). Put simply, identity now carries meanings and effects that it didn’t have even 70 years ago. Identity came to mean what it does today at that precise moment in history when questions of the self and group became problematic. Identity is an articulation of threats to the self and group. Moran (idem: 25) relates the emergence of new meanings attached to identity to three key changes:

  1. Emergence of new social movements around race and gender
  2. Intensified consumption in contexts of contemporary capitalism
  3. Popularisation of psychology and the self help industry

Identity has been largely appropriated by the cultural postmodern left (rather than the economic  Marxist left) and has generally refused to base identity in the material and social conditions of capitalist societies. However, because of theoretical commitments to anti-essentialism (or anything foundational) postmodernism is unable to conceive of identity as anything other than fragmentary, partial, contingent, and fluid. It is more a paralogical understanding of identity: a theory against identity. It is a theory that denies that there is anything essential to an identity of a person or group. Ever finer demarcations of identity are sought to counteract claims of essentialism to capture the experience of a given group leading to ever decreasing group affiliations and ever increasing incommensurate identities and voice. This has the effect of atomising groups to individuals and weakening social ties and solidarity: poststructuralism and postmodernism are highly congruent with neoliberalism and individualism and it is no historical accident that both have flourished at the same moment.  Postmodernism and poststructuralism identity politics is all about recognition of difference and nothing about redistribution which is one reason why it sits so well with neoliberalism:

Recognition at the level of discourse and attitudes is of course important, but it is not enough, and at worst may be tokenistic. It is easy for the dominant to grant discursive recognition and civility to the dominated or socially excluded; giving up some of their money and other advantages to them another matter.

Sayer, 2005:64


The purpose of this blog post has been to lay the groundwork for a positive theory of identity that could be applied to EAP practitioner identity without succumbing to the weaknesses of theoretical frameworks that have shaped discourse of teacher identity in TESOL. As there has been no research (to my knowledge) specifically on EAP practitioner identity we have no theoretical legacies to follow, no established frameworks to respect, and no discourses which have erased or promoted specific aspects of identity. I believe it important not to follow the lead given by research in TESOL because, in the end, it can only offer a very partial account of our identity and a very emaciated one at that.

My positive theory of identity discusses the following elements:

  1. Provide a link from identity to agency
  2. Have explanatory powers to articulate the relationship between structure and agency and, specifically account for morphostatis and morphogenesis i.e to account for how agents are shaped by structural forces and how agents change structure over time.
  3. Account for, at least theoretically, how professional identity is shaped. What are the discourses, knowledge bases, practices, and social material contexts and forces that intersect to influence professional identity?
  4. How does personal identity relate to social identity (or which one aspect is professional identity)? How do our personal concerns and commitments manifest themselves in the social sphere?
  5. What connects or affiliates one practitioner to another? Is there such thing as a profession? Is there an essence to EAP? Something that binds all practitioners?
  6. How do we account for recognition, distinction, social stratification and boundaries in defining a practitioner? Who makes these distinctions? And how do we change them?
  7. How do neoliberal values impose themselves in universities and how do these values transform practitioner identity?

The framework for identity coming in the following post is inspired by many of the fundamental premises of critical realism especially in the works of Margaret Archer and Dave Elder-Vass.

Archer, M. S. (2000) Being Human: The Problem of Agency. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Belcher, D. (2012) ‘The future of ESP research: Resources and access and choice’ in B. Paltridge and S. Starfield (eds). Handbook of English for Specific Purposes. Boston: Blackwell, pp.535-552.

Block, D. (2014) Social Class in Applied Linguistics.  London Routledge.

Callinicos, A. (1989) Against Postmodernism: A Marxist Critique. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cheng, Y. L., Said, S. B., and Park, K.’ Expanding the Horizon of Research in Language Teacher Identity’ in Cheng et al. (eds) Advances and Current Trends in Language Teacher Identity Research. Abingdon: Routledge, pp. xv-xxi.

Glodjo, T. (2016) ‘Deconstructing Social Class Identity and Teacher Privilege in the Second Language Classroom’. TESOL Journal .

Holborow, M. (2015) Language and Neoliberalism. London: Routledge.

Izenberg, G. (2016) Identity: The Necessity of a Modern Idea. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press.

Moran, M. (2015) Identity and Capitalism. London: Sage.

Sayer, A. (2005) The Moral Significance of Class. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Varghese, M., Morgan, B., Johnston, B, and Johnson, K, A. (2005) ‘Theorizing Language Teacher Identity: Three Perspectives and Beyond’, 4(1), Journal of Language Identity and Education, 21-44.

Williams, R. (1983) Keywords: A Vocabulary of Society and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.