* Bridging the Gap

The articles discussed here consist of contributions from 9 different authors, all present at a colloquium at the 2013 meeting of the American Association for Applied Linguistics in Dallas, Texas. They address the question: Is there is an irreconcileable gap between researchers investigating linguistic-cognitive issues and researchers working on the basis of sociocultural or sociocognitive views?

Studies in Second Language Acquisition / Volume 36 / Issue 03 / September 2014, pp 361 – 421.
“Bridging the gap: Cognitive and Social Approaches to Research in Second Language Learning and Teaching”
by Hulstijn, J; Young, R.; Ortega, L.; and Martha Bigelow; Robert DeKeyser; Nick Ellis; P.Lantolf; Alison Mackey; Steven Talmy.

Part 1: Philosophy and Theory Construction

DeKeyser: The philosophy of science and the social-cognitive dichotomy in research in language learning and teaching

DeKeyser suggests that qualitative research stresses validity and context, which is suited to hypothesis generating, while quantitative research emphasises reliability and control, which favours hypothesis testing (emphasis added). Since science strives for generalization (the accumulation of facts by itself can never amount to science), and generalisation requires hypothsis testing, and since most sociocultural work is exclusively qualitative (and thus does not allow for hypothesis testing), the association between the sociocultural and the qualitative makes any research which is limited to the sociocultural inadequate from the point of view of the philosophy of science.

But, DeKeyser argues, the association between the sociocultural approach and qualitative methodology is a mere fact, not a necessity, and he sees “no reason why sociocultural research could not move from descriptive to explanatory to predictive, as long as the social dynamics it takes as its material object are not confounded with relativism to the point of rejecting the ideas of hypothesis testing and falsification of theories”. So, to provide answers to the big questions, DeKeyser says we need “mixed-methods research of a longitudinal nature”. Mixed-methods research can help to bring together quantitative and qualitative work which occurs when the two remain as largely separate bodies of literature, and longitudinal research is ideal for answering questions that address long-term development, as most of the questions in SLA do. DeKeyser notes that the combination of longitudinal research and mixed-methods research “is largely unheard of”. He suggests that “while we wait for a new generation of more truly interdisciplinary teams of researchers, the best we can do is to encourage the descriptive-correlational-experimental loop by letting various approaches and methodologies inspire one another, and ideally feed into one another”.

Lantolf: A Bridge Not Needed: the Sociocultural Perspective

Lantolf starts by asking “Is there a gap between cognitive-linguistic and social approaches to SLA, and, if so, is it due to epistemological or ontological differences (or both)?”. There follows one of the worst accounts of dialectical materialism I’ve ever read. Lantolf gives no proper account of the fundamental dialectical propositions that all theories are relative and that change occurs in the struggle between opposites. So I move directly to what Lantolf says about Vygotsky, which is that Vygotsky realized the need to answer the ontological question: What is the nature of human cognition?

Here’s my summary of Lantolf’s summary of Vygotsky. Vygotsky argued that the fundamental dialectical process that gives rise to human thinking is the interpenetration of two different forms of matter: the human brain, which is subject to the laws of biological evolution, and human social activity. Thus, consciousness is the consequence of social activity reflected in the human brain. Vygotsky’s methodology is based on the fundamental notion that it is only in “movement that a body shows what it is” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 65). By movement Vygotsky meant the study of the history of a process as it emerges and changes over time. Vygotsky divided his “genetic method” into four domains: phylogenesis (comparisons of human and primate psychology); sociogenesis (the development of human social formations and artifacts and their impact on thinking); ontogenesis (the development of individuals throughout their lives as they came into contact with different social formations and artifacts); and microgenesis (experimental research designed to provoke development over the course of relatively short time periods). Vygotsky referred to microgenesis as experimental-developmental, the goal being to create cognitive development under laboratory conditions so as to understand how people appropriate and internalize different forms of mediation as they engage in practical tasks.

Here comes the rub. Lantolf says “For Vygotsky, explanation is achieved not through prediction but through reconstruction and construction, which entails ontogenesis and experimental-developmental research. Prediction and hypothesis testing are predicated on a genetic epistemology. For instance, the theory predicts that changes in sociocultural circumstances are likely to effect changes in psychological processing”. Lantolf gives a few examples, one being Luria’s (1976) research among Uzbek peasant populations in the 1930s, whose thinking changed from a highly functional and pragmatic mode to a more abstract and taxonomic mode as a consequence of schooling.

Lantolf goes on to discuss Clark (1998, 1999) who, following a line of reasoning that parallels Vygotsky’s, argued that the human brain evolved in such a way as to take advantage of the affordances provided by the environment to carry out cognitive processes. Clark refers to the bodily and environmental components of thinking as “wideware.” The idea of wideware is that aspects of the social environment are necessary components of cognitive processing in a way that parallels how other species integrate some aspects of the physical environment into their behavior. Clark (1999) gives the example of bluefin tuna. Given their physical attributes, bluefin tuna should not be able to execute the sudden directional shifts and rapid acceleration in swimming speeds they are noted for. They are able to carry out these behaviors because they have learned to exploit the vortices and changing currents of the ocean, and this enables them to perform swimming behaviors that their bodies alone are incapable of. Hence, the bluefin is not just a fish, but a “fish-as-embedded-in” its environment (Clark, 1999, p. 345). Similarly, Lantolf argues, humans exploit their environment as “agents-operating-with-mediational-means” (Wertsch, 1998, p. 24). For instance, to multiply large numbers (e.g., 3,454 × 9,759), most of us reach for pen and paper. As sociocultural artifacts, these tools allow us to reduce what would otherwise be a complex multiplication process to a series of simpler calculations . If the artifacts are withheld, most of us can’t solve the problem. In this example, the paper and pencil are the wideware elements that allow humans to carry out a process that their brains, acting alone, would find hard to complete.

Bringing all this to bear on language learning and teaching, Lantolf claims “we would expect that, under different social circumstances, language development would vary”. So learning a new language in educational settings would be a different cognitive process from learning the same language in immersion settings. In the former environment, “properly organized instruction provokes rather than follows development”, whereas a different developmental route can be expected among those who acquire language exclusively by immersion, where “they do not often receive systematic or well-organized mediation”. Lantolf says “We are currently assessing this hypothesis”, which strikes me as flying in the face of a lot of evidence, but he doesn’t tell us how the hypothesis is being “assessed”. Lantolf then mentions the work of X. Zhang (2014) which, he says “has demonstrated that a pedagogical intervention designed according to sociocultural theory educational principles does alter the developmental path proposed by processability theory for topicalization in L2 Chinese ”.

Lantolf finishes by saying, as if his text had made it clear: “There is no gap. Building a bridge, therefore, is an unneeded act that would result in a bridge to nowhere”.

Hulstijn: Epistemological remarks on a social-cognitive gap in the study of second language learning and teaching

Hulstijn elsewhere acknowledges that he has made extensive use of my book (Jordan, 2004) in developing his viewpoint, so, not surprisingly then, I agree with most, although not all of what he says here.

Hulstijn lists “a number of considerations and evaluation criteria instrumental in making sense of differences in theories and their epistemological stances”, which he hopes will promote “better understanding across epistemological lines”. He first asks “Are we dealing with differences with respect to epistemology?” He suggests that if one scholar is a relativist, and the other subscribes to Popper’s (1959) critical rationalism, the gap cannot be bridged because the two epistemological stances are incommensurable. “Note that this epistemological divide does not necessarily run along the borders between Vygotskian and non-Vygotskian approaches, between social and cognitive theories, or between qualitative and quantitative methods in applied linguistics”.

Next, “Are theoretical constructs proposed as requiring bottom-up empirical evidence for their existence (“research-then-theory”), or are they proposed as not in need of direct empirical support (“theory-then-testing”; Jordan, 2004, p. 46)?” Hulstijn gives the example of pre-Chomskyan structuralists adopting the bottom-up stance, while linguists working in the generative school work from the top down. The abstract constructs in a structuralist theory rest inductively on empirical evidence. For example, the phoneme construct in structuralist work offers empirical means to determine whether or not a sound-like phenomenon is assigned the status of phoneme. In contrast, a theory in the generative school of linguistics may consist of many unobservable abstract constructs, as long as hypotheses can be derived from a theory that can be empirically tested (supported or falsified). In the top-down approach, testing theory-driven hypotheses is the way to accept or reject a construct in the theory’s attempt to explain a phenomenon.

Third, “Do the two theories try to solve the same problem? Do they have the same object of inquiry?” A theory that attempts to understand the behavior of students and teachers in L2 classrooms cannot be directly compared with a theory that attempts to address the so-called learnability question in the field of SLA (Why do L2 learners produce grammatical utterances that they have never heard or seen?). Under the heading “Assumptions”, Hulstijn asks “Is it possible to distinguish, in each scholar’s theory, between (a) the fundamental part that is not proposed as testable (the theory’s assumptions or postulates) and (b) the part that is proposed as testable — that is, the part from which testable hypotheses can be derived?” He answers “Although differences in (b) can, in principle, be settled by empirical research, differences in (a) cannot be settled on rational grounds, and, in this case, we can speak of an unbridgeable gap”. Most theories consist of two parts. The first part is their conceptual basis, comprising a number of assumptions that are not falsifiable. Built on this conceptual basis, the theory’s second part consists of an explanation that is proposed as testable. For example, SLA researchers who adopt Chomsy’s generative framework assume that both L1 learners and L2 learners acquire abstract properties of the target language which are undetermined by the input. The “povery of the stimulus” argument suggests that the input is insufficient to explain the acquisition of such properties. This assumption explains the acquisition of, for example, wh-movement by L1 and L2 learners of English (White, 2007), but it cannot be falsified within generative linguistics itself. If one does not want to accept this assumption, one has to construct another theory with other assumptions. For instance, emergentist theories of language acquisition do not assume that L1 and L2 acquisition are constrained by abstract linguistic knowledge. Instead, they assume that the input does suffice for both L1 and L2 acquisition by postulating general learning principles not specific to language learning.

But theories which include no claims which can be tested by empirical investigation, theories, that is, which consist of a set of views, would not qualify as theories for critical rationalists because, for them, falsification of testable claims is the hallmark of inquiry. Hulstijn says: “If I understand Lantolf’s position correctly, the materialist approach to psychology in Vygotsky’s theory is proposed as a postulate that cannot be tested within the theory. However, Lantolf also formulates a claim derived from the theory—namely, that changes in sociocultural circumstances are likely to bring about changes in psychological processing. He cites a study in progress to test alternative claims with respect to processes of second language development, emanating from sociocultural theory and processability theory (Pienemann, 1998).

Hulstijn then lists criteria proposed by Kuhn (1977) for assessing rival therories, which he acknowledges are unacceptable “for extreme relativists”. These are coherence; testability; (What is the empirical evidence for the theories?); scope (Which and how many phenomena can they account for?); fruitfulness (Do the theories open avenues for new insights and new research?); and simplicity (If the two theories score equally well on the other four criteria, we select the one with fewer constructs, for reasons of economy).

Hulstijn concludes “When I compare the debate and personal communications during and after the colloquium with the relativist-rationalist debate in the 1990s (e.g., with Block, 1996, in one camp, and Gregg, Long, Jordan, & Beretta, 1997, in the other — for more references to this debate, see Jordan, 2004, pp. 1–3), it occurs to me that there are two differences between then and now that give reason for optimism. First … there is no single social-cognitive gap in L2 learning and teaching research: Differences in stance may be a matter of epistemology, .. but they may alternatively constitute a matter of ontology (the part of the theory that is proposed as untestable). Second, there appears to be a willingness to listen to voices from the other side and to enter into a dialogue not characterized by acrimony”.

Part 2: Data and Research Methods

Mackey: Exploring Questions of Balance in Interaction Research

Mackey notes that “in the initial version of the interaction hypothesis, few claims were made in relation to the social factors that underlie interaction. In the last few years, “a reenvisioned and current version of the interaction approach has begun to take off (see, e.g., Mackey, 2012)”. This new version takes “a more cyclical view” where qualitative research often provides insights into social factors and is then followed up by quantitative research. The same process occurs when controlled laboratory research uncovers constructs that can then be explored in classrooms. Keeping this cycle in mind addresses the issue of balance: we need to balance “the cognitive, the social, the laboratory, and the classroom, bearing in mind the goals of the research”.

Mackey argues that including social variables is now part of other work related to interaction research. For example, with regard to Robinson’s (2001) cognition hypothesis and task complexity, recent work reported by Révész and Gilabert (2013) described methodological advances in task research where a a cognitive orientation is influenced by social concerns. Révész and Gilabert, for example, looked at learners’ perceptions of difficulty and mental effort, supplementing external theories and claims about difficulty by triangulating data from the learners’ perspectives. Another example is Young’s (2009) work which recognizes that communicative tasks have a history, and argues that understanding what learners do in a task requires looking at the various aspects of their history with that task and what it means for them. Mackey concludes “As the interaction hypothesis and task-based approaches to learning continue to evolve, it seems logical to me that those taking a more cognitive approach and those taking a more social approach will benefit from working together”.

Mackey asks “How can cognitively oriented research most productively include socially oriented methodologies and vice versa? … How do we go about creating research questions that do not all suppose a priori constructs? And how do we adopt new methods, adapt current methods, and combine methods?” She suggests that “to do this most effectively, collaboration is an essential requirement”. As a final example, Mackey cites a study she carried out with Jenefer Philp, published in 2010. “What the Philp and Mackey (2010) study led me to believe is that my own perspective has evolved and now falls somewhere between quantitative and qualitative and between a primarily cognitive and a primarily social approach. This led me to ask how researchers from each perspective do what the other party is trained to do when (a) we do not have the skill set in methodology and (b) we are not fully confident in the framework”.

Talmy: Toward an Interpretivist Turn in L2 studies: Reflexivity, the Cognitive-Social Divide, and Beyond

Talmy asks a few questions at the beginning of his piece, but says himself that the main part of his contribution can be found in the second half. I can find little argument in any of the text, so I’ll limit myself to the following.

Talmy says: “The engagement with ontology and epistemology that I am talking about in terms of method might be called—in its strong version, at least— an interpretivist turn and—in a less strong version, perhaps—a reflexive turn”. Talmy adopts Alvesson and Skoldberg’s (2009) view of interpretation, which states that “all references …. to empirical data are the results of interpretation”. The idea that measurements, observations, and the analysis of data reflects reality is “rejected on principle”. Meanwhile, reflexivity is “the launching of a critical self-exploration of one’s own interpretations of empirical material” (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2009, p. 9). Talmy continues “It is a “problematizing practice” (Pennycook, 2001, pp. 41–45) that includes consideration of the inherent value-laden-ness of research and of representational politics (Giroux, 1992). These interpretations of the interpretation can then be considered for their epistemological and ontological assumptions, for what they offer, for what they do not offer, and for points of contact and commonalities as well as divergences and disjunctures between alternative interpretive frames. With such reflexivity, “the center of gravity is shifted from the handling of empirical material towards a consideration of the perceptual, cognitive, theoretical, linguistic, (inter)textual, political and cultural circumstances that form the backdrop to — as well as [infuse] — the interpretations” (Alvesson and Skoldberg, 2009, p. 9; also see Giddens, 1976; Pascale, 2011)”.

Talmy ends by saying that an interpretivist turn “essentially engages Giddens’s (1976) notion of the double hermeneutic. As Giddens observed, social scientific research stands in a “subject-subject relation” to its object of inquiry (contra a “subject-object” relation in the natural sciences); that is, it is embedded in its subject matter: human society (pp. 146–147). Thus, “the creation and reproduction of meaning-frames [i.e., paradigms] is a very condition of that which it seeks to analyse” (Giddens, 1976, p. 158). An interpretivist turn compels a discursive space in which the explicit mediation of such “meaning-frames” can occur. This provides opportunities to engage with issues of ontology and epistemology that are sidestepped at the level of method. It turns theory and method “back on itself” to consider how researchers’ “location carries privileges and secures particular forms of authority . . . regarding who speaks, under what conditions, and for whom” (Giroux, 1992, p. 222). This applies to epistemologies and paradigms that are well represented in research in language learning and teaching as well as to ones that, unfortunately, are not (e.g., indigenous, feminist, critical, Queer, postcolonial, postmodern, Green, and more), thus offering additionally intriguing possibilities for the sort of interpretive turn that I am suggesting. From such a position, it is acknowledged that there are multiple—not just two—ways of seeing, knowing, and understanding the world and of conceptualizing, researching, and representing phenomena. From such a position, rather than arguing ad nauseam over who is right and who is wrong (“the ding-dong of point-scoring that sometimes accompanies, and sometimes masquerades as, academic debate” [Edge, 2004, p. 718]), we see what one perspective offers in terms of another, what that other offers in terms of the former, how they diverge, how they may converge, and so on, and we engage that.

In sum, the sort of interpretivist turn that I am suggesting is predicated on reflexivity, a reflexivity that extends beyond method to paradigm. In this view, one’s paradigmatic commitments, whatever they are, can be maintained, but they are made explicit and are addressed, discussed, compared, and contrasted in a language game that all L2 researchers play, one that centrally concerns epistemology and ontology. An interpretivist turn grounded in such a thoroughgoing reflexivity is one way I believe that a generative, shared understanding across paradigms in L2 studies might be attempted. Contributors to this article (especially Mackey and Bigelow) offer examples of precisely the sorts of reflexivity that I am proposing and the advantages that can derive from it”.

 Young: “Methods and data: Tangled Up in Blue

Young starts by using Fleck’s (1935/1979) ideas to describe the community of persons researching L2 learning and teaching as “a thought collective”, and the understandings they produce of the diverse phenomena of L2 learning and teaching studied as a “thought style”. Young then recommends Fleck’s version of Kuhn’s famous incommensurability argument which sees the conflict arising from three differences in thought style. First, echoing Wittgenstein’s (1953/2001) concept of the language-game, Fleck says that the language used by members of a thought collective to describe what appears to them as reality differs from one thought collective to another. Second, the phenomena which members of a thought collective find interesting are constructs of their thought style. Third, what researchers within one thought style see, people working within a different thought style do not see, and thus they think differently about phenomena. Young thinks that this account of incommensurability illuminates the perceived gap between researchers investigating linguistic-cognitive issues and those using a sociocultural or sociocognitive framework of research in L2 learning and teaching. It suggests that although researchers in L2 learning and teaching investigate the same phenomenon (namely “bilingual cognition”), “some see it as neural activation at the interface between the cortex and the limbic system, whereas others see the genesis of cognition in cultural artifacts, social interaction, and the socioeconomic environment of individuals. Within these different thought collectives, different thought styles envisage the nature of bilingual cognition in their own and very different ways”.

Young goes on to discuss two cases which show that differences in methodology may in fact be reconcilable. The first case concerns conversation analysis. While conversation analysts generally do not use quantitative analysis (when analysts count, they are not counting instances of what to the participants are necessarily the same thing), Fox et al. (2009), while investigating same-turn self-repair, compared this phenomenon across seven different languages. By means of quantitative comparisons across the seven languages, Fox and colleagues found that the sites favoring self-repair initiation within the same turn in the different languages depend to a large extent on the syllabic and morphemic properties of words in the language. The second example is Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam (2008)’s study of the relationship between language learning aptitude in adults and children and their eventual nativelikeness. Abrahamsson and Hyltenstam confirmed a correlation between quantitative measures of aptitude and nativelikeness (stronger in adults but weaker in children), but their analysis also revealed that the rare nativelike adults all turned out to be exceptionally talented language learners whose unusual ability is worth investigating further by qualitative means. Young concludes that neither quantitative nor qualitative research methods
should be taken as unquestioned thought styles within their respective thought collectives.

Young then moves to Fleck’s theory of thought style. Having given a few examples of thought styles, he says: “The habits of mind—the phenomena to which researchers attend and how they analyze and interpret them—characterize a thought style. But neither thought styles nor thought collectives are immutable, and the examples of perspectival change reported by Mackey (this article), Cavalcanti (1983), and Zanotto et al. (2008) show how changes in the thought styles of individuals index historical development within a particular thought collective. What this implies is that, instead of looking at the differences between social approaches and cognitive approaches to research in L2 learning and teaching (the thought collectives), it is more fruitful to consider the thought styles of individual investigators, their activities, their habits of mind, and how they position themselves within the social process of investigation and publication”.

Young turns finally to two related issues “within an interpretive perspective” How is the work of researchers in L2 learning and teaching disseminated, and how is their work interpreted in the social world? His answer is that “We read literature in fields that interest us and disseminate our research in journals that we read, and, as a result, the thought collective reproduces itself”. Young says that while one journal defines itself as “a scientific journal dedicated to the understanding of language learning broadly defined,” another journal broadcasts its mission as publishing “research and discussion about the learning and teaching of foreign and second languages.” The first journal mentions science, and the second mentions teaching; and, says Young “perhaps, one journal appeals more to mathematicians, the other to carpenters’ wives”. In any case, due to the economics of publishing, both journals limit the length of articles to less than 10,000 words. This, says Young, penalises authors using interpretive methods of ethnography, case study, narrative inquiry, and even metaanalyses, while imposing few constraints on “reports of experiments, archival analyses, or other methods in which numerical representation of L2 phenomena restricts consideration of the multiple contexts in which languages are learned and limits attention to differences among learners”.


Part 3: Unsolved Problems and Unasked Questions

Nick Ellis: Cognitive and Social Language Usage

Ellis begins by saying that diverse questions require different methods. As we research all of our questions, we will incrementally develop a better understanding of language. But we need an additional understanding of how the pieces fit together. “Distrust any theory that claims that you can comprehensively study a component in isolation: syntax separate from lexis or semantics, form from function, representation from processing, diachronic from synchronic, knowledge from experience, behavior from brain, competence from usage, and so on (N. C. Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, 2006). Especially pertinent here is the social-cognitive gap. Such partitioning leads to theoretical, ontological, and social isolation; self-aggrandizement; and autistic hostility. Diversity is powerfully creative if there is chance of interaction (Darwin, 1859/1928; Holland, 1998; Page, 2008, 2010)”. From analyses of large usage corpora, we can analyze the latent structures of language and their roles in the associative and cognitive learning of language (N. C. Ellis et al., 2013). But in addition to forms there are their meanings. “Usage-based theories hold that an individual’s creative linguistic competence emerges from the collaboration of the memories of all the meaningful interactions in his or her entire history of language usage. Cognitive linguistics (Croft & Cruise, 2004; Langacker, 2000; Robinson and Ellis, 2008) provides detailed analyses of how language is grounded.

Ellis says that usage-based approaches emphasize how language is learned in social and cultural contexts where people communicate their intentions, concepts, and meaning with others. “Socially scaffolded noticing (Schmidt, 1990) solves Quine’s (1969) problem of referential indeterminacy and builds so much more. The dynamics of language learning are inextricably linked to the dynamics of consciousness, in neural activity and in the social world as well (U. Frith and Frith, 2010). Input to the associative network is gated by consciousness, and consciousness is coconstructed in social interaction (N. C. Ellis, 2005; C. Frith, 2010)”.

Ellis continues “From the very name of the field, you can tell that there is no social-cognitive divide within contemporary social cognitive neuroscience”. Ellis argues that large, longitudinal corpora of language use with audio, video, transcriptions, and multiple layers of annotation for data sharing in open archives are needed so as to chart learners’ usage history and their development (Tomasello & Stahl, 2004). “We need them in sufficient detail that we can get down to the fine detail of CA analyses of the moment (Kasper & Wagner, 2011). Brian MacWhinney has long been working toward these ends, first with the Child Language Data Exchange System (CHILDES; MacWhinney, 1991) and then with Talkbank (MacWhinney, 2007). These projects have developed various computerized language analysis (CLAN) tools for computer analyses of large bodies of data, right down to, in collaboration with Johannes Wagner, tools for a fine-grained CA bank. With these types of data, we can study the cognitive and the social. This way the future lies. These are huge contributions to language acquisition research, though, at the moment, the data are relatively sparse. We need much more, especially for studies of L2 learning and teaching”.

Ellis concludes: “There is no social-cognitive gap”.

Bigelow: Blending Social and Cognitive Research Traditions in Language Learning and Teaching: A Matter of Mentoring and Modeling 

Bigelow suggests that “the main reason for bridging methodological approaches is to make our research stronger and our findings more grounded and, hopefully, more useful to others”. While Bigelow’s faculty does research that uses quantitative, qualitative, or mixed methods as well as ethnographic, hermeneutic, and phenomenological approaches, they notice that the students struggle to produce research complying with norms of the established cognitive research tradition. For example, students’ doctoral dissertation research, “in an effort to be situated, culturally sensitive, and aware of learners as individuals (not just as a L1 group or a nationality), may not have enough participants to allow for inferential statistics and theory building in the cognitivist realm. This tendency results in students choosing designs that are not quantitative, yet hoping to produce knowledge that contributes to ongoing cognitivist dialogues, particularly dialogues about language development”.

Thus, Bigelow argues, “the methodological and epistemological challenges students face are the result of the traditions or heritage in our field. These traditions often support a damaging dichotomy of ideologies as well as a lack of role models who do the work our students hope to do”. In answer to the question of what cane be done, Bigelow says “I believe the best we can do is to trust our students’ new reading of the field and defend their choices to do innovative work that bridges cognitive and social approaches”.

Ortega: The cognitive-social Gap: Multiple Understandings, Hopeful Commensurabilities 

Ortega attempts to round things up, and begins with Ellis, whose suggestion that cognitive and social dimensions must be addressed by different communities is mitigated by the theoretical integration which he finds in usage-based approaches. This family of theories stipulates that the cognitive and the social, the abstract and the physical, and even the empirical and the meditative create layers of phenomena that, at the metatheoretical level, are interdependent and must be integrated into explanations of human cognition (MacWhinney, 1999; Varela, Thompson, & Rosch, 1991). “When complementarity in epistemic independence is looked at from this integrative metatheoretical perspective, a bridge is built that invites the traveler to cease viewing the cognitive-social gap as a threat”.

Ortega then discusses Bigelow and Mackey, whose combination of qualitative and quantitative research methods point to a bridge in the gap. Bigelow blends the two dimensions in her own research, within single studies and within the same research program, while Mackey recounts how her research practices and overall research program changed to better balance social and cognitive factors. Ortega judges that theoretical pressures to bridge the gap such as those underlying Mackey’s case are very different from the bottom-up, real-world pressures described by Bigelow.

Ortega thinks Holbrook’s (2013) reflective invention model gives a helpful account of incommensurability, or “(in)commensurability” as she prefers to say. The model “predicts that attempts at establishing understanding across epistemic boundaries will eventually lead to communicative breakdown precisely because each interlocutor, by virtue of being a member of a different thought collective, holds different assumptions and plays by different rules of the game of knowledge construction. (This is the perspective emphasized in the contributions to this article by DeKeyser, Hulstijn, Talmy, and Young.) The breakdown point marks the recognition of belonging to different epistemic discourses”. If we answer by reasserting our (disciplinary) identities, we forego the possibility of strong (interdisciplinary) communication, which is only possible if one is prepared to sacrifice one’s identity to the possibility of co-creating a new, shared genre of discourse.

Ortega asks if researchers who are members of complementary yet independent research communities can really communicate with each other. She cites a panel of natural and social scientists, charged by the European Science Foundation to evaluate felicitous conditions for interdisciplinary collaborations (ESF Standing Committee for the Social Sciences, 2013). They suggested that tolerance of ambiguity, trust, and self-reflexivity may be among the needed ingredients. On the other hand, Ortega sees the key condition supporting commensurability from the poststructuralist perspective as being “a willingness to transcend dichotomous epistemic boundaries. Two good candidates for doing this are the construct of an interstitial view offered by postcolonial literary theorist Bhabha (1994/2004) and the notion of “world”-traveling proposed by feminist philosopher Lugones (2003)”.

Ortega concludes by saying “the preservation and coexistence of a degree of incommensurability within the field, or the cultivation of epistemological pluralism, is a good thing (Ortega, 2011). It may be wiser, therefore, to think of commensurabilities, in plural, as strategically chosen acts whose value is contingent on local purposes and dynamic conditions, acts that are always unfinished and ongoing, in a precarious but hopeful temporary balance”.

I’ll write a separate post giving my opinion of all this, and, meanwhile, I hope it generates some comments.


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