* Relativism and SLA


In a lot of MA programmes there is increasing attention being given to relativist views. The usual stomping ground of relativists is Discourse Analysis and particularly Critical Discourse Analysis, where the views of the likes of Fairclough are discussed. But relativists are also keen to challenge what they see as the dominant “positivist” paradigm in SLA. Positivism was a dead duck before it started, but it’s a convenient label for those who want to challenge what might be better described as a rationalist view of research, where empirical evidence and logic are the two main pillars. Here’s a quick overview, taken from my book on Theory Construction in SLA.

Those in the SLA academic community who adopt a relativist, postmodernist position, deny the idea of any objective reality external to the observer, and claim that there are a multiplicity of realities, all of which are social constructs. The adoption of the view that the construction of reality is a social process means that there can be no one “best” theory of anything: there are simply different ways of looking at, seeing, and talking about things, each with its own perspective, each with its own set of explicit or implicit rules which members of the social group construct for themselves. Thus science, for example, is just one specific type of social construction, a particular kind of language game which has no more claim to objective truth than any other. In SLA research, those who take this view see the need to fight what they see as the outdated and suffocating “positivist” paradigm which currently dominates the field, and to replace it with their own methodology. Let us look at a few short examples of this point of view.

Schumann (1983) suggests that SLA research should be viewed as both art and science. As an example of the artistic perspective Schumann suggests viewing the opposing accounts of Krashen and McLaughlin of conscious and unconscious learning as “two different paintings of the language learning experience – as reality symbolised in two different ways… Viewers can choose between the two on an aesthetic basis, favouring the painting which they find to be phenomenologically true to their experience” (Schumann, 1983: 74).

Lantolf (1996a) suggests that scientific theories are metaphors, that the acceptance of “standard scientific language” within a discipline “diminishes the productivity of the scientific endeavour” and that “to keep a field fresh and vibrant, one must create new metaphors” (Lantolf, 1996a, 756).

Firth and Wagner (1997) argue that SLA research should be “reconceptualiized” so as to “enlarge the ontological and empirical parameters of the field”. They continue: “We claim that methodologies, theories and foci within SLA reflect an imbalance between cognitive and mentalistic orientations, and social and contextual orientations to language, the former orientation being unquestionably in the ascendancy” (Firth and Wagner, 1997: 143). At the end of their paper they say: “although SLA has the potential to make significant contributions to a wide range of research issues, that potential is not being realised while the field in general perpetuates the theoretical imbalances and skewed perspectives on discourse and communication” (Firth and Wagner, 1997: 285).

Block (1996) argues that the field of SLA is under the sway of a ruling ideology, and in the course of a plea for a wider view of SLA research, Block challenges some central assumptions held by what he sees as the ruling clique. The assumptions that Block objects to include that there is any such thing as “normal science”, that a multiplicity of theories is problematic, that replication studies are helpful, and that there is an “ample body” of “accepted findings” within SLA research. Finally Block argues that one problem for the SLA community, which stems from its being under the sway of such misleading assumptions, is that those who attempt to challenge them do not get a fair opportunity to voice and promote their alternative views.

Markee (1994) notes that: “a few writers have valiantly attempted to stem the nomothetic tide”, but that “these have been voices crying in the applied linguistic wilderness” (Markee, 1994: 91). The “hermeneutic scientific tradition” that Markee would like to see given at least equal footing with its nomothetic big brother replaces explanation with understanding, replaces “objective, value-free language” with “the ordinary language of social actors and their lay explanations of everyday experience.” (Markee, 1994: 92), and replaces a mathematical statistical explanation of a phenomenon with an explanation “that is constructed in terms of lay participants’ real-time understanding of the phenomenon” (Markee, 1994: 93).

We need, I think, to separate two different issues which have been wrongly bundled together by the relativists. The two issues I refer to can be summed up in these questions:

1. What phenomena need explaining and what range of opinions should be expressed in the SLA research community?
2. How should we explain the phenomena of SLA?

When Firth and Wagner (1997) argue for “a reconceptualization of SLA research that would enlarge the ontological and empirical parameters of the field”, they would seem to be making a plea for more attention to be paid to sociolinguistics and discourse analysis, and for SLA research to be liberated from the domination of “Chomskian thinking”. But there is another argument in the Firth and Wagner paper, namely that those working in psycholinguistics are dominated by the views of a small group of researchers who insist that SLA research be carried out according to “established” and “normal” scientific standards. Firth and Wagner argue that there is something deeply wrong with such a position, and they go on to suggest that SLA research should throw off the assumptions of scientific enquiry and adopt a relativist epistemology which holds that there is not one reality, that all science is political, that all statements are theory-laden, that theories are a kind of story-telling, and so on. Here the two separate issues mentioned above have become tangled up. As Long puts it “Firth and Wagner attempt to bolster their “social context” case by an unfortunate appeal to epistemological relativism thereby conflating what are two separate issues” (Long, 1999: 3).

Block (1996) makes exactly the same mistake as Firth and Wagner. Block claims that those who attempt to challenge the ruling clique in SLA do not get a fair opportunity to voice and promote their alternative views, and at the same time he claims that the field of SLA is dominated by a certain methodological orthodoxy which should be replaced by a more relativistic alternative. Again, we must separate the issues.

To argue for a shift in focus for SLA research, i.e. for a more multi-theoretical, multi-methodological approach, where research is done from a sociocultural perspective, where a more context-sensitive approach is adopted, where concepts such as “non-native speaker”, “learner”, and “interlanguage” are re-examined with increased “emic” (i.e. participant-relevant) sensitivity, is one thing. To argue that there is no rational way to decide that Theory X is better than Theory Y is another, separate thing. The first issue is a political question about priorities in the distribution of limited research resources, the second issue is about the fundamental questions of what we can know, and of how we should do research. The relativists have every right to argue for more resources to be devoted to their kind of research, and to argue the merits of their kind of approach to theory construction and assessment. But they should clearly separate what are, I repeat,two different issues.

If it is in fact the case that those professing to use a rationalist, deductive research methodology are imposing their methods on others, and are insensitive to the value of “home-grown ways of thinking”, then I would be the first to urge them to stop such an imposition, and to listen to different points of view. What I would not ask them to do is stop criticising, or to abandon their methodology.

The important issue concerns explanation. While I hold a rationalist, realist position, the relativists claim that such views are obsolete and blinkering. This is an epistemological issue. As an example we can take the suggestion that scientific theories are metaphors, that the acceptance of “standard scientific language” within a discipline “diminishes the productivity of the scientific endeavour” and that “to keep a field fresh and vibrant, one must create new metaphors.” Nobody, I suppose, would question that terms like “input” “processing” and “output” are metaphors, and it is certainly worth reminding oneself that they are metaphors. But, from my side of the fence, scientific theories are not just metaphors, they are attempted explanations of events that take place in a real world and they are open to empirical tests which support or falsify them and thus make it possible for us to choose rationally between them.

To the extent that researchers need to be flexible, to be imaginative, to open up to unlikely possibilities, to brainstorm, to “fly kites”, etc., I would completely endorse Schumann’s suggestion that SLA research should be viewed as both art and science. I have no objection to looking at Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s theories as “paintings”, as reality symbolised in two different ways, but sooner or later, I suggest, we will need to scrutinise Krashen’s and McLaughlin’s accounts in order to check their validity, and to subject them to empirical tests. On the basis of such scrutiny, by uncovering ill-defined terms, contradictions, etc., and by seeing how they stand up to empirical tests, we will be able to evaluate the two accounts and make some tentative choice between them. First, they cannot both be correct: McLaughlin suggests that conscious learning affects language production, while Krashen denies this. Second, they suggest different ways of continuing the search for answers to the question of interlanguage development, and different pedagogical applications, and researchers have to have some reasons to choose between them. Krashen’s account is seriously flawed since, first, its terms are almost circular, and second, there is very little empirical content in it These, to the rationalist, are extremely serious defects. Schumann suggests that: “Neither position is correct; they are simply alternative representations of reality” (Schumann, 1983: 75). It may well turn out that neither position is correct, and they are certainly alternative representations of reality; but if the implication is that there is no way, other than an appeal to our own subjective aesthetic sense, to decide between them, then here lies the fundamental disagreement between rationalists and extreme relativists.

References in this post can be found in the References section of this website, under SLA.

4 thoughts on “* Relativism and SLA

  1. Sorry, Russ, I missed this. Thanks for your comment. I’ll go along with my new moderate tone and just say that I share your “strong dislike”. 🙂


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