English Language Teachers and Learners as Anthropologists

I can hear many anthropologists guffaw when I suggest that some English language teachers and some of their students may be thinking like and acting like anthropologists in their work and studies.  As I am reading through James Clifford’s book Routes it has become clear to me that one of my strongest motivations to teach and learn languages is for anthropological reasons, and I believe I have colleagues with the same motivations.

Fieldwork and Privilege

I am enjoying reading Clifford’s book so far because it helps me understand my work as both an English language teacher and as a researcher on the cultures associated with English language education.  My dissertation focused on sojourning English language teachers, some of whom were informally conducting fieldwork in the host country.  Evidence for this is quite easy these days through the internet.  Searching for blogs and YouTube videos about teaching English abroad can show you a wide range of teachers providing their interpretations of the host culture and the field of English language teaching, ranging from respectfully insightful to naively shallow.  Some of these examples can be found on my list of current and former sojourning ELTs in the right column of this blog.

What is “traditional” fieldwork?  According to Clifford (p.63), it “has become a ‘problem’ because of its positivist and colonialist historical associations (the field as ‘laboratory,’ the field as place of ‘discovery’ for privileged sojourners).”  This problem sounds a lot like the problem with education, in which the classroom is the laboratory for teachers to experiment with new teaching approaches and technology.  For sojourning ELTs, perhaps most of us are privileged.  One could undertake a research study to investigate the discourse of privilege and discovery in ELT texts and speech, such as their blogs and YouTube videos.  Some may ask, “But won’t that tell us what we already know?  That sojourning ELTs are a privileged group taking advantage of the economic disadvantages of non-native English speakers?”  I argue that this is likely an institutional or social problem (capitalism in education) more than an individual one.

Let’s take another perspective of fieldwork, that of the language learner.  I have had some students (privileged to say the least) that enroll in English language programs outside of their home country to explore the host country as a laboratory.  In this case, the student is the privileged sojourner.  In fact, I have come across many blogs and online videos created by foreign language students overseas sharing their process of discovery.  This supports the Clifford’s claim that the sojourners are often the privileged ones, and it’s not necessarily the teacher-student power dynamics.  Admittedly, the English language holds the most financial power in the world right now.  So the privilege is tilted towards the teacher rather than the student as opposed to most other languages.

Fieldwork and Academia

In Chapter 3, Clifford discusses how traditional “in-depth” fieldwork used to be the most distinguishing research method of the anthropologist. On page 63, he suggests that “the distinctive spatial practices that have defined anthropology tend to be reasserted–often in nonnegotiable ways” when graduate students’ “field” projects are approved, which asserts the institutional boundary between anthropology and cultural studies.  After just recently earning my PhD in another field (education) with a specialization in sociocultural anthropology, I have become aware of these institutionally political borders.  Because I’m still quite new in the world of postdoctorate academia, I am unaware of what academic communities and individuals will welcome me and which will shut me out.  (“Publishing” on a blog may have already created and destroyed some opportunities to join some communities.)

During my last year before defending my dissertation, I came to the conclusion that the mindsets and research methods from sociocultural anthropology were what I valued most from taking courses in that discipline.  So I was pleased to read Clifford’s speculation, “Perhaps fieldwork will become merely a research tool rather than an essential disposition or professional marker” (p.64).  This was published nearly 20 years ago, so from my graduate courses it seems to me that it has become more of a research tool for interdisciplinary work.  Although, I believe all of my peers majoring in anthropology were still required to conduct fieldwork for many months.

Fieldwork and the Internet

I’m new to this type of endeavor.  My dissertation and one of my current studies uses the internet as fieldwork.  Clifford calls this type of research “electronic travel,” which he believes may be accepted by some anthropologists.  However, he found that many of his peers would not supervise a PhD dissertation based on this.  This is also 20 years ago, so I hope times have changed the discipline here.  My experience at the University of Iowa showed me that the Department of Communication Studies has accepted this type of research.  It would be a shame if the boundary between communication studies and anthropology was determined by the use of the internet as fieldwork.

Yes, the Internet has “disrupted” (a trendy term to describe innovative technology) education, but I believe it has become a space for learning, teaching, and research.  Some English language teachers and learners spend much of their time online, so we should not ignore their development when they go there.

I expect to blog more about this subject as I am not yet finished reading this James Clifford’s book.


One thought on “English Language Teachers and Learners as Anthropologists

  1. […] The rest of the flowchart covers cultural sensitivity summarized by the last question, “Does [my blog post] require a deeper cultural knowledge than I possess?”  I think this is an important question for reflection, and in most cases the answer will be “yes.”  I disagree that one needs to study more in all uncertain cases.  Sometimes blogging is a good way to reach out when you are aware that you need more cultural knowledge that cannot be learned from books or from the immediate vicinity of your home or workplace.  If you’re really serious about deeper cultural knowledge about Korea, then you’re on your way to becoming a sociocultural anthropologist. […]


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