ELTs in Cultural Sociology

My interest in sojourning ELTs is a multi-disciplinary interest. It seems obvious that the fields of TESOL and applied linguistics are at the center of this interest. Broadly speaking, TESOL (or TEFL) focuses the practices of ELTs and applied linguistics focuses on the knowledge of ELTs. Of course, most TESOL and applied linguistics programs focus on a mix of these areas. However, I find that these areas do not help provide me with theoretical frameworks when studying adjustment processes and the culture learning of ELTs. For these, I need to look into the fields of psychology and sociocultural anthropology, the latter of which was my cognate area in my doctoral studies. Recently, I have been revisiting cultural sociology. More specifically, I have started reading Routledge International’s Handbook of Cultural Sociology, edited by John R. Hall, Laura Grindstaff, and Ming-Cheng Lo (2010).


The introduction is helping me develop a new perspective on ELT research, specifically one paragraph on page 5.

Most basically, a cultural sociology ought to be grounded in the analysis of everyday social life. As Georg Simmel recognized a century ago–and Charles Tilley (1984) reminded us more recently–“society” is not a thing. Instead, the social consists of networked relationships that develop through face-to-face and mediated interactions. All people live in the lifeworld–or, more accurately, in lifeworlds (plural)–where we enact our lives socially, episodically, in relation to other people.

As a novice in this field, these statements seems quite obvious but the framing helps me look at ELTs in a new light. I believe that ELTs, specifically those who teach far from home, enact their lives differently than most other people. The authors of this introduction, indicate this point has two implications.

First, whatever the ways in which culture exists outside lifeworlds (an important topic in itself), culture that has any specifically sociological bearing would have to come into play within lifeworlds, that is where “society happens.”

How does culture exist outside lifeworlds? Perhaps this is the inner working of ELTs’ minds. This helped me to revisit the concept of “imagined communities,” in which we assume that everyone in our community shares similar values and beliefs. They are imagined because they are not true. So here’s what I believe are the shared values and beliefs of the ELT community, specifically the sojourning ELT community:

  • We believe that immersing ourselves in another culture improves our understanding of humanity
  • We have a strong commitment to improving communication and relations between peoples of different cultures and backgrounds
  • Our strong interest in languages drives our interest in cultures, or (vice-versa) our strong interest in cultures drives our interest in languages
  • Although financial security is important, satisfying our linguistic and/or cultural curiosity is often more important; hence, we are lifelong learners

For some of us, these values and beliefs may only represent a phase of our lives. But for others, they may be the driving force of our lives. Additionally, perhaps it is just one culture that we seek to understand and integrate into, such as the case for some sojourning ELTs. As I’m spending more time in my own country now, I see ELTs here with an equal commitment to a diverse group of cultures.

Second, given the diversity of social phenomena that manifest in lifeworlds (work, leisure activities, bureaucracy, religion, markets, war, social movements, and so on), Simmel’s (and our) concept of the social warrants the shift we have already described, to a cultural sociology concerned with all venues, processes, and meaningful activities in social life.

This last statement illustrates why I believe ELTs deserve more focus in the field of cultural sociology. We are one of the unique areas where we observe social change immediately in our classrooms. Let’s take the recent election of Donald Trump as an example and apply it to the social phenomena listed in the above quote:

  • Work – Our work depends on students’ interest in learning English and the society’s needs for more English language speakers. With a sudden increase in hostility towards immigrants, perhaps many students are not interested in coming to the United States for their (English language) education.
  • Leisure activities – Many ELTs love to travel. With new travel restrictions emerging as actions and reactions to Trump’s policies, travel may become less appealing.
  • Bureaucracy – Visa rules and regulations as well as education systems in many countries. Keeping up with the requirements for both can sometimes overwhelm ELTs.
  • Religion – Muslim ELTs and ELTs of Muslim students are the most obviously affected by recent events
  • Markets – The trend towards privatizing public schools and the ease of teaching and learning English through technology is making the market more competitive. Job security is shrinking, but learning opportunities are expanding. At this point, it’s also hard to determine if the growing supply of ELTs is faster than the growing need of English language skills.
  • War – Compassion for refugees is diminishing in governments that used to provide English language education as part of their services. War also increases mobility of some ELTs while decreasing mobility of others.
  • Social movements – The ELT field is becoming more politicized to defend our beliefs and values as professionals and to advocate for our students

This is what I got out of one paragraph of this 690 page book. At this rate, I may retire before I finish the book.

Practical Applications

So what? The field of TESOL is only marginally interested in this area of study. Knowing teachers doesn’t necessarily improve pedagogy. It also doesn’t add much to the discourse of applied linguistics. Because this is about teachers, I’m sure some teachers are interested, but what about students and administrators?

Since I’m only on page 5 of the handbook, I’ll look into seeing if the fields associated with cultural sociology will benefit from study. As I stated above, I believe ELTs are worthwhile because we are at the crossroads of global social phenomena.


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