ELT Group Cultures and Subcultures

This post is part three of my continuing note-taking series from the Handbook of Cultural Sociology from Routledge International Handbooks, and it shares my thoughts on Gary Alan Fine’s chapter on group cultures and subcultures. I am fascinated by this topic because I have been considering if ELTs or a subset of ELTs can be a culture. I have been theorizing this since I entered the field and gained a stronger sense of this when I stepped out of the field for two years to work as an instructional designer.

A Prescriptive Definition of Culture

Culture should be conceptualized as a set of actions, material objects, and forms of discourse held and used by groups of individuals. In this view culture is a tool that is situated in particular communities of action, shaping the contours of civic life (Fine and Harrington, 2004). As a result, culture is tied to the existence of shared pasts and prospective futures. – Fine, p.213

The first and third sentences are quite general and could be applied to nearly any group of individuals. The second sentence is more specific saying that culture shapes the contours of civic life. As educators, ELTs somewhat do this but I doubt most are aware of the extent they do. From this definition, ELTs are not necessarily a culture unless they affect a larger community or nation.

On the next page of the chapter, Fine suggests that “the study of culture properly belongs to the analysis of groups (clubs, teams, cliques) to networked segments that are tied together through their ongoing interaction, communication, spatial co-presence, or consumption.” In this regard, the analysis of groups pertains to ELTs teaching in the same context (school, program, institution) and the analysis of networks pertains to ELTs connected through social media, conferences, and other types of professional development.

ELT Groups and Idiocultures

Reading through the section of “Groups and idiocultures” reminded me of my first experiences as a sojourning ELTs, specifically in the second paragraph:

Any fully sociological understanding of the creation of group cultures must recognize the extensive institutional influences that impact the local scene, providing the conditions for shared action. The backgrounds (both demographic and habitus) of participants, coupled with the expectations that stem from group interaction, contribute to the expansion of a group’s meaning system when a triggering event occurs–an event that sparks a recognition of collective experiences. – Fine, p.214-215

The extensive institutional influences refers to how the school or program shapes ELTs’ perspectives on the local scene. As a new ELT in Japan, I can confidently claim that my experiences with my colleagues within and outside strongly influenced my perceptions of Japan, at least initially. During my first year especially, there were many triggering events in the school and in the local area that seemed to solidify my identity as a sojourning ELT. This is similar to my doctoral dissertation findings as well.

An idioculture is a term coined by the author in 1979 as “a system of knowledge, beliefs, behaviors, and customs shared by members of an interacting group to which members can refer and employ as the basis of further interaction” (Fine, 1979, p.734). As a new sojourning ELT the idioculture was mainly developed by the institution and its employees with some underpinnings from the greater ELT community. Now, nearly 20 years later, this idioculture is much more based on scholarly work and experiences across different national and institutional contexts. In short, I’m working with a different idioculture from my early days, so my culture has shifted away from exclusively new sojourning ELTs in Japan to the professional ELT community.

Incidentally this shift has helped me develop a greater awareness between the ELT industry and the ELT profession, categories made clear to me only recently by an online exchange on Twitter. The main difference between these two groups is that the ELT industry is profit-driven and the ELT profession in research-driven. However, the privatization of education is blurring this distinction.

The last paragraph is an example of theoretical problems in the sociology of culture. Fine states that “By understanding the dynamics of community and the creation of collective identities, an emphasis on local culture stands ad the critical and often unexplored junction of of the individual and the institutional, thus addressing forms of cohesion as well as disaffiliation” (Fine, p. 216). My example shows I am attempting to disaffiliate myself from the ELT industry, although I work in an institution that depends on student enrollment and retention to keep me employed.

ELT Networks and Their Subcultures

For me, ELT networks refers to professional learning networks, however this is not the direction Fine takes. In this case networks refer to what connects a larger culture group, such as ELTs, in terms of subdivisions. For ELTs, these subdivisions can be classified as special interests (material writing, technology integration, English for Academic Purposes, etc.) and as types of teachers (young learners, EFL, non-native speakers, etc.). This prompted me to design a graphic representation of my networks.


The network is overly simplified because the subgroups should be interconnected. For example, native-speaker should be a part of all of those. (However, I dislike the privilege of native speakers given my advocacy for ELT diversity and equity.) Also, I could have included broader subgroups like EFL that would pertain to my subgroups of English Language Fellows, eikaiwa teachers in Japan, and EFL teacher trainers in Korea. Creating this network helps me to reflect my sense of belonging to each subculture, but I’m not sure how useful this reflection is in the long run.

This map also helps to demonstrate Fine’s four interlocks (or social connections) that “create a shared universe of discourse that can serve as the referent for each local establishment of culture:” multiple-group membership, weak ties, structural roles, and specialized media diffusion.

Multiple Group Membership

The map clearly demonstrates this through my personal example. Currently, I am a member of the following groups: ELT adminstrators, IEP teachers in the US Midwest, native speakers, TESOL members, advocates for ELT diversity & equity, and ELT researchers. I use these linkages to help benefit the whole group, transcending boundaries.

Weak Ties

Most of these subcultures are bounded by weak ties. The strongest may be TESOL members because we must pay to be members, but the group is so large that there’s little cohesion across the whole subculture. The transient nature of our lives and our students’ lives makes many of the ties weak. However, my current IEP culture has several teachers who have worked together for 8+ years, but this does not mean they have stronger ties to each other or the institution.

Structural Roles

This is about the ability to spread information across groups. For example, my role as a researcher puts me in a position to spread more evidence-based information to the IEP teachers where I work. And my role as a TESOL member helps me promote professional development opportunities to my colleagues.

Media Diffusion

This blog is an example of how media can reach several groups simultaneously. Itis part of the ELT researchers subculture and the EFL subcultures, so I am hoping that it spreads information across these groups. I’m not sure how much interest the other subcultures have with the structural role of this blog.


Although I find learning how cultural sociology can help describe multiple ELT groups and contexts personally rewarding, I’m concerned that it has little benefit for most ELTs. I am left to wonder if it is worth pursuing this interest if there is only a small audience. I am torn between practical research pursuits and the goal of learning for learning’s sake. I am not sure what others will gain by this.


Fine, G.A. (2010). Group cultures and subcultures. In Hall, J.R., Grindstaff, L., & Lo, M-C. (eds). Handbook of Cultural Sociology. Abingdon, Oxon, UK: Routledge.


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