Postmodernismis antithetical to the founding ideas of the discipline of applied linguistics, that place their faith in science. Postmodernist beliefs are highly critical, therefore, of the progressivism inherent in scientific endeavor since the Enlightenment (cf. Brumfit 1997:23, 24; Mauranen and Sajavaara 1997). Critical reflection on both language teaching and language testing practice is central to the postmodernist conceptions of our field. At the same time, postmodernist engagements with language problems focus not so much on the potentially general, widely used solutions for those problems, but choose rather to assert individuality and uniqueness.
In this last sense Hosenfeld’s (1974) work on the language development of a single student was a signal of things to come. It foreshadows a long and important involvement by applied linguistic researchers with ethnographic research, that is both individual, local and engaged. More recently, the focus has been on the experiences and narratives of the individual language educator (Vandrick 2009; see also Paltrdige 2014). This kind of narrative approach is often known as autoethnography (Ellis et al. 2011; see also Bell 2002). However, while personal and individual experiences are the canvas on which the narrative unfolds, the concerns and issues raised are often much wider social and political questions; in Vandrick’s (2009: 10) case, the effects of privilege and especially class privilege on language development. In Nunan’s work it is clear that what draws applied linguistic researchers to an ethnographic orientation is that it provides an antidote to the isolating, abstract character of experimental research. It may yield a depth of understanding that other approaches cannot match (Nunan 1992: 69). As Nunan (2000: 6; cf. too Gebhard 1999: 547) would have it, “... at this stage in our work we are not looking for averages, norms, or generalizability, and we are not interested in populations and sample. In fact, we are happy to celebrate through our work the particular, the atypical, the unique.”
This orientation also explains the emphasis placed by ethnographic investigation on context and interpretation. Context is particularly important in ethnographic descriptions (Nunan 1992: 53) because it is interpreted as a powerful influence on behavior. By way of contrast, a language learning experiment undertaken in a laboratory setting may generate a context that is removed and distant from that of the classroom. It follows that if the results of experiments derive from a context that is different from the instructional situation, they may for that reason be irrelevant for classroom instruction. The practical problem for language teachers and learners, of course, is that the classroom is the context (sometimes the only available context) in which the target language must be learned. An ethnographic approach would therefore propose, instead, that investigations should in the first instance be conducted as field research, in situ, without seeking to manipulate the event and control all variables.
When one considers the content and method of ethnographic enquiry into language teaching and learning processes, one finds that the investigation often comprises taking down detailed field notes, and co-ordinating that information with other records. These may be other written records, or records in audio or video format. What is important in the recorded versions of lessons are the eventual noticing and subsequent transcription of pivotal moments in the classroom interaction: those moments that are the hinges, as it were, for the learning to take place. It is important for an ethnographic enquiry, furthermore, that the research is undertaken by the participants involved themselves. If the research is conducted only by an outsider, an individual expert researcher, ethnographic enquiry would be no different from a typically modernist investigation. So even where an incoming expert may be involved, what is examined and uncovered is done in concert with those most closely involved, the language learners and teachers. The involvement of the incoming expert is preferably a long-term engagement rather than a single “fly-in, fly-out” event. What is more, the views of those involved are taken seriously in the ongoing subsequent scrutiny of the transcriptions of interviews and the diaries that may have been kept as part of the recording of events, as well as the learning logs, those records of language learning gains that learners may have used to note their own progress (or lack of it). In this manifold, layered set of records ethnographic studies of learning processes find the desired ‘thick’ description of the classroom events. In such a thick description the congruent moments in a diversity of perspectives are identified, enabling the ethnographic investigation to build a rich (instead of an isolated, abstract) picture of the context in which language learning takes place. Where generalizations in modernist approaches to research are derivable from the testing of theoretical notions in a sanitized, clinically prepared laboratory setting, ethnographic investigation finds generalizations that are helpful in interpreting the learning in what emerges only after long, and sometimes arduous examinations of the full context.
An ethnographic perspective is also strongly associated with the “New Literacy Studies” approach (Street 2000, 2011; Cope and Kalantzis 2000) and the work of Hornberger (1994; Hult and King 2011b; Creese 2011; McCarthy 2011); both relate to the importance of looking at language problems at the interface of language policy and practice, in other words at “pressing real-world questions, many of which concern how best to provide equitable access to language and education for all students” (Hult and King 2011a: xviii). In that sense, these studies also link strongly to Spolky’s idea of educational linguistics (Spolsky and Hult 2008i Spolsky 2008, 2010; Hult 2008,2010a, b; Hornberger and Hult 2008; Hornberger 2010).
The key result of the ethnographic process is the interpretation that emerges from the close involvement with and examination of the multi-layered data. Thus the counterpart of ‘thick’ descriptions of the context are rich, potentially multi-faceted explanations. To many, this interpretive dimension is the defining characteristic of ethnographic research (see Nunan 1992: 57 f.). The interpretation that is the outcome of the research should be checked not only by the participant researchers (who may include a researcher, or a teacher-researcher, and students) among themselves, but might also be scrutinized by peers. The findings may therefore equally usefully be compared with those reached by earlier investigations in similar or comparable contexts .
Earlier studies of how new languages are learned, such as that done by Pica et al. (1987), provided post hoc justification for how beneficial a communicative approach to language teaching might be. The subsequent generation of ethnographically sensitive research that tries to replicate these findings in the classroom context (Foster 1998) indicates that the sanitized experimental context in which earlier studies were carried out might have had the effect of overstating the claims for certain communicative type tasks (especially for work in larger groups as opposed to pair work). Foster (1998: 21) concludes with a point that I shall return to in several discussions below:
... some current claims in Second Language Acquisition research are of academic rather than practical interest because the researchers have lost sight of the world inhabited by language teachers and learners. If language acquisition research wants to feed into teaching methodology, the research environment has to move out of the laboratory and into the classroom. This means that researchers need more than a good understanding of research methodology and SLA theory. They need the skills and experience of an EFL teacher in order to be able to design and implement worthwhile classroom studies without disrupting the class or compromising the data. They also need the judgement of an EFL practitioner to inform their interpretation of the results and any practical applications they might draw from them. (my italics)
This observation echoes that of Allwright (2005: 27), that the right people to do research are the practitioners themselves, observing that academic “research ... is of negligible value to current classroom participants, who need their understandings now.”
Below, we shall examine how ethnographic perspectives helped sensitize us to the political dimensions of language instruction, and particularly to the way in which that instruction is conceived and organized. It is evident from the discussion thus far, however, that interest in language teaching designs that emanate from particular methods, or the influence that these might have derived from research isolated from the classroom, was on the wane in the last decade of the twentieth century. Instead, teachers were encouraged to focus on going “beyond method”. It is worth considering in a separate section below what that exploration entailed.