Author Archives: johnnyunger

I spent yesterday at the very stimulating TLANG project seminar entitled ‘Language, social media and migration: the role of mobile communication technologies in migrants’ everyday lives’, organised by Caroline Tagg.

It was my favourite kind of academic gathering – one track, a small group of people in the same room, and enough time for questions/discussion, talks by a mixture of established academics and early career researchers, and best of all, as I wasn’t giving a presentation myself I could sit back, enjoy and reflect on the ideas colleagues were sharing.

While each of the a presenters had something interesting to say about the migrants’ communication practices and mobile technologies, I think one of the most memorable phrases I heard was in Stefan Vollmer‘s talk on Syrian newcomers to the UK and (among other things) how they approach getting a new driving licence, which he also writes about in this short paper.

Expanding on Bourdieu’s notions of cultural and symbolic capital, he used the term ‘technological capital’ in his talk to describe his participant’s facility with smartphone technology, and his ability to use it to circumvent some of the linguistic barriers he faced and attempt to make up for the “loss of capital” resulting from the invalidity of his Syrian driving licence in the UK.

I was very taken by this idea, but in the subsequent discussion I suggested that if we are to use technological capital in a way that is analogous with Bourdieu’s notion of linguistic capital, it should not simply refer to ability or proficiency in the use of technology. Instead, it should refer to the perception of others that one has a particular standing in society that relates to technology. This would not be based not on proficiency with that technology, but instead on other personal characteristics that might make someone assume one is good at technology. For instance, purely by being young, one would have technological capital because young people are assumed to be good with technology. Perhaps possessing a certain type of smart phone, or typing in a particular way (for instance, without key-click noises!), would also imbue people with technological capital This would then be comparable with Bourdieu’s linguistic capital – the notion that based on someone’s choice of language or variety, their pronunciation or use of particular registers, they are taken more seriously and seen to be authoritative, friendly, intelligent, or whatever other quality has come to be associated with that language variety.

As I said in the discussion, this is still “back of envelope” thinking, and the ideas need to be fleshed out. I’d be very interested to find out what others who have worked with Bourdieu, or on the intersection of technologies and identities, have to say.

Critical discourse analysis for language assessment

Lancaster University





In this workshop participants will be invited to consider the relationship between language assessment as a social phenomenon and politics in the broadest sense, from state-level policies to classroom-level practices. While the role of politics in language assessment has been discussed extensively by a number of scholars, it has not necessarily been subjected to systematic and theoretically rigorous analysis. Participants will be introduced to (or reminded of) the key principles of critical discourse studies (CDS) as an interdisciplinary endeavour, and the methodologies typically associated with one specific form of CDS, the discourse-historical approach. There will follow an opportunity to explore how these could be applied to a range of assessment-related contexts, including the language of test instructions and items, government language policies related to immigration, and media discourse on language assessment. In advance of the workshop, participants are invited to think about examples of language assessment contexts they feel are ideologically fraught or ethically problematic, and should come prepared to briefly describe one or two of these to the other participants.

The methodological creation of “between”: challenging established understandings of boundaries in applied linguistic theory and data

Toronto, Canada

co-presented with Diane Potts, Lancaster University



In post-structuralist analyses of discourse and society, the methodological step of establishing the boundaries of one’s object of concern is intellectually and ethically fraught. Problematically, boundaries are frequently conceptualised and realized in metaphoric dichotomies of space (e.g. “here” vs. “there”, “home country” vs. “host/new country”), time (“before” vs. “after the move”) and medium (“online” vs. “offline”). Interestingly, opposition to these dichotomies is equally dependent on metaphors. Thus, one finds Heller (2012) describing a conceptual journey from “resources” to “discursive sites” to “trajectories,” Jenkins (2006) explaining the conceptual rise of “convergence” in media, politics, education, and Kubota (2014) problematizing “plurality”, “hybridity” and “fluidity” within the “multi/plural turn.” Boundaries play an essential role for researchers in locating their studies within theoretical traditions, and for participants in making sense of experience, but metaphors are never unmotivated. This paper reports on attempts to mitigate the methodological challenge posed by metaphor by engaging participants in practices of “metaphoric choice.” Drawing on data from an on-going study of UK international graduate students and their digitally mediated political practices, we describe an interview process in which participants were offered a selection of conceptual metaphors for describing and explaining their digital activities. The metaphors were drawn from research literature and are presented to participants alongside associated lexical and grammatical resources. We explore how participants took up the metaphors, how alternatives were examined and evaluated, and whether metaphors from participants’ additional languages were introduced into the conversations. We close with a discussion of mediating interviews through the abstraction of metaphor in contrast to more concrete, material descriptions which often centre the interview process, and the potential of such practices for investigating the ‘between’ spaces which are the focus of our own research on digitally mediated language use.


Discursive approaches to language policy – challenges and opportunities

Toronto, Canada

co-presented with Elisabeth Barakos, Vienna University of Economics and Business

Link to Prezi:


In this paper, we aim to explore the interconnectedness of language policy and discourse by proposing a ‘discursive approach to language policy’. This approach combines insights from the fields of critical language policy (e.g. Shohamy 2006, Tollefson 2006) and critical discourse studies (e.g. the discourse-historical approach). Specifically, we argue that a discursive approach to language policy integrates a focus on close textual, contextual and socio-historical analysis of language policies, ideologies and associated practices from a critical perspective. We also add a methodological orientation: to consider what can be gained by bringing together language policy and critical discourse studies, and also what challenges this combination gives rise to.

As case studies, we critically analyse and compare language policy discourses and practices in Wales and Scotland – two partly devolved constituent countries of the United Kingdom in which the autochtonous languages Welsh, Scots and Gaelic have been integrated as a more or less salient part of debates about identity, nation and culture. Given the current heated debates about independence in Scotland and increasing autonomy for Wales, we will trace constructions of language from the pre-devolution era (before 1999) to the present. In particular, we incorporate data collected in two heterogeneous fields: education and business. We combine text analysis of ‘top-down’ language policy-related texts such as official documents, parliamentary debates and guidelines with an analysis of ‘bottom-up’ data from focus groups and interviews consisting of people affected by the policies. Through this, we examine the dialectic between policies and practices: between the linguistic and discursive power of the policy per se which construct the symbolic or material value of these languages in strategic ways and the power of social actors that construct, live and breathe policies.

Amsterdam Institute for Social Science Research (AISSR), University of Amsterdam

Screenshot 2014-08-28 16.57.34

Ethical Dimensions and (Social) Media: Who has access, when, where and why?

Ruth Wodak & Johann Unger

Analyzing social media poses new challenges for critical qualitative and ethnographic research: access to data has become almost trivial in technical and practical terms, and the digital nature of much of this data chelps analysis in manifold ways; but at the same time current social media practices disrupt pre-digital understandings of how identity is constructed in and through texts. Texts such as blogs, Facebook and Twitter messages are personalized and simultaneously widely accessible, so how can researchers determine to what extent these texts are intended to be public or private, or somewhere on the spectrum between the two? And can we use traditional forms of arriving at informed consent, which have been contested even in pre-digital ethnography?

These questions have great relevance beyond academia too, as debates about hacking or investigative journalism have recently illustrated. Thus, researchers have to establish new ethical norms and new methodologies of research. In the keynote, we will discuss various cases which point to the blurring of boundaries between public and private, between open access and ownership, between investigative journalism and the backstage of politics, and consider the implications of these for ethnographic, critical research in digitally augmented societies.

Here are my notes from my contribution to the panel on Discourse Studies at the 40th birthday party for my department:

I’d like to start by answering the question “why did I come to work at Lancaster”?
I first came I as an MA student, then PhD – then after a few years working in Vienna, returned as lecturer. What made me choose it in the first place? I’d love to say it was brilliant staff, long tradition of research in the field of discourse, the many textbooks written by Lancaster academics, the visionary architecture on campus, or one of the other excellent qualities we’re hearing so much about today.

But in fact – it was love. My girlfriend at the time was studying in Blackpool and I was living in Fife, in Scotland, trying to be a writer and working in a kilt shop. So I looked around for the nearest thing to do that would keep me occupied. And I hit on the MA in Language Studies, as it was then called, as a really interesting and flexible degree (remember these adjectives!) that would allow me to extend my knowledge of language & linguistics, something I’d previously only dabbled in as part of my undergrad studies in English literature. I also applied for a job as a tutor on the EAP (Study Skills) programme, and came for an interview in March 2003. I arrived in Lancaster by train from Scotland, heavily laden with a huge bag full of inline hockey equipment because I was on my way to Majorca for a sports tour. Fortunately, after struggling to find my way through town and getting lost several times on campus, I found the department – in Bowland College back then, and met some of the people who would become my future teachers and colleagues. It was also the first time I realised what a friendly and welcoming atmosphere pervaded the department – let’s add the adjective “collegial”. Marjorie saw me trying to lug my bag around after the interview and in no time at all had arranged for Mick Short to give me a lift to the train station – a small act of kindness that those of you who know Marj and Mick will know is absolutely in character. And it made me feel a lot better about not getting the tutor job that year! In fact I run the programme now, so I can’t have done that badly.

So, let’s come back to interesting and flexible: these are words that I would still use to describe my view of our department as a place to work in the field of discourse studies. For me personally, over the past 4 years I have enjoyed the support of various colleagues in following areas that interest me, particularly my former PhD supervisors Ruth, who has led research in this area, and Elena, who has been HoD for most of my time working here. I’ve been able to consolidate and build on my PhD research into discursive approaches to language policy, and publish my first book, “The Discursive Construction of the Scots Language”. I have also launched into an entirely new area, digitally mediated politics and activism, which I see as a key research context for critical discourse studies for the foreseeable future.

Digital media have also become an important part of my work in other ways, not just as a site of research or source of data. This has been a real realisation for me – that social media like twitter can fulfil a valuable role in connecting researchers across space and time. Need to know whether someone has written about a given topic? One tweet and you’ll usually have the answer in minutes. Can’t find a journal paper in the library? A moment’s work. Want to know what’s going on in all the other rooms at a conference even though you can only attend one panel at a time? Following a hashtag will enable you to achieve the previously impossible. But of course we also need to consider social media from a critical perspective, and think about the negative aspects and their role in turning us and our data into products to be sold to corporations.

I also don’t want to give the impression that I ignore the people around me entirely. And this brings me to my last point – what I see as the key responsibilities of critical discourse researchers. These are of course in many respects the same as those of any researcher – we have responsibilities to our students, our colleagues, our institutions. But in my view, as people who study politics and policy, discrimination and marginalised groups, abuses of power and hegemonic conditions, we have an added responsibility to fight against injustices against not just those people who participate in our research, but also those whom we teach and those we work next to. This, for me, is part of being collegial. And sometimes this means we are at odds with the university management or even with other voices within our department, for instance when we vocally support our trade union, or speak out against the increasing marketisation of education, as Norman and Ruth have done today. I see this as a vital part of being collegial, and something that keeps a 50-year old institution and 40-year old department like ours strong and vibrant, but it will, I hope help us survive then next 40 or 50 years and continue to attract brilliant students and colleagues by being interesting, flexible and collegial.

One of the most clear-headed assessments of the current situation re: staff pay I’ve read

The Disorder Of Things

Justice League Super Hero Strike

In the face of a UK higher education marking boycott due to start in 11 days time, universities have come forth with a new pay offer. Having unilaterally imposed a 1% rise (read: real terms cut) for 2013/14, they are now proposing 2% for 2014/15, with a small bonus for those on the lowest band to bring them up to a living wage level (at Sussex, that’s an increase on the existing annual pay of £13,621). A consultative ballot is open to union members, and the boycott is delayed. It seems likely that there will be appetite for the deal, given the general tone of despondency and how drained staff are by repeated small scale actions and by mounting work pressures. There had, after all, been doubts that a boycott could compete with aggressive tactics from management (including threats to deduct full pay from anyone who participated in the boycott).

We might…

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I spent four hours this morning at the entrances to Lancaster University, picketing for my union, UCU, who are involved in an ongoing industrial dispute centred around fair pay. I was joined by colleagues from across the University: members of UCU and the other main campus unions (UNITE and UNISON) but also by students from the Lancaster University Anti-Capitalist group, who brought radical slogans and music.

Spirits are usually high at the picket line – we feel like we are doing something to bring about positive change, we are standing up for our rights and supporting each other. And today was no different: many people stopped at the picket line while driving, riding or walking past, took a leaflet and perhaps exchanged a few words with us. But others drove straight past, stern-faced and with windows (and minds) firmly closed.

There is almost never enough time to fully explain why we’re striking, which is one reason we have our leaflets. But more than once today I wished I had been able to say my piece, to express my thoughts in full to some of the people passing. I’m not talking about the strike in general, which is more than adequately explained on the UCU website (see I’m talking about some specific things I would have liked to say to some of the individuals who passed me.

To the student who, when I said we were striking for fair pay, answered “well I pay £9000 and I’m not getting my lectures”:

You’re right. You pay a lot for your education. I protested against the introduction of tuition fees, as did my union. I am deeply opposed to the ideologically loaded fees policy, which reduces opportunities for the least advantaged, increases inequality, and will cost much more in the long run than not charging any fees at all. But given that you will pay these fees (one day, once you earn enough), where would you like to see the money invested? In prestige projects that make the campus look pretty, but are often designed by architects who have no idea about what university teaching actually involves? In Vice-Chancellors’ salary increases (more than 5% up on average just in the past year)? Into maintaining what is arguably an excessive surplus (currently £1bn or more in the sector)? Or in the dedicated, highly qualified staff who make your education possible, and who determine its quality? I think the students who stood side-by-side with us today expressed it better than I can: “Support the staff who support you”.

To the many colleagues who passed by who are not members of a union:

I’m here for you too, not just my fellow union members. But are you happy to accept any gains we might win? Or will you turn down a salary increase that might arise from our industrial action? Do you enjoy the rights and benefits that have been brought about or enhanced through past industrial action, such as weekends, regulated working hours, holidays, pensions, appeals processes, anti-harassment and anti-discrimination rules, workplace safety rules, rights of redress… I could go on. All I can ask is that you consider joining (or re-joining) the union – for teaching or research staff (including postgraduates who teach) this can easily be done here:

To the colleagues who are members of a union, but still crossed the picket line:

You are harming our cause. The point of industrial action is that all members of the union act together, with the only tool that we can (lawfully) use to compel our employers to listen to us: withdrawal of labour. If you come into work, work from home, or rearrange classes for another day, you may as well wear a big sign saying “feel free to walk all over me”. You may disagree with this particular action, or think that you earn enough already and so have no need to take part. But unless the union supports its weakest members, including those who are not as fortunate as you, it is not a union. The union is a representative democracy, and like many such institutions, it can never be perfect for everyone. And when you are more personally affected, how would you feel if your colleagues turned their backs on you? If you are targeted unfairly as an individual, will you ask the union for casework support? Finally, even if you are not concerned about pay, this should not stop you from taking part in the action: I’m not striking because I want more money, I’m striking because I am disgusted with the inequality in the sector, with VCs often earning more than 20 times what the lowest paid earn, and because I am deeply concerned by the ongoing marketisation and commercialisation of education.

To the lorry driver who cancelled his delivery to the university and turned around because he did not want to cross our picket line:

Thank you. The world needs more people like you.

New media, old power: challenging elite discourse through digitally augmented activism

Hangzhou, China


This paper will discuss how and why activists use digital media such as microblogs and websites to contest and subvert the discourse produced by powerful institutions and disseminated via traditional media. By presenting the results of a discourse-historical analysis of several campaigns aimed at governments and multinational businesses, questions are raised about traditional understandings of how power is enacted and constructed in the contemporary media landscape. In particular, the acceleration of global flows of information via social media, within and between different cultures, is shown to problematize the notion that ‘elite’, static texts are the best objects of analysis for critical discourse studies. Instead, scholars need a new inventory of tools that can handle dynamic, constantly changing texts, often produced, reproduced and recontextualised by multiple authors and interpretable only by considering how meaning is generated through rapid traversal of different semiotic elements, rather than monolithic texts. At the same time, more traditional notions of media power have not become irrelevant, and political and economic elites are undoubtedly still central in framing public discourse. Increasingly, however, traditional media such as newspapers or television interact with digital media in complex, and often also dynamic ways. It is these interactions between ‘old’ and ‘new’ that prove the most fruitful sites of analysis: in particular, through close analysis of which contesting voices and frames are taken up in traditional media, and which are ignored.