3.7 Research focus

As discussed in this section, there are different ways of conceptualising the relationship between language use or discourse and identity, and these are evident in different research approaches.

Vai Ramanathan (1999) focuses on the powerful status of English. She draws on the work of Kachru (1985), who argues that there is a deep-seated unequal power relationship on a global level between an inner circle of English speakers (comprised of Britain and its former old colonies the United States, Canada and Australia) and an outer circle comprised of formerly colonial English speaking countries in Asia and Africa. Ramanathan takes up Kachru’s argument about the hegemony (i.e. the political leadership and ideological domination) of the inner circle of English speakers over the outer circle and argues that this is echoed in a similar relationship between more and less powerful social groups within the outer circle country of India.

A key research focus in Ramanathan’s paper is that of language and literacy practice. In sections 1 and 2 of this unit we emphasised the importance of this notion for those working within a social perspective on language and literacy. Ramanathan’s paper illustrates well the two meanings of practice often used in such research. First of all she uses practice to indicate what people routinely do in a particular institution. Thus, in her ‘Method: data’ and ‘Findings’ sections it is clear that Ramanathan was observing particular groups of students, ‘Dalit and OBC’ students, in a particular institution. The kinds of observations that were made, including classroom observation, interviews and departmental notes and information about course and assessment requirements, are also clear. From such observations and data gathering Ramanathan reaches conclusions about the practice of tracking students into streams which bar some students from English-medium instruction.

As well as using practice in this concrete sense, Ramanathan uses a more abstract notion of practice. This is most obvious when she talks of ‘hegemonic practices’ that benefit the more powerful groups within society; in the context of India, relations of power are significant in terms of different castes. Practice at this level is not ‘observable’ in any straightforward way. It may be possible to ‘observe’ the wealth of individuals (per capita income) or the wealth of nations, for example, but it is not possible to actually ‘observe’ relations of power: commenting on relations of power involves theorising about the ways in which society works because it involves a particular view of society.

The reference to Gramsci indicates that Ramanathan is working within, if not a neo-Marxist perspective, then certainly a view of society which sees conflict at the centre of social relations. Her paper is a good example of empirically grounded critical writings on the relationship between the micro and macro level, which is echoed to a large extent in the different levels of practice: the micro-level detail of what goes on, and the macro level of generalisations or theorisations about how and why this happens.

3.6 English as a second language and identity