Unpicking agency in sociolinguistic research focussing on migrants

David Martin Block

Institute of Education, University of London, UK


In sociolinguistic research focussing on language practices of migrants, researchers have tended to adopt a broadly poststructuralist approach to identity, drawing on the work of social theorists working in a range of areas such as philosophy, literary theory, cultural studies, feminism and queer theory, critical theory and post colonialism. Ultimately, the complexity of these sources poses challenges for sociolinguists and the aim of this paper is to discuss one such challenge: the relatively unacknowledged and unresolved theoretical tension between structure and agency, in particular how the latter emerges and/or manifests itself in the ongoing sociolinguistic practices of individuals. I begin with a consideration of how agency has been discussed in recent anthropological and sociological literature. I then present my own understanding of what agency is, for example, how it is emergent in all kinds of social practices, which in turn are shaped by - and situated in terms of - culture, history, time, space and multimodality. Finally, via an examination of some recent sociolinguistic research focusing on the language practices of migrants, I show how framing agency as problematic vis--vis structure and practice can lead to more elaborate and more nuanced understandings of these same language practices.

Session: Paper session
Planning/Policy 1 (Identity)
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 14