We Can Talk in English, but Can We Talk about English?

Social science Research and Linguistic Predominance

By Basile Boulay (part 1 of 3)

The 50th anniversary of EADI is a good opportunity to reflect on the multiple evolutions of Development Studies, and social sciences more generally, over the past decades. Through this series of three blogposts, I would like to open a space for discussion and reflection on the issue of languages and epistemic communities. The growing predominance of English has imposed a radical change on the academic landscape; a change so profound that many non-native English speakers in academia barely question this linguistic hegemony, while native speakers themselves are often unaware of its effects.

The implications of this development, however, are important for many reasons, ranging from practical ones to deeper issues of political economy, power and structural inequalities, and deserve a thorough collective exploration and reflection. If knowledge is not neutral, then surely the hegemony of a single language in conveying it isn’t either.   

In this post I explore the general picture of research in Development Studies and how it is growingly tied to the impetus to do research and publish in English. In the second one I’ll discuss how the predominance of English creates entry barriers to many researchers, resulting in multi-layered discriminations for non-native speakers, and shed light on potential instrumental solutions to alleviate these barriers. The final post will look at the power dynamicsrevealed by the hegemony of English in research, thereby calling for more structural and critical solutions and full recognition of the negative consequences of this linguistic predominance.

A useful clarification to start with

Needless to say, but probably useful to mention nonetheless: my concern is not English per se as a language. In fact, I happily confess writing these articles in English and not in French, although the latter is my native language. I certainly don’t deny the existence of lively research communities in other languages but wish to focus here on the global and rising predominance of English. The problem lies somewhere else, namely in the unintended effects on the type, quality and focus of research in social sciences in English, under the equally growing pressure of neoliberal academia to perform under a certain set of standards. What unintended effects, then? And what growing pressure?

The internationalisation and growing marketisation of research

Almost twenty years ago, Anssi Paasi wrote a paper on Globalisation, academic capitalism, and the uneven geographies of international journal publishing spaces in which he reflected on the changing nature of research spaces and practice for geographers. Taking as a starting point the growing marketisation of research in the era of neoliberal governance, he noted: ‘In the globalising knowledge market this internationalism is usually defined in terms of the English language and is identified with US/UK-based journals that are indexed by one US-based firm, Thomson ISI’ (p.771). While Thomson ISI no longer exists as such (it was bought in 2016 and is now part of Clarivate Analytics), the relevance of the statement remains: internationalisation of research mostly takes place through UK/US based structures and through the medium of English. It is also crucial to note that, while index databases are very useful to researchers, they also constitute the basis used by institutions to rank research and academics, as Paasi further stresses. In what ways does this reliance on anglophone publishers and private indexing firms judge what constitutes ‘good’ research impact its development?

Language and homogenisation

Paasi explains how the anglophone dominance in many social science fields reproduces core-periphery dynamics within academia: “’International’ is often national science from the core, but it shapes the criteria for ‘excellence’ in the periphery as well, where science institutions try to develop strategies which could bring them to be viewed as ‘part of the core’.” (p. 775-6). He concludes that homogenising trends necessary apply to content as well, and not just the language used to express that content.

This phenomenon triggers a process of research homogenisation (more on this in the final post of this series). As explained by Faraldo-Cabana in the context of criminology and social sciences, scholars are pushed ‘to neglect topics that are not considered interesting at international level and by constraining them to work within the norms governing Anglo-American academic writing’ (p. 170). This imbalance is often summed up in the idea that non-native English speakers, especially if based in the Global South, are theory importers and evidence exporters, thus perpetuating core-periphery dynamics within academia. While Development Studies witness growing decolonising knowledge efforts to overcome this bias, the issue certainly remains, and applies even more to closely connected fields such as Development Economics.

What is good research?

Following the neoliberal turn in the last quarter of the 20th century and the increasing imposition of its public management philosophy on academia, the latter evolved towards a model of research assessment that became ever more bibliometric and quantitative in nature. This in turn relied on the growing use of indexing databases as the main platform to judge research quality: journal rankings, impact factors, citation indexes etc. Among the many problems associated with such practices is one of particular interest here: they ‘rely on bibliometric databases that show a considerable Anglo-American overrepresentation, which disproportionately increases the reputation of native English speaking scholars’ as explained by Faraldo-Cabana (p.166). This is a major black box that is not being sufficiently discussed: if the (technological) tools being used to evaluate research are provided by private profit-making enterprises biased against non-English publication outlets, how can the game be fair to begin with? To give just an example, Frans Albarillo reports for the period 1996-2012 that the Scopus and JSTOR social sciences databases featured a total of 90% of publications in English. A spin-off discussion worth having would be to reflect on whether the evaluation of research often produced in public universities and with public money should be dependent upon arbitrary databases ran by private companies, but this is beyond the scope of this piece.

In addition to the overrepresentation of English-language journals, these databases also reproduce another bias, which deepens this linguistic hegemony: they set the rules for what constitutes the ‘gold standard’ of research, and tend to favour journal articles over book publications, as argued by Mas-Bleda and Thelwall  and  Faraldo-Cabana, who also emphasizes that ‘in the Web of Science database, articles, meeting abstracts, editorial material and letters represent 75 percent of all documents, whereas books and book chapters represent only 1 percent’ (p. 168). Indexing journal articles over books takes priority, and if publishing in the most valued journals correlates with linguistic predominance, research published in books instead will neither be given the attention it deserves, nor a chance to stand at par with the ‘gold standard’ articles. Examples of such linguistic predominance include anglophone board of editors, specific language requirements, or the demand from reviewers to be familiar with the Anglo-Saxon literature rather than other non-English literatures.

A collective reflection is needed

Issues of linguistic predominance are not going to be addressed overnight, and neither should the problem be addressed through simplistic solutions. It is a fact that English is now a lingua franca in research, and there is no denying that it greatly facilitates knowledge exchange and cooperation. Nonetheless, a debate on the pitfalls of this predominance also needs to take place, and the academic community – starting with native speakers themselves – needs to acknowledge the variety of negative outcomes it brings. In the case of Development Studies, this is all the more important given the strong and legitimate calls to decolonise certain aspects of knowledge. We all know languages are not simply instrumental means to convey an idea: they shape who we are, how we think, how we sense the world around us. Opening a reflection on the hegemony of English is thus legitimate and much needed.

Basile Boulay is Senior Executive at the EADI secretariat and holds a PhD in Development Economics

Image: viarami on Pixabay

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