Towards Discursive Social Psychology of Second Language Learning: The Case of Motivation

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In recent years, there has been a major change of orientation in social psychology. It has involved a radical redefinition of the paradigm subscribed to, the nature and objectives of scholarly enquiry, and the kinds of materials and methods used in analysis. This new orientation is discursive social psychology. Inspired by such fields of research as discourse theory, ethnomethodology, conversation analysis and rhetoric it does not see social psychological phenomena, such as knowledge, emotions, attributions, memory, assumptions and attitudes as examples of an already existing, inner reality of mental representations. Instead, discursive social psychologists -- Kenneth Gergen, Mary Gergen, Jonathan Potter, Margaret Wetherell, Michael Billig, Derek Edwards and John Shotter, to mention a few -- approach phenomena relevant to social psychological enquiry as constructions. More specifically, they focus on the ways in which representations of reality are artfully worked up in specific interactions and texts, the re sources used in such constructions and the functions and effects these constructions have within the context of the interactions or texts.

In research into the social psychology of second language (L2) learning (i.e., work on for example learner assumptions, attitudes, beliefs and motivation) such a major reorientation has not taken place. Most of the work so far has been carried out within the positivist paradigm. Within this framework, motivation, for example, has been envisioned as primarily a cognitive entity or process which is best investigated with psychometric methodologies (see also Ellis 1994: 508). A major objective in this kind of research has been the construction of models of the learner-internal and -external factors in play in L2 learning, the testing of hypotheses generated with the help of such a model in the form of test batteries, and the prediction of problems in L2 learning. No work, to our knowledge, has so far been done within the discursive framework.

In this article we make an attempt to show that there is now an alternative available to the mainstream tradition of social psychology of L2 learning, and how this alternative, which could perhaps be called discursive social psychology of L2 language learning, could be a useful and fruitful one for the investigation of such issues as affect, beliefs, attitudes and motivation. The specific example with which we will show the usefulness of the discursive approach is motivation -- language learners' reasons for, orientation towards and interest in language learning.

A central argument in our discussion is that a discursive approach to L2 learning can offer scholars a means of gaining valuable insights into the ways in which L2 learners themselves display and negotiate in speech or writing their understandings and orientations towards L2 learning. In this way, scholars can also gain a better understanding of the complex ways in which learners -- both individually and as a specific social group -- understand and give meaning to their experiences. Further, in this kind of research, some of the outcomes may be quite unexpected, even surprising, and yield quite new perspectives into L2 learning as a social and psychological phenomenon.

We attempt to show that a discursive social psychological orientation towards the study of L2 motivation involves a number of important reconsiderations at several levels of enquiry. It involves a radical theoretical re-evaluation and redefinition of the object of enquiry. Analysing L2 motivation discursively also requires different kinds of research data compared to the kinds of data used in psychometric studies of motivation. Further, this kind of shift of orientation means that the analysis needs to draw on distinctly different philosophical conceptualizations and to rely on very different methodologies compared to mainstream studies on L2 motivation.

In this article we first present some central tenets of the mainstream tradition in research on L2 motivation. …