English for specific purposes (ESP) has tended to be a practical affair, most interested in investigating needs, preparing teaching materials, and devising appropriate teaching methodologies. Perhaps because of the early British influences on its development, it has avoided broad questions of theory, and, as Swales (1994) suggests in his final editorial in ESP's flagship journal, English for Specific Purposes, articles published in that journal are “strikingly unengaged” (p. 201) by controversial issues of ideology.
ESP practice has thus remained essentially pragmatic; practitioners have interpreted their role as attempting to provide the maximum possible support in the limited time available. Although the worldwide role of English may be recognised at one level, at the day-to-day level, ESP teachers often find themselves in situations where they have to compete for timetable slots and students' attention. In these circumstances, priority has been given to discovering the expectations of the academic or professional community of which the students of the ESP class aspire to become full members and then reducing that information to teachable units taught over a specified and often limited time period.
This tendency to pragmatism was also considerably justified in the early days of the ESP movement by the need to justify its approach to those sceptical of its focus on selected specific features of the language. ESP defended its approach through the claim that it was more efficient and cost-effective than more traditional teaching approaches based on a general coverage of the language system. ESP has not, however, been unwilling to consider more ideological issues: The role of English in international publications has been much discussed (and criticised) in recent years and the burgeoning influence of social constructionism on ESP has raised important questions about its approaches to genre analysis. Indeed, the very pragmatic nature of ESP has, I believe, led to a readiness to draw on new ideas, and review its practices where necessary.
The rise of critical theory and critical approaches to discourse and to pedagogy has raised much more fundamental questions about ESP practice. Issues such as the role of English in publication and social constructionism are important but do not interrogate the fundamental tenets of ESP. These critical approaches, on the other hand, question the assumptions of traditional needs analysis and pragmatism that underpin