Summary and Info
I bought this book based on my desire to gather as many perspectives on Applied Linguistics as possible, but wound up being deeply disappointed. The let-down was founded just as much on the book's lack of consistency and quality as it was on my disagreement with the author's views. (I have to admit that Davies is probably an acceptable and experienced figure within his own domain, but he didn't do a good job of convincing me via this book - published by Edinburgh, incidentally, not Columbia - that his ideas were valid; hence the negativity that follows.)Davies's approach to exploring Applied Linguistics (AL) is on the surface akin to Grounded Theory in the social sciences - he believes that to approach AL properly, we should examine it as it unfolds in its practical contexts. Only then, goes the line of reasoning, will we be in a position to draw (with very careful restraint, mind you) tentative theoretical maps of our territory. There is nothing wrong with this approach per se, as much of sociology and linguistics has benefited from this bottom-up strategy. But the way in which it is executed wants for a lot, in my opinion as someone who is more comfortable with theory and less experienced in the classroom slash laboratory. With those caveats in place, I would argue that Davies's view of the Applied Linguist as pure practitioner, coupled with his refusal to engage important bodies of theory in even the most circumscribed manner, makes for an approach that goes too far in the opposite direction, thus bordering on anti-intellectualism if not crossing the line entirely. His tone is sometimes insider, sometimes introspective, sometimes oversimplified; suffice it to say that the work is an enigmatic read to anyone wanting to learn something substantial and balanced about the field. Perhaps insiders will find a hidden code consisting of high-order wisdom regarding AL, but I was unable to find much more than an impressionistic series of digressions.The first chapter, "History and definitions," is a 15-page treatise on the difference between AL and Linguistics "proper." Where are the boundaries of the fields drawn with respect to one another? Does one discipline neatly engulf the other, or do they cover different object domains altogether? Is AL Applied Linguistics, or Linguistics applied? Where is the Venn diagram? It really gets pretty convoluted, folks, and this is only the beginning. After the end of this tortuous and torturous first chapter - a peripatetic movement "about" the subject that never really quite says anything - one is left confused and without a sense of where the book will go next.The subsequent chapters on experience, practice, and learning and teaching offer slightly better treatments of the material, and thus some vindication of his approach. But these chapters are still vague and watered-down, and probably useful only to a few who already have quite a bit of experience in the first place. The chapter on the professionalization of AL is weak due to the lack of sociological insight - it could have been so much better with only the slightest of tweaks. In these body chapters, one sees the limitations of the theory-free approach - one that was initially touted as the book's primary strength. I am not suggesting a major shift in focus, because that would undermine his whole premise, but I will hold that even the most cursory treatment of theory, in any of these chapters, would have improved the discussion considerably, even as background to practical narrative. More often than not, the naive reader (myself included) is given the impression that Applied Linguists working in the field should simply be "winging it" with no principle but their own experiential impressions and practical knowledge. Sometimes the conversation veers so much toward practical knowledge and knowledge of familiarity that I am lost as an outsider - which does not bode well for an Introduction. It does not help me evolve as a writer, beginning student of linguistics, or teacher of English as a Second Language.Nonetheless, it is in the final body chapter, "No 'bookish theoric'," that the already-wobbly foundations of the book simply crumble. This is due to what I see - in my biased manner - as the author's inexcusable failure to understand the fundaments of the life-work of some of his (geographically) most proximate fellow linguists who are working with critical approaches. Because he misreads critical scholars (scholars of CL, CDA, and similar schools) with an almost-schoolboyish innocence, he sets up a simplistic contradiction between the former and the latter - and this needless contradiction fatally undermines thrust of what AL, in his own words, is about!One of the few unequivocal statements that we manage to get from Davies is this: Applied Linguistics should, in practice, involve the application of linguistic knowledge to real-life social problems. So far, so good. Why, then, does Davies - in his final chapter - attack well-developed linguistic approaches that do just that, such Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)? I hesitate to say it, but it appears that Davies attacks critical linguistics due either to ignorance or laziness, or both. His lack of knowledge of CDA, such a closely allied field, leads him to collapse anyone who uses critical theory in his or her linguistics work with the stereotypical apolitical, disengaged, and impractical thinker - in other words, worthless.For example, Davies attacks (and dismisses) Norman Fairclough's highly influential formulations of CDA as, in the last analysis, postmodernism "dressed up" as modernism. If one can suppress one's laughter long enough to recall the broad base of empirical, heuristic social science (Bourdieu, Weber) and critical theory (Habermas) upon which Fairclough's CDA is based - and that his CDA rejects Lyotard's fatalistic brand of postmodernism explicitly (cf. Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999) - one will recall that CDA's approaches (including those of Fairclough, but also of Wodak, van Dijk, Scollon, and so on) is one of the most powerful frameworks to use when applying linguistic knowledge to real-life social problems. Davies apparently doesn't think about the ways in which CDA is and can be applied to social problems (new capitalism, racism, media discourse, subaltern narratives, gender issues), though, because he "plugs in" Widdowson's jaded critique of Fairclough's CDA (as overdetermined and therefore unable to be disproven) and leaves it at that - without mentioning CDA's sine-qua-non dependence on reflexivity in practice and Fairclough's other rebuttals to Widdowson's criticisms. Davies is also acutely dismissive of Mark Featherstone, whom he describes as almost an outright "danger" to the practice of linguistics with his flashy postmodernism and high theory. In summary, some of the most important contemporary linguistic approaches (CL, CDA, and related fields) are dismissed by Davies in the space of a few pages, in much the same way that a child will reject the taste of an unfamiliar but nutritious vegetable without even tasting it.All in all, then, Davies's book is a disappointment many times over. Even if you agreed with Davies's initial ambition of writing a book firmly based in Scott Lash's "ground" and moving upward to practice from there, you would still be disappointed with his fumbling, fallacious treatment of the topic. As the founding volume of the series "Edinburgh Textbooks in Applied Linguistics," its lack of quality unfortunately casts a long, dark shadow over other authors who come later in the series. His one-sidedness is disconcerting, and what is ultimately his anti-critical, anti-intellectual stance is nothing short of disturbing to see in a supposedly academic text. If AL is really the application of knowledge to social problems, then we first need some knowledge - any knowledge - with which to approach our various problems. I didn't find much here.
More About the Author
Alan Roger Davies (/ˈdeɪvɪs/ day-viss; born 6 March 1966) is an English stand-up comedian, writer and actor.