Belonging to a group is very important to people. Even people who claim to be loners and deliberately live in the most isolated locations would still belong to a family unit, a community and/or a nation. We all seek belonging be it with other people or on a more abstract level, with a school of thought or belief.
Sometimes, belonging requires us to display our stance. Other times, it requires us to say that we belong to this group but not that group. We sometimes need to draw boundaries and show that in belonging to group x, we can’t belong to group y.
And this is part of my understanding of why people always need to position themselves in our everyday interactions with others. In the academic world, positioning happens on the level of epistemic domains. We claim positions in certain research fields, academic disciplines and institutional affiliations.
So what is it about language that relates to positioning?
The ways we use language positions us in a certain way and enables our interlocutors to ‘make sense’ of us. In my interviews with academic researchers, they share their perceptions on where they think they belong in terms of sharing similar research interests with a particular group of researchers or a discipline. This can be seen in the words they use to describe themselves and others. Some researchers reflect aspirations to focus their research in alignment with a larger discipline and hope to be seen in that light. Others resist being ‘typecast’ in one single field or discipline and wish to maintain their ‘intellectual versatility’ in pursuing different fields of research according to their interest.
What is even more intriguing to me is the way that sometimes, they refer to implicit expectations of how academic research should be like. For instance, some researchers think that research needs to have real-life applications in order to have impact. Several others may think that high-impact publications are necessary. Almost none would question the tacit knowledge that all research should reap publications in order to be fruitful. These multiple positions taken up by the researchers in talk construct a certain picture of how the academic world ‘operates’ (perhaps at least in the field of Applied Linguistics). I hope to discover more about how this world is constructed not just through the researchers’ articulated opinions, but by their positions which are sometimes unarticulated.
~ Sixian Hah
Image: Gordon Square Garden, near SOAS in London. Writer’s own.