Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics
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Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics

Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie

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eBook - ePub

Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics

Phil Hiver, Ali H. Al-Hoorie

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About This Book

This book provides practical guidance on research methods and designs that can be applied to Complex Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST) research. It discusses the contribution of CDST to the field of applied linguistics, examines what this perspective entails for research and introduces practical methods and templates, both qualitative and quantitative, for how applied linguistics researchers can design and conduct research using the CDST framework. Introduced in the book are methods ranging from those in widespread use in social complexity, to more familiar methods in use throughout applied linguistics. All are inherently suited to studying both dynamic change in context and interconnectedness. This accessible introduction to CDST research will equip readers with the knowledge to ensure compatibility between empirical research designs and the theoretical tenets of complexity. It will be of value to researchers working in the areas of applied linguistics, language pedagogy and educational linguistics and to scholars and professionals with an interest in second/foreign language acquisition and complexity theory.

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Part 1
Introduction to Complexity Theory
1 Introduction
Complexity is part of the world, but it shouldn’t be puzzling: we can accept it if we believe that this is the way things must be [and] explore the nature of complexity, relish its depth, richness, and beauty, [and] at the same time… fight against unnecessary complications.
Norman (2011: 4)
Over the past several years, complexity and dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the imagination of many in the field of applied linguistics. By way of illustration, consider that Larsen-Freeman’s (1997) first proposal that applied linguistics issues could profit by being viewed explicitly in complexity terms is now listed as among the most influential articles in the field (de Bot, 2015). Similarly, Larsen-Freeman and Cameron’s (2008a) comprehensive, prize-winning, field-specific overview of CDST has also been ranked among the most impactful books in applied linguistics (de Bot, 2015). We must admit that we find this explosion of interest in CDST unsurprising. After all, applied linguistics is a broad and inclusive field with a distinct flavor of hybridity – what some refer to as interdisciplinarity – and has always been characterized by an openness to outside influences (Chapelle, 2014). A general intellectual reorientation around complexity theory has swept through the social disciplines more broadly, providing evidence that many of the major issues of our time are complex and systemic and must be approached with a corresponding shift in perception (Capra & Luisi, 2014). Applied linguistics, too, has now ‘gone complex’, and the fact that complexity has emerged as an influence on applied linguists’ thinking in important ways is perhaps to be expected and welcomed.
Newcomers to such ideas may wonder, however, why adopt a CDST framing at all? What does CDST enable us to accomplish that we would not otherwise be able to get at, do, see and talk about in applied linguistics research (see e.g. Ortega & Han, 2017)? For starters, complexity is an empirical reality of the human and social world. The place of CDST in 21st-century applied linguistics, for us, is oriented by a claim that Edgar Morin has made in his work:
Fragmented thinking makes us unable to connect parts and wholes, to deal with change, the unexpected and the uncertain in response to the continuing acquisition of new information. We need, instead, a radical capacity to reconnect subjects that are disjointed and compartmentalized, to think about their complexity, their totality.... We must learn to navigate on a sea of uncertainties. (Morin, 2001: 1–3)
CDST, in this sense, allows the ideas and issues that applied linguists grapple with, both by design and as a matter of course, to be more closely understood in ways that better approximate their dynamic and situated realities (see e.g. Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008a).
As recent work (e.g. Larsen-Freeman, 2017) synthesizing current strands of applied linguistics that have been informed by CDST shows, CDST has continued to permeate questions throughout language development/acquisition (de Bot, 2008; Ellis & Larsen-Freeman, 2009; Verspoor et al., 2008), language attrition (Schmid et al., 2013), language change (Cooper, 1999; Kretzschmar, 2015), language ecology (Cowley, 2011; Kramsch & Whiteside, 2008), language evolution (Ke & Holland, 2006; Mufwene et al., 2017), language policy and planning (Hogan-Brun & Hogan, 2013; Hult, 2010a; Larsen-Freeman, 2018b), language pedagogy (Kostoulas et al., 2018; Mercer, 2013, 2016), lingua franca English (Baird et al., 2014; Bouchard, 2018; Larsen-Freeman, 2018a), linguistic landscapes (Soler-Carbonnell, 2016), bilingualism and multilingualism (Herdina & Jessner, 2002; Todeva, 2009), sociolinguistics (Bastardas-Boada, 2013; Blommaert, 2014), educational linguistics (Hult, 2010b), conversation analysis (Seedhouse, 2010), communication studies (Massip-Bonet & Bastardas-Boada, 2013; Massip-Bonet et al., 2019) and countless other areas of applied linguistics.
At the same time, applied linguistics has always had an explicit orientation to practical concerns in the real world. Its application is in relation to events, spatiotemporal settings and people for which knowledge of language and its use are key to resolving dilemmas of one sort or another (Davies & Elder, 2004). Complexity is equally grounded in the phenomenological reality of the social world, and in countless conversations with other applied linguists we have heard time and again that such a perspective makes good intellectual sense given its ability to capture the inherent situated and dynamic reality of such phenomena of interest. Equally often, however, we have heard that despite close resonances between CDST and scholars’ thematic areas of expertise, the methods for ‘doing’ CDST and researching such issues using insights from CDST remain elusive (cf. Lowie, 2017; MacIntyre et al., 2015). This is perhaps surprising, given what is now clear to us: CDST is grounded in a problem-focused orientation to research methodology and calls for approaches to doing science that emerge from the needs of inquiry (Morin, 2008). Clearly, the main hurdle to empirical scholarship informed by complexity theory has been applied linguists’ uncertainty regarding what designing and conducting actual CDST research entails (e.g. MacIntyre et al., 2017). The result is a distinct lack of consensus regarding which phenomena or questions merit examination, how systematic investigation should be structured and conducted (e.g. with regard to instrumentation and data collection) and how the results of this research should be analyzed and interpreted (e.g. Ellis, 2018).
How We Came to Write This Book
In an intensely emotional recount of the intellectual challenges of grappling with new concepts for which scientists’ language and way of thinking at the time were inadequate, Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg (1901–1976) recalls that
I remember discussions with [Niels] Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be so absurd as it seemed to us in these… experiments? (Heisenberg, 1958: 42)
It took these physicists an extended period of time to accept that complexity and the seeming paradoxes it encompassed were essential to understanding the way things exist in nature. Once they did, however, they began to ask more precise and insightful questions and discover explanations for these seeming contradictions which shaped one of the most exciting periods of modern science (Capra & Luisi, 2014).
Though less dramatic, our own experience with complexity theory has been marked by a similar struggle as the intellectual challenge these quantum physicists encountered – navigating, in a sense, on Morin’s (2001) ‘sea of uncertainties’. We both began our scholarly apprenticeship and research careers in applied linguistics with an interest in people – that is, we developed a fascination with how individuals’ (i.e. learners and teachers) thoughts and actions in settings of second and foreign language (L2) learning and instruction contribute to their meaningful participation and ongoing development in those environments and how such psycho-social aspects of L2 learning lead to intentional effort, engagement and persistence on the part of those individuals. Of course, in our desire to understand the ways and means by which individuals actively devote effort and attention to L2 learning opportunities, we saw little choice but to foreground the interdependencies between the many cognitive, affective and behavioral factors at the individual level as well as between individuals and their environment. This natural development was encouraged by the thinking and influence of our mentors in the field (Dörnyei, 2008, 2017; Larsen-Freeman, 2012; Mercer, 2011; Verspoor et al., 2011). Our work, like theirs, sought to place an explicit focus on language in contexts of learning, teaching and use, and called direct attention to the dynamic nature of these phenomena. However, this project was anything but straightforward.
We discovered firsthand that one of the pre-eminent challenges of doing applied linguistics research from this dynamic and situated perspective is, with a handful of notable exceptions (e.g. Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008b; Verspoor et al., 2011), very little methodological guidance exists for those intending to design and conduct research informed by complexity theory. Even in the social sciences more broadly, the sources on complexity research that exist are framed conceptually (see e.g. Mitleton-Kelly et al., 2018) – this disconnect is somewhat similar to trying to learn to drive a car by referencing an explanation of drive-by-wire and throttle-by-wire mechanisms instead of taking a practice drive. This is not a scenario we would wish on anyone. As we have written elsewhere, we discovered almost immediately that scholarly work stops short of the level of practical application necessary to ensure compatibility between empirical research designs and the theoretical tenets of complexity (Hiver & Al-Hoorie, 2016). In response to this, we expanded the scope of our search for such methodological guidance. We read voraciously on complexity and research methods – as just one example, the 12,000-page Encyclopedia of Complexity and Systems Science (Meyers, 2009) became our bedtime reading. This early experience of exploring Lyapunov functions, Feigenbaum constants and Mandelbrot set algorithms was informative and it convinced us of several things.
Primarily, we became convinced, like our mentors, that uncritically importing mathematical methods wholesale from complexity science would be of limited productivity, given that the objects of interest in applied linguistics sometimes differ radically from those in the natural sciences, and because the social sciences do not have the sort of data that the physical sciences use to model complexity mathematically (Dörnyei et al., 2015; Larsen-Freeman & Cameron, 2008b; Verspoor et al., 2011). However, we were equally convinced that the existing templates and methods of analysis already well-established in empirical complexity research in other human and social domains hold considerable promise for studying complex dynamic phenomena in the field of applied linguistics. As we hope to show in Parts 2 and 3 of this book, both quantitative and qualitative methodologies play a vital role in CDST research. Complexity’s philosophy of science does not suggest a mutually exclusive approach, and advocating an either/or choice is neither defensible nor pragmatic for the range of phenomena that necessitate investigation. The value of qualitative methods is that they allow finely grained observations of situated developmental processes, and, as we also hope to show, advanced quantitative ...

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