Language, Space And Power: Critical Look

Language, Space And Power: Critical Look

by Samina Hadi-Tabassum


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Language, Space, and Power describes the sociolinguistic and sociocultural life of a Spanish-English dual language classroom in which attention is given to not only the language learning processes at hand but also to how race, ethnicity, and gender dynamics interact within the language acquisition process.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781853598791
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 04/30/2006
Series: Bilingual Education & Bilingualism Series , #55
Pages: 304
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Samina Hadi-Tabassum received a doctorate degree from Columbia University and is currently an Assistant Professor at Dominican University in River Forest, Illinois. She is the director of the Bilingual and ESL Program. Her research interests include bilingual education, multicultural education, and linguistics.

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The Research Setting

Why Critical Ethnography?

Influenced by neo-Marxist theory, critical ethnography places human participants at the center of analysis and examines their interpretive and negotiating abilities in social settings (Holston, 1989). Critical ethnography has borrowed its focus on thick descriptions of human participants interpreting and negotiating amongst themselves from interpretivist ethnography. In this yearlong research study, I also studied the social reality of a local dual immersion classroom and wrote thick descriptions on how the dual immersion students, teachers, parents and administrators interacted socially to construct and negotiate the meaning of language use and linguistic borders and boundaries in their local classrooms and school. Critical ethnography also interrogates specific and local meanings in a social setting and presents multiple and perhaps incompatible perspectives of that lived social reality through a heterogeneous recording of differences between and amongst the negotiated meanings. It also seeks to identify contradictions, gaps, inconsistencies, slippages and other paradoxes between actual and perceived social realities in order to initiate empowering change in existing asymmetrical power networks (Le Compte & Priessle, 1984).

Furthermore, the human participants in a critical ethnography are seen as empowered agents who can change the structure of their social realities through acts of resistance (Gore, 1992). In this study, the complexities of the dual immersion students' resistance to the linguistic borderlands was documented through metadiscourse in order to provide an understanding of the contradictions they perceived between the two languages within the classroom discourse and how they went about negotiating and mediating these conflicts, even though these sites of resistance toward, and negotiation of, linguistic borders are assumptions that the critical ethnographer often makes as an outsider. Nonetheless, critical ethnography calls for giving voice to the viewpoints of informants who are often marginalized or silenced in research. It also stresses the need for asking questions that have never been formulated before and tries to address them through unconventional methods. Next, it asks the researcher to interpret the research results through new theoretical lenses and present them in novel ways that portray the multiple viewpoints and perspectives that can constitute the social reality of a dual immersion classroom. In order to increase the validity of these theoretical assumptions, the critical researcher must consult and collaborate with the researched subjects and co-define the data together by seeking the informant's perception of these sites of resistance and the theoretical construct of the third space, which may seem quite abstract to the informants.

By conducting informal interviews throughout the data collection phase with key student participant-informants and then formal post-interviews at the end of the study, this study replayed "the multiple voices that created the original scene ... and presents the informants' comments in such temporally situated, multiple-coexistent ethnography, in a sense, to parallel the presentation of disparate perspectives as found in cubist paintings and polyphonic music" (Quantz & O'Conner, 1988: 20). My role as the researcher was to "understand the meaning of their experiences, to walk into their shoes, to feel things as they feel them, to explain things as they explain them" (Spradley, 1980: 9). Instead of making preconceived evaluations and judgments before the observation process, I came to discover the students' ways of speaking about the linguistic borders and boundaries between the Spanish and English language through classroom observations as an outsider, non-participant observer who strictly observes and describes the classroom without using a structured format for recording data through predetermined codes (Erickson, 1980). In the end, the researcher's theoretical constructs, the student participant-informant's commonsense notions of these constructs and the research data containing the metadiscourse came together to make sense of the linguistic borderlands and the possibility of a third space within this fifth-grade dual immersion classroom.

In the Foothills of Dual Immersion Country

I first found out about PS 2000 through a bilingual education course assignment in which I had to analyze a dual immersion school in the city. I was given a list of schools by the instructor and told to contact the schools myself. PS 2000 was the first school that I had telephoned and I immediately received a warm reception from the school secretary who recommended that I come observe Roberta's fifth-grade classroom because she was an exemplary teacher who was used to having visitors observe her teaching. After setting up an appointment with Roberta and meeting her in person, I realized that both she and the school would be open to me coming in regularly throughout my graduate coursework at the local university to observe her classroom teaching on an ongoing basis. For the first two years of our relationship, I would visit Roberta's classroom every so often in order to validate a number of thesis papers I wrote in my beginning graduate courses. As I started approaching the stage in which I had to develop a qualifying paper and state my initial dissertation research interests, I visited Roberta's classroom more often and one day accidentally stumbled across a classroom event that then led me to pursue the theoretical framework for this book. The students were situated on the rug during a classroom meeting in which the student council president, Anna, a Puerto Rican female, brought up a heated topic for group discussion – the regulation of Spanish in formal and informal spaces. Anna became quite emotional and began crying over the fact that she found her peers, even her Spanish-dominant peers, continually resorting to the use of English rather than Spanish in informal spaces such as the hallway, cafeteria, playground and activity classes. The discussion continued with a volley of shots from students both in favor of and against the patrolling of linguistic borders by the students themselves in these informal spaces. When I walked away from the class meeting in which the issue was never really resolved but had dramatically affected the classroom ethos, I knew then and there that this was what I wanted to research for my dissertation – locating when and where dual immersion students talked reflectively about the uneven and unequal borders and boundaries between the Spanish and English languages.

When I first entered the field setting in September 1999 for my dissertation research, I was there on average two to three full days throughout the school week and for a full academic year ending in June 2000. By observing both English and Spanish days equally, I stayed grounded in the competing classroom discourses from the very beginning. During this yearlong study, I observed and described everyday classroom life starting from the very beginning of the school year by using both informal data recording strategies such as field notes, and formal observation instruments such as videotapes and audiotapes. In addition to identifying patterns and summarizing weekly field reports, I used the field notes to develop hypotheses in regards to how the students used metalanguage to negotiate the linguistic borderlands. After I had observed that a certain classroom space, such as the weekly class meetings that were held in the rug area at the beginning and end of each school week, had the potential to lead toward the targeted metalinguistic discussions, I then made a concerted effort to formally record these metalinguistic places on audiotape and videotape. As the researcher, I was constantly aware of changing classroom contexts and subsequently located those points in the social trajectory of the classroom life that contained potential for metalinguistic discussions. Thus, I came to an understanding of the classroom discourse by first entering into the full social context of the classroom and then documenting how the student participants debate and interact within specific metalinguistic discussions during and in specific times and places.

Furthermore, according to Patton (1990), a qualitative research design needs to remain sufficiently open and flexible to permit exploration of whatever phenomenon under study offers for inquiry. By observing classroom conversations when the dual immersion students acknowledged each other and engaged each other in metadiscourse, I observed features and patterns of language use that were situational and spatially defined in the classroom (Heras, 1993). Since classroom talk can be both ordinary everyday talk and specific talk, I focused on specific words, phrases and uses of language that reflected ways of speaking about the linguistic borders and boundaries between Spanish and English. In other words, as the teacher and students constructed the classroom discourse, my position was to observe and record interactional spaces where they interacted in a particular place, at particular moments in time, and with particular configurations of participants (e.g. whole class, table groups, pairs and individuals) in relation to metalinguistic discussions concerning linguistic borders and boundaries (Heras, 1993). In order to draw on extensive ethnographic data over a yearlong period, the study first examined a range of interactional spaces and relationships within and amongst multiple classroom spaces (desk area, rug area, drama class, hallways); then focused on differences in patterns of classroom discourse (teacher talk vs. student talk); and finally found where opportunities for borderland metalinguistic discussions occurred most often. The recording of everyday classroom life and the social and discursive processes and practices that make up its existence allowed me to understand how language, space and power intersected on a diurnal basis.

After charting the classroom spaces and their discourses, I targeted and located focal places and times when and where metalinguistic discussions occurred often in the classroom discourse. Then I devised a plan of investigation that entailed selectively recording and collecting written, audiotaped, and videotaped observations of these metalinguistic-filled spaces. As I analyzed this initial set of data, I came up with questions that guided the next cycle of data collection and interpretation – whether or not the classroom participants ever reached a transgressive third space in which they overcame the inequities of false linguistic binaries. Some of these questions were also used during informal interviews with some of the students and teachers to help guide me further during the formal interviews I conducted at the very end of the study.

While I was carrying out regular observations, audiotaping and videotaping the metalinguistic discussions, I also tried to identify participant-informants who played a key role in the different metalinguistic discussions and who also had a strong influence in the establishment of power relations during these discussions. After choosing six key participant-informants, I conducted in-depth, open-ended interviews at the end of the yearlong period in order to record how these key informants defined the tensions and contradictions between the Spanish and English language and how they perceived their role within these metalinguistic episodes. After conducting broad initial observations, I searched for participant-informants who could provide me with insider information from the perspective of a classroom native. Instead of becoming the sole authority in the research process, I wanted to negotiate with the participant-informants regarding the representation and signification of these metalinguistic episodes and the possibility of a third space. Participants accepted as insiders are likely to have access to languages and social interactions different from those observable to the researcher (Milroy, 1987).

The factor that was most theoretically important for this study was finding participant-informants who were negotiating between the linguistic borders and boundaries and were generally struggling with issues of language and power, thus the sampling frame for this study was based mostly on theoretical grounds (Johnson, 1990). For example, the selected six participant-informants were struggling to keep the Spanish language from slipping from their grasp by negotiating and reformulating language constructs of domination and difference. The participant-informants were also attempting to situate themselves in that fluctuating, fluid third space where they could transgress over linguistic borders and boundaries. However, instead of being characterized as marginal figures in the classroom, all six participant-informants were central figures who were involved in leading and initiating the border skirmishes throughout the academic school year. Oftentimes, their voicing of these skirmishes opened up the carefully patrolled linguistic borders and boundaries in this dual immersion classroom. These classroom natives in many ways were attempting to redefine the local dual immersion classroom structure through their "self-making acts of exclusion and inclusion within and across the third space" (Tsing, 1993c: 9). In this process, the divide between the Spanish and English language had dissolved in some metalinguistic episodes, as the participant-informants moved beyond the linguistic binary pulling at them. Their authentic, partial voices were speaking from the in-between, fluid third space, where there was a "critical exchange that could become the location of resistance struggle, a meeting place where new and radical happenings can occur" (hooks, 1994: 30).

Thus, it was important to find student participant-informants who were able to help reduce the ethnographic data so that the data were representative of this study's theoretical framework of the third space. By having them review and analyze either videotaped or audiotaped episodes in which they could locate themselves in specific metalinguistic discussions, calling attention to the complexity and specificity of sociolinguistic intersections in the dual immersion classroom, this study first recorded their interpretations of the metalinguistic discussions and then transcribed them. Furthermore, the reciprocal affirmation and endorsement of the data from equally significant student participants disavows any one regime of truth as devised solely by the researcher; instead, multiple truths are documented from various participant-informants. By checking their understanding of what transpired in the metalinguistic discussions, the discourses of resistance, and the third space, as exhibited in the data, I was able to strengthen the study's validity due to the fact that my observations were triangulated with six student responses and understandings of the same data. All the interviews were conducted in English but students could have responded in either English or Spanish, depending on their preference. However, the interview instrument remained the same for all students, regardless if they were language majority or minority students. The formal interviews marked the end of the research study.

The School Setting: An Exemplary Site

The site for this research study was an exemplary, public elementary school (Pre-K-5) located in a large urban city on the East Coast, and it will be referred to as PS 2000 throughout the book. Located in a neighborhood with mostly historic three-story brick apartment buildings dating from the late 1800s, brownstone apartments, and active upscale businesses catering to a predominantly white, upper middle-class residential area, this 1959 neighborhood school is a four-story brick structure located within walking distance of major cultural centers, corporations, museums, restaurants and public parks. Inside the school, there is a wide array of student work displayed in the hallways and on classroom doors, and several awards won by individual students and teachers are displayed in glass showcases. The student population at this school is diverse in terms of both socioeconomic status and racial and ethnic backgrounds. The school enrolls 1000 students in grades pre-kindergarten through fifth. Of those students, 47% are White, 22% are Hispanic, 23% are African-American and the remaining 8% are Asian, Pacific Islander, or Native American (Hemphill, 1997). The majority is upper middle class based on the school's reported socioeconomic status; however, 25% of the students are in the free and reduced lunch program. Even though most of the students are from the local neighborhood, there is still a one-third student population living outside of the neighborhood that commutes to the school from more impoverished parts of the city. This one-third of the student population that resides outside of the school zone must apply for student enrollment through a lottery system in which there are usually 300 applicants for 150 positions in the kindergarten class.


Excerpted from "Language, Space and Power"
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Copyright © 2006 Samina Hadi-Tabassum.
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Table of Contents

ContentsIntroductionChapter 1. The Research SettingChapter 2. Language Space and Power: Examining Metalinguistic Conflicts Along the BorderlandsChapter 3. The Cheers: The Ethics of Making Aesthetic JudgementsChapter 4. Jack, Su Mama Y El Burro: The Performitivity of Race, Gender and Language in a Bilingual PlayChapter 5. The Flow and Movement of Music: Appropriating the Third SpaceChapter 6. Conclusion: False Binaries and True DialecticsReferencesIndex

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