ILCEA online # 40

English for Specialised Purposes (ESP) & the Underlying Dynamics of Power, Empowerment & Disempowerment


Shaeda Isani, Professor Emerita, UGA
Séverine Wozniak, Associate Professor, UGA

Reflecting upon the notion of language as the locus of power is as old as speech itself as attested by the emblematic "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" or, a few centuries later, by Aristotle's Rhetoric (4th century BC), possibly the earliest 'academic' text on the subject of persuasion. Projecting ourselves towards more contemporaneous times and concerns, works such as Fowler et al.'s Language and Control (1979), and Fairclough's Language and Power (1989) ushered in a new approach to the debate through the socio-political perspective of critical discourse analysis (CDA) and its focus on how language is used to construct, consolidate and perpetuate power and ideology.

Essentially practice-orientated in its approach, the bulk of ESP research has traditionally been concerned with needs analysis and the lexico-grammatical, rhetorical and discursive analysis of specialised genres. The maturing of the discipline over the past decades, however, has seen the emergence of a more holistic perspective and critical stance which query a number of the foundational tenets of the discipline such as an exclusively work-related concept of needs analysis (Benesch 2001) or the domination of genre studies.

With power, empowerment and disempowerment as the underlying tryptic of this volume, we invite contributions related to such considerations as the power dynamics behind, for example, the normative ethos of ESP genres which "have a high level of rhetorical sophistication, the keys to which are offered solely to their members" (Orts et al. 2017: 9). Genres primarily serve to unify the highly diverse and dispersed members of specialised discourse communities and facilitate knowledge sharing and communication between them. Nonetheless, they are also perceived as "an enabling mechanism for domination […] of subordinate groups" (Simpson and Mayr 2010: 2) by expert elites, as an agency of institutional, organisational and individual interests vested with a controlling gate-keeping function of access to discourse communities which they "dominate, police and protect as their particular area of expertise" (Orts et al, ibid.). Corollary to this is the notion of implicit consent and compliance (and thus legitimation of the ruling group of experts) by which adhesion to the dominant discourse is seen as a necessary means of gaining recognition and hence empowerment through access to the sought-after "club", leading critics such as Pennycook (1994) to refer to classic work-driven ESP objectives as "vulgar pragmatism".

Another area of power dynamics in ESP studies concerns unequal or asymmetrical encounters in which power of interaction is distributed unequally with the appropriation of discursive authority by the dominant collocutors (Fairclough, ibid), as so typically illustrated by doctor/patient, judge/defendant, journalist/interviewee, teacher/learner, L1/L2 and men/women exchanges in the workplace. If access to knowledge through the codified genres used to vector it is a recognised form of empowerment, in the context of ESP teaching perspectives there is growing interest in the pedagogic applications of the concept which query the entrenched teacher/learner asymmetry – emphasised in the ESP context by the learner's triple knowledge, language and culture deficit – and advocate a more symmetrical learner-empowered/ing approach.

Attention has, likewise, focused on the power dynamics underlying integration into disciplinary/professional ESP cultures. In addition to being seen as prioritizing work integration over social integration, in today's multicultural environment it raises concerns about the processes of enculturation and the uncomfortable suggestion of conditioning learners' source and target identities.

The number of foundational ESP tenets being increasingly challenged today raises the question of disempowerment and its corollary shift, empowerment. The most momentous instance of disempowerment in the context of ESP studies is undoubtedly the rise of English as a professional lingua franca and the subsequent disenfranchisement of native models of English both in spoken and written, formal and informal professional genres – disempowerment balanced by the parallel empowerment of millions of NNS. Another force of change in this respect is the tremendous upsurge in the use of social media and the collateral changes wrought in the domain of pre-digital legacy media and journalism with the incipient disempowerment of traditional journalists and the empowerment of 'citizen journalists'. Likewise, the rise of 'amateur-specialists' for whom YouTube and other forums provide a platform to dispense unmediated 'specialist' advice, questions the very notion of expertise. In this perspective, social media portend potent changes likely to impact other traditional key professionals – politicians, diplomats, lawyers and judges, bankers, managers, advertisers, teachers, etc., – leaving those on the fringe of this culture of unmediated discourse with a profound sentiment of disempowerment.

Benesch Sarah. 2001. "Critical English for Academic Purposes". Mahwah, NJ, Laurence Erlbaum.

Fairclough Norman. 1989. Language and Power. NY, Longman Inc.

Fowler Roger, Hodge Bob, Kress Gunther, Trew Tony. 1979. Language and Control. London, Routledge & Paul Kegan.

Orts María Ángeles, Breeze Ruth & Gotti Maurizio. 2017. Power, Persuasion and Manipulation in Specialised Genres. Bern, Peter Lang.

Pennycook Alastair. 1994. The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London, Longman.

Simpson Paul and Mayr Andrew. 2010. Language and Power. London, Routledge.

The editors will be pleased to receive manifestations of interest (in French or English) in the form of 300-word abstracts relevant to the above considerations and will also be happy to consider other related proposals. Submissions must be addressed to both editors simultaneously by 1st April, 2019:

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  • Submission of abstract: 1st April, 2019
  • Notification of acceptance: 26th April, 2019
  • Submission of full text: 12th July, 2019
  • Peer review process: July, August, September 2019
  • Return to author: (at latest) 1st October, 2019
  • Final submission to editors: 2nd November, 2019
  • Editorial review: November/December 2019
  • Submission to online publisher: 1st January, 2020
  • Online release: 1st June, 2020