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Abstract Details

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Critical Realism and Critical Discourse Analysis: A re-evaluation of the relationship between stated policies and individual discursive practices in GCC students and university teachers
Paper Proposal Text :
In this paper we use a combination a critical realist ontology (Bhaskar 1975, 1989; Archer, 2003, 2008) and the discursive analysis involved in critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995; Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 2002) in order to explore the "verbalized as well as silenced aspects of [university] education in the GCC" (Mahboob, Elyas & Bawazeer 2012). This approach is described by Sims-Schouten et al. (2007) as 'critical realist discourse analysis' (p101).
Increasingly, researchers have realised that policy documents are manifestations of discursive processes (Saarinen 2008). Critical discourse analysis is seen as a useful tool to explore these discursive processes, particularly in complex social situations with disputed discourse like the Gulf educational context since it is a type of discourse analytical research that studies the way power structures are “ enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context” (Dijk 2001). However, as suggested by Saarinen (2008), the use of policy documents as data in higher education research requires a more systematic analysis than is currently the case in most discursive analysis where a relativist epistemology prevails. In Norman Fairclough's books, Language and Power (1989) and Critical Discourse Analysis (1995), he describes a three-dimensional framework for studying discourse, "where the aim is to map three separate forms of analysis onto one another: analysis of (spoken or written) language texts, analysis of discourse practice (processes of text production, distribution and consumption) and analysis of discursive events as instances of sociocultural practice" (1995 p.2). However, some have suggested that discourse within this type of analysis is understood as "always continent or relative to some discursive and cultural frame of reference" (Wetherell, 2001, p. 393). This emphasis on the discursive to the detriment of the extra-discursive fails to explore why individuals "use certain constructions and not others", fails to address experiences outside the realm of language and does not try to unpack how "material practices impact on the discursive" although it does address how the discursive impacts on material practices (Sims-Schouten et al. 2007).
The advantage of taking a critical realist ontological stance is that it addresses the complex relationship between the domains of the "empirical" (reflected in discursive practices), "the actual" (events that relate to those discursive practices) and the "real" (mechanisms underlying those practices), as well as the social domains of "structure" (manifest in policy documents, course structures and curricula), "culture" (as manifest in ideologies and group discourses) and agency (manifest in the interpersonal and intra-personal in observed interactions and an individual’s statements about themselves). As noted by Kahn et al. (2012, p. 134), individual agents' intentions are neither uniform, nor static, nor passive".

Combining the ontological stance of critical realism which unpacks the complex interaction of "objects [in this case the language of policies and individual narratives/ texts], their structures or natures and their causal powers or liabilities" (Fairclough et al. 2003) with the tools of critical discourse analysis helps the researcher to achieve a more systematic approach to policy analysis and to explore its relationship to individual discourse. In this paper, data from two PhD theses (Picard 2007; Elyas 2011) in the Gulf context are re-evaluated using a critical realist discourse analysis.

In the first part of the paper, institutional policy data and curricula in an Emirati university along with individual students in an English for Special Purposes program's narratives and texts are re-evaluated. In the second part of the paper, ministerial documents and students and university teachers’ narratives within a teacher education program in Saudi Arabia are examined.

For both sets of data, the approach set out by Sims-Schouten et al. (2007) was followed in order to conduct a multi-level analysis that draws on discursive practices. Firstly, a literature review was conducted to determine the embodiment (making visible or tangible – related to the domain of the “empirical”), materiality (related to events and practices at the level of the “actual”) and institutions (at the social level of the “structural”). This detailed contextualisation provides context for the next stage of the analysis where these extra-discursive elements were assessed within the local context. Finally, the data (the policy documents and the narratives/ texts of the participants) were analysed using critical discourse analysis. This involved the processes of text analysis (description), processing analysis (interpretation) and social analysis (explanation) (Janks 1999). In the second and third stages of the critical discourse analysis the discursive was linked with the extra-discursive in order to identify why the participants drew upon certain discourses rather than others, explore the impact of material practices on discursive practices and the map ways the participants used discourse to construct certain versions of reality and position their talk within the materiality they negotiated (Sim Schouten et al. 2007).

In the data collected by Picard (2007) in the UAE context, the individual students completing a research project were enabled and constrained in their autonomous learning by the competing discourses of Westernization/Globalisation and Islamization/Nationalism reflected in policies and curricula. One learner in particular, engaged with a research topic reflecting an individual deeply spiritual identity, yet when conducting an autonomous survey project on the topic (using the Westernized research approach prescribed in the curricula), “dangerous discourses” (Picard 2007) which conflicted both with her Islamic identity and institutional culture emerged. In data collected by Elyas (2011), although the same conflicting discourses are revealed in the policy documents, in contrast with contextual data revealing conservative forces within Saudi Arabian education promoting a fixed Islamic/Arab identity, the learners aligned their “success narratives” with discourses of globalisation, the information age and individuality pre-empting the policy changes (such as the Tatweer that subsequently occurred). The two teachers, however, make different discursive choices: one rejecting Westernized discourses and the other embracing a “glocalized” identity” in conjunction with an Islamic one. This paper emphasizes the relationship of individual agency and its relationship to culture and structure (Archer 2003) and shows the mechanism underlying discursive choices.