Some thoughts on ‘impact’, the theme at iMean 2015

by Craig Evans

It was the fourth meeting for iMean, a biennial linguistics conference first held at UWE in 2009. Jointly organised by staff and students from UWE and the University of Warwick, this year’s event took place at Warwick. Here are some of my thoughts on the main theme of the conference…

‘Impact’ was the theme at this year’s iMean conference. I was there as a student volunteer helping out for four days in April. ‘Impact’ emanates from a source, and I had the opportunity to experience firsthand the source in question at iMean 2015, that is: the linguistics research community. Or at least, I should say, a variety of academics from across the world whose research focus is language. This seems to be an important distinction to make now that the onus falls increasingly on the individual researcher – rather than research community – to justify their work in terms of its ‘impact’.

It was fascinating, as an English Language and Linguistics undergraduate still fairly new to the world of language research, to observe seasoned academics as they grappled with this buzzword ‘impact’.

Not that my account will represent a fully informed and balanced reflection of the views of the convening delegates. As a volunteer, I spent a lot of time helping out with registration or directing delegates to lecture theatres. However, in return for my services, I did have the chance to attend a number of presentations, and to get a flavour of the different attitudes to the conference theme.

For a number of the linguists present, ‘impact’ represented what has already been, for a long time, a primary consideration in most academic research. What impact does your latest research have on established theories and methodologies? What effect might it have on how a subject is taught? How does it impact particular individuals or communities? And what are the potential broader social, political and economic implications of your research?

Such questions are at the heart of what drives people to do research in the first place, and are sometimes central to how some linguistic subjects are taught. For example, the issue of how communities may be affected by research is a key topic in the study of Linguistic Fieldwork. And, by its very definition, Critical Discourse Analysis is about highlighting and challenging discrimination, injustice and power imbalances that are perpetuated by discourse-based social practices.

So why the sudden interest in something that is already an intrinsic part of linguistic research?

For the conference organisers, this interest is a response to the increased use of the word ‘impact’ in criteria used to decide research funding and policy. For academia more generally, ‘impact’ arguably reflects a political influence and the marketisation of universities, which creates more pressure on individual academics to justify their work in terms of its value in ‘real-life’ settings.

Of course, the obvious problem with this is that research is often about exploring what is not known, so it may not be possible to anticipate what ‘impact’ particular research will have. For example, studying an extinct language might provide a missing link to our understanding of how language works. However, if a convincing enough argument is not made about the known implications of such research (as might be the case with studying extinct languages), funding could be lost, and new knowledge left undiscovered.

There are many areas in the study of language where research is actually a response to ‘impact’, such as the negative ‘impact’ that certain language practices can have on people’s lives. This is the case with Applied Linguistics, where researchers investigate and seek solutions to real-world problems relating to language.

At iMean 2015, an example of such research was Meredith Marra’s work on ‘”fitting in” at work’. I attended Marra’s presentation on the subject, which, among other things, looked at the sociopragmatic demands facing migrants in a New Zealand workplace setting. In one example, Marra analysed the transcript from a job interview in which a Russian migrant continues to list all his experiences despite the diminishing minimal responses from the interviewer.

The outcome of the interview was that the migrant was not offered the job. Marra suggested that one reason for this was because the interviewee did not understand the sociopragmatic norms of a New Zealand interview situation. That is to say, they did not see that the request for information about work experience was also an opportunity for them to reveal other skills and attributes, such as by demonstrating relational skills, volunteering information about technical skills, and representing themselves as someone who would fit in at the company.

The value of Marra’s work in terms of ‘impact’ is that its findings can be used to increase awareness among employers of the particular challenges facing migrants in the workplace. This may serve an economic benefit by avoiding the best candidates for jobs being discounted because they might not be attuned to the sociopragmatic norms of an interactive situation. It also promotes fairness and helps with social cohesion by highlighting how integration is a two-way relationship.

I do not expect that any of the delegates attending iMean 2015 will have doubted the essential role that a consideration of ‘impact’ plays in academic research. If this is not a social or economic ‘impact’, then it certainly needs to be ‘impact’ within their field. But then surely this is a given – a realisation that academics would have already needed to reach for their work to be valued by the wider research community. In this way, it is understandable why the delegates – as a number of them seemed to – would regard the word ‘impact’ with suspicion. Why suddenly the prevalent use of a word to state the obvious? In the context of research funding and policy, might it not acquire a sense of meaning that privileges certain types of research over others? Even if this is only a perception, the impact of ‘impact’ could be that it discourages academics from doing research that they deem important, in favour of research that is most compatible with whatever notion of impact happens to be in fashion.

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