Tracing the Causes of English as a Medium of Instruction through Process Tracing

Hultgren, Anna Kristina; Nao, Marion; Sah, Pramod and Beach, Derek (2022). Tracing the Causes of English as a Medium of Instruction through Process Tracing. In: Sociolinguistics Symposium 24 - Inside and Beyond Binaries, 13-16 Jul 2022, Ghent University, Belgium.


Despite a consensus in socio- and applied linguistics on the importance of the political economy for understanding contemporary communicative changes (e.g., Gal 1989; Duchêne and Heller 2013; Block 2017, 2018; O’Regan 2021), there is generally less clarity on how to incorporate it into sociolinguistic analyses. Theoretically framed within critical realism (Bhaskar 2016), this paper showcases Process Tracing (Beach and Brun Pedersen 2019) – a qualitative research method used in political science and psychology – as a way of explaining how political processes give rise to ongoing linguistics and communicative changes, specifically the rise of English as a Medium of Instruction. Drawing on policy documents and interviews with elite policy makers, we seek to disentangle, in a detective-like manner, how a series of political reforms in European higher education since the 1980s, centred on granting higher education institutions greater autonomy, appear to have indirectly or directly incentivized higher education institutions to teach in English instead of in the local language. Our preliminary findings confirm well-recognized complexities around establishing causality in the human and social sciences, revealing a complex interplay of social, political and economic drivers of English that operate at supranational, national, institutional and individual levels. Nevertheless, our findings also tentatively suggest that it may be possible to trace the rise of English as a Medium of Instruction, and the marketization of higher education in which it is inextricably embedded, to a set of political reforms, and, by implication, to reverse it, should we wish to do so. Overall, we argue that to fully understand the drivers of English, and to tackle any ensuing inequity, injustice and disadvantage, we need to keep in analytic focus not only the traditional sociolinguistic remit of language, speakers and the disenfranchised, but also governance, politics and the powerful.

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