Explaining Complexity and Dynamic Systems Theory (CDST)

This month we published Research Methods for Complexity Theory in Applied Linguistics by Phil Hiver and Ali H. Al-Hoorie. In this post the authors explain why their book is so important for complexity research.

What are the big questions that occupy researchers in the human and social sciences? Chances are that these questions share two key features. First, many social questions, from the minute level to the grand scale of things, are interconnected. Second, their optimal solutions are constantly changing over time. As the late theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking once said, the 21st century is likely to witness a general intellectual reorientation around a complex, interconnected, and dynamic view of the world, a view that is indeed sweeping through various human and social disciplines. And, if many of the major issues of our time are complex and systemic, they need to be approached with a corresponding shift in perception. One such approach is complexity and dynamic systems theory (CDST).

Of course, once we began to adopt a CDST understanding of language learning, development, and use in our work in applied linguistics, it seemed to us that everything straightforward was ruined. Like many others, we had happily operated on the assumption of a neatly ordered and simple world. We studied phenomena by breaking them up into smaller parts, drawing boundaries between those parts, and studying them separate from their environment and in isolation. It is no wonder that before long we ended up frustrated and puzzled as to why we were no closer to understanding and capturing reality than before. While embracing a CDST view promised to bring us closer to an approximation of this complex and dynamic reality, we quickly realized that there was very little guidance for the methods necessary to do this kind of research. Many sources of information were too abstract or conceptual, but also misleading (e.g. “qualitative data are inherently better for studying complex systems”); others were far too technical (e.g. “Lyapunov functions are scalar functions that can be used to measure asymptotic equilibrium in stochastic models”) and did not seem to lend themselves to the kinds of questions that concern us applied linguists.

Methods for doing CDST research did prove elusive at first. But with just a little more digging, we became convinced that certain existing research templates, techniques for data elicitation, and methods of analysis that have a firm complexity basis in other human and social domains did hold promise. This book is the result of that journey we took to learn about already well-established designs and methods for complexity research. Based on our search, and a healthy dose of trial and error, we set out to share a variety of methods for complexity research already in widespread use by social complexivists. In the end, this is the book that we wish we had when we set out nearly a decade ago to explore the issues and questions of interest to us in applied linguistics. We hope it will function like a road map in pointing the way forward to many others who are also interested in the interrelated and dynamic reality of the human and social world.

For more information about this book please see our website

If you found this interesting, you might also like Profiling Learner Language as a Dynamic System edited by ZhaoHong Han.

Shedding Empirical Light on Complex Dynamic System Theory

We recently published Profiling Learner Language as a Dynamic System edited by ZhaoHong Han. In this post the editor explains why the book is important.

Profiling Learner Language as a Dynamic System was born out of an intense interest in contributing to the empirical basis in SLA of the new theoretical paradigm now known as Complex Dynamic System Theory (CDST) (de Bot, 2017; Larsen-Freeman, 2017; Lourdes & Han, 2017). Much of the work so far on CDST has remained rhetorical, and while a concerted effort has been made to push for empirical understandings, methodological insights are as yet incipient, though broad pointers are on the horizon. For example, the study needs to be longitudinal, and should focus on individual learners.

Many of the extant empirical studies have, however, tended to narrowly focus on one or a small number of linguistic elements, taking, a priori, each as part of a (sub)system, producing findings that are limited in scope and do not convincingly demonstrate, in one breath, the ‘complex,’ ‘dynamic,’ and ‘systemic’ nature of learner language.

This book seeks to help fill some of these gaps, by subjecting individuals’ systems to multiple lenses. Recognizing that revealing these properties necessitates a much larger undertaking than an individual study, the book has its five main chapters each target a particular aspect of interlanguage, traversing the domains of morpho-syntax, semantics, pragmatics, and discourse. The uniqueness of this approach lies also in employing the same longitudinal corpus involving two dyads interacting over a shared course requirement. The data analyses tracked both within-dyad and between-dyad similarities and differences, yielding both general patterns and idiosyncrasies. Together, the five sets of data analyses shed light on, and even go beyond, core claims of CDST.

For more information about this book please see our website.

 

If you found this interesting, you might also like Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter D. MacIntyre and Alastair Henry.

Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning

This month marked the publication of Motivational Dynamics in Language Learning edited by Zoltán Dörnyei, Peter MacIntyre and Alastair Henry. In this post we find out how the book came together.

9781783092550That Zoltán Dörnyei and Peter MacIntyre would embark on a project of putting together an anthology of papers applying dynamic principles to the investigation of motivational phenomena is perhaps not surprising. For some time both had been shifting their research interests in dynamic directions. While in his 2009 book The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition Zoltán mapped out the ways in which CDST (Complex Dynamic Systems Theory) could provide an important, game-changing approach to the study of individual differences, Peter had begun work developing pioneering methodologies that could capture moment-by-moment fluctuations in motivation. Both were also very aware that while most of the cutting-edge theorizing in SLA took it for granted that the future lay along the dynamic path, empirical research had lagged behind and continued to follow traditional, non-dynamic research approaches. Quite simply the time was right for a collection of papers investigating the dynamics of L2 motivation and drawing on CDST principles in such research.

Testing the water, Zoltán first broached the idea of a CDST-inspired motivation anthology with Tommi and Laura at the 2012 AAAL conference in Boston. Buoyed by their enthusiastic response, the ball started to roll. Shortly thereafter invitations to contribute were sent out to over 40 researchers working with L2 motivation and here too responses were overwhelmingly positive. To keep the momentum for the project growing, Zoltán and Peter organized a well-attended colloquium at the 2013 AAAL gathering in Dallas where John Schumann provided an inspiring introduction and, in her role as discussant, Diane Larsen-Freeman assessed the contributions, arguing persuasively that motivation researchers should continue the journey now started along a CDST pathway. The energy generated by the symposium was sustained at a subsequent reception hosted by Multilingual Matters at the convention center where many of the book’s contributors met to enjoy a drink (thanks Tommi and Laura!) and to discuss ways forward.

However, while Zoltán and Peter were delighted at the enthusiasm generated by the project, privately they were concerned about the scope of the undertaking and the time investment that the putting together of such a large and pioneering collection of papers would demand. Realising that, unless the editorial team was expanded, they would be locked to their desks for next eighteen months, they invited Alastair to breakfast the day following the colloquium and, in true Godfather style, made him an offer he couldn’t refuse.

With Alastair on board and chapter drafts beginning to arrive, the following eight months saw the team working intensively with the submissions, hardly a week going by without flurries of email correspondence. At the most crucial moments, skype meetings were held early morning (for Peter in Canada) and late afternoon (for Alastair and Zoltán in Europe). Difficult editorial decisions were discussed among the three editors over skype. Whereas the quality of the papers was uniformly high, not all could be included in the volume. Not because Multilingual Matters had any upper limit (Tommi had even promised Zoltán that the book could stretch to two volumes if necessary!), but because early on the editors realised that for the book to be a success – i.e. that it could provide a series of research blueprints that would enable graduate students and established researchers alike to embark on CDST-inspired projects – it was imperative that only those papers that truly instantiated dynamic approaches could be included. Making these decisions was by no means an easy task and several high quality papers that have now been published (or are in press) in other forums were turned down.

After another intensive period of editing, the manuscript began to take shape. In the summer of 2014 a final draft was sent to Multilingual Matters. Not only had an impressive range of empirical studies been put together (many employing novel methodologies), but the manuscript also included a series of conceptual papers dealing with CDST concepts and terminology. Contributions from leading scholars such as Diane Larsen-Freeman, Kees de Bot and Marjolijn Verspoor map out some of the fundamental principles of CDST, such as the role of attractor states, timescales, initial conditions and context. These concepts will be new and unusual to some readers of the volume, so the 10 introductory chapters were designed to provide ‘one stop shopping’ for readers entering the CDST field.

The empirical section of the book features a dozen highly original empirical studies. Motivation-related concepts that are familiar to teachers and researchers alike are dealt with from a dynamic perspective. These concepts are studied with a series of innovative and creative methodological approaches that provide richly detailed information about motivational processes. Although there are a number of ground-breaking ideas that emerge from these empirical investigations, the fact that so many types of studies are possible surely bodes well for the future of the dynamic turn in SLA. The empirical studies included in the volume demonstrate how to do research under a CDST umbrella.

The book (which, much to the relief of MM remained a single volume!) is not just the product of the dedication and hard work on the part of the contributors. It is also a statement of intent. As one of the contributors put it, “once a researcher understands the complexity worldview, in a sense there is a transformation in thinking. Everything you observe and experience from then on – whether it involves personal relationships, parenting concerns, events unfolding in contemporary society, to say nothing of SL classroom phenomena – is nothing if not complex and dynamic”. The social world around us is dynamic and, even though CDST inspired research is more challenging (empirically and conceptually), once such a transformation in thinking has taken place, turning back it isn’t always that easy.

When Zoltán, Peter and Alastair set out on this project they set themselves a challenge; they could either initiate a robust research project that took well-established motivation constructs and, by applying dynamic principles to their investigation, produce convincing empirical evidence for the sustainability of the approach, or they would need to come to terms with the fact that the dynamic approach in SLA might be an attractive but ultimately unrealisable idea. The production of this volume has served as this testing ground. If nothing else, the research collected here is a sign that some researchers have found the CDS approach both ‘cool’ enough to explore in a research project and ‘hot’ enough to inspire new ideas.

Capitalizing on Language Learners' IndividualityMotivation, Language Identity and the L2 SelfMotivational Dynamics in Language Learning is now published – more information is available on our website. You might also be interested in Zoltán and Peter’s other books: Motivation, Language Identity and the L2 Self and Capitalizing on Language Learners’ Individuality.