What good is a conceptual framework, anyway?

In the first entry I made to this blog, I tried to provide a brief summary of what my research was about and what aims I have set out to attain. My immediate aim, I wrote, was to generate a ‘thick’ description of an educational setting in the periphery of the ELT world. In addition to this, my research aims to generate a conceptual framework that accounts for various linguistic, pedagogical and political influences on ELT.

I recently found myself trying to explain these same aims to a group of professional acquaintances. Predictably, I found it relatively straightforward to convince them of the former aim. It was quite straightforward to point out that ELT research has generally tended to focus on Centre settings [i.e., countries where English is spoken natively] and, once one accepts that premise, the need for similar research in the countries like Greece seemed intuitively obvious.

Making the case for the conceptual framework proved rather harder, as the usual concerns were raised about the nebulous nature of ‘Theory’. Someone rightly pointed out that such a framework could not possibly take into account all the complexity of situated practice. Others seemed unconvinced about the feasibility of generating ‘Theory’ from a single case, and expressed reservations about the generalisability of my findings. Indeed, there does seem to be some tension between detail and abstraction, in that the more detail the framework tries to take into account, the harder it becomes to disassociate from the particular setting from which it was derived; conversely, more abstract conceptualisations involve a loss of detail which could make the framework seem less and less relevant any specific setting. Even more challenging than these questions, was the demand to know: what is the value of such a framework?

Let me make this clear: the theoretical framework I have in mind is of very limited use as a source of ready-made answers about ELT. Still, I believe that it can be useful as a conceptual tool which might help (some of) us to make sense of reality. Readers, whether they are academics or professionals, may find it helpful to compare my account against their own reality and perhaps draw parallels wherever relevant. Even better, they might find instances where my insights seem unhelpful or inadequate, and use these as starting points in order to enrich the framework with new parameters. In other words, the conceptual framework is not intended as an authoritative  account of what ELT is. Rather, it makes the somewhat more modest claim of being an instrument which will help individual readers work out what ELT is for them.


  • Richard Fay

    It does indeed have an odd relevance / resonance 🙂

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    It is claimed that certain intelligence agencies have been engaged in a clandestine operation, called ECHELON, to monitor global communications. Each participating agency allegedly monitors the communications taking place among the population of the other signatory members, so as to make the jurisdiction of civil courts very hard to enforce. The system reportedly relies on supercomputers that scan webpages, IM conversations, emails and SMS for specific key words, and if too many of them show up, an intelligence officer is thought to be tasked with monitoring the conversation. Much of the information surrounding ECHELON is probably hype, but there has been at least one European parliament investigation into the matter, so you never know.

    Considering how it is inherently difficult to confirm or disprove this theory, I find it blends in quite well with the topics of the thread. Juup’s advice about ‘acting as if it is true’ seems oddly pertinent.

  • Richard Fay


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Nice one, Juup 🙂 And I think that occasional references to subversion might expand our readership to include ECHELON monitors, which is -IMO- mutually beneficial: we get a dedicated audience and they get education.

    Re-reading Juup’s response, I am somehow reminded of the example of an atheist who declares that she is pretty certain God does not exist, but lives out her life as if He existed, just in case. Interestingly, in both cases the root of this apparently paradoxical position might be traced to an awareness of the limitations of empiricism. The atheist in the example hedges because God is said to transcend the empirical world, so she cannot empirically disprove His existence; complexivists might want to hedge because they feel that the world, while subject to direct observation, is just too complex to be understood using traditional instruments of empiricism.

  • Richard Fay

    Our beloved Doctoral Community blog as a site for subversion? Tut tut …

  • Yes, my own position is similar. My caveat: I act as if ‘the world is governed by complexity’, but hedge this with the ‘world seems to be governed by complexity’. Yes, I am subverting your ‘seems to me’. To me it is a hedge, while to you it is perspectival. Doing that, I also subvert the ‘et tertium non datur’ part of your argument.


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Very useful ideas, as always, Juup. Thanks for sharing.

    Starting from the last one: Yes, I think that Eoyang’s category 2 pins down exactly what I am trying to do with that particular metaphor. It’s just intended as descriptive short-hand to get across an idea that cannot be expressed economically in words.

    I agree that the absolutist formulations of relativism (‘everything’s relative‘) are not quite common (I only remember reading about it in Plato’s Theatatus, IIRC), possibly because they lead to a philosophical impasse, or perhaps because they are not terribly useful in making sense of the world. That’s why I suggested that it is ‘plausible and even requisite’ to postulate some ontological common ground before embarking on an exploration into what is relative. The challenge that we are faced with, then, is how to negotiate the space between the absolutist formulation (which is, as I said, philosophically untenable) and versions of relativism which are of trivial value (e.g. ‘etiquette is relative to culture’). It can be a rewarding exploration, but perhaps not one we need to pursue in this space.

    I think I understand the point you are making about ‘things being relative to themselves’ and how a complexity perspective could sidestep some difficulties associated with a non-realist worldview. What I am trying to say is that even in this case, you are setting up an ontological framework with some entities and some ‘rules’ connecting them (e.g. emergence), which are admittedly quite different from those that a naive realist would use (e.g. causality) but serve the same function. Once you set up this framework, it will lead to many different conceptualisations of ‘reality’, ‘truth’ etc. because of the way the framework is set up.

    But, as I see it, even in this case the fundamental ontological dilemma remains unchanged: if your senses and intellect suggest a world governed by complexity, then you have to argue that either ‘the world is governed by complexity’ or ‘the world seems to me as if it is governed by complexity’, et tertium non datur. In the former case, you are open to relativist interpretations of the world, but you are standing on the terra firma of a realist ontology. In the latter case, you have just postulated another giant turtle to explain away those aspects of relativism that won’t stand up to close scrutiny. Personally I am inclined to lean towards the former, and I suspect that your own position is also similar.

  • Hi Achilleas,

    Thank you for these interesting posts. I’d like to add two things. First, when you say ‘it’s relative to [insert variable]’ I am tempted to insert ‘itself’. It doesn’t come out quite right, but what I think I am suggesting is to consider concepts such as ‘networks’ and ‘emergence’ where no simple causality can be traced. The idea is then that there does not need to be anything supporting the turtle. I do agree that if we are asked to insert something else, such as culture or language, then, yes, it is like the Turtles… but I think this mis-represents the relativist position. I think then the ‘figure’ evoked by the indian story is potentially misleading (relates loosely to later comment about metaphors).

    Similarly, I think no one takes the position that everything is relative. Rather, I suspect people will say that the things that ‘I am interested in, and which I believe to make a difference’ are relative. There may, then, be a pragmatist or emancipatory (or, yes, for some even political) underpinning to a relativist position. Of course, my own position is slightly different, and hence I am not the best person to ‘defend’ relativism. Finally, I am very nearly convinced that it is almost impossible to claim to understand this better than someone else, or that one’s position is better than someone’s elses, because one’s explanation will always rely on the terms/parameters given by one’s own position.

    Finally, can I for a moment reflect on the ‘ripples in a pond’ metaphor. This is in part because I discussed the potential value of this with Richard just yesterday. We observed that whilst I have done metaphor research, and could therefore be expected to use metaphors in my own thinking, I instead seem to shy away from them. I guess studying metaphors has made me a bit afraid of them – however, I do not in any way wish to discourage their use … This morning I looked at back issues of the E-CO online journal, and found an article by Glenda Eoyang. She is an avid advicate of complexity theory. In her article she suggests a taxonomy of ways that complexity theory may be used to explain human processes. Levels two and three of her taxonomy are deescribed as follows:

    “Tools category 2: Descriptive metaphors. Complexity science is full of rich and engaging metaphors. Butterfly effects, attractors, fractals, edge of chaos – they are poetic and easily accessible terms … They can also be meaningful descriptors of patterns that emerge from human systems dynamics. We refer to these as ‘descriptive’ metaphors not because they are less valuable than ‘dynamic’ ones [see below], but because the application requires a less literal interpretation of the mathematical complexity concept as it is applied to social systems … Such descriptive applications of the complexity concepts can help build shared mental models”

    “Tools category 3: Dynamic metaphors: … Here we [also] encounter methods of qualitative analysis, but ones that that hold more closely to the literal interpretation of the complexity metaphors. Rather than just superficial isomorphism with patterns of complex adaptive or deterministic chaotic systems, dynamic metaphors focus on the similarities between the underlying dynamics of the human system and other nonlinear dynamical systems.”


    Achilleas, does Eoyang’s tools category 2 fit with your indended (or emerging) use of the image of dropping two stones into the pool?


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    According to Clifford Geertz:

    There is an Indian story–at least I heard it as an Indian story–about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle ? “Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down”.

    In my opinion, the relativist world view (at least in its strongest formulations) seems to suffer from the same weakness as the Indian guru’s cosmology. This is because a relativist epistemology should not merely –in Juup’s words- ‘accept that other perspectives are possible’; it should also provide a more or less coherent explanation of why these perspectives differ. Put differently, a relativist worldview that just says ‘it’s relative’ is not all that useful, unless it is leads to the thesis ‘it’s relative to [insert variable]’. So, for example, a relativist could argue that ‘one’s perception of reality is influenced by their linguistic background’, or ‘right and wrong depends on cultural norms’. But this is where the epistemological problems start to rear their aesthetically unconventional heads.

    Let’s consider the relativist thesis in its abstract form: ‘A is relative to Z’, where A substitutes for constructs such as ‘morality’, ‘understanding of the world’, ‘style’ and so on, and Z substitutes for constructs such as ‘gender’, ‘cultural background’, ‘epistemological framework’ and so on. To even consider this thesis, a relativist must accept the premise that such universal constructs as A and Z exist, independent of individual perception: in order to argue that e.g. ‘culture is determined by language’, she needs to postulate that although there are many languages and an equal number of cultures, such cognitive artifacts as Culture and Language must exist in the abstract, and they must exist across groups, everywhere and for everyone. Moreover, she needs to postulate a set of ‘rules’ connecting A and Z, so that Z1 will (ideally) entail A1, Z2 will (ideally) entail A2 and so on. Again, these rules need to be universally valid otherwise the theory would lack explanatory power. Postulating universal constructs and rules, however, is a big deal because it runs counter to the very core of relativist thinking.

    Of course, a more sophisticated relativist could argue that constructs such as ‘language’, ‘morality’ and ‘culture’ are also relative terms, or products of our culture-specific worldview, and that other ways of parsing reality would be equally valid. She could also challenge the concept of causation, arguing that the ‘rules’ connecting different constructs in her conceptual framework are contingent. But that would just push the problem further down rather than solve it. In philosophical terms, this is no more satisfactory than postulating yet another giant turtle to carry the universe.

    When one regresses to the very fundamentals, a relativist worldview forces one to choose between two equally unpalatable options. One option is to argue that ‘Everything is relative (and this is a universal truth)’, which unfortunately violates the internal consistency criterion (this is similar to me declaring that ‘I always lie’). The other option is to declare that ‘from where I’m standing everything seems relative (but other perspectives are also valid)’. The razor-wielding monk would easily challenge this, by pointing out that if a relativist position is no more legitimate than a realist one, there’s really no reason to bother with the former as the latter is more parsimonious.

    But where does that leave us?

  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    I enjoyed reading those thoughts Juup: thanks for sharing! There were many interesting points to consider, and I wonder if I can take some of these just a step further in the interest of making my own position a little clearer.

    The first point I want to consider is the dichotomy you put forward between a (roughly) realist position and a relativist alternative. I am not sure that viewing these two positions in dichotomous terms is necessarily the most productive outlook, as it seems to disregard a range of more nuanced positions between the two extremes. I recall a discussion we had on critical realism, which preserves at its core some realist notions of truth while acknowledging the potential for variations in perception and interpretation.

    Moving to a second, related point: I did write about different people making sense of ‘what TESOL is to them’ or something along those lines, and you are entirely reasonable to assume from this a certain affinity towards relativism. But it is entirely plausible (and, IMO, quite likely) that these personal positions will have a greater or lesser degree of overlap. The degree of freedom / overlap will depend, I think, on the constraints of reality (as perceived by the individual).

    Finally, I believe that it is entirely possible – even ontologically requisite – for relativist thinking to accept universal notions of truth. For example, if we are to accept that ‘truth depends on culture’, then we need to postulate a set of unambiguous concepts with which to define both culture and truth; similarly, if we are to accept that thought is influenced by language, then we implicitly accept inflexible causal relationships between language and thought. Paradoxically, it seems you cannot be a relativist without being -at some level at least- a realist.

    These reflections were partly prompted by what I consider a somewhat inaccurate interpretation of my own ontological position. In this interpretation, relativist and realist perspectives are viewed as incompatible (“you can either hold a view…”, “Alternatively….”); my own position is, perhaps a little too hastily, inferred to be relativist; and -it logically follows- I must reject that some things are ‘true in some fundamental way’. Nothing further from the truth really 🙂

  • Richard Fay

    Thanks Achilleas. The ripples image works for me. Given my own interests in what I describe as “post-EFL paradigm possibilities” in the Greek TESOL context, I look forward to hearing more whenever is appropriate.

  • Hi Achilleas, Richard and other ‘lurkers’,

    Richard and I do indeed have fruitful discussions of theory and more on the margins of the RAW meetings (I also seem to forget why these were named this way – except that the ideas we present tend to be a bit ‘raw’…).

    On theory, conceptual framework and more… I think the distinction from Stern that Achilleas points out is important. This is how I’d express it. You may either hold a view about how something ‘works’ or something ‘is’ and you believe this is true in some fundamental way (more below). Alternatively, you may take a certain perspective on how something ‘works’ or something ‘is’, and by taking a ‘perspective’ you (implicitly or overtly) accept that other perspectives are possible.

    The latter position, which is what Achilleas seems to be working towards, seems the most defensible in today’s world with its postmodern ethos. When one uses the phrase ‘conceptual framework’ this may, then, mean ‘how you think about something’.

    Returning to the former possibility. I must confess that I am unable to fully accept that ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ is governed entirely by perspective, and as such am not entirely a subscriber of the post-modern enterprise. I do believe that if one is careful about the level of one’s abstraction, it is possible to describe what may arguably be considered true or real generative processes or relationships, and that these generative things go beyond simple perspective-taking. In this position, the explanation of how these processes or relationships are generative (contribute to make things happen) is the theory. I guess examples of such theories include e.g. Darwin’s theory of evolution and the possibility that there may be real evolutionary processes in the social world as well. Another example is my own use of ecological psychology to describe the generative role of socio-contextual constraints on the activity of individuals (in particular the generative influence of expectations and resources in the research community on the research activity of individuals like you and me). To make this convincing I need a coherent ecological theory (see end of this contribution). I do think that the theory needs to be refined and assessed by trying to describe a number of different situations, and involving different people. I see, then, an ongoing project where additional detail helps strengthen my particular abstractions.

    Finally, how to explain the value of one’s theory? It is probably important to generate and rehearse a repertoire of concrete illustrative examples to ‘show’ others the value of one’s conceptual framework. For example, my theory says that only those contextual constraints that are actually engaged with by e.g. a student (of something) will be generative in this student’s ongoing activity (e.g. learning). A concrete example: as a teacher you cannot assume that everything you provide in the classroom (activities, information, etc. – the sum of which may be called the ‘objective’ ecology of your classroom) will become connected into the ‘subjective’ ecology of any individual learner (what she actually engages with). Note the teacher that says (invented but I think plausible example): “I explained this to them yesterday, and today none of them remembered it”.

    My ecological theory:


  • Achilleas Kostoulas

    Hi Richard!

    I think that there are at least two different ways of understanding theory: Theory could be said to refer to the concepts and beliefs about concepts which are implicit in our actions. But there is also a widespread and not entirely unjustifiable view of ‘theory’ as ‘a set of postulates that are not applicable in the harsh world of reality’ (Stern, 1983, p. 23). I have tried to distance myself from the latter view, by placing the term in inverted comas, but one can understand the scepticism such perceptions of ‘theory’ might generate.

    Regarding the framework, I’d be glad to share these developing ideas with you at length when we next meet. A somewhat simplified way of understanding what this framework is about involves conceptualising two different underpinning paradigms for TESOL: an established way of doing things and an emerging post-modern alternative, as well as a space of tension where these paradigms overlap. You could visualise this as ripples produced by dropping two stones in a pond. At some point, these ripples will meet each other, and that’s where things get rather interesting. The interaction between the paradigms will be most salient in issues that educators and learners perceive as being important (e.g. the content of the syllabus). So what I am trying to do is empirically identify such issues of importance, trace the influences that impact on these issues as they relate to the two paradigms and understand how these influences are synthesised in my research context.

  • Richard Fay

    Interesting 🙂

    We staff have research meetings here where we clarify, critique, and collaborate on each other’s draft writings and one theme that comes up now and then is about the role of ‘theory’ in TESOL writing. Maybe Juup has somethng to add on this as he and I have some interesting discussions in the margins around our research mettings (which we call the RAW sessions for reasons I momentarily forget).

    Where is your framework upto? I for one would be very interested to see it and watch it evolve. Not least because, in my own doctoral work (ancient history now!), I was concerned about understanding the practices and ‘culture’ of distance learning in a context away from the ‘centre’ (however defined) hence my focus on the Greek context and in particular the Hellenic Open University. I nevr got anywhere near developing a framework – the best I managed was to explore the use of an existing one (developed in the world of TESOL) for a non-TESOL educational context (the HOU). So, this is another reason why, whenever you are ready, to see what the framework might look like …