Social Structure, Agency and Second Language Learning

Magdalena Avila Pardo, Universidad del Caribe

Avila Pardo, M. (2020).  Social Structure, Agency and Second Language Learning. Relay Journal, 3(2), 257-275.

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This paper examines the issue of the relationship between agency and social structure in the language learning process. It looks at the extent to which contextual conditions impact on learners’ desire to invest in language learning. It employed the critical realist lens to explore the use of English as a foreign language (EFL) amongst undergraduate students in the city of Cancun, which was consciously created as a tourist hub in Mexico. English is identified as desired linguistic and cultural capital, a product of social structure, and students’ investment in language learning as examples of agency. A critical realist theoretical and methodological approach was taken to investigate, using an ethnographic qualitative approach to collecting and collating the data.  Alongside a range of data, 11 student informants were taken for in-depth analysis to explore why language learners choose to shape or resist their access to EFL.

Keywords: agency, social structure, identity, investment, communities of practice.


This paper reports a two-year longitudinal study of undergraduate students, at a government-funded university, who are users of the self-access learning centre (SAC hereafter). The research drew on Block’s (2013) claim that in language and identity research, attention should be paid to ‘what structures are, how they might be important and how they work as constraints on and shapers of agency’ (p. 23). Using a language entails agency, as it is how individuals relate to the world, however, such relation can be either facilitated or constrained by their contextual conditions. Several authors have offered that language learners are active agents influenced by both their personal histories and the range of settings in which they interact (Benson, 2011; Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001; Block, 2003; Mercer, 2011; Mercer et al., 2012; Ushioda, 2009). This view suggests that language learning is the interplay between social structure and learners’ agency.  Thus, agency is conceived as “constructed and renegotiated with those around the individual and with society at large” (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001:148). However, SLA theorists have not given much prominence to or elucidated the role social structure plays in second language learning. Likewise, research on language and identity seems to have become ‘over agentive’ (Block, 2015a, p.23). Therefore, this investigation attempted to clarify the relationship between language learners’ agency and the social context including the psychological angle, by taking into account ‘notions of personhood and causality’ of the participants which are ‘historically and culturally produced’ (Frank, 2006, p.282).

Theoretical Background and Literature Review

The theoretical framework and literature review for this research offers a range of conceptual understanding of the self, identity, agency and structure that are related habitus, forms of capital, and communities of practice. According to socio-cultural theory lens, learning a language is fundamentally developed in social participation within specific settings and using particular practices. This study followed the view of language learning as a social practice supporting the call for interdisciplinarity to gain a better understanding of agency in Second Language Learning (SLL) research (Block, 2003, 2013, 2015a; Gao, 2010; Norton, 2013; Vitanova et al. 2015; Sealey & Carter 2004).


The concept of human agency has caused great interest across various disciplines, and they have produced different definitions of agency. However, there is still no agreement in terms of defining what it is (Ahearn, 2001; Joseph, 2006; Block, 2015a; Vitanova et al. 2015). Hence, s as Eteläpelto et al. (2013) argues it has been loosely related to “active striving, taking initiatives, or having an influence on one’s own life situation” (p. 46).

The roots of the concept of agency are linked to the self. Agency is regarded as one of the many facets of the self and thus is mainly determined by the influential models that explicate the self. The most significant models in terms of what constitutes both subjectivity and agency are the traditional understanding of the self, the modernist conception of the self, the postmodern also known as postructuralist, and the sociocultural perspectives (see Vitanova et al. 2015). Thus, the understanding of agency in this study is heavily influenced by the socio-cultural perspective that “[t]he human mind is formed and functions as a consequence of human interaction with the culturally constructed environment”, with agency itself “socially and historically constructed” (Lantolf & Pavlenko, 2001, p.146).

Agency in Second Language Acquisition

Mercer et al. (2012:3) states that due to the arrival of communicative language teaching and learner centre-centred approaches, there has been a growing interest in learners as active agents. Research therefore, started to focus on learners’ needs, expectations, goals, motivation and beliefs. Consequently, agency, one of the most fundamental characteristics of human behaviour, has generated considerable interest in various studies in SLA and realist approaches. These studies suggest that learner agency is closely interrelated with other learners and contextual factors, playing an essential role in facilitating autonomous, self-regulatory and goaloriented strategic learning behaviours (Benson, 2007; Gao 2010, 2013; Mercer, 2011; Huang, 2011; Yamaguchi, 2011; Duff, 2012). Overall, there is ample support for the claim that agency is mediated through interaction with others and the context as a socially mediated process, which emphasises the role of the contextual conditions.

Although autonomy was not a key concept in this study, the notion of autonomy is necessarily linked to the sociocultural concepts of agency and identity Agency regarded as the choices and actions language learners take related to their desires, concerns, interests and expectations by setting priorities in the light of their individual circumstances and contextual conditions, and autonomy as the capacity to control the learning process mediated by the sociocultural context (Gao, 2013). Authors coincide that there is a complex relationship between autonomy, agency and identity (Van Lier, 2007; Benson, 2007; Huang, 2009, 2011; Huang & Benson, 2013).Therefore, these facts suggest the need to find out the extent to which social structure shapes or constraints language learners’ agency.

Social structure and agency

The relationship between individuals and the social context within which they seek to realise their intentions, needs, aspirations, and desires has been a major debate in sociology. This relationship between individuals (i.e., the source of agency) and social relations (i.e., structures) that generate interaction can be interpreted in several ways (Sealey & Carter, 2004). Several schools of thought have been developed in an aim to understand it better; these have moved from giving more weight to either structure or the individual, to ones conceiving them to possess emergent and causal properties (see Sealey & Carter 2004). Hence, for the given purposes of this study, the realist position aligned with the critical realist paradigm offered a thorough approach to the exploration of the impact of social structure on language learners’ agency.

The realist position asserts that agency and structure interact with each other and have emerging properties from such interaction. Structure is historically anterior, and agency is associated with the use of the power of self-consciousness, reflexivity, intentionality, cognition and emotionality (Carter and Sealey, 2000; Carter & New, 2004). Thus, for the given purposes of this study, the realist position aligned with the critical realist paradigm offered a thorough approach to the exploration of the impact of social structure on language learners’ agency.

Critical Realism

Critical realism is a philosophical position that started with the British philosopher, Bhaskar’s (1978) writings. Critical realists do not have knowledge of specific structures but seek to provide a meta-theory to offer some guiding precepts about structure and agency (see Cruickshank, 2003; Steinmetz, 2004; Bhaskar and Danermark, 2006). Structures are to be defined as emergent properties, and the human being is conceived as a person, social agent and social actor. The individual, through interacting in social reality, is influenced by pre-existing social structures, and ‘a sense of social agency (social self) and individual reality (personal self) can be sustained without contradiction’ (De Souza, 2014:148).Therefore, critical realist research is about gaining knowledge of a reality that exists independently of researchers’ representations of it, as an open systems and determined by multiple mechanisms; thus such systems are characterized by complexity and emergence.

Bhaskar (1978 cited in Sayer, 2000) suggests reality is differentiated and stratified in three different domains of the social and natural world: the real (whatever exists in the social world); the actual (events or what happens when powers are activated); and the empirical (made up of direct or indirect experiences).

Table 1
Domains of reality (Bhaskar’s 2008:2)

Domain of Real           Domain of Actual               Domain of Empirical

Mechanisms                    X

Events                                X                                          X

Experiences                     X                                          X                                               X


According to the Centre for Critical Realism (2013), in an open system, events do not follow a logical order so that reality does not correspond to our experience of events. Reality is complex, temporal, and changing. Thus, it needs to contemplate history and social situations framing the differentiation of mechanisms from their exercise, and the occurrence of events apart from our experience (or knowledge) of them. Mechanisms are conceived as how things act, such as the structures, powers, and liabilities shaping an entity predisposition while they operate and interact, and may be applied without being noticeable. Therefore, the realist ontology allows exploration of language learners’ agency within the domain of the real to discover the generative mechanisms and emergent powers from both learners and social structure that may cause or restrain language learners’ agency.

Communities of Practice      

Block (2015a) claims that agency is exerted as the more spontaneous interactions of our lives in the sociocultural configurations that emerge in the ongoing interactions acting collectively in social formations, such as communities of practice (CoP). Wenger (1998:6-7) asserts that communities of practice are everywhere and they are authentic, meaningful communities centred in specific practices in specific areas of life and learning, such as, at home, at work, at school, and in our hobbies.  In some groups, we are main members, in others we are more marginalised. The focus is on participation to understand what learning implies for individuals and for communities.

Field, Habitus and Reflexivity

Habitus and fields are two key constructs fundamental to Bourdieu’s work to transcend the dualism between structuralist and agency-oriented views. From Bourdieu’s perspective (see Block, 2010), individuals are seen to be embedded in multiple social spaces, or fields, in which they constantly encounter unequal power relationships related to their access and their legitimate control over and use of different kinds of capital of social, cultural, economic and political origin rather than economic.

Bourdieu’s habitus is the set of dispositions inculcated in each of us by the conditioning that follows our social environment. The key aspects of the social world are experienced as embodied. He illustrates the interaction between structures and agents with the analogy of a game, in which the world is ‘the game ‘and the agent is the ‘game player’. Habitus is then, the ‘feel for the game’ suggesting that ‘the good player does at every moment what the game requires’ (1990). For Archer, reflexivity is (Archer, 2003: 9, 14).

Elder-Vass (2010:110) reinterpreted Bourdieu’s habitus and integrated it with Archer’s (2003) reflexivity -the power that individuals possess to monitor themselves concerning their circumstances- in an aim to provide a coherent account of human action. He argues that our dispositions may sometimes be heavily and unconsciously affected by social factors, but that none of us are ever completely at the mercy of our habitus. Nor is our habitus the unmediated product of social structures, but rather the result of a lifetime of critical reflection upon our experiences, including our experiences of those structures. Reflexivity thus becomes a critical attitude towards the dispositions we have acquired from our past, as well as towards the contemporary social situation that we face.


Huang and Benson (2013:17) explain that identity is based on perspectives of human learning in general, such as Taylor’s (1989) concept of “the self” and Gao, Li & Li’s (2002) “who one is” (p. 95). They acknowledge the contribution of theorists such as Lave and Wenger (1991), West (1992) and Cummins (1996) in the field of language education. A growing body of research has explored the multiple and intersecting dimensions of language learners’ identity, and these are concerned with institutional and community practices that have an impact on learning. For the purpose of this study, it was investigated the extent to which language learners’ agency contributes to the formation of their L2 identity through their participation in diverse the touristic city.


Norton was inspired by the work of Bourdieu, which points to “the socially and historically constructed relation of learners to the target language and their often ambivalent desire to learn and practice it” (Darvin & Norton, 2015, p.37). When learners invest in language learning, they do so with the understanding that it will give them access to material and symbolic resources, cultural capital. The notion of investment acknowledges that learners may or may not desire to engage in social interactions and community practices. Hence, Norton (2016) argue that investment “is the complement to the psychological construct of motivation” and influences the extent to which learners exercise their agency in a social context (p. 476).

Following the call for interdisciplinarity, this study brings together concepts related to social theory and SLL in relation to the concept of the self -habitus and field, reflexivity, investment and identity-. This is with the aim of observing language learners’ identity social process through the interrelationship between individual agency and structure. Moreover, the participants in the study are SAC users, so it is relevant to consider “the ways that autonomy is socially mediated” (Murray, 2014, p. 5). Therefore, critical realism seems to offer an appropriate abstract framework to gain a fuller understanding of how learners act upon structures to create or resist opportunities to use the target language.


Language learners’ agency and the interrelationship with social and cultural orders was examined through qualitative, partly ethnographic enquiry and the application of methods informed by critical realism. As critical realism undertakes necessary and contingent relations among objects and different theories through causal explanations, this approach helps explain language learners’ actions and the reasons from their accounts as to why actions have taken place within their social and cultural context.

Selection of participants

The student informants who took part in this study were purposively selected from two ESP courses: Topics for International Business and Topics for Sustainable Tourism. The reasons for selecting students enrolled in these courses were: firstly, English might be particularly important for their future professional careers given the nature of their undergraduate studies; and secondly, being in the ESP courses means that students have been at the university for several semesters, so they might have a substantiated idea of the future uses of L2 and be more likely to accoutre data to better understand the phenomena. From these groups, eleven students were selected as core participants, but only four remained due to time constraints. Then, the other seven core participants were spotted in the SAC, five did their social service (voluntary service), and two were users. One of them was a conversation leader, and the other seemed resistant to English during a conversation session. Therefore, the participants had a maximum variation sample in terms of English proficiency, language learning experience, and demographic features.

The researcher role

I was an insider/ participant observer insofar I am Mexican, live and work as an EFL teacher in Cancun, and have been a teacher of some participants, as well as an advisor in the SAC where much of the data collection takes place. These facts contributed to accelerating the process of gaining insider perspectives on the context under investigation. Additionally, my role in the community favoured the ongoing communication with the participants who would drop by to discuss issues regarding their language learning, advice on international exams, or simply to comment about personal life matters. For example, they learnt about the preparation courses for exams and opportunities to apply for some exchange programmes due to our ongoing communication. Thus, our relationship seems to have influenced their trajectories in terms of deciding to certify their language proficiency, and took either the IELTS or TOEFL exams.


The data sets collected are vast- language learning biographies, visits to homes and workplaces, interviews (with students, parents in English or Spanish), participant observations, online data (social media platforms), photographs, documents to name a few. CR was used to identify steps for analysis as the data was coded step by step.

Data Analysis

Data pertaining to the participants’ learning experiences and trajectory were interpreted seeking to provide causal explanations for the learners’ outcome in language learning. The focus was specifically on finding out the generative mechanisms of specific events, which involved identifying the underlying structures and mechanisms shaping the learners’ predisposition while they operate and interact that may be applied without being noticeable in the real domain.

The study was explored as follows:

  • The Empirical: learners’ accounts, particularly with reference to their learning experiences, affordances and constraints, as well as the structural influences.
  • The Actual: events which have been generated by mechanisms: learners’ decisions regarding language learning. How did the students come to favour or resist English? How were learners’ decisions co-determined regarding the formative events that caused their decisions towards English?
  • The Real: mechanisms or structures that have generated (or produced) the actual events; that is, how things act, namely structures, powers, and liabilities. As they operate and interact with the learners, they shape their predispositions towards English.

Therefore, considering the entities, the language learners and the social structure, and their interrelationship were analysed to be able to provide the causal pathways in learners’ trajectories (causal explanations). The parts of each entity were established as follows:

  1. Language learner as a whole
  2. Social structure (Block, 2015a): sociocultural configurations e.g. SAC; institutions (family, education, and employment); physical environment: city of Cancun, neighbourhood, physical objects (mobile phone, computer); and the material economic bases.

The software programme for the qualitative data QSR NVivo 11 was used through the analysis process, firstly to store the language learners’ biographies and the transcriptions of the recorded data, as well as in the development of the coding categories. The analysis in Nvivo was abductive (see Meyer and Lunnay, 2013) because it was informed by the theory (deductive) and also oriented to theory building (inductive).  The data was divided, grouped and reorganised to identify and categorise the elements and explore their connections. Furthermore, the tools provided by the software allowed the investigation of patterns, relationships and connections within and between data. This was done by conducting text searches through word frequency queries and visualisations to reveal the causal mechanisms that produce change or favour social reproduction to be able to provide more in-depth causal explanations.

Setting for the study

The context for my study is Cancun, a tourist city on the Caribbean coast of Mexico.  It is a human-made destination, created in 1970 as a development strategy for an abandoned space that required development, to fill the void left by the withdrawal of Cuba from the tourist scene. Cancun is a global city dependent on tourism and foreign investment to sustain its economy. It hosts a population of socially mobile national and transnational migrants including the highly skilled professionals, academics and service sector workers, as well as unskilled migrants many of who are there to escape poverty. Consequently, it is a new urban environment of increasing diversity and social mobility.

Vargas Martínez et al. (2013:17) state that hotels were built directly on the dune strip to offer private beaches, ‘so the main avenue was built behind the hotels not allowing ocean view or access to the beach’. This model is similar to that of Miami, in which the tourist who visits the city does not have much contact with the resident population. The resort was designed in two sections: the hotel zone or tourist area to the east, and Cancun city or ‘el Centro’ (downtown) to the west.

Nowadays, the city of Cancun is divided into three different areas. These are clearly separated in terms of landscape, services and use of languages: the hotel zone, which is offered and sold to tourists; the ‘supermanzanas’, wholly urbanised and residential areas, and the ‘regiones’, irregular settlements that have steadily become regular properties, but not all of them have services installed (Hernández, 2016).

English is the official foreign language in education throughout Mexico, but in Cancun it has a special standing, and is perceived as the second language, given that it plays a significant role in employment and business. In such context, ‘knowledge of English is…framed as musthave’ if people want to succeed professionally and economically (Block, 2015b:11). In the touristic destination, people can be more exposed to English and they have either the need or opportunity to use it, compared to non-tourism areas of the country. However, the extent to which people are exposed to English depends on their need or reasons to spend time in the hotel zone or downtown (in the commercial area). In the periphery of the city, people may live without any contact with English unless there is something or someone linking or exposing them to the international language, such as schooling, visits to the hotel zone, or parents’ jobs. Thus, students are usually exposed or realise they need English when they insert themselves in the job market.

Causal explanations of Agency

Students’ agency is examined in terms of their relative reflexivity (personal identity and projects), and their dispositions (habitus), considering their individual trajectories and the fields of social activity, which impact, to provide causal explanations for their choices regarding language learning.

The examples provided below are a synthesis from data stored in Nvivo, my knowledge of the participants’ background and my research notes. Data analysis and conclusions are drawn from the data itself and mapping the processes or pathways through which a language learner’s outcome is brought into being.

Below I present some of the participants of the study. It should be noted that extracts quoted either are originally in English (unedited) or marked ‘translation’ (TR). Key phrases relevant to theories and data interpretation are highlighted in the extracts.

Mechanisms related to roles, position and practices

Mechanisms for the given roles e.g. customer service representative, student and daughter can position the learners in multiple and often unequal ways, leading to varying language learning outcomes that are also related to the expected way of doing something.


From a synthesis of the data, it can be shown that Carmen demonstrates her agency by acting purposefully upon her given circumstances (agency). Carmen feels the need to improve her English to keep her job. However, she also deals with her life circumstances and given role positions. For example, her father gets sick, and she must take two full-time jobs to help pay the hospital bill and she has to stop studying for a semester twice (constraints).  She wants to improve her language competence (project), but she has neither money nor much time because she studies and has a full-time job to support herself and help her family economy (dispositions). She changes jobs because of a restructuration in the company and due to family issues. It seems she is capable of doing the job because she is not only hired by a Canadian company, but is even promoted (enablement), as is shown in the extract below:

I have been promoted and now it was a pay rise, a raise in every sense. I am in Customer service and LATAM (Latin American) administration in NEXUS Tours a Canadian Company…My boss is British and then he uses certain idioms that I don´t understand. I even have to ask him if he can repeat it again because he speaks very fast…When we go to the meeting room and we put the phones is very funny because some destination managers make some jokes on the English modes and some in the American modes so it’s very difficult to understand. Yeah, very difficult. For the other side the destination manager. The CEO from vacations is from India so he spoke with Indian accent Hello How are you? He spoke very difficult English. (Interview)

As illustrated above, she has to interact with a native speaker as an immediate boss and people with different accents, which makes her feel rather anxious and insecure, so she feels the need to become more proficient (field). She looks for ways to improve her English by reading and summarising some texts, studying vocabulary online and doing her social service in the SAC (agency). Hence, she looks for ways to improve her linguistic competence by taking advantage of familiar practises (habitus).   Moreover, while being a SAC helper she learns about the opportunity to take an English course for free, gets a scholarship for the TOEFL exam and takes both (enablement). Her result in the TOEFL exam is 67, which is rather low, so she decides to accommodate her timetable to be able to take the English courses provided by the company (agency).

Carmen struggles between her roles as a daughter, student and employee. However, she commits herself to acquiring English, the linguistic capital to legitimate her position in the field of work (practices). She overcomes her fears and life circumstances (personal identity), which have led to a transformation in her identity as language learner and user. It is through Carmen’s habitus as a product of early childhood experiences and socialisation in the work field (practices) as well as her reflexivity that makes her act strategically and devise courses of action (agency) to achieve her aim to be more proficient in English.

Mechanisms related to rights and power

The roles and accompanying responsibilities and expectations assigned to individuals within a pre-existing social system are related to rights (established rules) and power to the positions within a hierarchy. Max has a deep desire not to identify with American native speakers. His resistance to the language appears to be a measure against the threat the Americans represent to his city and his perceived integrity as a subject.


Max studies Sustainable Tourism, but rejects the idea of working at a hotel (reflexivity). He has an A2 level of English, and is resistant to English (agency). He only meets the requirement of attending the self-access centre (SAC hereafter), the number of hours (mandatory in the English courses) stated by his teacher (habitus). He is interested in research and academic activities and has managed to pursue it (personal project) with his knowledge of English and the help of other resources such as the dictionary and the internet (agency). He criticises the attitude of the Americans (power) living in Cancun as illustrated below:

MAX: Well, those are the little things that get into my head that get in my way. The people live here, and they don´t speak Spanish. On the other hand, I have just been to a tourism conference in Acapulco, and a guy from here in engineering asked me ‘hey, do you speak English?’ and I said I didn´t. And he told me ‘mediocre, you are a mediocre person’. And I replied, ‘yes, I am, but I am not part of the crowd’. (Interview) TR

He strongly questions the use of English in Cancun (cultural capital), which is something he has kept on thinking (reflexivity). The answer to his peer implies that he has a mind of his own, and exerts his agency, by choosing which subjects are of relevance and interest to him, English is not one of them.

Max’s habitus operating at the level of society makes him demonstrate his agency by resisting to learn the language of the dominant country, as if trying to strengthen his identity as Mexicans and Spanish speaker. Since Max is Mayan, this suggests that he does not want to conform to the norm of having to learn English due to the relationship between the languages and forms of political and cultural oppression which impact on his reluctance to communicate in the foreign language (rights and power). His actions are reproductive in the form of negative dispositions towards English, which seem to be associated with issues of social position and power that make him reject the target language.

Mechanisms related to roles, practices and resources 

Learners’ beliefs are developed from their experiences, and they make decisions and do the familiar practices that result in natural change. In the SAC, students exercise their agency by taking decisions concerning their learning process, making use of the available resources, and more importantly, redefining their roles.

The SAC is the social setting where students gather to freely practice English and learn with and from each other in a non-formal setting (Murray, Fujishima, and Usuka 2014). It is the social space where students meet and interact with others (students, SAC helpers, language assistants, teachers and counsellors) in a relaxed environment. The most common and popular activities are the ones that involve speaking practice, which work both ways to interact with peers and to develop their English skills. There is no one telling them what to do or who they have to interact with so that there are no rules, except to speak English. (Holmes, 2015; Acuña et al., 2015; Avila & Holmes, 2018).

Therefore, this social environment allows the students to make decisions and take different roles or positions activating the mechanism related to practices and resources offered in the SAC, as illustrated in the following examples.

The SAC helper


Luciano is a SAC helper who recognises having improved his English skills by spending his time in the SAC in an English speaking-environment (habitus), as shown below:

The SAC has helped me increase my listening and speaking skills since almost every conversation that is taking place in the SAC is in English, so in the SAC you can get used to listen conversations in English all day long. I describe the interaction among students as nurturing. I can always see the students with higher levels of English helping students in lower levels. They help them mostly with pronunciation and with words that they do not know yet. There is always respect between students, they never make fun when a student makes a mistake, this helps the lower level student to feel confident when talking in groups. The interaction between these three users of the SAC has always been respectful, language assistants always help the students in need or in doubt while the professors always guide the students to the path they need to take. Students always respect both professors and language assistants. I believe that this peaceful interaction has made the SAC a really comfortable place to practice English. (Interview)

He points out that being in the English-speaking environment helps him to improve his English (reflexivity). He stresses the fact that students help each other in a friendly, relaxed and respectful atmosphere, which includes the teachers/counsellors who ‘guide’ the SAC users. The social ambiance between novices and experts encourages learners to develop their language learning and aids them to gain confidence to use the target language (community of practice).  Conversation leader


Mónica overcomes her fears and starts leading conversation, so she questions the reason why her friends do not dare to do the same (dispositions), as shown in the extract below:

When I go to the SAC, I usually have a conversation with my friends who are in level 4. Well, they could also start giving it because I started in level 4. I also felt ashamed at that time but not anymore because giving conversations helped me….Yes, like leading conversation but this semester I prefer going with Kirby [the British language assistant]. (Interview)

Her beliefs seem to be based on her personal experience (habitus), which makes her act in certain ways. That is, she takes the opportunity to talk to the British assistants because it serves her purpose to become a proficient user of the language (reflexivity) to achieve her dream (personal project) of working in the United States (imaginary communities).

To sum up, students negotiate their roles and position, so participation and learning seem to be linked in terms of the actions they take, and the extent of their engagement in the social space shapes their development in language learning.  Most of them are committed to investing their time and effort in the social context with a sense of the feel of the game. Some learners position themselves as experts, helping the novices, while novices develop their language skills by engaging in different activities in the SAC. Thus, the language learners’ actions seem to be influenced by their habitus as they tend to do familiar practices, but also by their reflexivity regarding their reasons and purpose to learn the target language. Therefore, the way the SAC operates greatly contributes to the development of the students’ second language identity and autonomy, since the latter is associated with interdependence (Murray, 2014) and ability, desire and freedom as its key components (Benson & Huang, 2013).


Language learners’ agency was examined subjectively and as collectively emergent in social situations from across multiple time scales, in which the role of interaction has proved to be an emergent mechanism of mediation between students’ actions in language learning and use and the social context. In Cancun, knowing English can be a motivation or demotivation emerging from relations between the participants’ intentions and the social world, instead of an individual feature (Sealey and Carter, 2004:206). Thus, student agency should be understood in all its dimensions, defined by experiences in the physical environment and social interaction, as the power that mediates language learning and its constraints (Case, 2015).

The participants’ accounts show that their decisions in language learning are made partially unconsciously because of a series of past events as embodied dispositions (habitus) influenced by the contextual conditions, as well as through reflexivity devising a course of action to achieve their personal projects. Hence, through reflexivity, learners act purposefully (agency) and their relevant actions enhance the capacity to control their language learning (autonomy).

Therefore, the findings support the claim that agency can be considered as ‘the origin of autonomy’, and that agency, identity and autonomy are interrelated in SLL (Benson & Huang, 2013, p. 21). The exercise of agency can lead to autonomy, when learners take control of their own learning to achieve their personal projects, however not all of them succeed due to the relationship between identity and beliefs embedded in the context that influences their desire to invest in language learning.

Implications for ELT

Being engaged in this study has given me a better understanding of language learners needs in the classroom and moved me a significant step forward towards teacher autonomy. This research would not cohere to me as a practising English teacher if it had not resulted in some conclusions of immediate application for language teaching and learning. My findings corroborate the idea that by removing constraints and through scaffolding learning, language learners can develop the potential to exert their agency and develop a positive second language identity. The views developed here on English language learning and use, and the interrelationship between learners and contextual conditions, have implications for ELT in similar settings. It is relevant for teachers to be aware that learning a second language entails social aspects and personal identity. Students are not empty slates in the classroom; they arrive with baggage. There are external causes beyond the classroom that affect students’ desire to learn the foreign language, which teachers cannot control but should be aware of. They have a life outside the classroom, unique stories and individual circumstances, and they may be caught between different academic and social expectations, as well as dealing with economic issues that affect their language development.

Ushioda (2011) urges teachers to realise “students are individuals with multiple identities”, who “might not identify as language learners” (p. 12). Learners’ actions are underpinned by their beliefs of how capable they are in English and their perceived need of the language. By providing opportunities to experience success learners can positively interpret their performance and gain confidence in themselves to exhibit their agency in language learning.

Learners should be given the freedom to make choices, as even limited decisions can have an impact on them. In other words, learners should be in a social space, such as the SAC in this study, in which students’ experience a sense of self-competence and are free to make decisions about their language learning. Consequently, the development of their autonomy and second language identity is fostered in collaboration with others through their engagement in the language learning process, which in turn can enhance the teaching practice.


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2 thoughts on “Social Structure, Agency and Second Language Learning”

  1. Dear Magdalena,

    Thank you for the opportunity to read your fascinating article. Your perspective is actually very much in line with my own regarding communities of practice and the interplay of structure and agency relating to identity. I learned a great deal from reading your work and am keen to explore the notion of habitus being integrated with reflexivity – I have come across a similar idea in Mutch (2003) where Bernstein’s notion of ‘restricted’ and ‘elaborated’ codes were proposed as a way to reconcile the ‘compartmentalist’ of communities of practice and the ‘fatalism’ of habitus (Handley, Sturdy, Fincham, & Clark, 2006). I also agree that the “baggage” that learners bring with them into a learning environment or community is essential to understanding their participation and the ways in which they may negotiate what is legitimate or valuable practice. Another related concept may be the ‘antecedent conditions of the learner’ (Fukada, Fukuda, Falout, & Murphey, 2011) – “past-projected identities form a motivational component of the present, influencing their goal-directed behaviors of effort, persistence, and strategy use for achieving goals” (p. 337). Another perspective I am currently interested in the idea of learners travelling through a “landscape of practice” and the associated recognition (missing or underrepresented in Wenger’s earlier work) that due to various conflicting interests between the communities of practice that inhabit it, “the landscape is political” (Wenger-Trayner et al., 2014). This seems to be a potential overlap with Bourdieu’s notion of field and I think this has been touched on in other previous critiques of the communities of practice theory as well (Hodkinson & Hodkinson, 2004). Your paper ties a lot of extremely complex concepts together really well and I hope I will be able to do it as effectively as you have in the future!

    Another area that I think we share common ground is in your choice of an abductive approach to data analysis. I feel that just as learners are not “blank slates,” neither are we as researchers, and I would even go so far as to argue that a truly inductive approach is nigh on impossible as it would require us to unlearn all of the theoretical perspectives that we have been exposed to in our own journey across the “landscape.” One concept that I came across relating to abductive research was that of it being “breakdown-driven” (as opposed to theory-driven or data-driven) (Reichertz, 2007; Tavory & Timmermans, 2014). I chose an abductive approach because of anomalies that I encountered within my data that I felt a communities of practice framework was unable to account for. Therefore, I decided to adopt a “plug-and-play” approach (Wenger-Trayner, 2013) where I looked for other theories (habitus, liminality, etc.) to run through the original framework to provide warranted assertions about the phenomena I was encountering. In your study, what made you decide to adopt an abductive approach? Were there any particular “breakdowns” you encountered in your data that made you decide to expand your theoretical perspective?

    I would love to speak about your study in more detail at some point in the future and am really interested in more papers (or a book!) that come out of the fantastic work that you have been doing on this.

    Many thanks,
    Daniel Hooper

    1. I appreciate your kind and enriching comments about my research. I agree that we share our view regarding the interplay of structure and agency relating to identity. I also thought about that when I read your article from a pilot study published in Relay Journal. Learning a language is, after all, fundamentally developed in social participation within specific settings and using particular practices. Students desire to invest in language learning is related to identity because it is when they feel identified with a particular community, namely the SAC, video game community, sports, video blogs, Facebook, etc. that they invest in it.
      Regarding Bourdieu’s habitus and Archer’s reflexivity, there are contradicting positions. However, I agree with the scholars who propose that these can complement each other to understand how agency operates (see Elder-Vass, 2007, 2010; Akram, 2013; Akram and Hogan, 2015; Decoteau, 2016; De Costa et al., 2016; Block, 2013, Farrugia and Woodman, 2015; Fleetwood, 2008). Moreover, my data confirms that both theories can be compatible to understand how students make decisions and act in regards to language learning influenced by their contextual conditions. This view is in line with Elder-Vass (2007:325), who claims that human action is the outcome of a continuous interaction between dispositions and reflexivity. As for the ‘antecedent conditions of the learner’, Block (2013) proposes making it clear how structures and constraints are important and how they work. That is, the way that socio-historical aspects shape the individual’s ability to act as an agent (p. 144). I am sure you will do a great job if you apply the notions of habitus and reflexivity in future research.
      On the other hand, critical realism offered a suitable framework to study language learners and existing structures within their individual reality as an open system and through interdisciplinary research. Critical realism holds that some theories can be closer to reality than others, and ‘there are rational ways to assess knowledge claims’ (Bygstad et al., 2016:84). Hence, I chose the process of abduction (theoretical redescription) as a manner of acquiring knowledge of how various phenomena can be part of and explained concerning structures, internal relations and contexts which are not directly observable.
      I would be more than pleased to talk to you about my study in more detail. I had never published my work before, and it was not easy to select which data from my participants to use because I have a vast amount of it. Therefore, I am genuinely interested in publishing either more articles or a book. Thank you very much for your encouraging words.

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