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Abstract

Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the imagination of many in the field of applied linguistics (Larsen-Freeman, Diane & Lynne Cameron. 2008. Complex systems and applied linguistics . Oxford: Oxford University Press; Ortega, Lourdes & Zhao Hong Han (eds.). 2017. Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman . Amsterdam: John Benjamins). As recent syntheses of the growing number of CDST-informed strands of applied linguistics research illustrates, it has emerged as an important influence on applied linguists’ thinking (see Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 2017. Complexity theory: The lessons continue. In Lourdes Ortega & Zhao Hong Han (eds.), Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman , 11–50. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). The fact that CDST has continued to permeate questions throughout the field is to be expected and welcomed.
Research Article
Phil Hiver* and Ali H. Al-Hoorie
Transdisciplinary research methods and
complexity theory in applied linguistics:
introduction to the special issue
https://doi.org/10.1515/iral-2021-0020
Received February 3, 2021; accepted February 3, 2021;
published online February 16, 2021
Abstract: Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the
imagination of many in the field of applied linguistics (Larsen-Freeman, Diane &
Lynne Cameron. 2008. Complex systems and applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford
University Press; Ortega, Lourdes & Zhao Hong Han (eds.). 2017. Complexity theory
and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-Freeman. Amsterdam:
John Benjamins). As recent syntheses of the growing number of CDST-informed
strands of applied linguistics research illustrates, it has emerged as an important
inuence on applied linguiststhinking (see Larsen-Freeman, Diane. 2017.
Complexity theory: The lessons continue. In Lourdes Ortega & Zhao Hong Han
(eds.), Complexity theory and language development: In celebration of Diane Larsen-
Freeman,1150. Amsterdam: John Benjamins). The fact that CDST has continued to
permeate questions throughout the eld is to be expected and welcomed.
Keywords: applied linguistics; complexity theory; transdisciplinary
1 Introduction
Complexity theory/dynamic systems theory (CDST) has captured the imagination
of many in the field of applied linguistics (Larsen-Freeman and Cameron 2008;
Ortega and Han 2017). As recent syntheses of the growing number of
CDST-informed strands of applied linguistics research illustrates, it has emerged as
an important inuence on applied linguiststhinking (see Larsen-Freeman 2017).
*Corresponding author: Phil Hiver, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL, USA,
E-mail: phiver@fsu.edu. https://orcid.org/0000-0002-2004-7960
Ali H. Al-Hoorie, Royal Commission for Jubail and Yanbu, Jubail Industrial City, Saudi Arabia,
E-mail: hoorie_a@jic.edu.sa. https://orcid.org/0000-0003-3810-5978
IRAL 2022; 60(1): 16
The fact that CDST has continued to permeate questions throughout the eld is to
be expected and welcomed.
Parallel to this are the growing calls for a broader, transdisciplinary orienta-
tion to applied linguistics research that is more problem-focused and less para-
digmatic in nature (Douglas Fir Group 2016). Multilingualism and second language
development are prime examples of targets that lie outside the bounds, or
ownership, of any one discipline or methodological paradigm. Issues such as these
present highly complex phenomena spanning multiple levels (e.g., individuals,
institutions, societies) and create a synergy that transcends any particular disci-
plinary perspective. Transcending boundaries is precisely what CDST encourages,
and addressing issues this way allows researchers to achieve unied scientic
goals, capitalize on shared opportunities, and broaden the scope of applied
linguistics research (Larsen-Freeman 2018). Looking at the future of research in our
eld this way promotes a departure from a paradigm of narrow disciplinary-driven
work toward transdisciplinarity.
However, the pre-eminent challenge of doing any applied linguistics research
from a systems perspectiveone that functions as an antidote to growing
compartmentalization of specialized knowledge and technical expertise, and the
questionable division of labor among theorists, researchers, practitioners, and
other stakeholdersis that very little methodological guidance exists for those
intending to design and conduct this type of research (Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2016).
With a handful of exceptions (e.g., Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2020; Verspoor et al. 2011),
scholarly work often stops short of the level of practical application necessary to
ensure compatibility between the theoretical tenets of CDST and the actual
empirical research designs found in the literature. Consequently, for those
attracted to CDST and to a transdisciplinary approach, many questions remain
about the applicability of existing research templates to this new way of thinking.
As we have written elsewhere, existing methods of analysis and research
templates already well-established in other human and social domains hold
considerable promise in the study of complex dynamic phenomena for applied
linguistics (Hiver and Al-Hoorie 2020). The contributions to this special issue show
that both quantitative and qualitative methodologies play a vital role in CDST
research, and the CDST philosophy of science does not suggest a mutually
exclusive approach. The value of qualitative methods is that they allow nely
grained observations of situated developmental processes; advanced quantitative
techniques that account for variation, interconnectedness, and change are equally
well-suited to applied linguistics research. Clearly, an expansion of available
methods is needed, and there is much to be learned from other social and human
disciplines that also seek to understand complexity and dynamic change by
2Hiver and Al-Hoorie
innovating with existing methods and borrowing compatible methods from
neighboring elds.
What we hope to accomplish through this special issue is to provide examples
for our field that will inspire new, transdisciplinary approaches to doing applied
linguistics research. By organizing a special issue featuring these methodological
experts, we hope to encourage greater engagement with these methods and to
signal to newcomers and established CDST scholars alike that by adopting these
methods they are joining a vibrant community of applied linguistics researchers.
1.1 Contributions to the special issue
The first paper, by Hiver et al. (2022), takes up the call initiated by the Douglas Fir
Group (2016) to adopt a transdisciplinary approach to research that is less para-
digmatic and more pragmatic in nature. The authors propose that doing so goes
hand in hand with tackling wicked problems”—issues that defy easy solutions
because they are highly complex and are intricately interconnected with multiple
levels of the social world (Crowley and Head 2017). They explore how CDST is
uniquely positioned to support a transdisciplinary approach to applied linguistics
research, and introduce an integrative transdisciplinary framework that unites
different perspectives (i.e., exploratoryfalsicatory aims, individualgroup
based units of analysis, quantitativequalitative methods).
Turning to specific applications, Smit et al. (2022) introduce State Space Grids
(SSG) as a method for visualizing classroom dynamics and quantifying intra-
individual variability (Hollenstein 2013). They demonstrate the use of SSG to
observe and describe the moment-to-moment variability of question and answer
interaction patterns in the language classroom. Through a detailed analysis of
the co-adaptation between teacher questions and student responses in the class-
roomspecically, how interlocutors respond to each other and the way this
varies or stabilizes during the process, they showcase the usefulness of SSG. Their
results suggest that dynamic observations and analyses of micro-interactions can
help to identify patterns of rigidity in practice, as well as space for growth, chal-
lenge, and development.
MacIntyre and Gregersen (2022) follow this up with an insightful overview of
various applications of the Idiodynamic Method (MacIntyre 2012, 2020). As they
show, the idiodynamic method generates dense (high-T) data, captured as once-
per-second ratings of variables of interest. Data sampling that spans the entire
course of an event (e.g., a conversation) measured in real time allows for
documenting rapid changes and sustained reactions. Data is then assessed at the
individual level, which enables specic instances of processes under investigation
Transdisciplinary research methods and complexity theory 3
to be examined in detail. The authors exemplify the idiodynamic method by
applying it to the study of communication processes within individuals and dyads
in order to more fully understand the dynamics of the interacting processes
involved.
Pfenningers (2022) contribution to the special issue turns to the advantages of
generalized additive mixed modeling (GAMM) for describing the iterative nature of
developmental processes and for modeling complex nonlinear trajectories. This
paper demonstrates how GAMM can account for autocorrelated data (i.e., data
with temporal dependencies) and the interdependency of learners internal or
external subsystems in the developmental process being studied. Pfenninger
combines the longitudinal strengths of GAMM with the cross-sectional focus of
mixed effects modeling as a template for analyzing patterns of relationships found
between learner individual differences, here the age of onset, and extracurricular
L2 English use in CLIL programs. While slightly more technical for newcomers to
advanced statistical analyses, this paper demonstrates the power of such tools for
widening the scope of research in the eld.
Verspoor and de Bots (2022) point of departure is the role of variability in
transitional phases of language development. Their paper proposes that, because
variability is an object of study in its own right, measures that capture learners
degree of variability such as the Standard Deviation of differences (SDd) can help
explore transitions between states of development. They outline a growing body of
evidence that these novel measures of change reveal key details about a language
learners developmental process. In a review of several independent studies
among different groups of learners, many emerging from their research lab in
Groningen, they demonstrate how such measures of variability have been
employed in studying the developmental mechanisms at play for advancing
different features of L2 learning.
This special issue is rounded off by Fogals paper (2022), which represents an
explicit treatment of the L2 classroom as a complex and dynamic space. He em-
ploys system mapping and cluster analysis as a means to re-envision the study of
teaching and learning in ways that account for system-wide educational compo-
nents. System mapping, for Fogal, frames a simplexsystem (van Geert and
Steenbeek 2014) that functions as a manageable analytic space allowing
researchers to examine phenomena without overtly breaking the object of study
away from the larger system or context within which it is embedded. He applies
this method to examine inuential variables for L2 writing development from
multiple stakeholdersperspectives. The ultimate aim, within the rubric of
studying educational spaces systemically and addressing wicked problems,is to
seek solutions to these context-specic issuespoints that we feel are congruent
across all contributions to this special issue.
4Hiver and Al-Hoorie
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