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Critical review

Research Frontiers 2 – fuzzy boundaries, networks and fields

This discussion presents an overview of the research development activities I have undertaken over the last six months to my individual area of study.  Spatial metaphors and analogies suggested by the label of ‘frontiers’ of research can be used to organise and summarise this disparate collection of experiences and resources.

Where specific insight or models were provided by the academic activity undertaken, I have noted that in my log of the event.

Mapping the ground

At the start of these activities, my study felt ‘state-less’: my object of study, texts where things speak, was a phenomenon which did not appear to be neatly covered by a particular discipline or approach. As I read, I learned terminology for aspects of the object — ‘prosopopoeia’; ‘maker’s marks’; ‘cognitive linguistics’ — thus making some contact (like a theoretical tourist?) with themes and concerns from different disciplines.

Each of the face-to-face seminars that I attended during these six months and the conversations that occurred around them were of assistance in reminding me of the provisional nature of research questions and how studies develop over time. Halliday, in the ‘Reconnecting paths’ recording, asserts the fuzzy boundaries of a category or object: theoretical distinctions can differentiate one thing from another, but the absolute line of the difference is not clear, and that is certainly the case in my research, where the phenomenon appears in many modes, within different cultural contexts in time and space.

The understanding of inquiry as activities and scientific practice, rather than a strict focus on a defined object (as, for example, Daston & Galison, 2007, p. 52; or Pickering, 1995), is one that suits the way I have derived and structured my study, taking a quasi-grounded theory approach to selecting the object’s features of interest.

Expanding universes


Angles to SFL (slide from Garcia, 2014)

As is evident from the multiple blog post categories, the seminars that I attended, presented and listened to were drawn from many subdisciplines and sister disciplines of linguistics.

Both at his symposium and in the 2010 recorded introduction which I reviewed, Halliday’s call to action for his linguist audience was to seek out and engage all the other people with an interest in meaning. His expression of who these interested parties are, with concerns in problems ” in which language is the essential source of energy” is striking. It combats the possible analogical scenario of expanding the universe of study wider and wider — with a corresponding dissipation in energy and reduction in force — with the power of new sources of ‘energy’ arising from the heart of the debate.

For the purposes of my research, I need to take several related angles to my object of study, and I am using authoritative texts from several disciplines for different case studies, so I take this warrant to join in multiple conversations seriously.

Frontiers as boundaries

A frontier can also label a boundary between competing entities, such as linguistics and its sister disciplines.

I was surprised to find that linguistics was not a research area highly represented at the Digital Humanities conference: I had envisaged corpus linguistics as a subset of the program. Language documentation for small languages did have some representation, such as the presentation on Australian Indigenous languages from PARADISEC’s Nick Thieberger, and there was also some linguistic work with a forensic turn for literature, but there was little else evident.

The existence of corpus linguistics on the margins of digital humanities is noted by Jensen (2014), who suggests (p. 131) that “mutual exchange of a scholarly nature has begun between DH and CL” with the exchange of techniques and the emergence of hybrid disciplines such as corpus stylistics. The frontier between the two disciplines, according to Jensen, is a quantitative / qualitative split: but this didn’t seem to be the case, when I considered the attendees at the conference. Thaller (2012, p. 8) states that a habit of keeping the digital humanities conference relatively homogenous in aims and backgrounds of attendees arose because of digital humanities’ indeterminate status: the inhabitants of this space between powerful disciplines such as Humanities and Computer Science felt like underdogs.

The frontier for digital humanities seemed to emerge from the kind of researchers and professionals who were part of the community and the data they were the custodians of: libraries, art museums, mapping repositories and archives. Not linguists, these people use text in structured formats as data inputs: they are  interested in reconstructing vanished worlds, in communicating new insights into their collections by producing a higher resolution virtual version. They seem chiefly interested in that other country, the past, and Thieberger (2013) has urged the language documentation researchers to follow the example of digital humanities in ensuring longevity of data.

A second example of frontiers as boundaries was addressed by the ‘in-between’ of the UNSW humanities and languages postgraduate students conference in June, ‘Interrogating the in-between’. The ‘in-between’ is a term from cultural studies for dealing with colonizing cultures, to find a place from which to critique dominance, and the students’ work that addressed this theme directly considered communities of diversity such as the deaf; refugee migrant children; and Hmong or Miao literature. Other students chose to look at the debates, splits and inconsistencies in theoretical constructs, and my presentation, as described, dealt with ‘psychomachia’ and other virtual conceptual battles.

Closing the circle

The six months’ space of academic activity reviewed here contains two significant markers: the celebratory symposium for Professor Halliday’s 90th birthday, and the death of Professor Hasan. Professor Hasan’s work was earlier highlighted for this year’s Master of Research students by the inclusion of the introductory chapter from the first volume of collected works (Hasan, 2005) in the Research Frontiers materials for our orientation (another term from mapping). In that chapter, she beautifully delineates the distinction between interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary work (p. 11), and warns of the need for the theorist in dialogue with other disciplines to nevertheless maintain and manage their own theoretical architecture. This is a point which I think is repeated by Professor Halliday in his 2010 ‘Reconnecting paths’ introduction, when he acknowledges that, while [theoretical] journeys can take many paths, they all take place within the same North, South, East, West coordinates.

I did not know Professor Hasan, but her 1985 book Linguistics,  literature and verbal art, which was published during my Honours year, was the first I had seen that combined my two undergraduate majors, (English) Literature and (Systemic Functional) Linguistics. Her analysis of the Les Murray poem ‘Widower in the country’ (Chapter 2) proved that this was a productive combination. (It has relevance, too, for my current study, since Hasan provides matrices to show that the Widower is the only human participant in the poem, and that around him are only objects enacting Behavioural processes — ‘The Christmas paddocks aching in the heat’.) This validation of a dialogue across the University subject silo structure was, at the time, comforting and encouraging.

In a small and personal way, my work now is closing this circle. The next step in my study this year to make a brief presentation at the September ASFLA conference, which has a focus on literature (Linguistics,  Literature and Verbal Art: Inheritances and Developments). It can be expected that the contributions of Professor Hasan will be celebrated and commemorated, and the thirty-year-old book from which the conference has stolen its title will be cited in many presentations. It is notable that the ‘frontier’ of this research still locates itself against the past, and the passing of a renowned scholar draws a finite boundary around her work.

In conclusion

This review demonstrates that, for this study, the Research Frontiers activities have contributed multiple paths for methodological explorations and a necesssary widening of perspective. My aim is to continue this habit of mind and look in my subsequent research for the phenomena that need to be described relative to other fields (Hasan, 2005, p. 11).


Daston, L., & Galison, P. (2007). Objectivity. New York; Cambridge, Mass.: Zone Books.

Hasan, R., & Deakin University. School of Education. Open Campus Program. (1985). Linguistics, language, and verbal art. Waurn Ponds, Vic: Deakin University.

Hasan, R. (2005). Language, society and consciousness: transdisciplinary orientations and the tradition of specialisation. In J. J. Webster (Ed.), Language, society and consciousness: volume 1 of the collected papers of Ruquaiya Hasan (pp. 3–17). London, UK: Equinox.

Jensen, K. E. (2014). Linguistics and the digital humanities: (computational) corpus linguistics. MedieKultur, 57, 115–134.

Pickering, A. (1995). The mangle of practice: time, agency and science. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press.

Thaller, M. (2012). Controversies around the Digital Humanities: an agenda. Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung, 3(141), 7-23.

Thieberger, N. (2013). Digital humanities and language documentation. In Selected papers from the 44th conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, University of Melbourne.

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