METM11 presentation     Thread: Knowledge updates

The butler syndrome: academic discourse on the semi-periphery*

Karen Bennett -” Lisbon, Portugal

The concept of the semi-periphery, originally formulated by sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein to refer to countries positioned, geographically and economically, between the core and the periphery of the world system, is a useful concept when discussing the geopolitics of academic discourse. These countries display characteristics of both the periphery and the centre (manifested in academic culture by aspects such as access to material resources, attitudes towards intellectual property and promotions, dominant knowledge paradigms and discourse habits), and as such are in a privileged position to mediate change between the rich and poorer countries of the world.

However, semi-peripheral status may also cause personal identity instabilities. That is to say, rather than proudly defining and asserting their difference, as many peripheral countries have done in the postcolonial climate, they are often inclined to assimilate as much as possible to the centre. Like the butler in a stately home that emulates his master and despises members of his own class, they may voluntarily relinquish markers of their own identity, sometimes even becoming more precious about centre values than the core countries themselves.

In this talk, I look at this process in action in the specific context of Portugal, focusing upon the issue of discourse. Drawing upon my own research into Portuguese academic writing, I describe how the traditional approach to scholarly text production is gradually being replaced by a more -˜modern' discourse calqued upon English, with inevitable repercussions for epistemological diversity.

* Note: Invited presentation. This talk was initially given at the Second International PRISEAL Conference (on Publishing and Presenting Research Internationally: Issues for Speakers of English as an Additional Language), 9-11 June 2011, Sosnowiec/Katowice, Poland


Karen Bennett is a member of the Centre for English Studies, University of Lisbon, where she researches in the area of Translation Studies. She has a PhD in Translation Studies and is also a practising translator, specializing in academic texts from Portuguese and French into English. She currently teaches English for Academic Purposes and Scientific Communication at the University of Coimbra.

In addition to numerous articles on many translation-related subjects, she has published a book entitled Academic Writing in Portugal I: Discourses in Conflict (Coimbra University Press, 2011), and has another one coming out next year (Academic Discourse, Translation and Power: the Transfer of Knowledge in the Age of Globalization, Manchester: St Jerome Press).


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