Finding marginalised families online: Using Twitter to explore the field

When I set up a Twitter account for the Marginalised Families Online project, my main goal was to create an avenue through which I could communicate with academics and stakeholders, and also share useful resources with families; to try and give something back to the communities I’m researching (LGBT, solo and adoptive parents). I also had a vague idea that it might be a helpful way to gain a better understanding of the experiences and practices of these groups before I start interviewing participants. That vague idea turned out to be a bigger deal than I’d first thought. In this post I want to share what I’ve learned from using Twitter to explore the field in the last couple of weeks.

So far I’ve followed 221 accounts, and they are mostly parents who are LGBT, solo, and/or adoptive; some are all three. I started by following family support charities I already knew about, then searching people for terms like ‘adoptive mum/dad’, ‘single mum/dad’, ‘donor conception’, ‘single parent by choice’, ‘lesbian mum’ and ‘gay dad’. After that, Twitter started to do the work for me; I found new Tweeps by looking at the posts others had liked and retweeted, who they followed, and Twitter’s pop-up suggestions. I’ve been looking at my timeline several times a day, following links and seeing where they lead, and retweeting any resources that look particularly interesting and valuable. I’m going to share just a few of the things I’ve learned so far from doing this.

1. Situating myself in the field. I already knew that I was part of the social world I’m studying (see my previous post). Yet somehow, seeing myself in the content I’ve stumbled across has still come as a shock. It was finding Lara Lillibridge’s article for the Guardian (I was taunted for having two mums in the 1980s) that really set me on this path of realisation. When I first saw the headline, I thought ‘Oh, this resonates with me’. But I wasn’t quite ready for how closely Lillibridge’s experiences mirrored my own, and it brought up a flood of memories and feelings that I had been ignoring (or trying, anyway) for a long time. I followed Lara down the Twitter rabbit-hole and found, for want of a better phrase, my people. This hadn’t really happened to me before. I realised that I was finding out first-hand how valuable social media sites like Twitter could be for connecting with people who are like you, when you had previously felt that no-one quite understood where you were coming from. ‘This…’, I thought, ‘is why people share’. It was the first time I had *really* experienced a moment of absolute recognition, of seeing myself and my own experiences in someone else, and realising that I was not alone. It was very powerful and I won’t forget it.

2. Negotiating collective meanings, values and practices. Despite the value of sharing experiences, collectivisation practices like hashtags can be sites of intense negotiation and conflict. I saw this first-hand last week, which happened to be National Adoption Week. Of the three intersecting parental identities that I’m interested in, adoptive parenting is the area I know least about. So when I saw the hashtag #NationalAdoptionWeek, I thought, ‘Great! Time to watch and learn’. What I saw around this hashtag was very different from the snippets of information I had gleaned about adoption from my limited life experience in this area. I was surprised, for example, that many of the most dominant voices I follow were reluctant to use the hashtag at all. Many used this platform to explain that #NationalAdoptionWeek felt like a marketing ploy, and was not really serving adopters and adoptees at all. They shared their dismay that this week was full of smiling families and urgent reminders of the large number of children still waiting for adoptive parents. They suggested that the hashtag had come to symbolise the commodification of adoption, glossing over its complexities and the gross failings of the system (to keep more children with their birth parents, for example, and to adequately support adoptive families). Some pushed the alternative hashtag #SupportAdoption, emphasising the need for support and understanding, not recruitment. Others drew attention to the absence of adoptees’ voices in the campaigns, posts and articles that were doing the rounds.

3. Effecting change. Another important lesson I took from my observations last week is that marginalised families have power when they come together online. Amidst the tensions and negotiations around National Adoption Week, GiffGaff’s ‘Monster Family’ advert appeared on my timeline. The ad showed an unconventional (but loving) ‘monster’ family, whose apparently human daughter is wrenched from her parents, taken to a ‘normal’ (but terrifyingly cold and false) family, and forced to sign an adoption contract. In a happy ending, she is returned to her loving monster family’s arms. The speed with which adoptive parents and families responded to this ad, which many argued had demonised both birth and adoptive parents in one insensitive swoop, was impressive. GiffGaff was flooded with complaints that carefully explained the damaging messages they had communicated to and about an extremely marginalised and vulnerable community. Within 24 hours, the ad had been removed, and the company apologised for the hurt they had caused.

So, it seems, my fieldwork has already started, a little earlier than I expected. My explorations so far have strengthened my certainty that digital technologies are hugely important for marginalised family groups, providing media through which they can share experiences and resources, find support, negotiate meanings, and campaign for better understanding of the issues they face. I’m looking forward to learning more.

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A new beginning: Introducing Marginalised Families Online

Today marks the end of my first week on a new project. I want to say a little about that project, and in the tradition of bringing the personal to this blog, why I am doing it and why I think it’s important.

My project is called Marginalised Families Online and it’s a three-year study funded by the British Academy and the University of Nottingham. It aims to explore the role that digital media plays in the lives of marginalised family groups in the UK, focusing on individuals who identify as LGBT, single, and/or adoptive parents. Over the next year or so I’m going to be doing fieldwork with nine families, conducting a series of interviews and collecting a selection of their digital interactions. When I analyse these interactions, I’m going to be interested in how my participants explore and negotiate their lives, experiences and roles in relation to dominant norms and expectations about gender, sexuality and family life.

So why am I doing this work? Growing up as the child of a single, lesbian parent, I experienced very early on what it’s like to be marginalised and isolated as part of a family that doesn’t meet society’s heteronormative expectations. I experienced homophobia long before I knew what the word meant, and before I even understood what it meant to be a lesbian, or indeed that loving people of the same sex was in any way ‘different’, or worthy of special attention. The isolation of that time has really stayed with me. It was very rare that I met another family like mine. It was even more rare, in fact completely unheard of, to see one on the television, in books or in the media. It seemed, to me, that no-one else like us existed, and by extension, that we shouldn’t exist. The result was that I felt ashamed. Now, I feel ashamed that I felt ashamed. I wish that I could have celebrated our family sooner, revelled in our difference, been more proud. Today, as a parent myself, my thoughts turn to what it must have been like for my mum, trying to do her best as a woman, a parent, a daughter and a partner in an often intolerant society, which mostly ignored the fact that she, and people like her, even existed. I know it wasn’t easy.

Twenty or thirty years on, things are changing. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that meeting families like mine, and other diverse families with single, LGBT, and/or same-sex parents is now a far more regular occurrence. A lot of this has to do with legal, political and social changes that mean more individuals than ever before can form familial bonds, for example through marriage, donor conception and adoption. Despite these changes, however, there is still not nearly enough wider representation of the diversity of family groups in the UK. Families who fall outside of the persistent cultural norm of the heterosexual, two-parent, biologically related family continue to be marginalised, discriminated against and isolated. My conversations with LGBT, solo and adoptive parents have confirmed that, in everyday encounters – with everyone from school staff, to health professionals, to people in the street – their existence is ignored, their legitimacy as a parent is brought in to question, and assumptions are made about who ‘should’ be a part of their family. Families like these are often coping, as well as resisting and speaking out against such everyday discrimination, through strong connections with similar families and support networks. Digital resources such as messaging apps, discussion forums and blogs are important sites through which they can access these networks and find a platform to make their voices heard.

I hope that the Marginalised Families Online project will have a role to play in amplifying the voices of LGBT, single, and/or adoptive parents, highlighting some of the challenges they continue to face, and showing how they can be better represented, recognised and supported. I’ll be posting updates here, and also setting up a project website. I look forward to sharing the progress of the project with you and as always, I’d love to hear your feedback.

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From PhD to Published

This post is inspired by a question from my friend and colleague Sophie Payne, who recently passed her PhD Viva (Yay Dr. Payne!!) and is currently grappling with the important questions of how, what and where to publish from her PhD. When she asked for my thoughts on this, I realised that, having just completed the final publication to come out of my doctoral research, I may be something of an authority on this topic. My advice does come with the huge disclaimers, however, that a) different fields and disciplines can differ greatly in terms of what to publish and where – my experience is broadly in the areas of applied linguistics and discourse analysis, so is probably most relevant if you’re working in these areas; b) I don’t have extensive experience of editing, accepting and rejecting work, so I won’t try to tell you how to actually get your work accepted. If you’re happy with those caveats… Read on!

1. Monograph or journal articles? This doesn’t have to be either/or. If you want to do both, I suggest that you do the journal articles first. This is because journals are very particular about publishing original material, but you will be ok to reproduce some material from your journal articles in a monograph (with permission). However, you may be limited by time, money, or other factors, and want to just focus on one medium. I’m therefore going to offer some guidance on the relative merits of each one.

2. The Monograph. I personally feel that a monograph is a great way to go, if you can stomach the commitment that will have to go in to this, after the blood, sweat and tears you just lost completing your thesis. With a monograph you can really stake your claim on the particular niche area you are working in, and whether people have read it or not, they’re likely to remember and associate you with your book. One thing you will also have far more space for in a book are methodological details, so if your approach is particularly unusual, or likely to be useful to other researchers, a monograph may be a good option. You’ll need to think about how to reframe your work so that it doesn’t read like a thesis, and you may want to emphasise certain parts of your research, or target a particular audience. For example, I published my monograph as part of a social media series, so I had to make sure it was relevant for this audience. It’s also worth bearing in mind that a monograph doesn’t have to be a 90,000 word tome. Most relatively large publishers, such as Palgrave and Routledge, do short series (20,000 – 50,000 words), and these are usually turned around far more quickly than the longer ones.

3. Journal Articles. These are a good option if you have different elements of your research that can stand alone. For example, I analysed two very different Mumsnet Talk threads in close qualitative detail, and published the results two articles, in Gender and Language and Discourse and Society. I also published a paper as part of a special issue on internet research ethics, because I felt I had some important insights to share about the complex ethical issues involved in researching an online discussion forum. Journal articles are also, obviously, much shorter, so if the prospect of a book seems too daunting, or if you just don’t have time at the minute, the 7,000 – 9,000 word limit for most journal articles will be a blessing. You can always go for the book at a later date.

4. Where to publish. My advice here would be to go to the journals and/or publishers you have consulted the most throughout your research. You could also ask others in your field which journals they go to most frequently. Colleagues may also be able to offer some advice about the practical merits of different journals; some, for example, have very long waiting lists for publication, and some are notorious for taking a long time to get back to authors. This might be a bit controversial, but I don’t see much value in poring over different journals’ impact factors in a bid to publish in the ‘best’ places. The important thing is that your work is read, and that’s most likely to happen if your paper is in a relevant journal. Prospective employers who are genuinely interested in your research are far more likely to be concerned with the content of your work, not where it’s been published.

5. Other options? Books and papers are, of course, not your only options for sharing your research. If you want to share your progress as it unfolds, at the same time as engaging with your research community, blog posts are a good place to start. This can also get you in the habit of writing, and encourage you to think about how to communicate with different audiences. If you don’t want to start your own blog, you can write short pieces for other relevant people and organisations, which will help get your name and work known more widely (for example, I’ve written for the NVivo and IGALA blogs, as well as for the BAAL newsletter). You may want to try and get your work recognised by the media; if you’re interested in a career outside academia, this may be far more appropriate than academic publications (though it’s important for academics too). I confess that I don’t know much about this area, but most universities offer training on media engagement.

I should add that there is most definitely not one ‘right’ way of publishing your research. Talk to the people who know you best about your options, and use your Viva to quiz your examiners – this is a precious opportunity to talk to leaders in your field who have read your work in detail. This post is mostly based on my own experiences of doctoral research and publication in a UK context; others will likely have different points of view. If you have any advice to add or reflections on your own experiences, feel free to post your thoughts below, or respond to me on Twitter. Happy writing!

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Losing Judith

On Monday 26th February 2018, I got up, early as usual, and switched on my computer. I was surprised to see that I had more emails than usual. They all had the same title.

Judith.

Judith.

Judith.

She was gone. Judith Baxter, my wonderful supervisor, mentor and friend, had died very suddenly that weekend.

The reality of this fact hit me hard and fast. I couldn’t see straight. I called my husband, who was heading off to work, and asked him to come back. Then I pulled myself together, took the kids to school, and left to teach a 9am lecture about language, gender and sexuality, a large portion of which introduced Judith’s work on gendered discourses in the classroom.

I got through the lecture, went back to my office, and sobbed in to my keyboard – a thing I would find myself doing a lot that week, as the messages, tributes and condolences rolled in.

I was annoyed with myself for taking her death so hard. What right did I have to feel this loss so deeply? She was not my family, or even a particularly close friend. Surely this right to grief belonged to others. But over the past few months I have come to reflect on what she meant to me, why I was so affected by her death, and why I have not yet found a way to fill the hole that she left behind.

I think that I understand the significance of our relationship now. Judith was – she still is – absolutely central to my sense of belonging in the academic community. Life as an early career researcher is unsettling. I am in a perpetual state of uncertainty about my future, and feel like I am being constantly tested, appraised, scrutinised and graded. Quite frequently, under this spotlight, I am found to be lacking, in one way or another. But Judith was the rock to which I anchored myself. An academic giant of phenomenal intellect and achievement; she was strong, opinionated and brave. She was willing to put herself out there even when she felt most uncomfortable, which I believe happened quite a lot. And she was my supervisor. She believed in me. That meant everything; her outrage when I didn’t get the post I applied for, her absolute certainty that what I was doing was worthwhile, and that I was going to succeed. I am immensely proud to be associated with her, and honoured to have had the privilege of receiving her advice and mentorship first hand.

Moving forward, there has been no shortage of opportunities to commemorate Judith’s life and achievements. At the most recent meeting of the BAAL language, gender and sexuality special interest group, of which Judith was a key member and chaired between 2010 and 2013, Helen Sauntson and Jo Angouri gave a touching tribute to her work and her wide-reaching influence. Jo and Helen will be publishing a print version of this talk in the next edition of BAAL news (which will be posted here). The latest issue of the journal of Gender and Language, where Judith published a great deal of her work and sat on the editorial board, is dedicated to her memory. At Aston University in November, we will be holding an event in honour of Judith; this will be a wonderful chance to celebrate her life and work in an extended way, and in the company of her beloved family.

As for me, I am finding that Judith was not the only one who was rooting for me. No one can replace her, but the support of the many other wise and strong women in my academic life is keeping me tethered, albeit that little bit more loosely than before.

JB pic 2

 

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Good mothers don’t wear make-up?

In my forthcoming article for the journal Gender and Language, I present the second set of findings from my qualitative analysis of Mumsnet Talk threads. This complements my earlier publication in Discourse & Society, which I have written about here.

In my latest article, I discuss the way Mumsnet users explore their parental identities in relation to wider social norms in a thread titled ‘Your Identity as a Mother’. By contrast with the playful, humorous ‘Can we have a child exchange?’ that I analysed in my first article, contributors to this thread undertake a much more serious and self-conscious discussion of their self-perceptions as ‘mothers’ and their relationships with their families. This thread was instigated by the Mumsnet user ‘pandarific’, who invites others to consider ‘how [motherhood] changes people, and their view of themselves’, and ‘How much of your identity is bound up with being a mum?’

It probably won’t come as a great surprise to anyone who has explored the extensive scholarship around motherhood, or indeed, who has taken a moment to reflect on the roles that are constructed for mothers in society, that I found discourses of ‘gendered parenthood’, ‘child-centric motherhood’ and ‘mother as main parent’ to be pervasive in these threads. Most contributors to this thread positioned themselves, in keeping with pandarific’s opening post, and with the gendered frame of a site called Mumsnet, as specifically female parents, and suggest that this role as ‘mum’ entails being the primary carer for children, and positioning themselves exclusively in relation to their children. In others words, most contributors to this thread suggest (some more explicitly than others) that their sense of self is tied up with their role as a parent and their devotion to their children.

Yet there are moments at which contributors to ‘Your identity as a mother’ do challenge these dominant norms, for example by pushing against the purported views of ‘child-centric mothers’ who, as Viglioso puts it, ‘don’t… wear make-up’ or ‘have any time for yourself’. It is this ‘extreme’ child-centric mothering that is most vehemently resisted in ‘Your identity as a mother’. In one sequence, contributors can be seen to collectively rally against such expectations of all-consuming devotion to children, echoing one another’s words and drawing on the shared in-group acronyms of this forum to create a powerful, resistant and united voice. At such moments, a discourse of ‘individuality’ seems to offer an important alternative to the discourse of ‘child-centric motherhood’, as where Viglioso declares her resistance to being positioned as a mother whose life completely revolves around her children with the words ‘I would like to be allowed to be me’.

What is perhaps surprising about my exploration of ‘Your identity as a mother’ is that there is not more challenge of gender norms within a site where contributors are notoriously open, honest, and willing to overturn long-held assumptions about women and mothers. The relative paucity of newer, more transformative conceptions of gender and parenthood serves as a challenge to literature that focuses on empowering and egalitarian nature of online platforms; their capacity to release their users from the usually restrictive bonds of social norms and expectations. Yet the dominance of traditional norms is not so surprising from a discourse theoretical perspective. Both Foucault and Althusser, for example, emphasise the powerful ways in which particular forms of knowledge about the world and our place within it are inscribed in dominant discourses, which come to be seen as the most legitimate and ‘common sense’ way of expressing ourselves, and are subsequently difficult to escape. In ‘Your identity as a mother’, what underpins even the most explicit moments of resistance is that female parents are obviously, ‘of course’, mothers, first and foremost, and that this means being the default carer for their children. Even where it seems that fathers are positioned as equal, they are measured against the mother as the standard. The child-centric mother is the position that is most actively challenged in this thread, suggesting that this discourse may be undergoing a process of transformation, but it seems that this process is likely to be a slow one.

The full version of this article is now available online here.

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Play and subversion in Mumsnet Talk

It’s not always wise to admit you have favourites, but I’m going to say it anyway. I looked child-swapat many threads during my study of the Mumsnet Talk discussion forum, but none were as much fun to read and analyse as ‘Can we have a child exchange?’ The opening post to this thread, written by Mumsnet regular BertieBotts, goes something like this:

I can offer one (currently) sweaty and exuberant 5 year old. Reads most things.

Speaks some German. Quite helpful around the house.

Reason for sale: Excessive farting.

Any takers?

The light-hearted, witty and playful nature of this thread made it both engaging and interesting, but also quite an analytical challenge. As I read contributors’ posts to this thread, it seemed that their words always had multiple potential meanings. For example, at one level, the entire theme of the thread, exchanging children, is subversive in the extreme, and contributors’ individual posts often reinforce the ‘shock-factor’ of this thread. They often describe their children in a distanced, impersonal way, as where Clobbered numbers her children as ‘Model 1, 2 and 3’, and uses lists and descriptive categories, such as ‘twenty-one’, ‘excellent cook’ and ‘screen-bound thirteen year old’, which foreground her children’s ‘assets’, but background any personal relationship with or love for them. Such descriptions work to position children as objects for sale – as commodities, who are being promoted in a busy marketplace. Whilst these linguistic strategies could be seen as subversive and shocking, however, it is unlikely that many would actually read them in this way. The playful use of a style that would be more at home in a classified ad means that this thread is framed as non-serious from the start. What contributors are suggesting on another level, then, is that their implied indifference to their children is laughable; inconceivable, even; that what they say is not what they mean.

Looking at the thread more closely, many other linguistic strategies that contributors use when describing their children are in sharp contrast with the kind of distanced, impersonal examples given above, and work to position contributors and their children in a different way entirely. For example, many contributors to this thread use linguistic and digital resources that emphasise their personal, emotive responses to their children. WhispersofWickedness, for example, describes her daughter as “VERY cute”, using both an intensive adjective and intensifying adverb (in CAPS) to describe her child in positive, emotive terms, whilst another writes that her son is “lovely to snuggle and smells nice ”.

Contributors’ use of these intensifying resources builds colourful portraits that focus on their affective responses to their children. At the same time, they can be said to draw on stereotypes around femininity (which are linked to Western ideals of “good” motherhood) – namely, that women orient towards an affective interactional style. In this way, it can be said that Mumsnet users emphasise their femininity in this thread, positioning themselves not just as parents but as mothers, and indeed, as good mothers, since cultural stereotypes around good mothering are often closely linked with stereotypes of femininity. Again, however, the humorous and ironic tone of the thread means that there are multiple possible readings of participants’ words. Whilst, on one level, their frequent use of affective emphasis in descriptions of their children works to emphasise their connections with and personal responses to their children, positioning them as ‘feminine’ mothers, on another level they can be said to play with, and even to subvert, these stereotypes around femininity and ‘good motherhood’.

My latest article in Discourse & Society explores these themes in detail, teasing out the intersecting discourses that come together in this thread to position its contributors as ‘good mothers’, and showing how Mumsnet users both take up, but also resist and subvert this subject position. It emphasises the importance of the digital context in making this kind of play possible. It’s available here.

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Ethics, Privacy and Internet Research

A few days ago my first academic paper was published online. This article is probably the single thing that I’m most proud of to date, because it feels entirely my own. Of course, I draw on the work of others and have been supported by a wider research community, especially in the field of language and new media. But really closely scrutinising the ethics of my internet research was something I pursued very much independently of my supervisor and even against the advice of many senior colleagues. This post marks the occasion by detailing the key messages of this paper. They are:

  1. First, and most importantly, I think we need to put the core ethical principle do no harm right back at the forefront of discussions about ethics and internet research. The question ‘could this research cause harm?’ should come way before any questions about whether participants are ‘entitled’ to privacy or protection by researchers.
  2. Researchers need to careful about the assumption that if online research contexts are ‘public’, there aren’t really ethical issues to consider. We don’t all agree on what ‘public’ means, and we certainly don’t agree that because information is in a ‘public’ domain, anyone can do whatever they like with it.
  3. ‘Anonymity’ is a complex concept in internet research, where protecting participants’ anonymity may not just be about making sure they aren’t identifiable in the ‘real’ (offline) world. My own study shows that in spaces such as Mumsnet Talk, where contributors use pseudonyms, participants’ identities within the internet community of which they are a part may also need to be protected and anonymised.
  4. Finally, internet researchers need to be sensitive to the mechanisms by which internet users are able to achieve various levels of privacy and/or anonymity, even in highly accessible spaces. In this way, they can develop a better understanding of the norms of information sharing (Nissenbaum, 2010) within their research context and respond accordingly.

All of this requires a reflexive, context-sensitive approach from the researcher, and my paper also addresses the issue of how internet researchers, especially in the discipline of Applied Linguistics, can go about taking such a stance. I therefore also outline five specific methods that can be employed as part of what I call a reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics:

  1. Systematic observation of/ engagement with the research site prior to and alongside data collection and analysis;
  2. Memo writing or other self-reflexive activities that will help you to engage with the process of data construction and to document your observations, personal responses and data selections in a critical way;
  3. Adopting a participant stance: by situating yourself within the research site, you can better engage with ethical issues from the perspective of those who are being researched.
  4. Making early and regular contact with gatekeepers such as site moderators or employed staff. These are the people who are likely to have the best understanding of your research site, how people engage with it and what potential there may be for your research to cause harm to its users. Talking to individual users is important too, where possible: it is very likely that people will have different perceptions of their engagement with internet sites and marginal views should not be ignored.
  5. Linguistic analysis. My understanding of the norms of information sharing, privacy and anonymity in Mumsnet Talk was greatly strengthened by my close linguistic analysis of participants’ interactions. For example, I found that some Mumsnet users achieve a degree of privacy when they construct and address specific in-groups of users, through their use of shared in-group knowledge and linguistic resources.

My full article, Identifying informational norms in Mumsnet Talk: A reflexive-linguistic approach to internet research ethics, is free to download for a limited time.

 

References and further reading:

boyd, danah. 2011. Social Network Sites as Networked Publics: Affordances, Dynamics, and

Implications. In Zizi Papacharissi (Ed.), A Networked Self: Identity, Community and Culture on Social Network Sites, 39-58. New York and London: Routledge.

Markham, Annette & Buchanan, Elizabeth. 2015. Internet Research: Ethical Concerns. In International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Elsevier.

Marwick, Alice & boyd, danah. 2014. Networked privacy: How teenagers negotiate context in social media. New Media & Society 16(7). 1051-1067.

Nissenbaum, Helen. 2010. Privacy in Context: Technology, Policy, and the Integrity of Social Life. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

All of the contributions to the forthcoming special issue of Applied Linguistics Review, most of which are currently available at https://www.degruyter.com/printahead/j/alr

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