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Critical discourse analysis

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Critical discourse analysis refers to an exploration of how social and political inequalities manifest in conversations and language. In addition, critical discourse analysis examines how facets conversations and language-the structures, strategies, and tactics-perpetuate these inequalities.

Notable scholars in this field include Norman Fairclough (1995, 2003), Teun van Dijk (1993, 2005), Ruth Wodak (e.g., Wodak & Meyer, 2001), Roger Fowler and Robert Hodge (e.g., Fowler, Kress, Hodge, & Trew, 1979), Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen (e.g., Kress & van Leeuwen, 2000), Lilie Chouliaraki (e.g., Chouliaraki & Fairclough, 1999), and Talbot (e.g., Talbot, Atkinson, & Atkinson, 2003)

Features of discourse that exemplify and perpetuate inequalities

Scholars in this field tend to examine texts-speeches, conversations, documents, music, videos, and many other forms of discourse-to identify the features that perpetuate, legitimize, and exemplify inequalities. To illustrate these features, consider the following hypothetical speech, presented in parliament, about unemployment benefits.

...I disagree with the warm and fuzzy Marxists and Trots that we should wrap these individuals in cotton wool and allow them to decline. Our country is founded on principles of work ethic for all. Would any reasonable person deny that everyone should work for their pay, and that recipients of unemployment benefits should be no exception.

Scholars, such as van Dijk (1993, 2005), show how such extracts maintain the power of dominant sectors of society. That is, these scholars uncover the features of speech that preserve and bolster the prevailing hierarchy.

First, these scholars often consider the broader context in which these discourses are presented as potential sources of dominance. For example, the setting, in this instance parliament house, is adorned with symbols that epitomize authority, all of which underscore the power of this speech. In addition, access is limited in that few individuals are granted the right to speak in this setting. This limited access imbues the speech with importance.

Second, scholars might reflect on communicative acts within the speech itself. Specifically, the speech attempts to equate opponents with terms imbued with negative connotations, such as warm and fuzzy Marxists and Trots.

Third, scholars may consider macro-semantics. An example includes the choice of topics-in which speakers allude to the issues that favor their position. In this instance, the speaker refers to work ethic, which favors the espoused position. The speaker circumvents issues, such as equity, that might not favor that position. Furthermore, scholars might uncover implicit propositions-that is, positions that are implied rather than stated-that vindicate their position. The speaker, for example, implies that individuals who receive unemployment benefits will decline, unless suitable intervention is instituted.

Fourth, scholars examine linguistic and grammatical features, such as the use of rhetorical questions, like the reference as to whether anyone would deny that individuals should work for their pay. These questions are also intended to distinguish the in-group, in this instance reasonable individuals, from the out-group.

Fifth, scholars might examine the extent to which the language, including both the words and the pronunciation, correspond to hierarchies of power. For example, as Fairclough (1989) has shown, a merchant class of England defined their mode of speech as the standard, acceptable way of speaking in English. For example, they referred to other pronunciations as regional accents, implying their own form is more universal. Hence, their own accents became recognized as more acceptable, ultimately facilitating the power and authority of this class. Individuals who did not speak with their accent were disadvantaged in job interviews, for example.

Key assumptions of critical discourse analysis

Critical discourse analysis refers to a broad range of methods and perspectives. Nevertheless, some key underling features, priorities, and assumptions underpin most forms of critical discourse analysis.

First, critical discourse analysis always adopts an overt political stance. That is, the analyses are explicitly undertaken to understand the sources of injustice from a specific perspective.

For example, Fairclough usually adopts a Marxist perspective to analyze discourse. That is, Fairclough investigates how discourse maintains inequalities amongst hierarchies in capital markets. Van Dijk, in contrast, shows how discourse can activate mental stereotypes and constructs, which in turn bias attitudes against specific ethnicities, races, and constituencies. In other words, Van Dijk examines how social cognitive structures, like stereotypes, mediate the relationship between discourse and inequality.

Second, critical discourse analysis focuses on how the dominant parties maintain their power. Scholars in this field are seldom as interested in how constituencies that are less dominant attempt to resist these injustices and asymmetries. For example, scholars might show that doctors maintain their power by promulgating an environment in which patients are not encourage to contribute to their diagnosis or management plan.

Third, scholars who apply this perspective attempt to uncover the ideologies that underpin discourse. An ideology, in this context, is an organized set of beliefs that legitimize and incite behaviors and perspectives that sustain the prevailing inequalities. For example, discourse around heterosexuality as a natural sexual orientation represents an ideology that maintains the power of heterosexual communities. This ideology that heterosexuality is natural fosters behaviors and perceptions that disadvantage homosexual individuals, such as the belief in the sanctity of marriage.

Critical discourse analysis versus other approaches

Foucauldian analysis

Critical discourse analysis does share many similarities to Foucauldian analysis (see Parker, 1990, 1997, 1998 for example). Both critical discourse analysis and Foucauldian discourse analysis explicate their political intent. In addition, both traditions uncover discourses that reflect and maintain the prevailing power structures.

However, Foucauldian discourse is primarily a reaction against academic psychology, in which difficulties are often blamed on the individual, disregarding the broader socio-political context. For example, researchers might examine an excerpt about bullying, showing how teachers often ascribe the problem to children not assuming their responsibility as a moral citizen rather than consider the broader family and social issues that could perpetuate these issues (e.g., Hepburn. 1997). In addition, Foucauldian discourse, unlike critical discourse analysis, does not tend to explore how the discourse is related to the broader and specific context of the text.

Conversation analysis

Critical discourse analysis, however, departs more fundamentally from conversation analysis (Sacks, 1972). In particular, conversation analysis involves a detailed scrutiny of a conversation, striving to uncover the mechanisms, devices, and methods individuals use to maintain a shared understanding and to fulfill their goals. For example, these analysts often examine how individuals are able to take turns effectively, with minimal gaps or overlap, even though no overt features epitomize the end of a turn. In addition, these analysts show the methods that individuals use, such as elongate a sound when they cannot retrieve the next word, to redress difficulties.

Proponents of critical discourse analysis often criticize conversation analysis. In particular, they argue that conversation analysis disregards key issues, such as the contextual and structural forces that impinge on the discourse. That is, the methods that individuals use to maintain social order and to fulfill their goals might, depend, fundamentally on their ideology and social context. Thus, according to proponents of critical discourse analysis, conversation analysts should consider these pervasive, but unobservable, issues.

Indeed, conversation analysts, like Schegloff (1997), explicitly criticize the consideration of political orientations or theoretical assumptions when conversations are analyzed. These orientations and theories might bias the description and interpretation of conversations.

Some conversation analysts, however, have applied conversation analysis to examine the methods and devices individuals apply to maintain and perpetuate power imbalances. For example, Hutchby (1996) utilized conversation analysis to show how radio hosts maintain power over their callers. Hutchby shows that radio hosts use various terms or phrases, like So or And, to challenge the relevance of an argument. Likewise, radio hosts often ascribe and challenge a position to the caller, summarize a version of their argument they can readily dismiss. Furthermore, Hutchby shows that radio hosts do not need to offer their own position, which simplifies their role. In this work, conversation analysis provides a unique insight into the attempts of individuals to maintain power, offering an empirical insight into the theoretical mechanisms that proponents of discourse analysis posit.


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Last Update: 6/17/2016