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Critical discourse analysis

Critical discourse analysis is a methodology that enables a vigorous assessment of what is meant when language is used to describe and explain. There is a proliferation of terms within critical discourse analysis which is reflective of the various influences in the development of the methodology. There is however a broadly agreed agenda in these studies;

'to systematically explore often opaque relationships of causality and determination between (a) discursive practices, events and texts, and (b) wider social and cultural structures, relations and processes; to investigate how such practices, events and texts arise out of and are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power' (Fairclough 1995: 132).

Texts, language, communication should therefore always be considered in their social context, they both shape and are informed by wider processes within society. In this manner texts do not merely passively report upon the world, but they imbue it with meaning, fabricate it, shape perspectives and call the world into being. The broad term discourse can be employed in these circumstances as it refers to the various ways in which communication between people is achieved. Discourse can be considered as an 'active relation to reality' (Fairclough 1992: 41). Fairclough (2003: 26) has delineated three characteristics of discourse which describe its operation within social life, as 'part of the action.' These are;

'Genres' refer to a particular way of manipulating and framing discourse; examples of genres are church sermons, interviews and political speeches. Genres are significant because they provide a framework for an audience to comprehend discourse, though evidently due to this quality, 'genres' can be the locus of power, domination and resistance. 'Discourses/representation' is crucial in assessing the means by which apparently similar aspects of the world can be appreciated and understood from different perspectives or positions. Finally, 'styles' are the ways in which discourse is used to constitute a sense of being and identity, how identification is located through the application and manner of particular discourses.

Discourse is thereby a means of being and doing and the way this specific practice is understood and interpreted is demonstrative of a further three analytical elements of study; production, form and reception. The structure and relationship of these three and their interplay through political and cultural concerns develop the myriad of social effects of discourse (Fairclough 2003: 11). This social effect is dependent upon the audience accessing, comprehending, using and resisting this discourse. Discourse should not be considered in isolation; rather, discourses act upon and influence one another in an act of intertextuality. This term concerns the way that specific discourses are understood only with reference to separate discourses. The Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin (1986) described this situation as 'dialogism', discourses referencing implicitly or explicitly other discourses as a further indication of the social life of discourse. Bakhtin (1986, 121) stated that, 'the author has his own inalienable right to the word, but the listener also has his own rights, and those whose voices are heard in the word before the author comes upon it also have their rights.'

The subtle use of dialogism implied by Bakhtin is that discourses relate to other past forms of communication whilst foreseeing future modes of discourse. Intertextuality or dialogism is a means by which discourse situates itself within a web of social, political and cultural concerns. The plethora of discourse however ensures that forms are always competing against one another for dominance, power and control (after Foucault 1980: 35). Within society certain discourses are more powerful than others. This is not to deny the power of agency within the reception of discourse, rather it reveals the subtle means by which agents make themselves into subjects through discursive features. An obvious example would be the government or legal codes which prescribe the boundaries of operation in everyday life. There are however more subtle domineering discourses which function to maintain perceptions and attitudes. These may operate on a subtle level; van Dijk (1991) for instance examined the racist discourses which operated within the British press. By practising certain modes of exclusionary discourse, particularly the use of pronouns, 'we', 'us', 'them', newspapers in Britain were shown to participate and propagate in a discourse of a dominating, white, overwhelming middle-class Britain. The mode of reporting was shown to be less subtle as the, 'dominant definition of ethnic affairs has consistently been a negative and stereotypical one: minorities or immigrants are seen as a problem or a threat, and are portrayed preferably in association with crime, violence, conflict, unacceptable cultural differences, or other forms of deviance (van Dijk 1991: 20). This discourse is certainly opposed and disputed by alternative discourses, but the power of the position the Press hold ensures that it is the former discourse which is heard. Bakhtin (1984) referred to this variety of discourse as 'heteroglossia', a term which recognises the multitude of forms of discourse and the means in which some succeed in their dominance.

Critical discourse analysis therefore examines the form, structure and content of discourse, from the grammar and wording employed in its creation to its reception and interpretation by a wider audience. The employment of verbs, pronouns and nouns within discourse is as much part of this analysis as the assessment of the content and tone of the discourse. The methodology facilitates an assessment based upon more than simple quotations but upon what the discourse is doing and what it is being asked to do in its production, dissemination and consumption.


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