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CRITICAL DISCOURSE ANALYSIS – The critical study of language (Norman Fairclough, 1997)

This book summary can be downloaded here.


Séminaire en Théories des Organisations

Travail présenté à : Linda Rouleau


Rencontre des « Grands Esprits »


The critical study of language

Norman Fairclough

Ignasi Capdevila



HEC Montréal, 5 Avril 2011

Table of contents

o   About the author
o   Key concepts
o   Book Summary

o   Section A : Language, ideology and power

o   1.- Critical and descriptive goals in discourse analysis

o   2.- Discourse representation in media discourse

o   3.- Language and ideology


o   Section B: Discourse and sociocultural change

o   4.- Discourse, change and hegemony

o   5.- What might we mean by “enterprise discourse”?

o   6.- Critical discourse analysis and the marketization of public discourse: the universities

o   7.- Ideology and identity change in political television


o   Section C: Textual analysis in social research

o   8.- Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis

o   Section D: Critical language awareness

    • 9.- Critical language awareness and self-identity in education
    • 10.- The appropriacy of “appropriateness”

About the author


Norman Fairclough (born 1941) is emeritus Professor of Linguistics at Lancaster University. He is one of the founders of critical discourse analysis, a branch of sociolinguistics or discourse analysis that looks at the influence of power relations on the content and structure of writings.

Fairclough’s theories have been influenced by Mikhail Bakhtin and Michael Halliday on the linguistic field, and ideology theorists such as Antonio Gramsci, Louis Althusser, Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu on the sociological one. (Source: wikipedia.org)


Research Interests

(Written by the author; source: http://www.lancs.ac.uk/ias/profiles/norman-fairclough

Since the early 1980s, my research has focused on critical discourse analysis – including the place of language in social relations of power and ideology, and how language figures in processes of social change. My main current interest is in language (discourse) as an element in contemporary social changes which are referred to as ‘globalisation’, ‘neo-liberalism’, ‘new capitalism’, the ‘knowledge economy’ and so forth. Over the past three years I have been working specifically on aspects of ‘transition’ in Central and Eastern Europe, especially Romania, from a discourse analytical perspective.

This research is based upon the theoretical claim that discourse is an element of social life which is dialectically interconnected with other elements, and may have constructive and transformative effects on other elements. It also makes the claim that discourse has in many ways become a more salient and potent element of social life in the contemporary world, and that more general processes of current social change often seem to be initiated and driven by changes in discourse. Discourse analysis, including linguistic analysis, therefore has a great deal more to contribute to social research than has generally been recognised, especially when integrated into interdisciplinary research projects.

My own recent contribution to this research has included three main elements:

o   Theoretical development of critical discourse analysis to enhance its capacity to contribute to this area of social research

o   Developing approaches to linguistic analysis of texts and interactions which are adapted to social research

o   Application of this theory and method in researching aspects of contemporary social change

I have maintained research contacts with Lancaster since my retirement through collaborative projects in the Institute for Advanced Studies and the Linguistics department on the ‘knowledge-based economy’, the Bologna reforms of higher education in Europe, and ‘moral economy’.


Key concepts

Here are presented the main concepts of the Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA from now on) as were developed by Norman Fairclough.

‘Discourse’ is a category used by both social theorists and analysts on the one hand and linguists on the other. Fairclough uses the term as many linguists, to refer primarily to spoken or written language use, though he extends it to include semiotic practice such as printed information and non-verbal communication. But referring to language as a discourse, he considers language as a form of social practice. This implies that language is a mode of action (socially reproductive) and also socially shaping, or constitutive (creative, socially transformative). CDA explores the tension between these two sides of the language use, the socially shaped and the constitutive, Language is always constitutive of 1) social identities; 2) social relations and 3) systems of knowledge and belief. CDA is then developed as a theory of language which stresses in the multifunctionality of language and which sees every text as simultaneously having the “ideational”, “interpersonal” and “textual” functions of language.

Language use is dynamically shaped. On the one hand, societies and particular institutions within them sustain a variety of coexisting, contrasting and often competing discursive practices or “discourses”. On the other hand, there is a complex relationship between particular discursive events and underlying conventions or norms of language use. Language may on occasion be used “appropriately” but not always. This fact led Fairclough to develop the theories of appropriateness.

Fairclough conceptualizes conventions which underlie discursive events in terms of orders of discourse. There is a complexity of the relationship between discursive event and convention, where discursive events commonly combine two or more conventional types of discourse, and texts are routinely heterogeneous in their forms and meanings. The order of the discourse is the relationships of the discursive practices (complementarity, inclusion/exclusion, opposition). The orders of discourse in a society are the set and relationships between more “local” orders of discourse.

The boundaries and insulations between and within orders may be points of conflict, open to being weakened of strengthen, as a part of wider social struggles.

Categorization of discourses: Fairclough distinguishes between discourses (as a count noun, so that be used in the plural form) defined as “ways of signifying areas of experience from a particular perspective (e.g. patriarchal versus feminist discourses in sexuality” (p132), and genres, defined as “uses of language associated with particular socially ratified activity types such as job interview or scientific papers” (p.132).

CDA aims “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” (p.132)

Fairclough through CDA, investigates how discursive practices are ideologically shaped by relations of power and struggles over power and explores how the opacity of these relationships between discourse and society is itself a factor providing power and hegemony. Opacity means that the linkages between discourse and ideology might be unclear to those involved.

Fairclough preaches for the education in critical language awareness in the teaching of the mother tongue to equip learners with the capacities and understanding of the powers and hegemony involved and to emancipate them in the struggle against alienation of marketization and give them a meaningful choice to be democratic and effective citizens.



Some key definitions (p.135):

Discourse (abstract noun)  language use conceived as social practice.

Discursive event                   instance of language use, analysed as text, discursive practice, social practice.

Text                                        the written or spoken language produced in a discursive event.

Discourse practice               the production, distribution and consumption of a text.

Interdiscursivity                   the constitution of a text from diverse discourses and genres.

Discourse (count noun)      way of signifying experiences from a particular perspective.

Genre                                     use of language associated with a particular social activity

Order of discourse               totality of discursive practices of an institution, and relations between them.



Book Summary

The book is a collection of ten papers on critical discourse analysis which were written between 1983 and 1992 and were published between 1985 and 1993.

Section A : Language, ideology and power

In this section, the author develops an analytical framework (theory and method) to study language in its relationship to power and ideology and the struggle against domination and oppression of linguistic forms.

1.- Critical and descriptive goals in discourse analysis

In this article, the author views social institutions as containing diverse “ideological-discursive formations” (IDFs) associated to different groups of the institution and there is usually one IDF which is clearly dominant. Dominant IDF has the capacity to “naturalize” ideologies, to win acceptance as non-ideological common-sense. The goal of CDA is to “denaturalize” the discourses. Naturalization gives dominant ideologies tha status of common sense, and thereby makes them opaque (there are no longer visible).

Assumptions: 1) the verbal interaction is a mode of social action and this presupposes a range of “structures”; 2) these structures are also the products of action, so actions reproduce structures.

To build his framework, Fairclough integrates “micro” and “macro” research and identifies three levels of social phenomena: the social formation, the social institution, and social action. The institutional frame includes “formulation and symbolizations of a particular set of ideological representations: particular ways of talking are based upon particular ‘ways of seeing’” (p.38). Ways of talking and seeing are inseparably related. Social institutions are pluralistic and this leads to institutional struggles that are connected to class struggles.

Even though some concepts developed in this paper were not taken in consideration in further work (like the IDF concept), Fairclough considered that some aspects of this article are significant. First, the claim that ideologies are primarily located in the “unsaid” (implicit propositions). Second, norms of interaction involving aspects of the impersonal meaning and forms (i.e. turn-taking systems) may be ideological as well as the “content” of texts. Third, the theorization of power as in part “ideological/discoursal”. Even casual conversation has its conditions of possibility within relations of ideological/discoursal power.

2. – Discourse representation in media discourse

The article is based on the analysis of a set of five newspaper articles and argues that the detail of text is tuned to social structures and power relations within which the media operate, and has ideological effects in mystifying relations of domination. The paper is an application of the emergent CDA framework to a specific case and identifies the “convertionalisation” of public discourse.

The articles are analyzed on the base of Direct Discourse (DD), Indirect Discourse (ID) as converted DD and unsignalled codes (UNSIG) that is secondary, discourse  without being explicitly marked as represented discourse and which the author calls “dissemination”. UNSIG is the main mode for dissemination, and all instances of UNSIG involve dissemination.

The author identifies two tendencies in the representation of discourse in the five articles:

  • “Tendency 1: low demarcation between primary and secondary discourse” (p.61).

Newsgivers (the media) have come to adopt the position of mediators.   This shift reflects economic pressures to make news a more “saleable commodity” in order to win more readers and advertising  possibilities. The author identifies three roles of media: 1) animator – the person who is actually making the marks on paper; 2) the author – the one who puts the words together and3) the principal – the one whose position is represented by the words. Newsgivers are animators, sometimes authors and even principals, when in reality they are not. Access to the media is most open to socially dominant sectors and it can be regarded as transmitting the voices of social power-holders. This doesn’t mean that they are always transmitting a conscious distortion or manipulation of the information; rather they can be regarded as built into common-sense professional practices. In this way, media legitimize and reproduce existing asymmetrical power relationships by assimilating the voices of the powerful to voices of “common sense”.

  • “Tendency 2: focus upon representation of the ideational meaning of the words used” (p.61).

News tends to be seen as very much a conceptual and ideational business (statements, claims, beliefs and positions) rather than feeling, circumstances, social and interpersonal relationships. The focus is on ‘what’ and the ‘how’ is left outside. This assumption is that words themselves are ideationally transparent and the myth is that the media are a ‘mirror’ to reality. It supposes that reality is transparent and can be ‘read’ without mediation or interpretation. News media can be seen as an ideological process of considerable social importance.


3. – Language and ideology

In this article, the author explores the theoretical question of what sort of relationships are between language and ideology. Ideologies reside in texts but it is not possible ‘read off’ ideologies from texts because meanings are produced through interpretations of texts and texts are open to diverse interpretations.

Language is imbricated in social relations. Language is a material form of ideology, and language is invested by ideology. Discourses have three interrelated dimensions: social practice, discoursal practice and text. Ideology enters in the ideological elements of producing and interpreting a text and in the ways in which these elements are articulated together and orders of discourse rearticulated  in discoursal events. Ideology is reflected on the ‘content’ but also on the ‘form’. Formal features of texts at various levels may be ideologically invested.

Hegemony, a concept that originates from Lenin but further elaborated by Gramsci, is “leadership as well as domination across the economic, political, cultural and ideological domains of a society” (p.76). Hegemonic ideologies become naturalised, or automatized in common sense. People are faced with ‘ideological dilemmas’, which they attempt to resolve or contain through discoursal forms of struggle. Hegemonic struggle can be conceptualized and analyzed in terms od the view of discourse even though hegemony is a process at the societal level, whereas most discourse has a more local character.

An apparent democratization of discourse involves the reduction of power asymmetry between people of unequal institutional power. Discoursal democratization is linked to political democratization, and to the broad shift from coercion to consent, incorporation and pluralism in the exercise of power. But it can be seen in pessimistic terms as illusions of democracy. For instance, counselling, that has its origins in therapy, is now a very spread technique across many institutional domains. Counselling is seen as giving space to people as individuals and look like a counter-hegemonic practice. However, it has a disciplinary nature in various institutions. Hegemonic struggle is partly through counselling and partly over counselling.

Limits of ideology. Not all discourse is irredeemably ideological. Furthermore, CDA can systematize awareness, critique ideology and arise possibilities of empowerment and change.

Fairclough was later not happy with the view of ideology in this paper but underlined that the features worth noting were “the idea that discourse may be ideologically creative and productive, the concept of ideological complex, the question of whether discursive practices may be reinvested ideologically, and the broad sweep of features of texts that are seen as potentially ideological” (p.26)


Section B: Discourse and sociocultural change


4.- Discourse, change and hegemony


This article links the ‘macro’ domain of state, government and policy with the ‘micro’ domain of discursive practice, by way of the concept of ‘technologization of discourse’.

Fairclough regards technologization of discourse as an important resource in attempts by dominant social forces to direct and control the course of major social and cultural changes which are affecting contemporary societies. This argument is based on the theory of power of Gramsci and his concept of ‘hegemony’ and on the consideration that hegemonic struggle is embedded to a significant degree in the discursive practices of institutions and organizations.

Technologization of discourse is part of a struggle o the part of dominant social forces to modify existing institutional discursive practices, as one dimension of the engineering of social and cultural change and the restructuring of hegemonies, on the basis of strategic calculations of the wider hegemonic and ideological effects of discursive practices. Technologization of discourses is a process of intervention with the objective of constructing a new hegemony to shape a new synthesis between discourse practice sociocultural practice and texts. For example, ‘social skills training’ is a well-established application of social psychological research and technology of government.

Technologization constitutes a powerful impetus towards standardization and normalization of discourse practices, across as well as within institutions. However the engineering of social identity may have pathological consequences as it may lead to a crisis of sincerity and a crisis of credibility and a general cynicism. The gap between practices of accommodation and compromise and the impetus within technologization of discourse towards more standardized and context-free discourse practice generate strategies of resistance.

Technologization of discourse involves the combination of 1) research into the discursive practices of social institutions and organizations, 2) redesign of those practices in accordance with particular strategies and objectives, usually those of bureaucrats or managers, and 3) training of institutional personnel in these redesigned practices.


5. – What might we mean by “enterprise discourse”?


This paper is an analysis of ‘enterprise discourse’ in the political speeches of a minister in Thatcher’s government, and in a brochure produced by his ministry. The article highlights the diffuse nature in changes in discursive practices. A change appears explicitly in the political speeches as shifting in the meanings of the word ‘enterprise’. The three meanings of the word ‘enterprise’ are: 1) engagement in arduous undertakings, 2) disposition of readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty or risk, and 3) ‘private business’ as a collective noun. Fairclough hierarchically orders in salience the different meanings of the word ‘enterprise’ and explains how a sociocultural change may be discoursally realized through a restructuring of such hierarchical relations, by means of a manipulation of context and cotext.

The author also identifies levels of explicitness of enterprise discourse. A most explicit level, where enterprise discourse are overt discourse topics; a second level, the discoursal level, where enterprise discourse is still overtly present in describable features of texts and a third level, a subdiscoursal level, where enterprise discourse is an implicit interpretative resource.

Enterprise discourse is not a well-defined closed entity, but rather a set of tendencies and cannot be located in any text. The focus needs to be rather on processes across time and social space of text production and the wider strategies of texts readers.


6.- Critical discourse analysis and the marketization of public discourse: the universities


In this paper, Fairclough analyzes of discourse samples which illustrates the marketization of higher education in Britain. As examples, he uses extracts from advertisements for academic posts, materials of a conference, a CV, and undergraduate prospectuses. The focus is on shifts in the identities of groups within higher education, especially academics, and upon authority relations between groups, for example, between institutional managements and academic staff or students.

Fairclough identifies three sets of interconnected developments in contemporary discursive practices, characteristics of the language and discourse in late capitalist society:

1.- Contemporary society is ‘post-traditional’: This means that traditions have to be justified against alternative possibilities rather than being taken for granted; that relationships in public based automatically upon authority are in decline, as are personal relationships based upon rights and duties. People’s self-identity, rather than to be a feature of roles, is reflexively built up through a process of negotiation. This negotiation requires highly developed dialogical capacities. The ‘informalization’ (or ‘conversationalization’) of public discourse can be seen as a colonization of the public domain by the practices of the private domain. On the other hand, it can be seen as an ‘appropriation’ of private domain practices by the public domain.

2.- “Reflexivity, in the sense of the systematic use of knowledge about social life for organizing and transforming it, is a fundamental feature if contemporary society” (Giddens, p138). Technologization of discourse can be understood as the constitution of expert systems (as developed by Giddens) whose domain is the discursive practices of public institutions.

3.- Contemporary culture as ‘promotional’, ‘consumer’ culture point to the marketization and commoditization and about seeing the discourse as a vehicle for ‘selling’ goods. The genre of consumer advertising has been colonizing professional and public service orders of discourse, generating many new hybrid partly promotional genres (such as the genre of contemporary university prospectuses).

The colonization of discourse has pathological and ethical effects. There is a serious problem of trust on the discourses but there is a deeper consequence: it is increasingly difficult not to be involved oneself in promoting, because self-promotion is becoming part-and-parcel of self-identity. This calls the ethics of language and discourse. A critical awareness of language and discourse would then be a urgent prerequisite for democratic citizenship and a urgent priority for language education.

Fairclough concludes that CDA is a resource for people who are trying to cope with the alienating and disabling effects of changes imposed upon them.


7.- Ideology and identity change in political television


Like in the previous article, CDA is applied to discourses. Instead of analysing written documents, in this article analyses media discourse – specifically, one section of  the late-night political discussion and analysis programme which was broadcast during the 1992 general election in Britain. Fairclough argues that the discourse practice of the programme effects a restructuring between the orders of discourse of politics, private life, and entertainment, through a mixing of some of their constituent genres and discourses. ‘Chat’ is an emergent television genre that is an institutionalized simulation of ordinary conversation as a form of entertainment and humour. Humour takes an important role as it is taken as a ground-rule that requires any serious political talk to be lightened by humour.. The domain of politics is then restructured through redrawing of its boundaries with leisure and the media and the everyday life. The complex discourse practice is realized in heterogeneities of meaning and form in the text. The complexity of the discourse practice gives rise to a high level of ambivalence du to the mix of genres. The complexity appears also to place heavy demands upon participants and cause difficulties for them which are manifest in disfluencies and in failures to observe the humoristic rule, which are treated as sanctionable behaviour by other participants. The paper concludes with a discussion of the ideological effects of these changes in political discourse.


Section C: Textual analysis in social research


8.- Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis


CDA claims that close analysis of texts should be a significant part of social scientific analysis of a whole range of social and cultural practices and processes. Some discourse analysts try to reduce all of social life to discourse, and all of social science to discourse analysis. This is not the right approach. Discourse analysis has to take into consideration the social and the cultural aspects and also the linguistic-discursive forms of domination and exploitation. Critical awareness as a factor of domination should be developed and spread.

CDA has to establish itself as a method in social scientific research and must move beyond a situation of multidisciplinarity and pluralism towards interdisciplinarity, which implies a higher level of debate from different approaches, methods and theories. Furthermore, Fairclough claims that CDA papers should reproduce and analyse textual samples in the original samples in the original language, despite the added difficulty for readers.

Even though the author observes a ‘linguistic turn’ in social science, he exposes the four reasons why textual analysis ought to have a more widely recognition as part of the methodologies of social science:

The theoretical reason is that texts constitute one important form of social action (linking the ‘macro’ level with the ‘micro’ level). An important point is also that language is widely misperceived as transparent, so that the ideological effects of language are overlooked.

The methodological reason is that texts constitute a major evidence for grounding claims about social structures

The historical reason is that texts are sensitive barometers of social processes, movement and diversity, and texts can provide a good indicator of social change.

The political reason is that through texts the social control and the social domination is exercised (and indeed negociated and resisted).

CDA see texts as a powerful basis for analysis but what is also important for the analysis is what is absent or omitted from texts. “Choice entails exclusion as well as inclusion” argues Fairclough (p.210).

Structures and relations have become more unstable, and practices more diverse and open to negotiation, such that there are many hybridizations of traditional medical, counselling, conversational, managerial and marketing genres and discourses.

CDA needs a developed sense of and systematic approach to both context and text. The signifier (form) and signified (content) constitute a dialectical and hence inseparable unity of the sign, so that one-sided attention to the signified is blind to the essential material side and vice versa.


Section D: Critical language awareness


9. – Critical language awareness and self-identity in education


Power is predominantly exercised through the generation of consent rather than through coercion, through ideology rather than through physical force. Change and instability make that forms of power and domination are being radically reshaped, i.e. general processes of institutional marketization and discursive facets of sociocultural processes of detraditionalization and informalization and the technologization of discourse as a peculiarly contemporary form of intervention in discursive practices to the sociocultural change.

Educational institutions are heavily involved in these general developments affecting language. First, educational practices themselves constitute a core domain of linguistic and discursive power. Second, many domains are mediated and transmitted by educational institutions. Third, educational institutions are involved in educating people about sociolinguistics order.

The author claims that CDA has an important role in the ‘critical language awareness’ – programmes to develop the capacities of people for language critique, including their capacities for reflexive analysis of the educational process itself. There are several reasons for the implementation of these programmes. The poor record of British schools in foreign language learning is part of the rationale; there is an emphasis upon developing ‘insight into pattern’ and ‘learning to listen’ as conditions for success in foreign language learning.

Some official educational reports claim that is vital for schools to teach pupils standard English. There is an assumption that schools can help iron out the effects of social class and equalize the ‘cultural capital’ of access to prestigious varieties of English but standard English is promoted without developing a critical awareness of it. It also creates a socially legitimized stigmatization of English varieties.

The author concludes that the founding motivation for CDA is the emancipation and the building of emancipated forms of social life.


10. – The appropriacy of “appropriateness”


This article deals with the concept of ‘appropriateness’ in language, and the commonplace view that varieties of a language differ in being appropriate for different purposes and different situations. Fairclough argues that appropriateness provides an apparent resolution of the paradox that se of standard English is to be taught, while use of other varieties is to be respected; that an appropriateness model of variation is the acceptable face of prescriptivism; and that giving an appropriateness view of language variation the status of knowledge inn language awareness teaching serves an ideological role. He also suggests that the attempt to contain ethnicity- and gender-related variation within the appropriacy model shows the need to go beyond it.

Language standardization is a matter of hegemony – the hegemony of a particular class extended to the linguistic sector of the cultural domain, manifested as the hegemony of a dialect.

According to Fairclough, learners should be encouraged to develop the ability to use standard English in conventional ways when they judge it to be necessary to do so, because they will be disadvantaged if they do not develop that ability. At the same time, they should be encouraged to see their own relationships and struggles as members of various communities and to contribute to the shaping and reshaping of the sociolinguistic order. CDA should not push learners to disadvantage and marginalization but it should equip them with the capacities of critical, creative and emancipatory practice.