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This article briefly reviews the rise of Critical Discourse Analysis and teases out a detailed analysis of the various critiques that have been levelled at CDA and its practitioners over the last twenty years, both by scholars working within the "critical" paradigm and by other critics. A range of criticisms are discussed which target the underlying premises, the analytical methodology and the disputed areas of reader response and the integration of contextual factors. Controversial issues such as the predominantly negative focus of much CDA scholarship, and the status of CDA as an emergent "intellectual orthodoxy", are also reviewed. The conclusions offer a summary of the principal criticisms that emerge from this overview, and suggest some ways in which these problems could be attenuated.
Pragmatics 21:4.493-525 (2011)
International Pragmatics Association
Ruth Breeze
This article briefly reviews the rise of Critical Discourse Analysis and teases out a detailed analysis of the
various critiques that have been levelled at CDA and its practitioners over the last twenty years, both by
scholars working within the “critical” paradigm and by other critics. A range of criticisms are discussed
which target the underlying premises, the analytical methodology and the disputed areas of reader
response and the integration of contextual factors. Controversial issues such as the predominantly
negative focus of much CDA scholarship, and the status of CDA as an emergent “intellectual orthodoxy”,
are also reviewed. The conclusions offer a summary of the principal criticisms that emerge from this
overview, and suggest some ways in which these problems could be attenuated.
Keywords: Critical Discourse Analysis; Analytical methodology; Corpus linguistics; Reader response
theory; Critical paradigm; Contextualisation.
1. Introduction
Critical Discourse Analysis has now firmly established itself as a field within the
humanities and social sciences, to the extent that the abbreviation “CDA” is widely used
to denote a recognisable approach to language study manifested across a range of
different groups. Indeed, some scholars have even suggested that critical discourse
analysis is close to becoming “an intellectual orthodoxy” (Billig 2002: 44), an
institutionalised discipline with its own paradigm, its own canon and conventionalised
assumptions, and even its own power structures. Since CDA is now part of the
intellectual landscape, there is a certain tendency for it to be taken for granted, simply
accepted as a valid way of thinking and researching, alongside the other paradigms that
have attained intellectual respectability.
It is therefore interesting to note that even scholars who would define themselves
as critical discourse analysts feel some degree of discomfort at the status accorded to
CDA as a critical paradigm. Some feel that the respectability of CDA entails a
contradiction of the critical enterprise itself, or that its new-found status alongside other
conventional disciplines is likely to close the door on the reflexivity that is an integral
part of its critical agenda (Billig 2002: 36). Others emphasise the internal
inconsistencies among researchers who are associated with CDA, either stressing the
need for further debate and discussion before CDA can be defined as a school or
rejecting the desire for consensus as illusory (Fairclough and Wodak 1997: 271;
Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999; van Dijk 2003: 352). Still others are disappointed by
the largely negative nature of the body of work produced within the field of CDA, and
494 Ruth Breeze
call for critical scholars to pay more attention to positive or potentially transformative
uses of discourse (Martin 2004: 183-4; Luke 2002: 106-7).
At the same time, linguists and others who position themselves outside the
borders of CDA have kept up a barrage of informed criticism which has pointed to
many of the inconsistencies within the field of CDA. These critics have brought to light
problems with the epistemology and theoretical framework, most particularly the
instrumentalisation of theory and the failure to establish an objective standpoint for
research. But they have also criticised the type of linguistic methodology that is often
applied, as well as the underlying theories of language and communication, and they
have shown how CDA researchers may fail to integrate context and audience
satisfactorily into their analytical framework, leading to naively deterministic
assumptions about the workings of discourse and social reproduction.
For these reasons, it is useful to review briefly the rise of Critical Discourse
Analysis, particularly with a view to identifying its key tenets and teasing out its
heterogenous intellectual antecedents, before carrying out a more detailed analysis of
the various critiques that have been levelled at CDA and its practitioners, from both
within and outside its disciplinary boundaries.
2. A brief overview of critical discourse analysis
2.1. Defining critical discourse analysis
In common with much of the bibliography on this subject, the introduction to this paper
refers to Critical Discourse Analysis as an entity, a recognisable approach to language
study or “program” (Wodak 2011: 50). It should be stated at the outset, however, that
although such an approach undoubtedly exists and occupies a more or less defined area
of the intellectual landscape, many scholars, particularly those working within this
paradigm, feel that it is incorrect to refer to CDA as a unitary, homogeneous entity. It is
important to emphasise that, although for the purposes of the present study we shall
consider “critical discourse analysis” as one tendency or movement which is both
recognisable from the “outside”, as having common features, and self-aware, in the
sense that its representatives believe themselves to be working within a “critical”
paradigm as far as discourse analysis is concerned (Wodak 2011: 50), there are several
identifiable “schools” or groups within CDA, and not all the points that will be made
apply equally to all the groups or individual practitioners. It is particularly important to
distinguish between the initial British approaches embodied by Fairclough (1985, 1989)
and Fowler (1991) and its later, more developed and coherent form explained in
Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999); the so-called “sociocognitive model” of critical
discourse analysis epitomised by van Dijk (1991) and his group; and the Viennese
“discourse historical school” led by Wodak (Wodak et al. 1990; Wodak 1996, 2007).
However, Wodak (2011) also distinguishes a French school of CDA that can be traced
back to Pêcheux (1982), and to the influence of Bakhtin; a Duisburg school (Jäger
1999) which centres particularly on media language viewed in a Foucaultian
perspective; and the approach advocated by Maas (1989) which scrutinises the way in
which contradictions in society are inscribed in texts, and the way that readers are led to
collude in ideological discourses. For reasons of space, it will not be possible here to
address each of these schools separately on all occasions; however, where possible,
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 495
criticisms levelled at particular groups of analysts will be outlined, and exceptions
For the purposes of the present paper, the term CDA will therefore be used in an
inclusive sense, to mean the broad body of theory and research generated by specialists
who regard themselves as critical discourse analysts in one sense or another. This
obviates the necessity to reduce the scope of reference constantly to “many critical
discourse analysts” or “most people working within the CDA paradigm”. However,
since the use of CDA as an umbrella term entails the risk of over-generalisation, an
attempt will be made to identify specific particular sub-groups or authors within the
CDA tradition when this proves necessary.
As a self-conscious movement with an explicit agenda, CDA abounds in
definitions of what it purports to be and do. These declarations range from the highly
politicised: “to explain existing conventions as the outcome of power relations and
power struggle” (Fairclough 1989: 2), to the almost anodyne “to answer questions about
the relationships between language and society” (Rogers 2005: 365), depending on the
stance of the individual researcher. However, the general consensus is that Critical
Discourse Analysis contains two essential elements: A more or less political concern
with the workings of ideology and power in society; and a specific interest in the way
language contributes to, perpetuates and reveals these workings. Thus the more explicit
definitions all emphasise the relationship between language (text, discourse) and power
(political struggle, inequality, dominance).
“CDA takes a particular interest in the relationship between language and power (...). This
research specifically considers more or less overt relations of struggle and conflict”
(Weiss and Wodak 2002: 12).
“CDA involves a principled and transparent shunting backwards and forth between the
microanalysis of texts using varied tools of linguistic, semiotic and literary analysis, and
the macroanalysis of social formations, institutions and power relations that these texts
index and construct” (Luke 2002: 100).
These initial definitions raise a large number of questions regarding what is meant by
key terms such as “politics”, “power” and “ideology”, not to mention “critical”,
“discourse” and “analysis”, which will be explored in the next section, in which the
intellectual history of CDA will be briefly reviewed.
2.2. Intellectual antecedents
It is uncontroversial to state that the movement which is now recognisable as Critical
Discourse Analysis began to gain momentum in the late 1970s, in a series of
publications which initially set out to bring Halliday’s Systemic Functional Linguistics
into a more broadly social perspective capable of taking in political issues of power and
control. “Language and Control”, by Fowler, Hodge, Kress and Trew (1979) and
“Language as Ideology”, by Hodge and Kress (1993), were seminal works which laid
many of the foundations for CDA without using the term itsef. The term Critical
Discourse Analysis itself appears to have first been used by Fairclough in an article
published in 1985 (Fairclough 1985: 739), but was popularised by the highly influential
book ‘Language and Power’ (Fairclough 1989). The term was consolidated by the
496 Ruth Breeze
publication of ‘Critical Discourse Analysis’ (Fairclough 1995), which was subtitled
‘The critical study of language’. As one critic has pointed out, the use of the definite
article in the subtitle seems to imply that the multiplicity of critical approaches outlined
in previous works by the same author had “coalesced into a uniformity which could be
identified as the critical study” (Billig 2002: 35). Although this is arguably an
exaggeration, it is none the less true that Fairclough’s term took root. Moreover, despite
the proliferation of publications in this area, Fairclough’s two books mentioned above
are perhaps still the best known source books for CDA, and are frequently cited across a
range of disciplines (Rogers et al. 2005: 365, 371).
From the point of view of linguistics, CDA bears traces of the reaction against
structural linguistics that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Systemic Functional
Linguistics, pragmatics, conversation analysis and ethnography, CDA offered a theory
of language that took the social functions of language seriously. However, unlike SFL,
CDA rejected descriptive linguistics and the structuralist thinking which underpins
much SFL research. Importantly, CDA differed from the other approaches in its
particular interest in power, and its underlying assumption that the social relations
reflected in language phenomena were part of a larger pattern characterised by unequal
power relations. It thus began life looking out to social and political theory, seeing
language not in itself, but as evidence for what is happening across a much wider
Most histories of CDA trace the origins of this politicised concern with society
to authors working within a Marxist or neo-Marxist tradition, and most specifically to
the the Frankfurt school, particularly Adorno, Marcuse and Horkheimer. The Frankfurt
school consisted of a group of thinkers who were interested in the way Marxist theory
could shed light on twentieth-century developments in capitalism. They perceived that
the economic determinism proposed by Marx was no longer relevant to current
circumstances, and so they focused their attention on changes in capitalism which, they
felt, led to the perpetuation of oppressive structures by ideological means. To
understand the relevance of this background, it is important to emphasise that Marxist
theorists differed from other sociologists of the day in their normative tendency:
Whereas most social scientists believed that their role was to observe and interpret,
rather as natural scientists might observe and interpret the natural world, Marxist social
sciences believed that their task was to judge and to prescribe. Thus their stance was
“critical” because they felt that they were authorised to evaluate what was happening in
society, and because they felt that they had appropriate standards by which they could
perform such evaluations. In short, theorists of this school believed that they had access
to knowledge not only of how society is, but also of how it could and should be.
Although there are no particularly direct links between the Frankfurt school and
most critical discourse analysts, with the evident exception of the discourse-historical
school (see below), the common terminology and the shared background in Marxist
approaches to late capitalism have led many CDA practitioners to claim a strong
intellectual affinity with this group (Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999). However, the
trends originating with the Frankfurt school are far from being the only streams of
thought that have influenced CDA. The general “critical” turn of many of the social
sciences in the 1960s and 1970s was doubtless an important factor. Moreover, it
obviously owes a particular debt to specific authors, such as Gramsci, to whom it owes
the insight that oppression in society is often realised through internalised hegemony,
involving aspects of coercion and consent (and by implication, using language);
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 497
Bourdieu (1984a), from whom it took the notions of habitus, symbolic capital and
systems of meaning; and Habermas, who stressed the crucial role of communication in
modern social systems. However, since these theorists, though concerned with
language, were not linguists, their influence on CDA is mainly confined to the
interpretations they offer of society, and to their insights into the workings of ideology
in creating and maintaining social systems. It has been left to critical linguists to
identify and explore the actual linguistic manifestations of these phenomena.
On occasions, attempts have also been made to situate CDA in a longer
linguistic tradition. Luke (2002: 97) goes one stage further in his outline of CDA’s
intellectual antecedents, situating CDA in what he terms “a distinguished if incomplete
history of attempts at a normative political linguistics”, which he traces in a direct line
from Voloshinov and Bakhtin. Luke claims that these tendencies, taken together with
CDA, constitute a “sustainable counter-tradition in linguistics” (Luke 2002: 97) which
rejects approaches in the social sciences in general, and linguistics in particular, that are
based on liberal or neo-liberal theories of the individual and society. In his view, CDA
is not a formal school of thought, but rather a range of stances which can roughly be
grouped together as advocating analysis of the role of language in society within an
explicitly political perspective, concentrating particularly on the way the interests of
dominant groups are furthered through discourse. Within this “critical” or “non-liberal”
perspective, it is particularly important for many CDA specialists to distinguish their
own activities from those of “non-critical” linguists or discourse analysts by insisting
that their analyses move beyond the mere description and interpretation of the role of
language in society, to an explanation of how and why language does what it does, and
what is behind this (Fairclough 1989). In Fairclough’s words, “critical implies showing
connections and causes that are hidden” (1992: 9), which means decoding the
operations of ideology, for the discursive patterns of ideology conceal the power
struggles that are taking place in the social world.
One final important influence on CDA, though one which is not entirely
compatible with those mentioned above, is the post-structuralism of Foucault. Foucault
reacted against structuralist theories of society such as Marxism, which assumed that
regular, observable relationships existed between structures within systems, and that
human beings could gain knowledge of these. Foucault’s critique of structuralism
emphasised the slippery nature of social constructs, the shifting nature of power
relations, and the central role of discourse in configuring social relations (Foucault
1969: 25-28). In Foucault’s view, discourse moves back and forth, both reflecting and
constructing the social world of the different agents who use it, or are situated by it.
Orders of discourse are the discursive practices of a society or an institution, which are
interrelated and interwoven. However, in Foucault’s view, it is not possible to access
meaning (Foucault 1981: 54). Instead, he concentrates on analysing the conditions of
existence for meaning and the principles of producing meaning. He strives to avoid
interpretation, and rejects the aims of hermeneutics, centring on discursive practices in a
world in which all discourses are relative and constantly changing. The centrality
accorded to language by Foucault has been taken up in a fundamental sense by the
proponents of CDA, who base most of their research on discourse phenomena. In the
definition offered by Fairclough and Wodak (1997: 258), discourse is important because
it works ideologically, configuring and conditioning society and culture, creating and
perpetuating power relations, while remaining curiously transparent or invisible even to
the people who use it. However, the inherently destabilising relativist message of
498 Ruth Breeze
Foucault’s theory is generally disregarded by CDA practitioners in favour of a more
stable or normative approach to the interpretation of social phenomena.
3. Criticism of Critical Discourse Analysis
3.1. Criticism of the underlying premises
As we have seen, those working within the field of CDA have rarely been slow to
defend their own political standpoint, their own belief that research must be “critical” in
all the senses outlined above. It is also evident that the heterogeneous nature of CDA’s
intellectual inheritance sets a complex task for the researcher trying to trace exactly
what the justification for a particular stance or interpretation might be. This has led
some critics to accuse CDA of operating somewhat randomly, moved by personal whim
rather than well-grounded scholarly principle, while others have made attempts to
uncover and explicate the precise philosophical and sociological basis, concluding that
its foundations are by no means as sound as its practitioners appear to believe.
Hammersley (1997: 237-248) attacks the founding assumptions of CDA,
accusing Fairclough and others of asserting the need for a critical approach as though
this were quite obvious and unproblematic. First of all, Hammersley argues, orthodox
Marxist theory is now discredited: It has been discarded by philosophers, historians and
economists, who have rejected most of Marx’s ideas as mechanistic, unfounded and
irrelevant to an understanding of society today. He then takes the arguments back to an
analysis of the Frankfurt school, which, as we have seen, is generally claimed to provide
immediate antecedents for CDA. He insists that the Frankfurt school in no sense
constitutes a solid basis for CDA’s critical enterprise, because the changes wrought on
Marxist theory by Adorno and Hochheimer were extremely radical, reaching far beyond
economic factors to issues related to alienation, rationality and human nature. They
believed alienation to be “a product of the distortion of Western rationality, in particular
the latter's pursuit of control over nature, including human nature” (Hammersley 1997:
242), which begs a large number of unresolved questions about the essentially rational
nature of scientific enquiry. Moreover, the type of critique proposed by Adorno, for
example, would seem to undercut the ground for privileging one agent over another, and
casts doubt on the possibilities of attaining emancipation. The Frankfurt school may
have been interested in explaining social change, and may have offered a thorough
critique of orthodox Marxism, Hammersley argues, but it certainly does not provide an
effective philosophical basis for “critical” research of the type carried out by critical
discourse analysts. None the less, although Hammersley’s main contention that CDA’s
philosophical foundations are “simply taken for granted, as if they were unproblematic”
(1997: 244) is borne out in many studies associated with CDA, this does not necessarily
mean that a more throughly grounded approach can be ruled out; nor does the intrinsic
difficulty of an approach built on a critique of Western rationality mean that such
analysis is not possible. In the last analysis, perhaps Hammersley’s most telling
criticism is that levelled at the ambitious claims made by CDA practitioners to offer a
comprehensive understanding of society as a whole and how it functions, which is
“superior” to other positions precisely because it is conducted in a spirit of self-reflexive
critique (1997: 244-5). Since a large part of its claim to legitimacy rests on this
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 499
assertion, CDA specialists need to pay special attention to this aspect of the
epistemological underpinning of their work, and to its methodological implications.
At this point, it is interesting to note that the term “critical” itself has a special
role in the history of the Frankfurt school. The word itself is thought to have been
adopted when members of the Frankfurt school were exiled in the USA, where the
original descriptor “Marxist” was deemed unacceptable (Scholem 1982: 210). As we
saw above, in this first sense, “critical” means the capacity to evaluate society from a
specific standpoint, in this case, Marxism. There is actually a long history of use of the
term “critical” that extends back to Kant, who used it to signify that his analysis was
based on rational a priori principles “without the aid of experience” rather than the
uncritical dogmatism of his predecessors (Kant 1781: 3; Bilig 2002: 37). In its post-
Frankfurt after-life, the word “critical” has been adopted by a range of approaches in the
social sciences, most notably by critical psychology, which also claims intellectual
descent from the Frankfurt school (even though many of its approaches appear to have
little in common with the work of these theorists), and which also operates on the
premise that academic research should criticise the existing conditions of social life with
the aim of improving those conditions (Gergen 1994: 11-20). In the field of education,
the word “critical” is associated with Paulo Freire’s “critical pedagogy”, which again
states the aim of challenging domination and empowering the oppressed by encouraging
the development of critical consciousness. The term “critical” is thus employed across a
range of disciplines, used loosely to mean “critical of the status quo” or “critical of
liberal humanist perspectives”, usually with a view to highlighting commitment to
social change.
To complicate matters, however, there are at least another two potential
meanings of the word “critical”. On the one hand, the Frankfurt school theorists
themselves recognised that their work was “critical” in another sense, that is, it provided
a critique on what they perceived as the authoritarian positivism of orthodox Marxism
(Shaw 1985: 165). In other words, they felt that they should be critical of received
ideas, and hoped to develop new, deeper and broader understandings of developments
in capitalism that would extend far beyond straightforward Marxism. In doing this, they
should also be self-critical, and should aim to subject their own work to rigorous
intellectual standards. This aspect of the “critical” heritage from the Frankfurt school
does not figure largely in most approaches associated with CDA, which tend rather to
assume their own left-wing political standpoint uncritically. One notable exception to
this general trend is found in the discourse historical approach (Wodak 2001; Reisigl
and Wodak 2001: 32-35, 2009: 86-89), which distinguishes three dimensions of
critique, namely textual, socio-diagnostic, and prospective/retrospective, and advocates
critical self-reflection at multiple stages along the analytical route. Another is that
advocated by Gloy (1998) and the so-called Oldenburg school (Bredehöft 1994: 4;
Bluhme 2000: 10-13), who acknowledge that analysts participate in the discourses
which form their object of study, and insist that scholars must therefore always reveal
their own perspectives and show how they are grounded, in order to give their views
validity on an intersubjective level.
On the other hand, to the multiple connotations of the term “critical” in this
context, we also have to add a further sense: In the classic liberal education in most
English-speaking countries, students are encouraged to “be critical”, that is, to think for
themselves rather than to take what they read at face value – an intellectual skill that
does not presuppose any particular ideological affiliation. One senses intuitively that the
500 Ruth Breeze
polysemy of the term “critical” may have led to certain confusions regarding what the
role of the discourse analyst is, and what if any political stance she ought to take. Many
scholars feel that they are generally “critical” because that is what their education has
encouraged them to be; others define “critical” as meaning critical of society from a
neo-Marxist standpoint; while still others see themselves as “critical” because they
adopt a critical stance to some neo-Marxist positions. The outcome is a merging of
meanings, with the consequent loss of clarity and intellectual precision. It is scarcely
surprising, given the problems of definition that lie at the very basis of CDA, that the
enterprise may sometimes seem to lack coherence.
At the same time, there is a major contradiction, alluded to above, between the
Marxist and post-structuralist strands in CDA’s intellectual antecedents. While Marxists
rely on a normative theory of history and society, authors within the post-structuralist or
post-modern movement see all such totalising meta-narratives as invalid and potentially
manipulative. Moreover, on the level of individual political decisions, in the post-
modern philosophical landscape it is hard to justify adopting a particular meta-narrative
to interpret the phenomena one has observed. Foucault, for example, at one time
notoriously refused to commit himself to value judgements about the discourses that he
studied (Foucault 1969). Instead, in a post-modern framework, it has been suggested
that one simply “chooses” particular values or stances, in a process of existential self-
definition which is sometimes referred to as decisionism (Habermas 1976; Macintyre
1981). In this perspective, although we may try to form our commitments by following
“rational” procedures, the fragmentation of the moral and intellectual order is such that
it is hard to find consistent grounds for a rational politics, or for reasoned political
discourse, and there is little real hope of furthering human emancipation.
Faced with these seemingly contradictory scenarios, Hammersley asks whether
it would perhaps be more appropriate to situate CDA researchers on the post-
structuralist side of the fence, as people who have chosen a particular standpoint by an
act of will, rather than as a result of extended deliberation based on examination of the
facts and issues. If this is the case, he argues (1997: 242-245), then there is no particular
reason why readers should accept CDA’s political stance rather than any other, and
CDA’s claim to “interpretive power” and “emancipatory force” can be regarded as mere
assertions that one can accept if one chooses to share their point of view, or not, as the
case may be.
The consequences that this would have for CDA’s status as an approach are far-
reaching. As Hammersley points out, if the political stance on which CDA is founded
turns out not to be well founded, but merely a product of decisionism, this fits ill with
the strong claims made by CDA for itself and its own activities. If a central tenet of
critical research is that research should be explicitly designed to fulfil political functions
(exposure of inequality, dominance, injustice), rather than what would be the more
conventional purpose of research (to observe and interpret phenomena), then there has
to be a sound justification for this. If, in the end, the justification is only a matter of
individual choice, then there is little incentive for the reader to take this type of research
CDA researchers are usually careful to make their own political commitments
quite explicit before they embark on the interpretation and explanation of social
phenomena. Fairclough, for example, tends to stress his old-Left leanings, even though
in principle he agrees that critical research need not be left-wing, and that right-wing
forms of CDA are perfectly conceivable (Fairclough 1996: 52). Two points should be
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 501
made here. One is that, if this is so, then Fairclough’s and others’ interpretations must
be quite open to argument, because any left-wing interpretation might equally be
challenged from the right, or from any other political dimension that might exist. Thus
the whole scholarly project of CDA can be seen as heavily conditioned by political
choice, rather than scientific criteria, which might be thought to take on a secondary
role. Secondly, the fact that CDA’s adherents regularly bow in the direction of
transparency and truthfulness by stating their political affiliations does not somehow
mean that they are absolved from the need for objectivity in their research. Bourdieu has
alluded to the perfunctory nature of many declarations of this kind, and to the role that
self-definitions play in academic power struggles (1984b: 308). Indeed, in various types
of post-modern framework, it is common for writers to try to circumvent serious
epistemological difficulties by taking an explicit stance from the outset. This is
particularly common in areas such as post-modern approaches to feminism (Harding 11-
12), where the usual justification given is that a feminist perspective is needed redress
the balance in a system that has been dominated by patriarchy. However, whether or not
the epistemological problems of post-modernism are resolved by this, such gambits do
not free the author to misrepresent the data, or to interpret the data in any way he or she
chooses for some particular political purpose.
Given the striking heterogeneity of CDA’s intellectual sources, it is at least
surprising that there is little debate within CDA circles about their relevance or, indeed,
their compatibility. As Slembrouck points out (2001: 40-41), “CDA continues to be
unclear about its exact preferences for a particular social theory.” Indeed, trends over
the years seem to have broadened rather than narrowed its intellectual base. So while
Fairclough (1989) is largely informed by neo-Marxism with a Gramscian view of
hegemony, in which naturalised “common sense” is the vehicle of ideology and text is a
site of struggle, ten years later, Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999) construct a research
agenda that is engaged in ongoing dialogue between late modernity, feminism and post-
modernism. CDA is thus able to draw on a vast and somewhat contradictory panorama
of ideas about society, encompassing thinkers from Marx, through Gramsci and
Horkheimer to Giddens, and an enormous diversity of approaches to language and
communication, which take in Bakhtin, Foucault, Habermas and Halliday, seemingly
without ever perceiving the need to justify this eclecticism, or to systematise its
intellectual base, other than by linking these notions vaguely to the phenomena
associated with late modernity (consumer capitalism, marketisation, achievement and
consolidation of hegemony through ideological manipulation). Indeed, Weiss and
Wodak (2002) go one step further, to declare that the theories or constructs gleaned
from different philosophical or sociological thinkers are simply tools, just as linguistic
approaches are also seen to be instruments, to be used by the analyst as appropriate in
any given situation: “one can speak of a theoretical synthesis of conceptual tools (...).
Tools of this kind are, for example, Foucault’s discursive formations, Bourdieu’s
habitus, or register and code as defined by Halliday and Bernstein” (2002: 7). On the
strength of statements such as this, critics have noted that CDA habitually operates in
the interface between an array of ideas and the world of discourse, using the one to
explain the other, without addressing either of these on its own terms (Slembrouck
2001). In effect, this could lead to a situation in which the arguments from philosophy,
politics and sociology are not fully worked out in terms that would be satisfactory to
specialists in these disciplines, nor are the bases for language analysis firmly established
in a way that is recognised by linguists.
502 Ruth Breeze
In view of the above situation, it is necessary to return to the basic question of
whether the diverse range of theories that are drawn on by different CDA researchers is
a strength or a weakness. According to some authors, the fact that the findings of CDA
researchers can be related to a range of different philosophical and sociological concepts
means that the field has a strong base. It would be regrettable, they argue, to limit the
possibilities of CDA to a particular interpretative school, or to a specific theory of
language or society. Many discourse analysts feel that this openness is a strength rather
than a weakness (Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999; Weiss and Wodak 2002). Even in
the early days of CDA, Fairclough (1989: 10) asserted that the critical enterprise was
“not just another approach to language study (...) but (...) an alternative orientation to
language study”. CDA is a broad church, it seems, and can contain multitudes.
However, the situation has also had its critics within the fold of CDA. Fowler
commented more negatively (1996: 8-12) “it seems that anything can count as discourse
analysis (...) There is a danger of competing and uncontrolled methodologies drawn
from a scatter of different models in the social sciences.” The consequences of operating
in such an eclectic framework are obvious: Lack of coherence, indiscriminate mixing of
incompatible concepts, unsystematic application of methods, and so on. Moreover,
intellectual rigour aside, there are issues of disciplinary self-definition or self-
understanding which clearly have yet to be resolved.
3.2. Description of the text: Criticisms of method
In “Language and Power” (1989), Fairclough sets out a method for the analysis of texts
which is based on classic discourse analysis techniques, and which owes much to
Halliday and Systemic Functional Linguistics. Key figures in the genesis of CDA such
as Fowler (1996) and Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999) directly claim Halliday’s
framework as the intellectual underpinning for their analyses. The general structure used
is the familiar three-level framework: Language operates on an ideational level
(construction and representation of experience in the world), a relational level
(enactment of social relations) and a textual level (production of texts). Language
connects meanings with their spoken and written expressions. Both meanings and
expressions interface with phenomena outside language, particularly with social life, to
such an extent that “the social is built into the grammatical tissue of language”
(Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999: 140). According to these authors, by looking
carefully at specific instantiations of language – texts or interactions – researchers can
discover the social relations which they reflect, configure or reproduce, and learn about
the social context in which these relations are embedded. In their view, such analysis
must be objective and rigorous, and may apply a variety of linguistic research
techniques, ranging from qualitative methods proper to conversation analysis to
quantitative approaches found in corpus linguistics.
It would therefore seem that the linguistic framework and analytical method that
CDA researchers claim to use are uncontroversial. Yet some of the most vociferous
criticism that has been levelled at CDA has focused on precisely this area: The
framework may be sound, the method appears promising, but in practice, much CDA
research has deep methodological flaws.
The main problem here appears not to be a lack of awareness of the need for
rigour. In a review of 20 articles published in Discourse and Society, Fairclough (1992)
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 503
argues that their analyses would have been more convincing had closer attention been
paid to textual and intertextual properties. However, his review is symptomatic in that
rather than decrying this lack of rigour, he merely regrets that an opportunity to support
specific conclusions was lost, to the extent that “the entire exercise (…) looks like a
community-building effort rather than a search for enhanced understanding”
(Verschueren 2001: 67). A similar lack of scholarly rigour in applying linguistic
methodology has been detected in many publications that purport to apply critical
discourse analysis. For example, in a review of 40 articles using CDA in the field of
education published up to 2003, Rogers et al. (2005: 385) noted that one quarter of the
articles included no discussion of language theory, while the others made reference to
CDA, SFL and discourse theory, many in rather general terms, and few included
detailed discussion of the linguistic evidence. Other scholars have pointed out that
critical analysts often state that they are using methodology proper to the ethnography
of communication, but fail to present the description of situations or the ways in which
such information was obtained in a manner that would be acceptable to ethnographers
(Blommaert 2001: 14-17).
These methodological shortcomings are generally recognised as existing on the
level of how the data are actually obtained, and how they are subsequently interpreted. I
shall focus here on the way CDA researchers obtain their data. In the section which
follows this, I shall turn my attention to the issue of interpretation and the related
question of reader response.
One of the most outspoken critics of CDA in this area has been Widdowson
(1998, 2005). In a review of three representative studies published in the 1990s,
Widdowson homes in on what he feels to be the unsystematic nature of some CDA
research. He quotes Fowler (1996: 8) as stating that “critical linguists get a very high
mileage out of a small selection of linguistic concepts such as transitivity and
nominalisation”, which he interprets as meaning that “analysis is not the systematic
application of a theoretical model, but a rather less rigorous operation, in effect a kind
of ad hoc bricolage which takes from theory whatever concept comes usefully to hand”
(Widdowson 1998: 136). Widdowson goes on to cite Fowler as stating that other
analytical approaches (CA, schema theory, etc.) could equally well be put to use,
provided they were brought into the “critical” model. Any method will do, he implies,
as long as the results are the right ones.
Widdowson revisits CDA’s analyses of various key texts at length in order to
illustrate what he feels to be the lack of impartiality in the way that method is applied.
By focusing on particular lexical items, or by focusing on certain grammatical features
(passives, nominalisations), it is possible to reach certain conclusions about ideology in
the text. But, he asks, is this legitimate? Given that these features have been chosen, he
feels, more or less randomly, because the researcher feels intuitively that they will
provide results that have ideological meaning, it is possible that the rest of the text,
which may contain contradictory data, is ignored. Widdowson does not reject the
possibility that there might really be certain grammatical features (such as passives, for
example) that genuinely have a “greater ideological valency” (1998: 148). But in his
view, critical discourse analysts have so far not succeeded in proving that this is the
case, or even addressed the issue as to how this could be proven. He proposes that
corpus methodology might go some way towards resolving the problem, since its
samples are larger and its methods more systematic. The results of such studies would
be less likely to suffer from the “randomness” and openness to bias that Widdowson
504 Ruth Breeze
perceives in studies by Fowler (1996), Fairclough (1996) and van Dijk (1996). It should
be noted at this point that Widdowson himself is unable to show scientifically that such
“randomness” exists in the selection of data, which somewhat undermines his point.
However, the basic idea that discourse analysts should strive to implement objective
standards and apply thoroughly scientific methods (for example, by engaging with
larger samples of text or using corpus tools) is one which has informed much of the
more recent work by CDA scholars (see below). Widdowson’s critique is much more
pertinent when applied to the early days of CDA, and particularly to British authors
such as Fowler and Fairclough.
This problem of potential analytical bias is addressed by other authors, such as
Toolan (1997) and Stubbs (1997), who centre their arguments on the idea that CDA, at
least in its early stages, often failed to approach texts systematically. Stubbs argues for a
comparative approach based on large, representative samples. In this, he addresses the
issue of method by tackling what many discourse analysts call the level of
“description”. In Fairclough’s classic definition (1989), description means ascertaining
what experiential, relational or expressive values the words or grammatical structures in
the text have, and what textual structures or interactional conventions can be observed.
In practice, many discourse analysts choose to focus on just one of these features, or one
aspect of one of the features, such as the use of passives or nominalisation (Fowler et al.
1979; Fowler 1991; Fairclough 1992a, 1992b). In Stubbs’s view, the claims being made
by discourse analysts on the basis of such analyses are not tenable, because the method
is often simply impressionistic, or because the sample of texts is small and obtained
unsystematically. Stubbs cites a study by Fairclough (1995), who claims that public
language (academic writing, political debate) is becoming less formal. The essence of
Stubbs’s criticism is that Fairclough provides no quantitative evidence for this, and
particularly, no quantitative diachronic evidence that the degree of informality is
increasing. In fact, although Fairclough’s claims would seem plausible, the methods he
uses to obtain his evidence are not explained, and his findings are not set out in such a
way that anyone else could challenge them. In fact, when some CDA studies are
examined closely, it turns out that much of the argument hinges on just a few words
(such as the example of the word “enterprise” in Fairclough 1995). Yet, as Stubbs
reminds us, “registers are very rarely defined by individual features, but consist of
clusters of associated features which have a greater than chance tendency to co-occur”
(1997: 3).
Although it is impossible to generalise about the methods used in CDA, the main
force of Stubbs’s argument holds, because some critical analysts, particularly in the
1980s and 1990s, paid scant regard to issues of methodological consistency, and
provided little if any justification of their own methods. Although their work may
contain genuine intuitions, it lacks the kind of rigour expected in academic research.
Stubbs points out that “there is very little discussion of whether it is adequate to restrict
analysis to short fragments of data, how data should be sampled, and whether the
sample is representative” (1997: 7). What is more, there is a danger that fragments can
be presented as representative, without any explanation as to how this
representativeness has been established.
Stubbs is not intrisically hostile to CDA, but the main brunt of his argument is that
the methods used are not sound enough to justify the results that are supposedly
obtained, with the consequence that the interpretations and explanations must be
regarded as suspect. His manifesto for a methodologically-sound version of discourse
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 505
analysis is doubtless coloured by his background in corpus linguistics, but is none the
less useful:
“the text analyses must quite simply be much more detailed. Analyses must be
comparative: individual texts must be compared with each other and with data from
corpora. Analyses must not be restricted to isolated data fragments: a much wider range of
data must be sampled before generalisations are made about typical language use. And a
much wider range of linguistic features must be studied, since varieties of language use
are defined, not by individual features, but by clusters of co-occurring features: this
entails the use of quantitative and probabilistic methods of text and corpus analysis”
(Stubbs 1997: 10)
In fact, by the time that Stubbs was writing, many discourse analysts had already
become sensitive to the need for a more systematic approach applied across larger, more
representative samples of discourse (cf. Wodak et al. 1990; van Dijk 1993; Hoey 1996:
154; Wodak 1996). In fact, there has been a growing trend to draw on corpus
methodology to provide a more solid methodological framework for use in CDA
(Mautner 2001: 122; Partington 2003: 12; Partington 2006: 267; Baker et al. 2008: 277-
283). Fairclough himself, who formed the butt of much of the original criticism
regarding methods in CDA, subsequently published a study of the language of “new
Labour” based on large quantities of empirical data and incorporating the use of corpus
linguistic tools in order to obtain a more representative picture (Fairclough 2000: 17).
In fairness to Fairclough and CDA in general, it must be said that Stubbs’s
background in corpus linguistics would tend to bias him in favour of studies based on
large samples of text, particularly contrastive studies that are designed to bring out the
distinctive features of different genres or registers, using statistical methods to establish
significance. However, this is far from being the only way to study language data. It
would certainly be wrong to rule out qualitative approaches to textual analysis, since it
is clear that these offer a viable alternative to quantitative methodology, which also has
many flaws and inconsistencies. Similarly, it would be wrong to discard the findings of
CDA simply because they have not been obtained in this way. Close, qualitative
analysis of a small sample of text might be the only way of analysing certain types of
discourse, for example, the discourse of a particular politician or party.
A slightly different angle is adopted by Verschueren (2001: 60), who points to
the lack of detailed analysis of language and interaction in some CDA analysis (for
example, Verschueren provides a critique of textual analysis from Chouliaraki and
Fairclough 1999). Verschueren homes in specifically on the tendency to leave out
important aspects of the text that do not fit with the interpretive framework. A review of
various instances of this selective tendency leads Verschueren to conclude that many of
the supposed findings are “the product of conviction rather than the result of a careful
step-by-step analysis that reflexively questions its own observations and conclusions”
(2001: 65).
Verschueren accepts the validity of Fairclough’s three-stage approach to analysis
(description, interpretation and explanation, see above), but takes issue with the way in
which the analyst moves from the first level (description) to the second (interpretation,
that is, situating the text as discourse). To make this transition, Fairclough relies on
what he terms “members’ resources” (1989: 167):
At this stage of the procedure, it is only really self-consciousness that distinguishes
506 Ruth Breeze
the analyst from the participants she is analysing. The analyst is doing the same as the
participant interpreter, but unlike the participant interpreter the analyst is concerned to
explicate what she is doing.
Verschueren suggests that by introducing the notion of “members’ resources”,
Fairclough is essentially giving up on the issue of empirical evidence. The analyst’s
interpretation is only as valid as any other interpretation (that of the participants
themselves, for example, or an onlooker), since it is grounded in the same kind of
working knowledge of how language is used and what society is like. Moreover, as
Slembrouck has pointed out, members’ resources are also conceptually affected and
distorted by social power relations, and so there is no guarantee that they are free from
reproduction or ideological manipulation (2001: 39).
According to Fairclough, from the point of interpretation, the analyst can quickly
go on to the final stage of explanation. But since interpretation relies on members’
resources, then even at the level of explanation, the only difference between a
participant, say, and the analyst is that the analyst can draw on social theory to interpret
what he or she has observed. It is at this point that Verschueren believes that CDA’s
claims to interpretive insights fall down. In his words “the only real requirement for
explanation is a good social theory. Nothing is said about the empirical dimension that
is required to link data and theory” (Verschueren 2001: 69). In the view of some critics
(Slembrouck 2001), the heart of the matter is that it is not legitimate to maintain a
difference between researcher and researched solely on the grounds of access to social
theory. Verschueren provides a detailed analysis of how, in his estimation, Fairclough
(1989) fails to cope satisfactorily with the empirical dimension – that is, fails to provide
sufficiently rigorous systematic analysis of the text. The essence of his critique is that
Fairclough isolates single texts for analysis, without placing them in the kind of social
and intertextual context within which they would usually be read. For example,
Fairclough takes a linguistic feature such as nominalisation in news reports, and
interprets it as as being used to obfuscate issues of agency and avoid attribution of
responsibility. However, in the context of the particular story or situation, and the
ongoing reporting about a particular topic across many issues of the same newspaper, it
may well be very clear to readers where responsibility lies. Verschueren’s main point is
that Fairclough fails to anchor the text in a communicative situation, taking it out of
context and ignoring aspects of the text that do not conform to expectations, which leads
to distorted results.
Verschueren (2001: 60-79) also analyses a similar phenomenon that occurs
when Fairclough attempts to analyse conversational interaction. Taking the case study
by Fairclough (1992: 50-52) contrasting two doctor-patient interactions, one
“traditional” and the other “alternative”, Verschueren applies systematic techniques of
conversation analysis and pragmatic interpretation to show that Fairclough’s
conclusions are ungrounded (Verschueren 2001: 70-71). He argues that Fairclough
imposes a contrastive framework from the outset, which leads to a distortion of the data
and disregard for features that do not fit the predetermined scheme. In the methodology,
Verschueren identifies two major flaws: First, general aspects of context are simply
ignored (such as whether the patient has a specific problem or not, whether or not the
doctor and patient know each other); and second, form-function relations are treated as
stable, which is not acceptable in pragmatic terms (for example, Fairclough assumes
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 507
that the first doctor exerts control over the interaction by asking questions, but does not
address the possibility that the second doctor may be exercising control more subtly by
giving minimal responses and waiting for the patient to continue – or that the second
doctor might simply be uninterested in the patient, or wish to seem non-committal).
Verschueren argues cogently for a more systematic, objective, disciplined
approach to qualitative analysis of ideology in texts, based on a set of specific principles
concerning the nature of the samples used, the need for horizontal and vertical
exploration of the text, sensitivity to pragmatic issues in the relationship between form
and function, and concern that the meanings should emerge coherently from the data
rather than be imposed by the researcher (see Verschueren 2011). In fact, the past
history of CDA reveals that practitioners have sometimes made few concessions to
methodological exigencies, and do not always present their own research procedures
with transparency (Rogers et al. 2005). The major failing of approaches such as that
used by Fairclough (1989) is that it accords a pivotal role to the researcher and his/her
interpretive and explanatory skills, and, as Verschueren (2001: 60-77) indicates,
provides no account of exactly how or why particular aspects of the text are deemed to
have one meaning or another – the researcher’s judgement is enough, a questionable
assumption that is sometimes justified, rather weakly, by using the rather nebulous
concept of “members’ resources” (Fairclough 1989: 167; Verschueren 2001: 68). In
particular, Fairclough’s assumption (1989: 167) that “it is only really self-consciousness
that distinguished the analyst from the participants she is analysing” is singled out for
criticism, because many readings are possible, and the purpose of analysis is to provide
something more solid than a subjective impression, by applying a rigorous method that
is theoretically grounded. As Verschueren points out (2001: 68-69), the problem of
method and interpretation is a serious one which is not satisfactorily resolved in
Fairclough’s later studies. For example, Chouliaraki and Fairclough (1999: 67) state that
CDA does not “advocate a particular understanding of a text, though it may advocate a
particular explanation”. In Verschueren’s view, by saying this they shrug off any claims
that the analyst has a privileged understanding, and thereby eliminate the need for
methodological rigour at the stage of reading and “understanding” the text (Verschueren
2001: 69). Their lack of interest in the epistemological and hermeneutic dimensions of
textual analysis is matched by a corresponding over-emphasis on the theoretical
dimension of explanation. After quoting Fairclough’s distinction (1989: 167) between
the analyst as reader (with the same “member’s resources” as any other reader) and the
analyst as explainer (the analyst is superior to other readers because he/she can draw on
social theory), Verschueren concludes that:
In other words, the only real requirement for explanation is a good social theory. Nothing
is said about the empirical dimension that is required to link data and theory. The theory
being preconceived, it is not surprising, therefore, that ‘findings’ tend to be predictable
and that a gap emerges between textual analysis and conclusions – even for many of those
who, like myself, share large portions of the theory – as soon as the question of evidence
is asked. Texts are simply made into carriers, as it were, of what one already assumes to
be the case. Rather than proceeding from description via explanation to positioning, with
interpretation at the core of all stages of the investigation, positioning comes first and
interpretation is marginalized. (Verschueren 2001: 69).
This issue inevitably leads into the question of interpretation, which is again linked
intimately to the issue of reader response. For the question as to how discourse analysts
508 Ruth Breeze
can or should interpret text overlaps with the question as to how readers understand text.
Although these questions also arise when quantitative language data are being
interpreted, the problem tends to be more acute when the analysis is exclusively
qualitative. These issues will be tackled together in the next section.
3.3. The reader and the text: Reception and response
It is perhaps on the level of textual interpretation that the CDA enterprise has come in
for the greatest amount of criticism. At the most extreme end of the spectrum, critical
discourse analysts have been accused of what might be called a kind of naive linguistic
determinism. Widdowson (1998: 136) draws attention to an explanation offered by
Kress (1996: 25):
“this set of semiotic features, of representational resources, suggests and implies, and I
would wish to say, over the longer period produces a particular disposition, a particular
habitus, and in so doing, plays its part in the production of a certain kind of subjectivity”
Widdowson likens the analysts’ approach to “the interpretive ingenuity one associates
with literary criticism” (1998: 136). In his view, discourse analysts have unwittingly
fallen back into “a transmission view of meaning, whereby significance is always and
only the reflex of linguistic signification” (1998: 142).
On this basis, several critics have targeted CDA’s understanding of the
relationship between texts and readers. Some authors have identified what they call “the
familiar Whorfian notion of linguistic determinism” (Widdowson 1998: 139), not in its
original form whereby the possibilities of a particular language code determine the
habitual thought processes of the language users, but in an extended form in which
discourses similarly produce, condition and restrict the thought processes of the
recipient/user. It is uncontroversial to assume the existence of a significant relationship
between discourse and people’s view of reality. However, it is equally obvious that in a
globalised world people are exposed to many different discourses, and that they learn to
navigate them, ignoring many, accepting some, rejecting others. Despite the evident
truth of this, much CDA research proceeds on the basis that there is a simple, one-to-
one relationship between the text and its reader, or the discourse and its recipient. It
would be at once more subtle and more realistic to acknowledge from the outset that
some discourses are more powerful or influential than others, and to focus attention on
those that are particularly likely to have an impact on a large audience, or to attempt to
determine what factors make such an impact probable.
One of the major problems with this approach is the circularity of the
argumentation. It is possible to maintain that language use determines cognition, but
this claim is weakened if the only evidence we have of cognition is language use. It
would be truer to say that language both represents and influences cognitive processes,
and so we must be very careful when trying to draw conclusions about thought from
language and vice versa. In Stubbs’s view (1997), if researchers want to make claims
about what people think on the basis of what they read or hear, they really ought to
obtain non-linguistic evidence about their beliefs, or examine their behaviour. As he
says (1997: 6), “if we have no independent evidence, but infer beliefs from language
use, then the theory is circular”. Stubbs’s proposal presents many difficulties, because it
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 509
is not clear how exactly one would infer people’s thoughts and beliefs without using
language, and it is by no means straightforward to relate discourses to non-linguistic
evidence such as observable behaviour. None the less, his criticism stands, because it is
unreasonable to assume a one-way influence from discourse to thought, and
methodologically unsound to operate as though the existence of such an influence were
Taking a rather different line of attack, some CDA researchers have devoted
considerable space to discussing the means by which they think texts influence people,
in order to validate their own hermeneutic practices. Kress (1992: 91-117) develops a
theory of representation and transformation which he proposes as the means by which
discourses function to modify or change people’s views of reality. His theory is initially
based on Halliday’s notion of representation, the process by which reality is ideationally
encoded. The notion of transformation is not borrowed from Halliday, and appears to be
distantly conceptually related to the Chomskian notion of transformation. The main
point is an insistence on the way in which representations are changed, possibly as a
result of ideological manipulation.
As Widdowson points out (1998: 138), there is a certain circularity in this, too,
because representations are by definition an encoded version of reality, and so it is hard
to know exactly how we are to know which representations are purely representations,
and which are transformations. It appears that this is a theory of language change, or
discourse change, but it is not entirely clear how it is possible to ascertain what has
changed from what. There is a curious parallel here with the problem of classifying
poetic language as a deviation (“Abweichung”) from normal language, discussed by
Coseriu (1980: 51). Deviation is a relational concept, one must deviate from something,
but who is to say what is deviating from what? Moreover, it may be possible to
“deviate” in a wealth of different ways. Similarly, the concept of transformation is set
up as a dichotomy, but there is no real way of knowing which side is which or whether,
indeed, there is a dichotomy at all, or a range of different possibilities. In a further
explanation of transformation offered in Hodge and Kress (1993), the authors propose
that some types of grammatical construction are neutral or “non-transformed”, and that
these, though representational, lack any particular representational significance – they
are innocent reflections of reality. Others, however, are transformed, and transformed
sentences “always involve suppression and/or distortion” (Hodge and Kress 1993: 35).
In practice, especially in much research carried out in the 1990s, transformation appears
to be involved when grammatically “less simple” structures, such as the passive, are
used to convey information. However, the question as to whether use of the passive is
always ideological, or indeed, whether the passive is actually “less simple” than the
equivalent active form, is not fully addressed by these researchers.
Widdowson takes issue with Kress’s notion of transformation in various ways.
First, he reminds us that in a Chomskian model, all strings of words are transformed and
potentially transformable, so there are no neutral, innocent, non-transformed sentences.
This model offers no method for telling transformed and non-transformed sentences
apart. Secondly, Widdowson relates Kress’s notion that transformed sentences are more
complex to the derivational theory of complexity, a theory prominent in the 1960s,
based on the idea that structural complexity was mirrored by psychological complexity
and the consequent difficulty in processing. Thus passive sentences, it was proposed,
required more effort to process, because a passive sentence is intrinsically more
complex than an active sentence. This theory, again, presupposes that some structures
510 Ruth Breeze
are actually more complex than others, and that this has a knock-on effect on the
reader/receptor. However, this assumption goes against the evidence that is available
from the area of language processing. When experiments were actually carried out to
determine the processing speed or ease of different linguistic structures, it proved
impossible for the subjects to separate their understanding of the language itself from
contextual factors. For example, Olson and Filby (1972) compared comprehension time
in processing active and passive propositions, and found that when events or questions
were coded in terms of the actor, active statements were more swiftly processed,
whereas when they were coded in terms of the receiver of the action, passives were
processed more quickly. In their view, “the comprehension of a passive sentence does
not necessarily involve the recovery of the base structure equivalent of the passive to the
active sentence, or the base S-V-O structure usually assumed to underlie (…) sentence
meaning” (1972: 379). In other experiments (Wales and Grieve 1969: 327-332),
subjects found it surprisingly easy to understand complex structures within a particular
context, in other words, they tended to come up with pragmatic interpretations, rather
than engage in linguistic analysis.
In more recent CDA publications, the notion of transformation is less prominent.
None the less, the underlying concept is often used (Schroder 2002; Kuo and Nakamura
2005; Stenvall 2007; and see also Billig (2008: 35-46) for a detailed discussion of
possible ways in which passives and nominalisation have been thought to be
“mystificatory”) so that passives are often suspect of depriving certain groups of
agency, or of concealing agency, for example, without full discussion as to the
pragmatic functions of the passive in language in general, or the impact, or lack of it, on
the reader. Finally, as Widdowson (pp. 138-141) astutely points out, the whole notion of
representation versus transformation, innocent language versus ideologised
manipulation, appears to contradict another of the tenets of CDA, which is that all
language is ideological, and nothing can be neutral. This further undermines the
dichotomy between representation and transformation, and leaves little firm ground for
the analyst to stand on.
How, then, can the analyst interpret texts, and how can the analyst establish what
effect the text has on the reader? Critical discourse analysts are not unaware of the
problems that arise here, and are quick to assert that ideological meanings cannot be
read off from textual features, and that textual analysis should be combined with
analysis of production and consumption practices (Fairclough 1995). Yet they provide
little evidence of such practices, and tend to fall back on a transmission model of
hermeneutics whereby linguistic forms “convey” or “construct” meaning, which is
presumably imbibed by the reader in undiluted form.
This model itself contains an underlying contradiction, because even CDA
specialists admit that the ideological meanings are often opaque and have to be prised
out with difficulty by the discourse analyst, and yet they appear to be communicated
with ease to the reader and be capable of subtly exerting an ideological influence on him
or her. Thus meaning is contained in text in a deeply embedded form, subtly imbricated
in the syntactic structures and lexical choices, but that same meaning, opaque to the
analyst, is conveyed to readers, exerting an ideological influence on them. Moreover,
the problem of understanding reader response is further compounded by issues of access
to context, discussed elsewhere in this paper, because poor consideration of context
tends to render opaque the way that the actual participants in any situation understand
and interpret it themselves. Thus if, as we have seen, the researcher privileges his own
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 511
position because his/her “members’ resources” include access to social theory, then he
or she “runs the risk of losing sight of whatever spontaneously productive
‘hermeneutics’ there already are in the lifeworlds” (Slembrouck 2001: 42), that is, what
the participants actually think is happening.
The issue of reader response, analytical stance and hermeneutic possibilities has
been addressed in considerable length in literary studies. When critics such as
Widdowson accuse CDA of subordinating analysis to interpretation, of finding in the
text what they set out to find (Widdowson 1998: 149), they frequently refer back to
literary criticism for a parallel problem: CDA is “a kind of political poetics, and over
and over again the same issues arise about the textual warrant for interpretation”. It is
therefore useful to make a brief examination of the way this issue has been tackled in
literary studies, in order to draw fruitful comparisons with CDA.
Both Stubbs and Widdowson recognise that the problem of hermeneutics in
CDA somehow mirrors the problem of literary criticism and reader response that was
the object of heated debate in the 1960s and 1970s. However, their claim that the
problem is similar enough to be solved in the same way is open to criticism. To
summarise briefly, the arguments in the field of literature about reader response arose in
implicit contradiction to previous theories of literature that had foregrounded the writer
or the content and form of the literary work, and in explicit opposition to the New
Criticism and to formalist theories, which consigned the reader to oblivion. The
proponents of reader-response approaches centred on the idea of the reader as an active
agent who completes the meaning of a literary work through interpretation – a notion
which some detractors felt would lead to relativism or even chaos. Stubbs cites Fish
(1980: 341, 347) who endeavours to solve the problem of the heterogenous nature of
readers’ responses by taking the line that a text does not have meaning outside a set of
cultural assumptions about what it means and how it should be interpreted. These
assumptions are embodied in the “interpretive community”, which establishes the
criteria for reading a particular text in a particular way, and sets norms as to what is
possible and what is not.
Although the main question addressed by reader response theory is similar to the
issue of interpretation in CDA, it is important to highlight some major differences. First,
the responses to a literary work are essentially different, more complex or more multi-
layered than responses to everyday texts of an informative or instrumental nature.
Rather than reader response theory, which is more usually applied to works of art, the
approaches to audience reception that form the staple of media studies would provide a
useful tool for gauging what people understand from a particular text, or detecting the
deviant readings that are generated within particular social settings. Second, if we are to
accept CDA’s claims that obscure patterns and hidden meanings in discourse ultimately
exert an ideological influence, then the notion that an “interpretive community” would
provide useful in determining the meaning of discourse is obviously suspect: the
community itself might be positioned in support of the hegemony, or various different
interpretive communities might exist, offering a variety of interpretations. Moreover,
when we are dealing with the type of text often studied by CDA, we are not simply
thinking of the way a text is “interpreted”, which is the case in literary studies, but of
the way in which it is accepted, used, acted upon, changed, parodied or perhaps ignored.
In this, the notion more familiar to applied linguists of the “discourse community”, or
the educationalists’ notion of the “community of practice”, offer more useful tools for
gaining an understanding of how discourse works in specific social settings (Kent 1991:
512 Ruth Breeze
425-445; Lave and Wenger 1991: 22-23). As Bhatia has remarked (2002: 6), thick
descriptions of the communicative practices within a particular group “may unravel
many of the mysteries of the way members of various discourse communities function
to achieve their institutional and disciplinary goals and to justify their discursive
practices”. Recent studies (Sarangi and Roberts 1999; Candlin and Hyland 1999;
Arminen 2005) have brought out the complexity of the workings of power and language
in academic and professional settings. There is also a substantial body of research in
media studies that suggests that the influence of texts and broadcast material on subjects
is much less one-way and much more complex than might be supposed (Abercrombie
1996; Nightingale 1996; Reese et al. 2003), because people bring a wide range of
previous knowledge and interpretive techniques that enable them to generate a broad
spectrum of divergent readings. Ideally, studies of this kind should be borne in mind or
carried out in combination with discourse analytical research, in order to establish how
media, institutional and other texts “work” in their natural settings.
Despite the foregoing, the problem of obtaining evidence about the effects of the
text on the reader or listener is one that is rarely even raised in CDA research. The
bodies of research that exist in media studies or ethnography of communication are
rarely even alluded to by CDA practitioners, and in general it can be stated that CDA
lacks a cogent theory of audience effects and audience response that would provide
support for its assertions about the influence of discourses on human subjects.
3.4. CDA and context: Too much or too little?
One of the fundamental tenets of CDA is that discourse is socially embedded: It is at
once socially constructed, and also plays a role in constructing and perpetuating
(“reproducing”) social structures and relations. CDA also declares itself to be socially
committed (Fairclough and Wodak 1997), with an explicit purpose of raising its
readers’ consciousness “of how language contributes to the domination of some people
by others, because consciousness is the first step to emancipation” (Fairclough 1989: 1).
Language viewed in a social framework is a highly complex phenomenon, since it both
constitutes and challenges social relations, and different linguistic media are
intermeshed with each other and with non-language media, generating an intricate web
of intertextuality and multimodality. It is therefore striking that one criticism levelled at
CDA is that the most specifically social aspects of discourse, namely the social contexts
in which discourse is embedded, have often been ignored.
The critiques that question CDA’s claims to offering an interpretation of the
social world have originated in the areas of conversation analysis, on the one hand, and
the ethnography of communication and pragmatics, on the other. In essence, these
approaches tend to differ from CDA in their emphasis on the need to follow a bottom-
up approach (Peace 2003: 164). Both conversation analysis and ethnography require
meticulous data-gathering techniques involving the use of recordings and detailed
transcripts, and both disciplines are committed to the notion that interpretations should
emerge from the data. Pragmatics is concerned with the functions fulfilled by language
in real contexts, and with the complex relationships between form and social function,
and also focuses on the detailed study of specific instances of language use. Although
CDA practitioners frequently call for “triangulation” in the sense of obtaining multiple
perspectives on the phenomenon under observation (Reisigl and Wodak 2001: 33ff;
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 513
Rogers et al. 2005: 382; van Dijk 2006: 359ff; Wodak 2007: 203), or at least for
“constant movement back and forth between theory and data” (Meyer 2001: 27), there is
an observable trend for work carried out in CDA to operate in a top-down manner, in
that it presupposes a particular theory of social relations, and looks at language data
from that perspective, or singles out interesting aspects of language that tie in with a
particular theoretical view, rather than embarking on an all-round, in-depth study
covering the multiple dimensions of a text to determine how language works in a
particular setting.
Conversation analysis and CDA share an interest in naturally-occurring talk,
interaction and text, and agree that discourse has a two-way relationship with context
and social structures. However, the discipline of conversation analysis emerged from a
different intellectual background, partly as a reaction to mainstream sociological trends.
Although generalisations entail some risk of over-simplification, in broad terms it is
usually accepted that conversation analysts mainly focus their analysis on close study of
the interaction itself, and are unwilling to include what might have come before or after
the interaction within their field of focus. It has sometimes been called the study of
“micro interactions” (Rogers 2005: 378). By contrast, CDA’s field of focus tends to
widen out to encompass the macro context, the role that interaction plays in social
relations, institutional power structures, and so on.
From the area of pragmatics, some critics have argued that CDA does not
always look closely at the linguistic features of interactions, but that there is a tendency
to jump too quickly to the macro context, making assertions as to how macro relations
might be mapped onto micro interactions (Widdowson 1998). The immediate context,
which determines the type of interaction in social settings, is often ignored completely
(cf. Verschueren 2011). In the words of Verschueren (2001: 60), the lack of
methodological rigour and, particularly, the way that context may be left out of the
equation, means that CDA, particularly in its early days, was responsible for “subjecting
the media, as well as other institutions, to a circus trial, playing fast and loose with the
observable facts in order to support preconceived claims.”
Contact with CDA researchers who were using some of the techniques of
conversation analysis sparked a heated debate in the late 1990s. To summarise the main
arguments, in Schegloff’s view, context should only be taken into account insofar as it
features in the interaction as a concern for the participants. Since there may be an almost
infinite number of contextual factors that might possibly influence a given interaction,
how is it possible to select just one that is analytically relevant? For example, an
interaction between a man and a woman might be influenced by gender issues, but then
again, this might not be the case, and it is conceivable that gender issues are
unimportant for the participants on this particular occasion. In such a case, would it be
legitimate for a researcher interested in gender to impose an analytical framework on
this interaction?
In Schegloff’s opinion, conversation analysis should be driven by a desire to
understand how everyday interaction works, how identities are negotiated, how people
do things through language in different settings. To this end, the appropriate analytical
approach is to discover the orientations provided by the participants themselves, and the
role these play in the interaction. Moreover, even when it has been established that
certain aspects of the context are important, the analyst has to take care to discern
exactly what these might mean in the particular situation at hand, rather than jumping to
conclusions in terms of meta-categories such as “gender” or “power”. In Potter’s words
514 Ruth Breeze
(1998: 31), “context is treated as something that is constructed, dealt with, and oriented
to by participants. Features of participants such as their ethnicity, features of the setting,
and other ‘ethnographic’ particulars are not treated as separable factors”. As Potter
points out, this tends to dissolve the classic distinction between micro- and
macroanalysis, because researchers in this tradition do not view social structures as
something in which interaction happens, but rather look at social interactions as
evidence of the way social phenomena are shaped or constituted.
Although it is obvious that in the real world, the researcher cannot approach the
data without preconceived notions, Schegloff’s recommendation is that scholars should
try to ground their analysis in the interaction itself, focusing on what is relevant to the
participants. In his words (1997: 165), “this is a useful constraint on analysis in
disciplining work to the indigenous preoccupations of the everyday world being
grasped, and serving as a buffer against the potential for academic and theoretical
imperialism which imposes intellectuals’ preoccupations on a world without respect to
their indigenous resonance.”
Although Schegloff’s concerns are important, the extent to which they are
wholly applicable to CDA is questionable. Schegloff’s defence of a particular approach,
generally epitomised in conversation analysis and ethnographic studies, whereby
external categories are not imposed on the research agenda, does not necessarily mean
that other approaches using externally imposed categories are invalid. CDA researchers
draw on many methods, including those associated with conversation analysis, and there
is intrinsically no reason why they should have to accept a series of assumptions or
principles simply because they use aspects of a particular method. Van Dijk (1999: 460)
identifies the bone of contention as being the issue of contextualisation, and argues that
it is legitimate for CDA to examine text and context separately and explore how features
of the context affect or are affected by the text. It is therefore up to individual
researchers to determine how far particular external categories are important in the
interaction, and CDA researchers need not be constrained by rigid disciplinary norms.
From a rather different point of view, it is also possible to criticise CDA for
failing to take context into account, since it often concentrates on decontextualised
samples of language, so that texts or parts of texts are analysed without regard to their
production, distribution or consumption. Other scholars, particularly ethnographers of
communication, have raised the question of the need to take context seriously, since
texts are embedded in social contexts and cannot be understood without insights into the
mesh of social relations within which they came into being. In areas such as education,
this shortcoming has probably been tackled to some extent, since many more recent
studies blend CDA approaches with some types of ethnographic methodology,
obtaining qualitative data from a variety of sources including fieldnotes and other forms
of observation, documents, interviews and focus groups (Rogers et al. 2005). However,
in the field of media studies, which is close to CDA in many respects, there is less
attention to context, partly because it is genuinely rather harder to define what context
means, to identify and track readers or viewers, to gain thick descriptions of the way
media texts are generated, and so on. None the less, as on the issue of hermeneutics and
reception, CDA practitioners often work with more naive constructions of the way
media texts work than do other media specialists, for whom the analysis of audience
responses or production processes are essential to the research operation.
One may speculate that the failings outlined above are a consequence of CDA’s
ideological approach: The overriding concern with power in society may make CDA’s
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 515
exponents eager to identify certain aspects of the text that seem to reflect their
underlying thesis and to move swiftly on to the stages of interpretation and explanation,
rather than devote time to laborious examination of the language itself, or to exploring
the immediate contextual surroundings. In the view of some authors (Verschueren
2001), this may even lead to circularity of argumentation and produce results that are
essentially no more than a confirmation of the obvious. CDA research in the 1980s on
the mass media tended to yield the finding that the media reproduce the ideological
status quo, for example, but in the theory of society to which most CDA researchers
subscribe, this is hardly surprising. The overwhelming interest in ideological categories,
over and above contextual variants, may lead researchers to ignore what is special or
distinctive about particular instances of language use in favour of macro-patterns that
confirm the researchers’ initial hypothesis. The point is proven, but the result is
ultimately banal. In Verschueren’s view, “the presentation of predictable patterns as
‘findings’ distracts from what ought to be the more interesting questions related to the
way in which they contribute to the generation of meaning” (2001: 63), so by jumping
from what might be termed the “symptoms” (recognisable features of a specific
phenomenon) to the macro-context, we learn little about how people appropriate or
resist hegemonic discourses or indeed about how such discourses are enacted on the
One particular feature of the reliance on macro-structures in some CDA research
is a tendency to generalise and stereotype. Blommaert (2001: 15) notes how critical
discourse analysts tend to work from a priori notions concerning the main players in a
particular context, such as “politicians are manipulators” or “the media are ideology-
reproducing machines”, as well as stereotyped socio-theoretical constructs such as
“business”, “institutions” or “traditional medicine”. He advocates a more disciplined
approach to taking in contextual features, which would include three aspects that he
believes are ignored by mainstream CDA, namely resources, text trajectories, and data
Briefly, his notion of resources means the complex of sociolinguistic means and
communicative skills that participants bring to a particular situation. This is vital
because “the importance of resources lies in the deep relation between language and a
general economy of symbols and status in societies” (Blommaert 2001: 23). Language
itself leads to the heart of social structure, because linguistic resources are intrinsically
bound up with the distribution of power. Resources of this kind tend to be invisible in
CDA research, because they are not features of individual texts, but can only be
understood with knowledge of social structures and the way language functions in
society. “Text trajectories” refer to the way discourse shifts across contexts, so that an
interview becomes a set of notes, then a case study, and perhaps ultimately part of a
review article. Again, many CDA scholars tend to prefer to concentrate on single
instances or genres, rather than tracing the “natural history” of discourses across a range
of settings and text types, which may lead to a slanted view or, at best, an incomplete
picture. Although there are some honourable exceptions, particularly within the
Viennese school of CDA, where a broader perspective has been adopted in order to
cover a representative range of text types over a considerable period of time (see, for
example, Wodak 2001; Reisigl 2007: 34ff), this is a highly complex enterprise, and not
all discourse analysts are able to work on such an ambitious scale, with the result that
they may run the risk of overstating their case on the basis of insufficiently corroborated
evidence. Finally, “data history” refers to the actual gathering of data, which in
516 Ruth Breeze
ethnographic methodology needs to be recorded meticulously, with consideration of
observer effects or possible observer bias. Logically enough, this ought to include an
account of the stance of the researcher regarding the immediate political concerns at
stake, not just a general positioning as “left-wing” or “radical”, which are notoriously
fuzzy categories and open to multiple interpretations.
Blommaert concludes with the observation that many of the problems with CDA
arise out of the centrality accorded to text in the CDA tradition: Even though CDA
researchers claim to interpret society through text, they usually end up simply
interpreting text. If the tables are turned, and discourse is regarded as a situated social
phenomenon within a context that includes language, social relations, power structures,
and so on, then it might be possible to come closer to the ambition of “explaining
society through the privileged window of discourse” (2001: 28).
Be this as it may, it seems fair to say in summary that the position most
frequently adopted by CDA foregrounds interpretation and explanation in terms of
predetermined categories that are of interest to the researcher. For CDA, context tends
to mean the macro-context: Power systems that operate in society as a whole. This may
often mean that features of the immediate micro-context can be omitted or ignored. This
ideologically-motivated approach offers a stark contrast to the principles of some
related analytical fields of language study.
3.5. CDA as essentially negative
CDA practititioners repeatedly emphasise that their enterprise is essentially aimed at
creating a better world, effecting transformation and empowering the oppressed: “CDA
is essentially political in intent with its practitioners acting upon the world in order to
transform it and thereby help create a world where people are not discriminated against
because of sex, colour, creed, age or social class” (Caldas-Coulthard and Coulthard
1996: ix). However, they also admit that this objective is rarely met:
Critical language projects have remained just that: critiques of texts and of the social
practices implied by or realised in those texts, uncovering, revealing, inequitable,
dehumanising and deleterious states of affairs [...] if critical language projects were to
develop apt, plausible theories of this domain, they would be able to move from critical
reading, from analysis, from deconstructive activity, to productive activity [...] CL or
CDA have not offered (productive) accounts of alternative forms of social organisation,
nor of social subjects, other than by implication. (Kress 1996: 15-16)
Given the assumptions made in CDA about the nature of society, and the overwhelming
interest in exposing ideological manipulation that shapes and perpetuates power
imbalances through discourse, it is hardly surprising that language scholars of this
school find it easier to deconstruct than to construct. In an article calling for more
positive work in discourse analysis, Martin draws particular attention to the negative
facets of CDA, locating CDA among “a pathological disjunction in 20th century social
sciences and humanities research which systematically elides the study of social
processes which make the world a better place in favour of critique of processes which
disempower and oppress” (2004: 186) and calls for a serious attempt to be made to re-
configure CDA in a more positive sense. He identifies this type of negative
deconstruction as the dominant face of CDA, which he terms “CDA realis”, which is
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 517
largely concerned with “exposing language and attendant semiosis in the service of
power” (2004: 179). However, he also notes that CDA has a secondary aspect oriented
to constructive social action, which he names “CDA irrealis”, which has rarely been put
into practice. In Martin’s view, “we need a complementary focus on community, taking
into account how people get together and make room for themselves in the world – in
ways that redistribute power without necessarily struggling against it” (2004: 186). This
“Positive Discourse Analysis” would focus on how change happens for the better,
looking at how indigenous peoples overcome their colonial heritage, for example, or
how sexism is eroded and new gender relationships are established. By studying such
phenomena, we will learn more about how positive developments take place, and we
will thus be in a better position to support change in the future.
By way of example, Martin documents the Australian government enquiry on
the forced adoption of indigenous children, which is truly innovative within the genre of
the bureaucratic report in that it foregrounds the voice of the victims. He similarly
charts the roles of narrative and of biographical literature in raising people’s awareness
of injustice and changing public opinion. Martin’s own frustration with the orthodoxies
of CDA is plain when he states that he supposes “it would be going too far to propose a
10 year moratorium on deconstructive CDA, in order to get some constructive PDA off
the ground” (2004: 199).
In a similar vein, Luke (2002: 98) argues that if CDA is to develop its full
potential, it needs to move beyond ideological critique, and to explore what he calls “the
productive use of power” and, in Freirean terms, “emancipatory discourse”. Like
Martin, he asserts that “if CDA is a normative form of social science and political
action, it must be able to demonstrate what ‘should be’ as well as what is problematic”
(2002: 105). If not, he argues, CDA will remain entrenched in a deterministic negative
paradigm in which all media are forms of central ideological control, and CDA
practitioners have the “enlightening” role of the Gramscian intellectual, to raise
awareness and mobilise the people against the hegemony. Since this would be reductive
(and, we might add, assumes certain premises about the nature of the audience and the
workings of the media that are highly questionable), Luke proposes that a new,
positively-oriented CDA should focus on minority discourses and diasporic voices,
emergent counter-discourses, reinterpretations of mainstream discourses by different
groups of subjects, and strategies of resistance. In the face of globalisation, for CDA to
remain locked in dialectical analyses of economic disparity and political oppression
would be to miss an opportunity, and ultimately to fail to come to terms with new
cultural configurations, new ways of negotiating identity, new counter-discourses and
voices of resistance. To meet this challenge, from a theoretical point of view, it will be
necessary to stop thinking in terms of outdated dichotomies, while in methodological
terms, it will be important to seek out evidence and develop appropriate methods for
investigating the new discourses and new media that characterise life in the 21st
3.6. CDA as an intellectual orthodoxy
Critical Discourse Analysis began as a revolutionary form of language study. Although,
as we have seen, the term “critical” is polysemous, if not vague, there is no doubt that
what unites the people who apply the name CDA to their activities is the belief that they
518 Ruth Breeze
can stand back from their data and apply techniques of critical analysis – to the texts or
interactions themselves, and to the society in which these occur. As we have seen, their
critique is generally political, concerned with issues of power and inequality. At the
outset, CDA certainly seemed radical and new, an approach to language study in which
old orthodoxies could be challenged in the name of social commitment.
However, as is inevitable in the case of successful new movements of any kind,
in the twenty years or so in which CDA has gathered momentum there has been a
gradual move towards establishment and respectability. Some authors even claim that
CDA scholars are actively engaged in an attempt to establish CDA as an approach or
school in itself (Verschueren 2001: 67). Billig (2002) documents this change and
sketches out what this may mean for a “revolutionary” discipline, calling for greater
self-awareness and self-criticism on the part of CDA practitioners.
In his account, Billig (2002) draws attention to the use of the acronym “CDA”,
which he feels has gained the status of an academic “brand”. In his view, one rhetorical
strategy available to academics is to package their products as part of a range which is
accredited or in some way guaranteed by a particular theoretical perspective. The
“branding” of this theory is often accomplished by the use of abbreviations (Billig cites
the example of SIT, Social Identity Theory, in sociology, but one might equally think of
SFL, in linguistics). In Billig’s view, this type of labelling makes it possible for
academics to “market” their ideas “as branded and identifiable intellectual products in
today’s academic world” (2002: 42), and this phenomenon is becoming common in a
fiercely competitive academic world that is increasingly dominated by the rules of the
market place. Now that CDA has a firm foothold in universities, with its own journals
and large numbers of academics who assent to its main tenets, it is part of the academic
power structure, and aspiring scholars can choose to join its ranks by accepting its
principles and methodological assumptions. In terms of academic power (to publish
books or articles, to make appointments, to achieve promotion), CDA is now at least
equal to other fields of language study. It is even possible to maintain that, in
intellectual terms, a critical paradigm has been established – a critical orthodoxy which
may, in its way, be as inflexible, dogmatic and exclusive as other orthodoxies of the
past. Moreover, Billig draws special attention to the role played by the term “critical”
in the self-understanding and self-marketing of CDA. He points to the history of the
way the word “critical” has been used from Kant through to Piaget and Popper, not to
mention the Frankfurt school (see above), and suggests that the main force of the term
has usually been to insist on the objectivity or intellectual credibility of one’s own
enterprise and undermine the “uncritical”, “non-critical” or “acritical” approaches
adopted by other scholars. In particular, CDA’s insistence that academic work should be
addressed to the critique of power in society, added to the difference it establishes
between itself and disciplines or paradigms whose theoretical and methodological
assumptions exclude direct political analysis, tends to set up a dichotomy in which CDA
is constructed as positive, while non-critical approaches are positioned as potentially
defective or worse. Non-critical approaches are not simply another option: By not
taking a critical stance, they are taking side with the existing hegemonies, guilty of
precluding the necessary social critique, and thereby of collusion or of furthering the
reproduction of an unjust social order. If we appraise CDA critically, we should
therefore be aware that the use of the term “critical” is itself significant as what has been
termed “a rhetoric of self-praise” (Billig 2002: 37). This aspect of CDA could indeed be
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 519
seen as a form of ideological manipulation, a way of disqualifying the competition. As
Potter (1996) indicates, CDA treats criticism as if it were intrinsic to the enterprise.
Although this does not necessarily follow, the implication often seems to be that
discourse analysis which is not critical is in some sense lacking. As Potter says (1996),
there is scope for types of discourse analysis which might or might not lead to social
criticism, depending on what emerges from the data. There is no particular need for
discourse analysis to be critical in order to be valid, useful or interesting. Moreover,
other discourse analysts have argued forcefully that discourse analysis ought set its own
particular rules as a discipline of language study, particularly relating to rigorous and
impartial standards of analysis and interpretation, and that external concerns such as
ideological issues are not necessarily germane to the enterprise (Antaki et al. 2003).
However, to those working within CDA, critique is not something that may or may not
emerge from the analysis of text: Critique is the raison d’être for analysis in the first
place. In Billig’s evaluation of this situation, several points stand out as being relevant
to our present discussion. First, there is the issue of the critical canon. As we have seen,
the intellectual basis for CDA is a subject of discussion even within the area itself.
Beginning from a fairly straightforward neo-Marxist critique of society in the 1980s,
CDA has expanded its intellectual horizons to take in a range of sociological thinking of
a very diverse nature. What is special about this, if CDA is considered as a “school” or
“approach” within language study, is the heavy emphasis on sociology, and on figures
with a particular “critical” position towards late modernity, blended with the use of
notions more generally associated with post-modern paradigms. Whatever the merits of
this eclectic background, the result is that CDA seems to have established its own
“critical canon” consisting of “radical works of social analysis that were never
considered by conventional linguists to be part of linguistics” (Billig 2002: 44), which
have now been fixed as set texts for the upcoming generation. There is some danger that
this “canon” will be accepted uncritically, which is a matter for concern, particularly if
it contains an imbalance between social theory and works concerned with language and
linguistic methodology.
A second, related theme is the lack of reflexivity and internal dialogue, which
tends to consolidate CDA from the outside, as an intellectual paradigm with its own
hierarchy and systems of control, but which may detract from the seriousness of its
intellectual enterprise. Billig (2002) feels that what self-critique there is tends to omit
key factors, and is concerned that the growth in respectability will entail a loss of
intellectual creativity. He recommends that academics should draw back from treating
CDA as if it were a reified product, or a brand name for labelling one’s work so that it
will be published. He asks scholars to “unpick the rhetoric that has led from ‘critical
approaches’ to the abbreviated and capitalised ‘CDA’” (Billig 2002: 44), and calls for a
return to the critical analysis of discourse (without capital letters) in such a way that
new approaches can arise. In his words:
“Above all, there is a need to encourage young academics, especially those without
established positions, to criticise the language and rhetoric of the established critical
writers – even to expose the self-interest and political economy of the sign ‘critical’. The
results would not be comfortable for the critical experts; nor should they be if the activity
of social critique is to continue into the future” (Billig 2002: 45).
520 Ruth Breeze
4. Conclusions
Critical Discourse Analysis offers a promising paradigm for identifying and interpreting
the way ideology functions in and through discourse. Its particular strength is that it
bridges the gap between real language phenomena and the workings of power in
society. It would be unfortunate if this important mission were to be undermined by
methodological flaws and theoretical shortcomings. The following tentative conclusions
are intended to summarise the main criticisms that have been levelled at CDA over the
years, and to evaluate their relevance for linguists who read work by CDA practitioners,
or who wish to carry out research within the CDA paradigm.
1. Critical discourse analysis is fundamentally defined by its political aims.
Reseachers are usually explicit about their political commitments, at least in a
general sense. These commitments should always be borne in mind when we
interpret their work.
2. Critical discourse analysis draws on a wide range of theories about language and
society. These theories are not always clearly defined, and there is a tendency to
draw on an eclectic mix of concepts from different intellectual traditions, not all
of which are compatible. Researchers should endeavour to clarify the theoretical
background to their work, while readers should feel free to adopt a critical stance
towards the theoretical apparatus encountered in CDA studies, or even to
challenge its bases.
3. CDA practitioners have frequently been accused of using “impressionistic”
methodology for analysing text. Care should be taken to apply the same
standards of rigour when handling language data as in any other area of
linguistics. One solution might be to apply the techniques of corpus linguistics,
in order to obtain a more representative overview across a larger sample of
language. Another might be simply to be less selective and more disciplined and
systematic in analysing the text. Particularly when spoken language is analysed,
the pragmatic dimension should always be taken into account.
4. Critical discourse analysts have sometimes been said to move too quickly from
the language data to the stage of interpretation and explanation of those data in
terms of social theory. If this is the case, then readers should take care to test
interpretations against the available data objectively. In general, researchers
need to do justice to the text itself, so that their interpretations are well-
5. CDA has an inadequate theory of the way texts work in social contexts. Reader
response or audience reception is often naively assumed on the basis of the
researcher’s interpretation of the text. Readers should contrast conclusions of
this kind with work carried out in media studies which provides deeper insights
into the relationship between texts and subjects. CDA researchers need to pay
more attention to this dimension, and find ways of exploring real responses.
6. Though critical discourse analysts have always widened their field of vision to
the macrocontext, they have sometimes paid insufficient attention to features of
the immediate context, which has led to interpretations which are pragmatically
inappropriate or remote from the concerns of the participants. The specific
Critical discourse analysis and its critics 521
features of the immediate context should be treated seriously by readers and
researchers alike.
7. In the last twenty years, CDA has mainly researched the way ideology works
through discourse to maintain unequal power structures. Perhaps because of
CDA’s self-image as a “critical” force, the focus of this work has been
overwhelmingly negative, and seems to propagate a deterministic vision of
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RUTH BREEZE has a Ph.D. in Applied Linguistics and has researched and published widely in the área
of discourse analysis applied to media language and specialised language. She is Director of the Institute
of Modern Languages at the University of Navarra, and is a member of the GradUN Research Group.
Address: University of Navarra, Navarra, Spain. E-mail:
... Discourse analysts use different dimensions such as critical discourse analysis and corpus-based discourse analysis to retrieve the power abuse amalgamated in a media discourse (Van Dijk, 2008;Breeze, 2011;2020, Partington et al. 2013). Also, the CAD studies usually go beyond the text and what is shown in the text by looking at the lexico-grammar as well as the meaning beyond sentences (Koteyko, 2014). ...
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Pakistan has been hosting more than two million Afghan refugees since the Soviet and United States' invasions of Afghanistan. This corpus-assisted discourse study aims to unfold the behaviour of the Pashto press towards Afghan refugees residing in Pakistan. This study uses both qualitative and quantitative research paradigms to investigate the corpora of Pashto newspapers' articles through the Sketch Engine software to look at the behaviour of the text used to represent Afghan refugees and to discern the discourse in terms of categories designed for this study. The results of this study provide an in-depth understanding of the attitude of the Pashto press towards Afghan refugees.
... The research was granted ethical approval by the researcher's institution. For the analysis of the data, I utilised critical discourse analysis as it provides a way of exploring how discourse as an enunciation is related to power regimes and affects subjects' reality and thought (Breeze, 2011;Fairclough, 2012). Critical discourse analysis was used as a methodological and theoretical strategy as the aim was to move away from a merely descriptive analysis of the data and problematise the power dynamics and practices in the schools and their effect on ECPTs' professional selves (Wodak, 2014). ...
Since the World Health Organisation declared the COVID-19 virus as a pandemic, the school reality radically changed. Exploring the cases of Greece and England this comparative study seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the way the enforced governing practices, at a state and school level, have influenced the professional selves of early-career primary school teachers. Through in-depth interviews with 32 early-career teachers, the study illustrates how their position in the school system was challenged through the renegotiation of boundaries in the digital and physical space of the school. It also demonstrates the changes in the way early-career teachers related to themselves and others in the schools, forming new modes of being and relating.KeywordsEarly-career teachersPrimary educationCOVID-19Professional self
... Therefore, the analysis method to be used to analyse the research data was the the distributional and contextual analysis methods (26). The distributional analysis method was applied to obtain the idea of argumentative structure and elements, while the contextual analysis was used to interpret data from the perspective of critical pragmatics. ...
It is important for politicians to have a good argumentative skill. For state leaders, the ability to think logically, to use rhetoric, and to argue systematically, scientifically, sharply, and eloquently is very crucial. The year 2019 is the political year for Indonesia. Political campaigns leading to the presidential and the legislative election, both in national and regional levels, will happen in 2019. The focus of this research is to investigate the depth and breadth of the arguments stated by the presidential candidates and how those arguments are presented. The research substantial data source is in the form of speech transcript of the recorded video of the first-round presidential debate by two pairs of president and vice-president candidates. The research data were the debate arguments found in the video transcript and the contexts surrounding them. The data gathering method used observation by employing recording and note-taking techniques. After the data were gathered, they were selected and classified based on their types for further analysis. The analysis method was distributional method and content analysis. Both data analysis methods were applied to yield significant results of the study. The results showed that there are simple patterns of argument containing claim, subclaim, data, and warrant. The orders of elements of arguments might be varied. The research results also showed that there were various pragmatic meanings found in the arguments used by the president and vice-president candidates. The results of the study which was analyzed using the critical pragmatic perspective reflect how far the candidates were concerned with the marginalized, the underprivileged, and the subjugated people.
... He concludes that the work of critical discourse analysts amounts to interpretation not analysis (Widdowson 1998 and. A response to some of these criticisms as well as more comprehensive criticisms can be found in Breeze (2011), Haig (n.d), and Matheson (2008). ...
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This thesis explores the language of Higher Education (HE) in the UK, with a particular focus on "the student experience". Whilst research on the language of HE is plentiful, most of these studies have a discourse-oriented approach, which lacks an engagement with socio-historical and material contexts. The aim of this research is to investigate what the language surrounding "the student experience" reveals and conceals about HE and society. To this end, my thesis unravels the different dimensions of this concept to understand how it is conceptualised across three domains: a diverse group of students from a university in the south of England; the policies and observed practices of this institution; and relevant policies on HE promulgated by the UK government. With these objectives in mind, the research draws on three theoretical constructs-language, (higher) education, and critical exploration-bolstered by the work of Volosinov and Bakhtin, Ambedkar and Gramsci, and Marx and Engels. A key finding of this research is that the notion of "the student experience" encapsulates differing views on the role and purpose of HE. These differing views relate to the social positions of the text creators and reveal the social and economic relations between the addressers and their intended audience.
... 111-112;Cheng, 2013, p. 1 andKopytowska et al., 2017, p. 71). Advantages of using corpus linguistics techniques in CDA also include limiting researcher subjectivity and selectivity as regards the analysed material, thanks to the use of transparent criteria for corpus selection (see Baker, 2006, p. 12;Breeze, 2011;Kamasa, 2014, p. 110). ...
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The present paper investigates linguistic data that include hate speech motivated by the alleged or real ethnic or national identity of its addressee in German and Polish Internet-based communication. Focusing on hate speech on Facebook, this paper contributes to the studies of hate speech (e.g. Meibauer, 2013; Meibauer, 2021) in online communication (e.g. Baider & Constantinou, 2020; He et al., 2021; Founta & Specia, 2021) and, in a more general sense, to the vast area of research on the use of aggressive language. Based on a representative corpus, the predominant categories of user-generated hateful statements are teased out relative to their form and stance by means of critical discourse analysis and corpus linguistics tools. In the analytical part, we discuss the discursive practices used in the posts, together with the meanings they communicate, followed by a comparative analysis of their frequencies in comparable corpora. Our findings confirm that hate speech is linguistically conditioned by its socio-cultural context. For instance, our contrastive analysis of German and Polish online data indicates that the two nationalities use different discursive practices to express their aversion to the Other, and that Polish comments are more overtly insulting than German comments.
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Transport policies in Western Europe are increasingly framed in terms of sustainable mobility. This is a response to an urgent need to tackle adverse consequences of the transport system and implies changes in discourses related to transport. Exploring sustainable mobility is a fruitful way of studying discursive development in a policy field historically connected to priorities radically different from sustainability. More precisely, what reasons are provided in favour of sustainable mobility in contemporary transport policies? What underlying norms and assumptions does the notion of sustainable mobility rely upon? And what subjects are emphasised in the discourse? The thesis argues that these questions can be answered by studying the social construction of sustainable mobility in the transport policy field. The thesis contributes to the emerging field of critical transport studies by empirically investigating a concrete sustainable mobility discourse. This is done through an in-depth case study of a Swedish national sustainable transport policy, the Urban Environment Agreement. The case allows for a study of how power and conflicts permeate planning and policy for sustainability. The thesis advances a discourse-analytical perspective that is hitherto lacking in transport research and develops a novel framework building on critical discourse analysis and critical realism. This framework is subsequently deployed to empirically map discursive patterns of statements related to sustainable mobility, to determine how these patterns interrelate, and to interpret the broader implications of the findings. The central claim of the thesis is that sustainable mobility needs to be understood as a product of naturalised representations of growth. Arguably, societal norms and assumptions about forms of growth govern how sustainable mobility is conceived and acted upon through policies. This constructs the continuous increase of mobility as a naturally occurring phenomenon and excludes alternatives to high-mobility society. Two dominant constructions of sustainable mobility are identified in the discourse: ‘sustainable mobility as a necessity’, building on ideas of managing growth, and ‘sustainable mobility as progress’, connected to ideas of promoting growth. The author proposes that a third way of constructing sustainable mobility, ‘as restriction’, in the sense of limiting growth, is silenced in the discourse. Although there are differences among these constructions, the discourse contains several naturalised representations that characterise the discourse overall. While growth is constructed as inevitable, sustainability is constructed as an imperative. As a result, a transition to sustainable mobility is constructed as a salvation, justified by several logics of sustainable mobility. These logics discursively link contradictory notions of growth and sustainability. The thesis develops a wheel of growth metaphor to capture such key elements and linkages of the discourse. Finally, the discourse in focus is contrasted against central features of the more ‘traditional’ transport policy discourse. This shows that the sustainable mobility discourse of the Urban Environment Agreement policy partly challenges the traditional focus on automobility. At the same time, the present discourse reproduces assumptions of ‘predict and provide’, travel time minimisation, and the emphasis on economic growth. The conclusions of the thesis contribute to the ongoing discussion among policy makers, academics, and social movements about how to respond to the societal challenge of a transition towards a more sustainable and just transport system.
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لا ينحصر وجود المعتقدات أو الأفكار التي يشاطرها مجتمع معين ، والمعروفة ب "الإيديولوجية" على أنواع معينة من النصوص، كالمقالات الإخبارية أو الخطب أو المناظرات السياسية، أو حتى الإعلانات التجارية ؛ بل يمكن أن يتعدى ذلك إلى جميع أنواع النصوص، سواء كانت تلك النصوص أدبية أو غير أدبية. فقد أصبح الأدب على مر التاريخ أحد أكثر الوسائل الكتاب فاعلية للتعبير عن رسالة أو فكرة بلاغية ذات دلالة معينة وإيصالها للجمهور. تم أخذ عينة الدراسة الحالية من الرواية الخيالية والمعنونة "بِلُڤد". على الرغم من حقيقة أن رواية "بِلُڤد" هي من تأليف الروائية طوني موريسون ، والتي تعد واحدة من أبرز كتاب روايات الخيال في عصرنا، إلا أن قلة قليلة من المختصين في هذا المجال قد تناولوا رواياتها من وجهة نظر لغوية. وبناءً على ذلك ، تهدف الدراسة الحالية إلى التحقق من كيفية مساهمة استخدام الموارد اللغوية ، والأفعال تحديداً ، في رسم هوية الشخصية الرئيسية ، "سيث". اعتمادا على نموذج سيمبسون (2004) للتعددية الفعلية ، استخدمت الدراسة واحدة من الوظائف المفاهيمية النصية الخاصة للأسلوبية النقدية الخاص بالمؤلفة جيفريز (2010) ، والمسماة ب 'تمثيل الأفعال ذات النشاط الجسدي/الأفعال التي تصف الأحداث /الأفعال التي تصف حالة ما' لتحليل البيانات. وخلصت الدراسة إلى أنه هناك صور مختلفة تم رسمها للشخصية محل البحث. وقد وجدت الدراسة أيضًا أن السياق اللغوي الذي يتم فيه إصدار تلك الأفعال لا يقل أهمية عن عدد ونوع العمليات الفعلية والمشاركين في تلك العمليات في بناء هوية سيث.
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Presidential speeches are among the best ways to demonstrate heads of state's competence in dealing publically with domestic as well as foreign issues, and thus contribute to their political survival. This study uses a new one-million-word parallel corpus of Arabic and English to investigate the political topics that King Abdullah II of Jordan discusses when using the Arabic language to address Jordanian or Arab audiences and when using the English language to address Western/international audiences. The corpus covers the period from 1999 to 2015. Using Wordsmith 7 and examining the most frequent 25 Arabic and English words, we found that King Abdullah tends to discuss particular issues on all occasions, locally, nationally, and globally. These include Arab and regional matters as well as the peace process in the Middle East. It is also found that local themes that are mainly associated with Jordan, its political system, and economic and social challenges were more frequent in the Arabic corpus when compared to its English counterpart. However, Jordan's involvement in some issues in the Middle East, especially in Palestine and Iraq, was more important in the English texts. The study concludes that parallel corpora can be a rich resource for discourse studies.
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The current study is part of a longitudinal research project into the relationship between students' ways of recontextualising their doctoral degree experience and eventual programme completion. Building on earlier findings reported in De Rycker (2014, 2022), the objective is to examine the hidden ontology of "doing a doctoral degree". The primary data consist in structured interviews conducted with 20 doctoral students at the Universiti Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Using Van Leeuwen's (2008) socio-semantic model for the critical study of discourse, the analysis of the interviews produced two major empirical findings. First, doctoral students' discourse is characterised by a strong sense of personal agency but also a lack of specificity and a simplification of the overall practice complex, in which doing research seems to be reduced to mere semiotic actions. Secondly, students construe "doing a doctoral degree" as a mystifying process replete with paradoxes. Further interpretative analysis suggests that semiotic action representations play a significant role as self-enhancing metonyms for "doing research", helping students to demystify the academic practice and resolve some of its inherent contradictions. Implications for supervisory practice as well as the larger research project will be discussed.
Die Kritische Diskursanalyse versteht sich als ein Konzept qualitativer Sozialforschung, das insbesondere von den Schriften Michel Foucaults inspiriert ist und Vorschläge enthält, wie sich Diskurse analysieren und interpretieren lassen. Dabei besteht ihr kritisches Potenzial vor allem darin, dass mit ihr besonders gesellschaftlich brisante Themen problematisiert und kritisiert werden können. Denn Kritische Diskursanalyse nimmt die Geschichtlichkeit der Diskurse, ihre Genealogie, in den Blick und berücksichtigt dabei den Umstand, dass die Deutung von Wirklichkeiten stets auf der Folie von Wissen stattfindet, das es zu hinterfragen gilt. Im Beitrag werden das theoretische und das methodische Konzept der Kritischen Diskursanalyse vorgestellt sowie das konkrete Vorgehen anhand einer Analyse des deutschen Fluchtdiskurses von 2015/2016 skizziert.
Workplaces are held together by communicative practices. At the local level, such practices include talk (e.g., face-to-face encounters with colleaguesand clients, telephone conversations), text (e.g. letter correspondence, circulars, case notes), the use of social space (e.g., placement of furniture and routine activities such as making a hospital bed), and other artefacts (e.g., use of laboratory technology, computers) in various configurations. But workplaces are also sites of social struggle, as certain ways of talking, recording and acting are produced and ordered over a period of time. This regulation of communicative resources, in turn, controls access to the workplace and opportunities within it. © 1999 Walter de Gruyter Gmbh and co. Kg, D-10785 Berlin. All rights reserved.
There is a substantial and growing critical and pro/feminist literature examining the interrelated topics of the discursive construction of masculinities, gender relations and gender inequality. However, despite discourse theory generally promoting an anti-essentialist view of gender and a turn to the text, there is a tendency towards focusing research on a particular biological sex - for example, research on 'men and masculinity' and how men maintain their privileged position. This implies that only men construct masculinities, and that only men maintain their position of power (or only men are of interest), which absents women's voice and neglects women's contributions to the maintenance of an oppressive status quo. This article goes some way towards addressing this trend. A critical discourse analysis was performed on data obtained from five group discussions with female and male undergraduate psychology students. Three repertoires were identified: 'equality as imminent/achieved', 'women as oppressors/men as victims' and 'women as manipulators'. These repertoires are read as serving the common ideological function of 'balancing power' through painting a picture of equality between the sexes.