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This article describes the linguistic and semantic features of technocratic discourse using a Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) framework. The article goes further to assert that the function of technocratic discourse in public policy is to advocate and promulgate a highly contentious political and economic agenda under the guise of scientific objectivity and political impartiality. We provide strong evidence to support the linguistic description, and the claims of political advocacy, by analyzing a 900-word document about globalization produced by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT). Bernard McKenna, Philip Graham
Technocratic discourse: A primer
Journal of Technical Writing and Communication, 30, (3): 219-247.
Dr. Bernard J. McKenna
School of Communication
Queensland University of Technology
Philip Graham
Department of Management
University of Queensland
Technocratic discourse: a primer
This paper describes the linguistic and semantic features of technocratic discourse using a
Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) framework. The paper goes further to assert that the
fuction of technocratic discourse in public policy is to advocate and promulgate a highly
contentious political and economic agenda under the guise of scientific objectivity and political
impartiality. We provide strong evidence to support the linguistic description, and the claims of
political advocacy, by analysising a 900-word document about globalization produced by the
Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).
This paper critically analyses the intersection of economic and technical discourses
in the genre of technocratic discourse. The function of technical writing and
communication, and indeed language in general, is to ‘organize reality’ [1, 169]. This is
especially the case for technical writing in the physical sciences which organises reality
according to relatively strict traditions [2, 3]. The tradition of logical positivism, with its
emphasis on logical relations between words and what they represent [3], is responsible,
in large part, for the rigorous way in which scientists describe the physical world. As
Halliday and Martin [1] show, scientific language has a clearly recognisable grammar,
form, and function appropriate to its use in the physical sciences [1, 38]. We argue that a
specific form of technocratic discourse, the discourse of “globalisation”, normatises neo-
classical economic ideology in the process of advancing what appears to be technical
solutions to currently perceived problems.
Scientific discourse, at least its lexico-grammatical guise, has steadily crept into
widespread use, not only into the social sciences, but also into the languages of business,
government, and international policy centres. While scientific discourse may be quite
appropriate to some areas of these fields, we argue here that technocrats use the apparent
objectivity of scientific discourse for mostly manipulative purposes by presenting ‘highly
contentious’ statements as ‘uncontentious’–often, indeed, as fact [1, 197]. Technocratic
discourse has become a recognisable feature of public policy, business, and the social
sciences in the current milieu of economic and social upheaval [4; 5, chapt. 1]. In this
paper, we focus most specifically on the discourse of ‘globalisation’, which is widely
construed as the rationale for sweeping economic reforms throughout the developed and
developing worlds [4] .
"Globalisation" is an abstraction of the highest order: it has no independent
physical existence. But policy makers, from the relatively insignificant Queensland State
Government [6] and the Australian Federal Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs
and Trade [DFAT] [7], to the largest international organisations, such as the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) [8] , the International Monetary
Fund [IMF] (1998)[9], and the World Trade Organisation [WTO] (1999) [10] all claim
"globalisation" as their rationale for sweeping reforms.
The arguments underpinning the discourse of “globalisation”, at least as it is
presented by today’s technocrats, are far less rational and objective than they appear to be
at first glance. This is a function of the genre we are describing here. We argue that
technocratic discourse makes use of abstractions such as “globalisation”, “efficiency”,
“the national interest”, and so on, in much the same way that the great religions have
named their gods as the ultimate arbiter of individual fate, past and future fortunes, and,
indeed, the well-being of entire nations. Naturally, we find the technocratic use of
language disturbing and potentially damaging.
Technocratic language draws interdiscursively from scientific discourse, and from
technological discourse. It also draws historically from the lexico-grammars of
managerialism, the military, and of religion, in particular, that of the scholastics [11].
Technocratic discourse appears to be objective and rational because of its pseudo-
scientific appearance. But it is precisely the opposite in most cases. Such a discourse,
then, deserves considerable attention because of its potentially profound impact and
widespread use. Today, technocratic discourse suffuses the policy statements of what were
formerly recognisable as left- and right-wing parties, but which are recognisable as such
no longer, precisely because of their technocratic language. Its use thereby has eliminated
dialectical political encounters, and, consequently, the possibility for public debate on
important matters of social policy [12;13, 10;5]
We use the term technocracy to indicate that the power of governing is shared in
the modern state, by parliament, a bureaucracy, and a technocracy [14] . The technocracy
comprises economic planners, strategic thinkers, and natural and social scientific experts.
By technocrats, we mean people who transform ‘discourses of expert knowledge into
discourses of social policy’ 15, 58]. They are ‘makers of politics and purveyors of mass
information’ [16, 28], the ‘catalysts of the Third Industrial Revolution and the ones
responsible for keeping the high-tech economy running’ [17, 175].
Theoretical orientation
This paper adopts a critical approach using systemic functional linguistics [SFL] as
the means of analysis. Because SFL terminology is not widely recognised, we use
common Latinate grammar terms to explain SFL terminology where necessary. Our
critical perspective has its origin in the Frankfurt School, especially in the writing of
Adorno [18] and Marcuse [16] . From the Frankfurt School perspective, social relations
are increasingly objectified as more and more intimate aspects of social life become
commodities [4, 19]. This critical perspective separates our particular concern with
technocracy away from the dehumanising features of a scientifically controlled society - a
concern in its own right - towards a concern with the implications of a totalising
hegemony1 that strategically incorporates technocratic discourse and uses pseudo-
scientific language and rationality to promote inequitable and predatory social policies
that favour corporatist practices.
Technocratic discourse is most clearly characterised by the way it represents itself:
although it has a clearly hegemonic function, it consciously presents itself as ‘“above the
fray”, as a supplier of “facts”, neutral and objective, free of all interests and values except
truth, which all parties must take into account in deciding policy’ [15, 70]. It does so by
adopting a form of scientificity that is a mere parody of science, and by representing its
epistemic claims - often tacit - as objective knowledge [15, 69]. Even though technocratic
1 Hegemony is best understood in terms of the options to coerce (or be coerced) or
to seek consent (or give consent). Foucault and Gramsci agree that ‘the operations of
power and their success depend on consent from below’ [49, 29]. Although Gramsci’s
personal circumstances might have suggested otherwise, he had argued prior to Foucault
that a characteristic of the modern state is that coercion is less necessary and effective than
obtaining consent. Coercion could best be described as a political act where compulsion
‘is regularized, generalized, concentrated, and rendered explicit’ [50, 90]. By contrast,
Gramsci’s notion of consent, implies the need to ‘transform’ oneself, ‘for in “consenting”,
the individual enters into a relationship and by participating in such a relationship, social
reality becomes something other than what it would have been, had the act of consent not
occurred’ [50 pp. 124 - 125]. This really is the foundation of poststructural notions of
subjectivity. Bourdieu [51] reached a similar conclusion. According to him, all symbolic
domination presupposes that those who submit engage in a form of complicity ‘which is
neither passive submission to external constraint nor a free adherence to values’ (pp. 50 -
51). In short, hegemony is that which transcends ideology insofar as it remains largely
invisible by dint of its dominance.
deliberations usually end in recommended social policies, and, ultimately, in
implementing those policies, it eschews any notion that such policies operationalise value
systems that impact differentially on people thereby producing or maintaining structural
inequality. However, technocratic discourses have quite well-defined value systems,
implicit ones, that serve the dominant economic interests of the corporatist and
“managerial” classes [11] .
Technocratic discourse ‘ventriloquates’ scientific discourse [15, 77] to claim
rational objectivity and to promote action supposedly based on reason and fact:
‘economists, political scientists and sociologists in particular have attempted to imitate
scientific analysis through the accumulation of circumstantial evidence, but, above all,
through their parodies of the worst of the scientific dialects’ [12, 49]. However, although
it adopts positivist science’s claims to identify “true” causes, technocratic discourse
‘begins with an action it covertly wants to recommend as policy, and then cites “research
evidence” and “studies” which show that this action is a necessary cause of something
else that is positively valued by those to be convinced’ [15, 71]. Because technocratic
discourse can prescribe and proscribe action according to “objective” knowledge and
principles, and moreso because it is written mostly by a small number of people
representating the interests of multinational enterprises and operationalised by
supranational legislative bodies, such as the WTO [20], opposition to technocratic
language becomes difficult. However, when looked at more closely, the discourse is
characterised by ‘self-validating hypotheses which, incessantly and monopolistically
repeated, become hypnotic definitions or dictations’ [16, 28]. For example, the claim is
often made ‘that democracy issued from the womb of the marketplace’: that is, that free
speech and free elections are a function of free trade, a clearly contestable assertion [12,
46; cf. 21].
The language of technocracy is a closed discourse that treats opposition as
incorrect propaganda [16, 80]. Because “incorrect” oppositional discourses are often cast
as naïve “common sense”, they are pervasively denigrated by technocrats, and are tacitly
supposed to defer to the more intelligent scientific knowledge generated by the technical
elite [15, 71]. In this way, the pseudo-scientific language of technocracy legitimises its
claims to power in matters that are uniquely social in nature, simultaneously silencing
“common-sense” opposition by their claims to expertise.
To demonstrate the structure and function of technocratic discourse, we identify
and elaborate its definitive features, using technocratic descriptions of “globalisation” to
exemplify our arguments. First, we show the circular form of argument which is
characteristic of the discourse. We then highlight the key feature of its lexico-grammar.
Following this, we show how these features combine to make nonsensical statements that
form the basis of governance-by-obfuscation.
The circularity of globalising discourses: A sidestep into the “misty realms of religion”
The term globalisation clearly has circular allusions, and the technocratic language
that describes globalisation makes good use of these allusionary connotations. Being
supranationally produced, technocratic language about globalisation generally seeks to
show why national governments ought to cede regulatory responsibility to supranational
agencies [22]. The discourse of globalisation transcends most previous forms of
technocratic discourse insofar as its overt quasi-religious aspects. It even has its own
‘Holy Trinity’ [23, 144-47]: information technology, free trade, and the financial sector.
Supranational legislative bodies have, for some time, called themselves ‘the
international community’ [24] . According to its members, the international community is
very real: ‘The international community does exist. It has an address. It has achievements
to its credit’ [24, 15]. And indeed the international community shows all the
characteristics of a community, which, by our definition, is always a discourse community
[25] . Like any other community, the “international” community can be identified by the
way it describes the world and its interactions, because ‘[e]ach community, each discourse
tradition, has its own canons of intertextuality2, its own principles and customs regarding
which texts are most relevant to the interpretation of any one text’ [15, 41]. Discourse
analysis examines how language is used to construct things in the natural or social
domains by their ‘explicit descriptions as participants, processes, relations and
circumstances standing in particular semantic relations to one another’; how the discourse
community orients itself attitudinally to others, and to the presentational content of its
own discourse; and studies the ‘construction of relations between elements of the
2 Lemke [15, 22] means Bakhtin’s [47] definition of the word ‘intertextuality’: That is, the
spectrum of texts from which a discourse community typically chooses in interpreting and
describing its world.
discourse itself’ [15, 41]. A corollary to this is that, within a recognisable discourse
community, ‘thematic patterns … recur from text to text in slightly different wordings,
but [are] recognisably the same, and can be mapped onto a generic semantic pattern that is
the same for all’ texts about a particular theme [15, 42]. A clearly recognisable thematic
pattern, or intertextual thematic formation (ITF), pervades the international policy
literature on globalisation. It provides ‘organisational coherence’ for the discourse of
globalisation. The globalising ITF looks like this:
Communication Technologies revolutionise the way Businesses operate because they
facilitate Global Trade (or International Trade, International Business Activity, or Global
Markets). Financial Sector (also called the Services Sector) Growth, which is integral to
Economic Growth, depends on Free Trade (or Open Markets, Trade Liberalisation, or A
Liberal Trading Environment). Free Trade is achieved through Deregulation (or Reform).
Free Trade creates jobs, freedom, and prosperity and thus is good. Financial Sector
growth is facilitated and accelerated by improved Communication Technologies
(sometimes called The Communications Revolution). Because communication
technologies are revolutionising Global Trade, and because Free Trade is desirable and
beneficial, Globalisation, which is characterised and facilitated by Free Trade,
Communication Technology, and Deregulation, is both inevitable and desirable. Therefore
national regulatory regimes are anachronistic and must be reformed or removed.
The circularity of causal relations and definitions in this ITF, which provides
organisational coherence for globalising discourse, allows the technocratic author to enter
the discourse at any point, to begin with any element, and promote the virtues and, indeed,
the inevitability of globalisation. The causal circularity takes the form of: [1] information
technology facilitates global free trade, or globalisation [2] which in turn promotes
economic growth in the financial sector, [3] which in turn requires deregulation, [4]
which in turn promotes the more fruitful use of information technology, and so we return
to [1].
The following examples show how this this self-valorising ITF might appear (main
participants from the ITF are underlined):
Communications technology sets this era of globalisation apart from any other. The
internet, mobile phones and satellite networks have shrunk space and time”, the [United
Nations] report says.
Worldwide, the report values e-commerce at $2.6bn in 1996, and forecasts that this will
rise to $300bn by 2002 – transforming the way business is done around the world. [52]
Globalization—the international integration of goods, technology, labor, and capital—is
everywhere to be seen. In any large city in any country, Japanese cars ply the streets, a
telephone call can arrange the purchase of equities from a stock exchange half a world
away, local businesses could not function without U.S. computers, and foreign nationals
have taken over large segments of service industries. Over the past twenty years, foreign
trade and the cross-border movement of technology, labor, and capital have been massive
and irresistible. [26, 1]
Social and business interactions can be now conducted entirely in a virtual world with the
aid of communication and information technologies. The widespread availability of these
new technologies and the services they enable has the potential to change forever the way
Queenslanders work and play, and the way business is conducted. [27, 1].
The Internet and other information and communications technologies are changing the
way we work, learn, communicate with each other, and do business. These technologies
are shaping our economy and our society in the same way that the steam engine and
electricity defined the Industrial Age. [28]
The realisation of a global information infrastructure and society can be facilitated by
explicit and updated domestic and international “rules of the game” based on market
competition. Separation of operational and regulatory activities has taken place
satisfactorily in most countries and should be continued. The focus of the debate is now
turning to new principles that might be required to advance GII and GIS3. The principles
should be flexible, acknowledge the rapid evolution of the GII, GIS and globalisation that
seems to be partly driven by economies and corporations becoming more competitive,
trade barriers being removed, global operations becoming more feasible, transnational
alliances developing, and new communications networks being deployed. [29, 5]
Increased trade may contribute to innovation and the spread of technology, and thus
indirectly affect wages.
One potential channel through which technology flows from country to country is the
transfer of technology by multinational firms from the parent to its affiliates. Higher foreign
investment in a particular industry is usually associated with higher wages in that industry.
[26, 15)
And so it goes, around and around, in an impenetrable circle of reasoning and causality (A
causes B causes C causes D causes A, etc). Note that the above selections all start with the
different elements mentioned in the organisational ITF above. These are, in order:
Communications technology … ; Globalization …; Social and business interactions …;
The realisation of a global information infrastructure …; Increased trade. Furthermore;
all the authors relate each factor identified in the ITF to all the others as a cause. Thus,
these elements are related neither hyponymously [superordinately] nor (co-)
meronymously [constitutively] with each other (see below). Thus they are construed
precisely as a Holy Trinity, a three-in-one God, an all-powerful panoply of absolute
abstractions, each as powerful as the other, insofar as each is prima causa for the others,
but incomplete in themselves: free trade, financial markets, and information technologies.
Together, they are globalisation, they also cause globalisation, and they cause each other,
at least according to the technocratic authors. Although we could say much more about the
highly contestable assumptions underpinning the above statements, time and space do not
permit us to do so.
3 GII: Global Information Infrastructure; GIS: Global Information Society.
Having shown the broader discursive features of technocratic discourse, we now
provide a grammatical and linguistic characterisation of it. Essentially, five features
characterise technocratic discourse: four of these are lexico-grammatical and one is
semantic. The predominant lexico-grammatical feature in technocratic discourse is the
extensive and elaborate use of the nominal and the nominal group. These are used
primarily to taxonomise and define. A second feature is the repetition of familiar words
(usually a nominal or nominal group) which are almost always highly abstract and heavily
condensed. We call this repetitive use of familiar words “mantras” to denote their
hypnotic effect .
Two other lexico-grammatical features we identify here concern use of the verb.
The third feature of technocratic discourse is that verb use is very limited [1] . The fourth
is the relative absence of human agency. At a semantic level, as we have shown above,
technocratic discourse is circular, often impenetrably so. In the next section, we explain
the four lexico-grammatical features, providing examples from technocratic text about
1.Technocratic use of the nominal and the nominal group
An important and definitive feature of technocratic discourse is the linguistic functioning
of its nouns and nominal groups, particularly its nominalisations [cf. 18, 6-10; 13, 10; 15,
59-66; 16, 79-83; 12, 64). One of the important functions of nominals and nominal groups
is to classify objects and things (Participants in SFL), including abstract things. One
important form of the nominal in technocratic discourse is the nominalisation. This allows
processes (the action contained in a verb) to be construed as nouns. Thus, oxidise (a
process or verb) becomes the nominalisation, oxidation. However, linguistic condensation
can be used much more powerfully than this. In the following example, the nominal
group, this theoretical expectation, in the second paragraph carries all the information in
the preceding 88 word paragraph.
During the sudden collapse of a star under its own gravitational pressure, energy must be
released as the mass of the star collapses inward. One can calculate that during this
process, which lasts only a few seconds, the total energy released is about 1020 times as
much energy as is released by the sun during those same few seconds. Almost all of this
energy is released in the form of neutrinos, because they are the only objects that can
permeate the hot, dense environs of the collapsing star.
Never before had [this theoretical expectation] been verified but in ten seconds or so
during which the two detectors on earth signaled nineteen neutrino events, supernova
theory advanced from pure speculation to empirically tested wisdom. [30, 210].
This highlights an important feature of nominalisations: they shift clauses to a lower rank
order in the grammar, that is, to the level of a word rather than at the higher order of
clause [1, 39]. We can see that all the information in the first 88-word, 3-sentence
paragraph, which describes an extraordinary complex of processes, participants, and
circumstances, is collapsed into a three-word nominal group: this theoretical expectation.
But technocratic texts are rarely so courteous to the reader. Rather than making the
meaning of the nominal explicit by relating it to some preceding content, they generally
present nominals as self-contained, self-evident things. In other words, technocracy uses
nominals to hide semantic relations without ever making their content explicit. As a
result, technocratic propositions become less negotiable or contestable because ‘you can
argue with a clause but you can’t argue with a nominal group’ [1, 39]. In other words,
technocratic nominalisations close off debate by eliminating, or at least presuming, causal
and relational processes that would be evident in a clause. Thus, in technocratic discourse,
the nominal ‘becomes a declaration to be accepted - it repels demonstration, qualification,
negation of its codified and declared meaning’ [16, 79].
Nominal prominence characterises science writing [1]. Nominals and nominal
groups serve three important functions: to taxonomise, to convert processes into static
events through nominalisation, and to define. We will describe these briefly below.
Nominal as Taxonomic
An important function of the nominal, or nominal group, is to taxonomise the
phenomena we encounter. In science, vernacular taxonomies are replaced by scientific
taxonomies that allow items to be placed into, for example, division, (sub)class, order,
family, genus, species, variety, and so on. Gardeners encounter this all the time: for
example, the common name for the tree, Broad Leafed Paperbark, is converted into its
botanical name, Melaleuca quinquenervia. In doing this, science takes one step back from
the world of ordinary people to talk in an unfamiliar language. But the point of this is not
deliberate obscurantism or exclusivism; rather, it is a device that allows the scientist or
technician to render the phenomenon in a way that allows it to be analysed according to a
set of established scientific principles and taxonomic relations [31].
Thus, for example, when an engineer deals with a waste management problem, the
vernacular term, cleaners, is reconstrued as acids and alkalis. [31, 197]. These
reconstruals from the vernacular into the scientific allow the engineer to apply scientific
knowledge which is already organised into taxonomies under categories of acid and
alkalis, among other things, each with definable and predictable characteristics. Given that
scientists can predict the behaviour of acids and alkalis, they are able to make suggestions
for appropriate disposal of different types of products. But when the technical rationality
of waste management is transposed into social policy, the effect is frequently to
dehumanise the social world:
When Maggie X died, the [aged care] home [Morpeth Castle, Northumbria, UK] decided
that her savings of £450 was insufficient to pay for the funeral and asked the council to
pay. It refused and the owner of the home appealed to the Local Ombudsman. In his
comments to the latter, the council Chief Executive, wrote that ‘without wishing to appear
insensitive, one could argue that from a commercial viewpoint residents of a home are its
income producing raw material. Ergo, from a purely commercial view, deceased residents
may then be regarded as being the waste produced by their business’. Since, he
continued, the resident’s body was ‘controlled waste likely to cause pollution of the
environment or harm to human health’ the home had, under the definition of controlled
waste as defined by the Environmental Protection Act, ‘a specific duty’ to dispose of the
remains. Disposal, under the definitions of the Act, was ‘a business cost’.[32].
Here we see the potentially dehumanising implications of mixing technical, bureaucratic,
and managerialist language. In the above passage, deceased humans are construed as
“controlled waste”, as merely economic and logistical problems to be dealt with according
to “the Act”. Humane and ethical considerations are banished, and the treatment of
“controlled waste”, as defined by “the Act”, becomes the definitive prescription for
action. All this is premised on the basis of false objectivity, which really just hides vulgar
budgetary considerations.
Experts in other technical areas of the social sciences, such as economics and
management, categorise observable phenomena using specialised lexes. This, in itself, is
not any more inappropriate or undesirable than the scientist or the engineer doing so.
However, what often goes unacknowledged is that, in the social sciences, the
categorisations are far more contestable, flexible, and far more prone to value judgments
by those who taxonomise social phenomena. That is, the flexibility of social scientific
taxonomies (eg, class, religion, gender) arises from the ideological context and
underpinnings of those who are invested with the power to classify and describe humans
and their activities.
Another difference between social science and the “natural” sciences is that, in the
natural sciences, the relationship between the various phenomena is generally describable
and predictable because they are most usually empirically established over long periods of
time.4 Thus, if in organic chemistry, ionic bonds are formed by the transfer of one or more
valence electrons from one atom to another, then we know that an electropositive sodium
atom will always link up with an electronegative to form sodium chloride, or salt.
Notwithstanding that the entire edifice of chemistry rests upon the contrivance and mutual
agreement of chemical scientists over several hundred years, the internal logic provides an
effective means of explaining very specific and naturally occurring phenomena, precisely
because they are replicable and predictable. Not so with economics, for example. Without
wishing to begin an epistemological debate, simply let us note that neoclassical economics
adopts, sheds, reconstructs, and simultaneously uses multiple paradigms of understanding
in realms of analysis such as monetary policy, fiscal policy, external policy; and in
theories such as the J-curve, theories of comparative and absolute advantage, and so on.
Yet, with its theoretical and terminological arsenal, the “new” economics still seems to
have a very poor predictive or descriptive capacity. In fact, most economic predictions are
wrong [33, 77-81].
Ordinal divisions also occur in the process of classification. Superordinate
taxonomies ‘build up around the principle of subclassification’ [34, 295). Superordination
incorporates hyponymy, or class stratification [35, 332; 34, 288 - 301). Classification of
the parts of the whole (composition or constitution) also occur as meronymy [35, 332,
341; 34, 303 - 306). Both hyponymy and meronymy are forms of synonomy, although the
distinction between these two forms is not always clear [35, 332]. The organisation of a
text’s taxonomy is not always explicit, but can be inferred from the grammar: for
example, hyponymy takes the form A is a kind of B [a rose is a kind of flower], and
meronymy takes the form A is part of B; or A, B, and C are the composite parts of D
[Cambodia is a part of South-East Asia; or arms, legs, and seat form parts of a chair].
To return, then, to the notion of the taxonomic function of the nominal.
Fundamentally, the ‘possibility of ordering the things of the experiential world in some
field-specific way presupposes both observing and naming relevant phenomena’ [1, 143).
4 We do not, of course, include new fields such as particle theory, some fields of
theoretical astronomy, genetics, and so on.
From this perspective, the phenomena of such areas as economic policy [eg, labour costs;
factor price equilibrium] and social policy [eg, health initiatives; emerging technologies]
that are named by technocrats are clearly not objectively determined phenomenon that
transcend ideology nor even the most basic of assumptions. Indeed, the opposite is most
often true [15, 59-66]. In many cases, such as globalisation, the phenomena are not
observable at all. Indeed, their very existence may be a matter for debate.
A result of this is that the attributions ascribed to social categories will often
tautologically determine the characteristics of the items placed in that category [All X’s
have Y characteristics; therefore all Y’s are X’s]. Finally, just as in an engineers’ report,
the phenomena discussed in such policy statements are eventually reconstrued back to
their everyday, vernacular form in order to suggest a certain order, a certain form of
activity, carried linguistically through the process, or verb [31, 209].
Nominal as Definition
The most familiar and frequent linguistic method used to define something is an
identifying relational clause which has the structure, Token - Relational Process - Value:
for example The biome <Token> is <Relational Process> the living part of the ecosystem
<Value> [1, 149]. This might be understood more easily in latinate grammar terms as the
subject is equated with the complement through the use of (usually) the verb to be. One
way to identify a phenomenon is by specifying its form: for example,
The record of the electrical activity generated by the cardiac muscle during depolarization
is called an electrocardiogram (or ECG).
Another way is to specify how the nominal is valued
Environmental sustainability <token> [offers] <relational process> one of the best
examples of the divergent implications of realising (or not) global frameworks conducive to
socio-technical transformation <value>. [36, 27]
This sentence makes use of all the characteristic features of technocratic discourse,
including something we call process metaphor. Process metaphor changes the function of
the verb, but it does so only inside the functional grammar of the process, or verb,
categories (see below). In this sense, it is similar to grammatical metaphor, in which a
word, or a group of words, changes its grammatical function. Globalisation is a good
example of how grammatical metaphor works. Indeed, it is informative to note how the
grammatical metaphor of globalisation goes full circle: globe (nominal/noun); global
(epithet/adjective); globalise (process/verb) globalisation (nominalisation/noun). In the
Miller et. al. example above, a material process, offers, functions like an identifying-
intensive relational process, normally realised as a form of the verb to be. The author(s)
say that ‘[e]nvironmental sustainability offers one of the best examples …’ . But they are
saying that environmental sustainability is one of the best examples. A simple test shows
that this is the case. Reasonable substitutes for offers in this sentence do not include
proposes, proffers, and so on, which would normally be thought of as synonyms for
offers. But offers can easily be replaced by forms of the verb to be, including is, will be,
will have been.
Although the identifying-intensive process is usually realised through the verb to
be [X is Y], it may be realised through other process words such as equals, adds up to,
makes, comes out at, signifies, means, defines, spells, indicates, expresses, suggests,
offers, acts as, symbolises, plays [a role], represents, stands for, refers to, exemplifies.
Other than token/value relationships, these elaborations can take the form of embedded
clauses and nominal groups. Because technocratic definitions are more ideologically and
functionally flexible than those in the “natural” sciences, logical and definitive
idiosyncrasies arise within the discourse. For instance, in the natural sciences, we can say
that a human <token> is <process> a mammal <value>, but not the reverse: a mammal is
a human. However, in technocratic discourse, the identifying-intensive relation can often
travel in both directions precisely because of the abstract objects in the discourse. For
example, globalisation <token> is <process> the driving force of international trade
<value> can quite easily be reversed around the process, to mean something similar - the
driving force of international trade is globalisation - merely by swapping token for value,
something which is not possible in more concrete, less abstract agentless/passive clauses
with the same Tok^Val structure [35, 128]. The rigidity and abstraction of this example
appears as even more striking when one considers that all the elements can be shifted
around the central process (is) without regard to logical relations whatsoever:
the driving force of international trade is globalisation
globalisation is the driving force of international trade
the driving force of globalisation is international trade
international trade is the driving force of globalisation
The very fact that these discourse elements can be related without seeming immediately
nonsensical draws attention to the possibility that no logical relation exists between them
at all, even though the Tok^Val relation is performing an implicitly taxonomic, as well as
a defining, function.
2. Mantric Words
Technocratic discourse uses mantric nostrums, ‘abstract notions that obscure real
events’, and these are used over and over in public discourse [12, 64]. As they are used
more and more, they tend to become meaningless. However, in technocratic discourse,
such mantras play a vital role because, by infusing the condensed words or phrases
throughout everyday language, the rationality of a particular type of political-economic
system (in this instance, neo-classical economics and neoliberal politics) is naturalised by
repetition. Technocratic mantras juxtapose and relate apparently interchangeable terms
like enterprise, efficiency, globalisation, productivity, international competitiveness, trade
liberalisation, the information economy, technology, and so on [5, chapt. 2]. For example,
an embedded clause in Sentence 45 of the DFAT document says that trade liberalisation
and an open economy contribute significantly to economic growth and job creation. Such
juxtapositions allow technocratic authors ‘to tailor the apparent scientific “facts” to the
needs of its policy arguments’ [15, 75]. As a result, they allow meaning to be abridged and
stripped of its political and ideological connotations [16, 68]. Indeed, in today’s
technocratic political environment, ‘language attached to power is designed to prevent
communication’ [12, 57].
Technocratic condensations are rendered, by repetition, into culturally normative,
socially consumed and fetishised mantras that are also often juxtaposed to specific others,
like, for instance, the ‘holy trinity’ that accompanies “globalisation” in public policy (see
above). These are, sometimes co-meronymously, sometimes co-hyponymously related to
globalisation and are themselves condensations that draw on neo-classical assumptions.
By making the relationship between globalisation, trade liberalisation, financial markets,
and communication technology familiar and simplistic, the words and phrases become
“understandable”, “accessible”, familiar, and, consequently, even desirable concepts for
the public at large:
The fact that a specific noun is almost always coupled with the same “explicatory”
adjectives and attributes makes the sentence into a hypnotic formula which, endlessly
repeated, fixes the meaning in a recipient’s mind. He [sic] does not think of essentially
different (and possibly true) explications of the noun[s]. …It is a well-known technique
of the advertising industry where it is methodically used for “establishing an image”
which sticks to the mind and to the product [16, 81-82].
Technocratic discourse, then, may be viewed as the slogans and “jingles” for technocratic
policy statements. Slogans and jingles gain their purchase upon the social consciousness
through repetition; and through repetition they are publicly reinforced, rendered
recognisable and, thus, “sold” and consumed. As with musical jingles for consumer
goods, the familiarity of technocratic discursive forms ‘becomes a surrogate for the quality
ascribed to it’ [37, 26). In other words, technocratic discourse becomes a “value” in itself,
and command of the discourse and its official conduits becomes synonymous with
expertise and power [4].
3. Limited role of the process / verb
Because most of the work - that is, action and interaction among the phenomena -
in scientific and technical writing happens within the nominalisation, there is little
grammatical use for the verb. Where verbs do occur, they do not usually carry the action,
which is rendered static, and therefore uncontestably fixed, within nominalisations. Quite
often the verb’s role is to set up a relation between processes such as A causes B to
happen, where A and B are nominals, nominal groups, or nominalisations:
The effective use of these new technologies will be a key determinant of economic
competitiveness, as well as military capability: [DFAT: Sentence 15].
In this sentence, the verb is a verb to be. In SFL terms, to be is performing a relational
function between the subject and complement, each of which are large nominal groups
containing highly compressed nominalisations: The effective use of these new
technologies; a key determinant of economic competitiveness, as well as military
capability. In technocratic discourse, the relational verb is the most common form of verb
after material types (action verbs), as we explain in the findings section below.
By contrast, mental processes (verbs indicating feeling or thinking) are not very
common in scientific or technocratic texts. They are more likely to occur in advocacy
writing, for example, in texts about conservation. Martin [38] provides a useful
illustration of this by analysing two apparently expository texts produced by separate
conservation groups that provide information about preserving kangaroos and seals. These
texts showed a higher proportion of material (action) and mental verbs than would
normally be the case in scientific writing. Scientific and technical texts construe their
objective and value-free linguistic character, and their persuasive force, by the absence of
verbs indicating thought and feeling, or verbs expressing material, dynamic action.
In keeping with its pseudo-scientific nature, then, technocratic discourse contains
a large number of relational processes which attribute characteristics and identify a Thing.
They also contain abstract-material processes, which are most usually process metaphors,
and a lower number of existential processes. For example, in the DFAT document,
analysed more fully below, the following instances occurred
Relational Processes
Processes that attribute characteristics:
The distinction between the technology-rich and the technology-poor will be sharp:
In this sentence, without modality, the author attributes characteristics to
particular types of countries. Processes that identify a Thing:
The effective use of these new technologies will be a key determinant of economic
competitiveness, as well as military capability: [Sentence 15].
Technology use identifies the “determinant”. What is determined is economic
competitiveness and military capability. Thus the semantic intent of the sentence,
A causes B, is achieved through a relational process linking A (effective use of
technologies) to an abstract nominal (determinant) by using an adjectival phrase to
B (economic competitiveness and military capability).
Abstract material Processes
It links currency markets more completely and enables financial markets to judge instantly
the policy settings and decisions of national governments. [Sentence 11]
The first two processes in this sentence are material, and the third is mental.
However, the second process (enables) is an abstract material process that suggests
conscious, mental behaviour.
Existential Processes [verbs that say X exists]
Although there is [abundant evidence that trade liberalisation and an open economy
contribute significantly to economic growth and job creation] … . [Sentence 45].
In this sentence portion, a ‘truth’ (abundant evidence exists) is presented through
the use of the existential is. This evidence then presents the contentious proposition, that
trade liberalisation and an open economy contribute significantly to economic growth
and job creation, no longer as a proposition but as a given. This is achieved because the
proposition is embedded in the very large nominal group specified by the existential
process: abundant evidence that trade liberalisation and an open economy contribute
significantly to economic growth and job creation…, which is construed as an extant,
incontrovertible Thing.5
4. Absence of human agency
The absence of human agency is a feature of technocratic discourse that arises
from its technophilia and technological determinism, as well as from naturalising human
conceptions about economy and society, while at the same time dehumanising the
language. That is, within technocratic discourse, new technology is simply assumed to be
positive and inevitable [39; 11, 22; 23, 281-282]. According to technocracy, what is
needed is not a decision about technology’s efficacy or appropriateness for the needs of
humankind; but rather that the technology needs “drivers” who, of course, come from the
ranks of technocracy. With the “black box” of technocratic terminologies to propagate
these technologies, and their means of control, technocrats determine whether the
technology will be used (really not a question given its technocratically ascribed
inevitability), and also operate its social levers. As well, technocrats render the political-
economic world in “objective” descriptions using the taxonomies of the prevailing
orthodoxy. According to technocracy, this objective political-economic universe acts in
ways that are determined by immutable and self-evident economic laws of the market [39,
11, 12]. These internationalised notions of political economy are a kind of ‘economic
imperialism’ in which ‘idealisations of economic reason’ are operationalised to overcome
the ‘stubbornly resisting sludge’ of civil society [40, 69 - 70].
5 In SFL, the clause, trade liberalisation and an open economy contribute significantly to
economic growth, is defined as a postmodifying clause. In other words, it defines what
sort of evidence it is that exists.
Linguistically, people can be removed as easily from sentences, just as they are
removed from the technological and political-economic models that technocrats use to
formulate policies. Ideally, technocracy, as discourse, method, and ideology, adopts values
which ‘completely leave behind the specifically human world’ [Oakeshott, in 12 , 88].
What the science of economics requires, according to Oakeshott, a conservative proponent
of a neo-classical economic technocracy, is complete separation from a ‘vocabulary which
suggests this [human] world’ [in 12, 88].
Linguistic removal of people can happen when agency is unclear, when passive
voice is used, and when third person existential processes (especially expletive forms such
as There are or It is) are used. However, the most effective method is the agentless
passive form. Not surprisingly, technocratic texts are often characterised by ‘agentless
passive clause structures’ [15, 60]: that is, the absence of specifically human activity. An
effective clause needs agency even if it is implicit [35, 168 - 169]. Agency is the part of
the sentence that makes or causes something to happen. In sentences using relational
processes, most common in scientific and technical writing, the agent causes non-human
carriers to have attributes [41, 264-265]; for example
Lowering interest rates Leads to share price rises.
Agent / Attributor Predicate: causative Carrier Attribute
Thus, when human agency is removed from a sentence, causation becomes unclear, even
impossible to detect. In the sentence share prices in Asia crashed today, no causative
agent is evident. When there is agency, it is often in the grammatical subject position:
Fear of a meltdown caused Asian share prices to crash today.
However, they may be elsewhere in the sentence:
The crash in Asian share prices was caused by a fear of a meltdown.
Passive constructions are most evident in clauses using material processes. For example,
the active sentence:
The Budget created the conditions necessary for business to flourish.
can also be written as a passive sentence:
The conditions necessary for business to flourish were created by the Budget.
Thus, an agentless passive clause occurs when the grammatical subject does not perform
the action contained in the process/verb and the agent is not to be found anywhere else in
the sentence. In the sentence:
Business confidence was adversely affected.
the agent affecting business confidence, the doer of the action, is nowhere to be found.
Passive constructions in clauses using relational processes/verbs can be formed
where the identifying intensive verb reverses the Token (that which stands for what is
being defined) and Value (that which defines) positions. For example, in the following
sentence the Token and Value can shift either side of the relational intensive (indicates)
without raising too much alarm in the reader:
Globalisation <Token> causes <Verb> increased international trade <Value> OR
Increased international trade <Token> causes <Verb> globalisation <Value>.
Logically speaking, however, such easily transferred Token and Value positions,
especially where issues of causation are concerned, indicate, at best, a tautology or
outright mistake; at worst, an effort to confuse and obscure. As the preceding example
implies, ‘nominalisation puts virtually the entire transitivity system of English’ at the
disposal of the author [42]. That is to say, once abstracted and abridged by nominalisation,
a part of language can play the role of Process, Participant, or Circumstance.
Human agency may also be obscured by using third person forms of agency [15,
60]. Because ‘no “I” speaks to a “you”, no space for dialogue, disagreement or differing
points of view is opened up. Even the solidary (inclusive) “we” is absent, and only the
authoritative authorial (exclusive) “we” of multiple authorship is allowed’ (p. 60).
By using passive constructions, multiple-exclusive authorship, and nominalisation,
the technocratic author may make statements in which little or no human activity is
evident, and in which agency (who / what does the action) is diffused or completely
Semantic circularity
When Marcuse claims that technocratic speech ‘moves in synonyms and
tautologies … it never moves toward the qualitative difference’ [16, 80], he identifies a
crucial element of technological language and reasoning. The form of reasoning that
underpins the most widely propagated descriptions of globalisation is semantic circularity:
that is, a statement appears to be true, but may be logically nonsensical. This is because
the pseudo-scientific categories upon which technocratic tautologies rest are categories
created such that the definition determines the categorisation of the phenomenon (see ITF
above): that is, the definition of a Thing contains, at least in part, the phenomenon being
described. In other words, we allocate X to category Y because it displays Y
characteristics. We can then say that X will display Y characteristics because it is in the Y
category. Thus, it is a closed circle of reasoning by virtue of the classificatory process and
enables ‘expert’, self-evident claims to be made about outcomes when phenomena
interact. The technocrat’s circular dupe is to represent contestable premises as axiomatic,
and, therefore, as uncontestable.
The crucial role of categorisation and the expert ‘knowledge’ thus becomes
evident. These areas - the social scientific disciplines and their associated professions - are
most insulated from public inspection because of their arbitrary methods of classifying the
phenomena which they purport to study. This is the engine room of ideology
masquerading as objective social science.
Construing the impossible: The discourse of globalisation in action
Because it is such an excellent example of technocratic discourse, we have
selected a section from chapter two of In The National Interest [7] entitled Globalisation
and the Communications Revolution to demonstrate our analytical method. The purpose of
the four-page, 50 paragraph, 900 word section is, apparently, to explain globalisation and
the communications revolution, and their combined effects on foreign and trade policy for
Australia over the coming fifteen years [7, 18-21]. Because the passage is so confusing,
we provide a translation of each DFAT sentences, using ‘congruent structure’; the way in
which meanings are typically realised in everyday, ‘concrete language’ [42]. Our
congruent translations are marked in italics. Following each concrete translation is an
assessment using aspects of the analytical tools we outline above.
Sentence 1 Globalisation has characterised the latter part of the twentieth century and will
continue into the twenty-first
Globalisation is a defining feature of the latter part of the 20th century . Globalisation will
continue into the 21st century.
The condensed nominal globalisation is presented, through the process has
characterised, as an attribute of the present time that will continue into the future. No
definitions or premises for these truth claims seem to be considered necessary by the
technocratic author. Remarkably, the nominalisation controls two different Processes
(verbs) associated with it; one relational [has characterised], and one existential [will
continue]. The effect of this is to cast globalisation in two roles: as a characterising
attribute and a continuing process in and of itself.
Sentence 2 A defining feature of globalisation is the way in which business operates: firms
increasingly organise their activities on a global scale, forming production chains,
including services inputs, that cross many countries and greatly increase global
flows of trade and investment.
The way that business operates largely defines globalisation. Because businesses operate
internationally, an increased amount of international trade results.
This sentence attempts a partial definition of globalisation. Its logical effect is to create a
tautology and a circularity. In effect, it says that because businesses operate globally,
globalisation is defined by [businesses operating globally], which, in turn, results in more
international activity by businesses, which, of course, defines globalisation. Crucially,
both cause and response to the phenomenon created by the cause are conflated in the four
items listed. It should be noted that, within the DFAT text, the condensed concept of
globalisation from here is now as unpacked as it will be for the reader after this circular
Sentence 3 Globalisation is not new, nor is it just an economic phenomenon: it has important
political and social dimensions
Globalisation is not a new phenomenon. It involves economics, politics, and society.
This sentence describes the extent to which globalisation affects Australia. In essence, it
says that globalisation affects all fields of policy, and every aspect of Australian society:
political, economic, and social. Furthermore, it has done so for some unspecified amount
of time. The author gives no reasons for her or his assertions here.
Sentence 4 It is driven by many factors, of which technology, the related mobility of people,
goods and ideas, and a liberal trading environment are perhaps the most
The four main things propelling globalisation are technology, the related mobility of
people, goods and ideas, and unrestricted trade.
This sentence contains the process metaphor is driven by which is functions relational
(causative-meronymy: is caused by) but appears as a material process (action verb) in the
passive voice. The co-meronymous elements that compose the driving factors are
technology, the related mobility of people, goods and ideas, and a liberal trading
environment. Each of these co-meronymous nominals is devoid of human agency. The
primary noun in the nominal group, mobility of people, is mobility, while of people
functions as an modifying phrase that converts the potentially human into an economic
Within the sentence, it is assumed that technology, in general, affects the mobility
of people. That is not necessarily the case [43; 39]. Goods and ideas - examples of which
might be, respectively, golf balls and daydreams - are also condensed into a single factor
identified as a main motivating actor that drives globalisation. No explanation is offered
as to why this might be the case. Trade liberalisation, the process by which a liberal
trading environment is created through deregulation, is also named as a driving factor of
globalisation, again with no logical cause evident. However, this apparent axiom is highly
contestable. In fact the reverse is more likely to be the case [39; 43; 44; 45]. Much more
could be said about the ideological underpinnings of sentence 4, but these become more
obvious as DFAT’s exposition of globalisation continues.
Sentence 5 The increasingly global activity of firms has implications for trade and policy.
Because businesses operate internationally, trade and policy will be affected.
The circular nature of technocratic discourse is clearly evident in this sentence.
Previously, we are told that globalisation is defined by business trading internationally
which, in turn, creates increased international trade. However, this sentence sets the reader
up for the ideological component that is to follow by making one of the “implications” of
business activity policy. Apart from this rhetorical strategy, the sentence is semantically
redundant. The thing that implies effects upon trade and policy (implications) is an
abstract, nominalised process that contains an essential part of its own definition: the
increasingly global activity of firms has implications for trade [translated: international
trade has implications for trade]. The use of the attributive/relational process (the only
process in the sentence is has) and an abstract nominalisation (implications) also marks
this as a typically technocratic text.
Sentence 6 It reinforces the importance of open markets and focuses attention on national
regulatory structures as potential obstacles to the efficient allocation of resources
through international trade and investment : …
The global activity of firms reinforces the importance of open markets. It also draws
attention to national regulatory structures. These are potential obstacles to international
trade and investment. If left unfettered, international trade and investment allocate
resources efficiently.
We were set up for this ideological conclusion in the previous sentence; now here it is.
The policy that we encounter is plainly consistent with neo-classic market theory, the
ideological underpinnings of Australian governments and international policy proponents
since the mid-1980s [46, 56; 39, 11]. The anaphoric nominals (globalisation, liberal
trading environment, global activity, trade, policy) are conflated into the pronoun It in the
theme position of the sentence. This makes the sentence ambiguous. If the antecedent
nominal is assumed to be liberal trading environment, then the sentence is entirely
circular. If it is any of the other nominals, globalisation, global activity, trade, or policy,
then each is being treated as co-meronymous, thereby re-defining the constituent elements
of the text in a way that closes out other possibilities (such as semi-liberal trade or local
activity). In either case, given the preceding attempts at defining globalistion, the whole
thing is, by this stage, utterly nonsensical from a logical perspective.
Having now closed off the debate to allow the neo-classical ITF to continue on its
own terms, the text provides us with four uncontestable propositions, as our congruent
translation indicates. The 29 word sentence manages its feat of lexical intimidation by
using only two material processes (reinforces, focuses). These two processes relate three
complex, highly-compressed, nominal groups that collapse highly-ideological concepts,
themes, and processes. In the first statement of ‘fact’, the sentence proposes that, because
firms operate within an international trading environment, open markets are important.
This begs the question: to whom are they important and why? Secondly, the global
activity of firms focuses attention (a material process performing as a behavioural,
personifying verb that suggests an attentive, cognitive entity) on national regulatory
structures. There is no human agency here, yet, clearly, the sentence conveys the highly
ideological proposition that national regulatory structures are a hindrance to international
trade. This is where the ideological proposition is converted into policy imperatives. Yet it
has all been done ex cathedra, and without a human being in sight, because it rests upon
the “given” that unregulated trade and investment allocates resources efficiently. Such a
proposition is clearly contentious. For example, as a direct result of international trade
deregulation, ‘a new form of highway robbery’ [Keegan, 1998, in 43], the richest 358
people in the world now own more than the poorest 2.3 billion people [43]. Inequality of
wealth redistribution, world-wide, is rising logarithmically [11].
In the remaining forty-one sentences the text becomes no clearer, nor any less
circular. Consequently, it fails, with exquisitely up-to-date sophistication, to explain
globalisation and its effects on Australian society.
Results of the lexico-grammatical analysis
The results of the micro-analysis of the six sentences of DFAT’s text show how
the lexico-grammatical and semantic features of technocratic discourse work. In the
following section, we present the results of our analysis of the DFAT text as a textual
exemplar of technocratic discourse. The results are presented under the five main
discursive features that we have identified:
1. Use of the nominal and the nominal group
The text is lexically dense because of the role of nominals or nominal groups in
technocratic discourse. In its 900 words, the text contains 145 nominals and nominal
groups that use 591 words: a mean average of 4.1 words per nominal. In sentence 9, for
example, a 91-word sentence contains 12 nominal groups in the following order: a massive
increase in international financial flows; the rate of growth of international trade; the services
sector; 27 per cent of world trade; 21 per cent; the growth of transnational corporations; 30 percent
of world trade; intra-firm trade; the increasing ease of business travel and the international
movement of labour; increases in foreign direct investment flows; the last ten years. These are
connected by three passive verbs and one verbal group. The longest nominal group is 12
words in length: national regulatory structures as potential obstacles to the efficient allocation of
resources. Of the nominals, only eleven are single-word nominalisations: Globalisation (5
times), technology, firms, attention, interdependence, and implications (2 times). The rest
of the nominals are groups. This feature of technocratic discourse closely resembles
scientific and technical writing.
2. Mantric Words
The most obviously active nominals in the text, that is, those that are allowed to
engage in material processes within congruently structured sentences, are, predictably,
globalisation, communication technology, financial markets, and trade liberalisation.
This can be seen in the following sentences:
Technological change facilitates the spread of ideas [Sentence 27]; and
global communications and global markets bring the world closer together, reinforcing
interdependence [Sentence 25].
3. Limited use of verbs
Because the DFAT text relies mostly on nominals and nominal groups, there are
only 79 finite verbs in 900 words of text. The finite verbal component is 115 words (or
12.7% of the words in the text). The largest process type is the material group (n = 32;
40.5%). Although material verbs involve action, most of these are abstract material verbs
such as increase, reinforces, compared and process metaphors such as is driven, focuses
and have grown. Many of these processes involve causation: make[s] (4 times); caused (2
times); bring[s], meaning to bring about (2 times); lead, has led; engenders, contribute,
drive, creates. Because these causative material processes do the work of revealing how
mechanisms operate, they provide crucial information about the actual operations of a
The next largest process group is the relational (n = 29; 36.7%). Relational verbs
set up a relation between two entities where something is said to be something else. The
relation may also be attributive [Q is an attribute of P; or P has Q attributes] or identifying
[Q is the identity of P] [35, 128 - 130]. Eighteen of these relational processes are
attributive, mostly appearing as the verb to be, although one occurs in the form has
characterised and one occurs as has. The ten identification relationals are mostly in the
form of the verb to be, although one occurs as are to remain and one as may become. The
nine existential verbs (11.4% of processes, are mostly forms of to be, although four, will
continue, is emerging, means, and has are not in this form. Existential verbs assert the
existence of something.
Although mental processes occur only six times (7.6%) in the text, their usage
bears close consideration. One type of usage involves judgment, which is presented as
disembodied objectivity:
This is reflected in part in a massive increase in international financial flows; the rate of
growth of international trade, especially in the services sector, which is expected to
account for 27 per cent of world trade by 2010 compared with 21 per cent now ….
[Paragraph 39]
or where the judgment is made by an abstract Thing, in fact an abstract authority, not
Not only are national policy settings judged by the international marketplace, individual
companies –irrespective of whether they are exporters–are increasingly subject to the
disciplines of international best practice. [Paragraph 43]
Mental processes are also used to denote perception, but in both cases where it is used in
this way, it is used to state a mis-perception which is about to be corrected by the voice of
Some see it challenging economic sovereignty. In developed economies there is already a
growing sense of resistance to what is perceived as the ceaseless demands of the market
for restructuring and cost-cutting. . [Paragraph 47]
This exemplifies the claim we made earlier in this paper, that incorrect, oppositional
discourses are cast as a mistaken “common sense” idea that is supposed to defer to the
more intelligent technocratic understanding. Where the verbal processes
(communicate[d]; explained) are used, the text indicates that the problem of globalisation
is not so much to do with it as a political-economic phenomenon as a phenomenon that
needs to be ‘sold’ to the polity through better communication.
4. Absence of human agency:
The DFAT text contains no human agency whatsoever. While people are
mentioned, they are rendered as part of a nominal group as we describe above. The two
nominal groups in the text that contain references to humans are: the related mobility of
people; the increasing ease of business travel and the international movement of labour.
Here, people merely characterise the nature of a particular type of global mobility.
5. Semantically circular
DFAT’s explanation of globalisation is entirely circular. In fact, globalisation, as
an active agent, and a characterising attribute, takes on sixteen different roles within the
text. Upon closer inspection, globalisation looks more like a god of some sort than a
scientific phenomenon. According to DFAT, globalisation is a multi-dimensional thing; a
process; a state of historically specific “being” without a beginning or an end; an
autonomous, active, phenomenologically extant agent with a specific speed and trajectory
that is affected by the quality of communication, and which directly creates the fate of
It creates winners and losers: [Sentence 39].
For some, DFAT say, globalisation is as an observable threat to economic well being. But
while globalisation is problematic, it is manageable. Globalisation is presented as a
powerful force that DFAT assumes is both inevitable and desirable. However, when
viewed as an abstract, phenomenologically evidenced (though not apparent as an
embodied entity), immutable, active, disciplining, ultimately beneficial agent without a
temporal beginning or end that dictates matters of policy (rules and disciplines which
must be obeyed); that determines the fate of persons (creates winners and losers); that
(both potentially and implicitly) has the power to destroy national economies (whole
countries); that should be feared, and which demands continual reform
(repentance/correctional treatment); globalisation clearly takes on the characteristics of a
The intermediaries between this immutable God, and the fate of the nation state
(Australia, in this instance), are business, their goods and ideas, technology, the mobility
of people, and, most importantly, trade liberalisation:
Trade liberalisation, far from being part of the problem, is very much a part of the solution:
[Sentence 50].
According to DFAT, thanks largely to ‘trade liberalisation’, Australia has been spared the
worst problems that globalisation appears to cause, but of course cannot, because
globalisation is intrinsically beneficial. However, DFAT tells us, things will get worse if
trade liberalisation is not continually pursued as a matter of policy. Thus, according to
DFAT, ‘trade liberalisation’, which drives ‘globalisation’, must be pursued if we are to
avoid the worst effects of globalisation, which, in turn, is driven by ‘trade liberalisation’,
and so it goes, in an , intractable circle of tautologous logic. Of course, globalisation
remains undefined by DFAT, it merely is, was, and will be, so people just might as well
get used to it.
We have argued, and demonstrated, that technocratic discourse is exclusionary and
‘monologic’ insofar as it is an “expert” language that operates within ‘sacrosanct,
impenetrable boundaries [and thus]… retards and freezes thought’ [47, 133]. To date
technocratic discourse has been a successful tool to “sell” neoclassical social policy,
similar to a massive global advertising campaign. Its mantras now infuse “everyday” life
as axioms for rationalising seemingly inevitable social and economic policy choices: it
just “has to be that way”. As a ‘jargon of authenticity’, technocratic language has become
‘a trademark of societalized chosenness, noble and homey at once’ [18, 5-6]. In other
words, it successfully combines the democratic-familiar with the exclusionary-
technocratic through mass-mediated, repetitive normativity.
We have shown how this is manifested in specific lexico-grammatical forms, and
in semantic circularity. The discourse operates by incorporating highly contestable neo-
classical and neo-liberal assumptions as foundational axioms, and by reifying nominalised
abstractions that construe the world in particular ways that make it seem pointless to
challenge. In technocratic discourse, human agency is virtually non-existent beyond
complying with the demands of the ‘new world order’ [48].
We argue that the emergence of technocratic discourse is politically significant
because it advances the interests, to the point of hegemony, of economically dominant
countries, transnational corporations, and supranational legislative bodies. By abridging
and compressing meaning, technocratic discourse closes other possible meanings of the
phenomenon being discussed, engendering a type of ‘conformism which is a facet of
technological rationality translated into social behaviour’ [16, 77]. Of course, a
technological rationale for action of any sort
is the result not of a law of movement in technology as such but of its function in today’s
economy. The need which might resist central control has already been suppressed by the
control of the individual consciousness [19, 121].
The effect of this closed, yet mantric technocratic discourse is social passivity
characterised by a feeling that one can only conform to overwhelming and immutable
forces: ‘[i]nstead of giving [people] a new sense of power, the explanation gives comfort
to passivity - particularly public passivity - faced with reigning ideologies’ [12, 54 - 55].
The question we have not attempted to answer in this paper is how the
technocratic discourse of globalisation in particular is so effectively propagated. From an
informed perspective however, it seems clear that those discourse communities which, by
necessity, must directly engage with technocracy must do so within the limited discursive
possibilities available within the discourse we have described. Those having to do so
include, most notably, the media; non-government organisations (NGOs) who perform
social and environmental functions in cooperation with government agencies; and
businesses. By entering into the technocrats’ discursive realm, participants are required to
“understand” - or at least appear to understand - technocratic language and reasoning. In
this way, technocratic discourse is propagated through and by these organisations. In
adopting the mantric formulas, the political axioms remain immutable, quarantined from
other infecting discourses with different world views and different ethical orientations.
The next set of questions we need to ask are : To what degree does the media
engage in, propagate, and use technocratic language?; To what degree do NGOs engage in
and propagate technocratic rationality and language? How do such engagements
perpetuate and increase the social control of technocratic discourse? These questions are
of critical importance to social, political, and communication theory and practice and we
hope to encourage such studies with this paper.
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... The word "naturally" indicates the taken-for-grantedness of sanction when a person's "shortfall" is determined. Technocratic discourse like this allows the unquestioned classification of an action in a particular way that allows a certain process that occludes the complexity of people to ensue (McKenna & Graham, 2000). More specifically, adopting a nominal such as "shortfall" in this procedural language infers that "once a thing is named an appropriate procedure ensues" (McKenna & Waddell, 2006, p.220). ...
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... The word "naturally" indicates the taken-for-grantedness of sanction when a person's "shortfall" is determined. Technocratic discourse like this allows the unquestioned classification of an action in a particular way that allows a certain process that occludes the complexity of people to ensue (McKenna & Graham, 2000). More specifically, adopting a nominal such as "shortfall" in this procedural language infers that "once a thing is named an appropriate procedure ensues" (McKenna & Waddell, 2006, p.220). ...
Full-text available
Military leaders face ethical and moral dilemmas daily that span the conflict continuum from large-scale combat operations to security cooperation and deterrence. In 2011, the Australian Chief of Defence Force (CDF), Air Chief Marshall Angus Houston, called for values to guide leadership. Although the desire to develop military leaders who make decisions in a virtue-based culture is a noble ideal, it is enormously complex to enact. Although the Australian Defence Force (ADF) seeks to build a values-based culture and leadership founded on ethical practices, there is little guidance on what values-based culture is and how this military ethic is practiced. This thesis sympathetically confronts the challenge posed by the former CDF to develop values-based leadership. While endorsing the sentiment, this thesis has identified significant impediments to such an ideal. Applying post-structural discourse analysis to a vignette study and interview study of Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) officers revealed ambiguities, contradictions, and incommensurability in practising ethical leadership. It was clear within both studies that the higher ranks used more process-based and legalistic reasoning linked with their bureaucratic subject position. In contrast, junior officers were more inclined to identify the moral complexity of decision-making, including cognitive and moral situational awareness, and revealed more complex subject positions. This exposed an internal dialectic between personal agency and organisational power. It was concluded that the Chief's likely intention was for a virtue-based, not values-based leadership. This research has unearthed significant concerns that must be addressed to enhance the likelihood of achieving this desirable ideal. These concerns include dealing with the physicality of the body, the multiple constructed subject, and the inevitable and most irreconcilable dialectic of personal agency, which is essential to values/virtue-based leadership and organisational power. Implications are provided for future defence force, and potentially other hierarchical bureaucratic rules-based organisations,' virtuous leadership. Adopting moral agency based on virtuous character will require rules-based organisations, such as the military, to contend with the dialectic between codified and enforceable processes and moral agency.
... Organisational socialization and systemic regulations are some of the key practices towards the corporate colonization of the lifeworld (Deetz, 1992) to the extent that organisations are the important places where human identity is formed in contemporary societies (Mumby, 2013). Thus, technocratic and bureaucratic discourses (McKenna & Graham, 2000;Sarangi & Slembrouck, 1996) and key aspects of organisational discourses, which focus on key features of organisations such as culture, identity, power relation and interaction (Iedema & Wodak, 1999) are associated with the corporate colonisation of the lifeworld. The processes of corporate colonisation have ramifications for individual employees within organisations, and the discursive features, practices and technologies of the organizations themselves. ...
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... Technical narratives are also related to what has been termed the "technocratic discourse", which McKenna & Graham (2000) see as a scientific disguise of a political agenda. ...
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As one of the first researchers authorised to observe hearings and access court files at the Court of Protection, Jaime Lindsey offers an original account and analysis of the workings of this court. Using data collected with the approval from the senior judiciary of the Court of Protection and the Ministry of Justice, this innovative book combines empirical data with theoretical and normative analysis. It takes a socio-legal approach to understanding how the Mental Capacity Act operates in practice to achieve access to justice and situates current debates within an international context, showing how other jurisdictions have been guided by the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Furthering scholarship across several fields including access to justice, healthcare law and procedural justice theory, this is a timely and pioneering book that argues for a reimagining of the Court of Protection.
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