This editorial appeared in Volume 2 (1) of The Semiotic Review
Editorial: Discourse Analysis With A Cause
by Teun A. van Dijk
The history of the humanities and social sciences in general and
that of semiotics, linguistics and discourse analysis in particular,
occasionally witness periods of specific social and political engagement.
The late 1960s are a prominent and much cited example and there
are good reasons to assume that one generation later, at the beginning
of a decade of antemillennium soul-searching, a new period of critical
research may develop. This is particularly true for the study of
discourse which, during its 25 odd years of existence, has matured
into an independent and rather successful new cross-discipline in
many domains of the humanities and the social sciences. Of course,
this "critical" or "political" phase in the development of discourse
studies is neither unexpected nor unprepared. Since its foundation
in the mid-1960s, and in close connection with French structuralism
and the development of semiotics, several scholars have been engaged
in critical or socio-political studies of text and talk. However,
the major paradigms in the many varieties of discourse analysis
were still inspired by linguistic, semiotic, anthropological, sociological
or psychological approaches that focussed on the structures or strategies
of discourse understanding and interaction. Even when social contexts
were examined for instance in work associated with the other new
discipline of these same 25 years, sociolinguistics, truly critical
or political work was the exception. Discourse analysis, like other
emerging disciplines, was too busy developing its own goals, orientation,
methods and theories to bother with pressing socio-political issues.
In that respect, it proved hardly more engaged than one of its influential
mother-disciplines, linguistics itself, although at the end of the
1970s there were isolated attempts, principally in Great Britain
and Australia, at "critical linguistics".
During the 1980s, "critical linguistics" merged with similar approaches
in social semiotics, pragmatics or what will here be called critical
discourse analysis. More systematically than before, this new orientation
placed critical, socio-political and socio-cultural issues on the
agenda. One important factor in this development is, of course,
the feminist approach in women's studies. In the analysis of language
use, discourse and women's communication, it became increasingly
legitimate to ask questions about inequality, power and dominance
in group relations and about the ways these are reproduced and legitimated
by text and talk. By asking such questions as "Whose Language?",
the study of language and discourse went beyond the sophisticated
analysis of sentence or text grammars, speech acts, conversational
interaction, text processing, communicative events or sociolectal
variations. Beyond the social microstructures of situated text,
understanding and interaction, such questions address the macrostructures
of society including those of group relations, organizations and
institutions. Socio-political "positions", of women, ethnic minorities,
classes or world regions, as well as the ideologies that sustain
their subordination, and their resistance, also required a discourse
analytical approach. The nuclear arms race, ecological disasters,
the continuing exploitation of the Third World and the political
developments in Eastern Europe, have been among the issues that
have similarly demanded attention also from discourse analysis.
The time has come, therefore, to put these scattered developments
into a more homogeneous perspective. One way to do this, as usual,
is to create an international journal. Such a journal, Discourse
& Society now exists, and its success shows that it provides
a much needed independent forum for research that hitherto remained
rather marginal in a large number of linguistic, pragmatic, discourse
analytical and social science journals. Obviously, this is not enough.
Some 30 articles a year do not suffice to define a paradigm. For
Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) to become a prominent approach
in the humanities and social sciences we should expect dozens of
books, hundreds of articles and conference papers, and special symposia
or conference sections, yearly.
It is even more important, however, to formulate explicit goals,
principles, methods and theories that sustain such critical inquiry.
That such foundations for the new direction in research should satisfy
the usual criteria of scholarship should be obvious if we want to
please the "others" in our discipline. However, critical research
is always also, if not primarily, self critical about scholarly
research. It does not merely change the prevalent methods, challenge
a theory, or disrupt a paradigm. Rather, it asks questions about
the very foundations and goals of science, and even deals with the
sociopolitical positions of scholars themselves. Again, feminist
theory formation and practice have shown that scholarship is inextricably
linked with the position of women in general and female scholars
in particular. The same is true for Blacks and other minorities
in their critical analysis of racism and its manifestations in academia.
Third World scholars daily experience what it means not only to
carry out research in shabby conditions, but also to be marginalized
if not ignored by "our" (north-western) journals and "our" (north-western)
conferences. Politically no less relevant has been the close encounter
between critical research on the international arms race, on pollution,
refugees and war and peace in the Middle East on the one hand, and
everyday resistance and political position-taking on the other hand.
In other words, the study of discourse is part of this social, political
and cultural world and the time has come to reflect systematically
and extensively about its position in this world. In a world and
a period where not only the fundamental problems have grown to a
global scale, but in which also text, speech and communication have
reached a scale of influence and power that directly signal the
measure of dominance of those who "own" them, control them or have
access to them, critical discourse analysis has a vast field of
practice. Thus our special task is that of what I shall call analytical
resistance. By analyzing the mechanisms of the discourses of
power that reproduce and legitimate the many forms of inequality
we may be expected to contribute our share to the struggles of resistance
and change. Critical discourse analysis, thus, aims at the formulation
of effective counter-discourse and the persuasive development of
counter-ideologies. It does not simply speak about this world,
but in this world. It does not indulge in the fashionable,
postmodernist rejection of "old-fashioned" words such as "solidarity."
Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) does not believe that Ideologies
have come to their end. On the contrary, its task is to show that,
more than ever, but more covertly and subtly, and hence more effectively,
they are alive and kicking.
If we should have learned one thing from the late 1960s, it is
that within the socio-political and cultural context of the 1990s,
the effectiveness of CDA does not merely depend on the enthusiastic
engagement or the ideological principles of its practitioners. Analytical
resistance is pointless, for instance, without solid theories, powerful
methods of research and persuasive applications that "work". One
essential condition of theoretical renewal is that it should be
multidisciplinary. Serious social and political issues do not respect
the traditional boundaries between different fields. During the
last 25 years, increasingly sophisticated analyses of text and talk,
thus, may have elevated the new cross-discipline to a level of academic
respectability, but its socio-political effectiveness has remained
slight. One of the causes of this lack of effectiveness is our limited
insight into the details of the very role of discourse in society,
polity and culture. That power, ideology, or group inequality is
crucially reproduced and legitimated by text and talk, may have
become a trivial insight. How exactly these processes operate,
however, we hardly know.
Theoretically, this means that we need to examine the details of
the contextualization of the many structures and strategies
of discourse we have learned to analyze in the past decades. Societal
structures, however, do not immediately influence text and speech,
nor does discourse, or communication directly affect such structures
of society and culture. We need at least the important interface
of social cognitions, that is, detailed insight into the structures
of knowledge and belief representations of language users as social
group members. We need to make explicit with what cognitive strategies
speakers translate such social cognitions into the many structures
of their discourses and, conversely, how discourse structures in
specific contexts affect such social cognitions. This will, at the
same time, provide the necessary understanding of the processes
of the other dimension of the socio-cognitive interface, that is,
how social cognitions are being acquired, used and changed in the
first place. ln other words, social, political and cultural structures
can operate through discourse only through the minds of language
users, not as individual speakers, but as members of groups or cultures.
This means that the discourse analyst should work in close collaboration
with the socially oriented social psychologists as easily as with
sociologists and political scientists, and conversely, that social
scientists should not hesitate to integrate into their work cognitive
or linguistic research results. There are vast fields of theoretical
inquiry at the boundaries of these disciplines that remain virtually
unexplored and that need to be investigated if we want to contribute
to a truly effective critical discourse analysis.
To illustrate this general call to engage in critical discourse
analysis, let me offer the example of the kind of issues I have
been engaged in since 1980, the study of racism and its reproduction
through various kinds of discourse. First a general observation,
or rather question, that should be familiar to any scholar working
on serious social and political issues: Why are so few scholars
in discourse analysis, linguistics, semiotics and related disciplines
actively interested in such a fundamental problem of "our" north-western
society? Indeed, a similar question was asked by women who several
decades ago took the initiative to again study the position of women
in society and the power relations between men and women. Despite
the complexities of the sociology of science, the answer boils down
to the simple fact that most leading or influential scholars were
men. The same is true for the lack of interest in the many fundamental
issues related to the problem of racism; most prominent and influential
scholars in "our" society are white. This means that, even if they
have personal sympathy for equal rights, affirmative action, the
struggle against Apartheid or anti-racist action, very few of them
are deeply and personally concerned and motivated to engage themselves
in that field of research and action, often leaving it to their
few colleagues in the rather marginal Black Studies or Ethnic Studies
departments. A brief inspection of the contents of 36 prominent
journals in the social sciences and the humanities, including those
on discourse and communication, pragmatics, political science, sociology
and psychology show for instance that the term "racism" occurs in
only 3 of the 5,783 titles of articles published during the last
five years. The term "discrimination" occurs 24 times, "prejudice"
8 times, and "racist" only 3 times. More than half of these studies
appear in specialized journals of ethnic and racial studies. True,
papers may deal with racism with other words in their titles, but
we may safely conclude that hardly more than 1% of all articles
in the social sciences deal with the fundamental social problem
of racism. This is also true for the many books and papers in the
fields of discourse analysis, linguistics, semiotics or communication.
Social psychology may often deal with "stereotypes", but carefully
avoids the (unscientific?) concept of "racism".
One of the most salient results of my present work about the reproduction
of racism through elite discourse and communication is that racism
is systematically denied, mitigated or otherwise marginalized as
a problem by many white scholars, even those working on "ethnic
relations." In this framework, then, it is essential to investigate
more generally how white societies establish, maintain, reproduce
and legitimate an often highly subtle system of white group dominance,
featuring not only systematic discrimination in everyday life, but
also the accompanying social cognitions (attitudes, ideologies)
of own group preference if not superiority.
It is a major task of critical discourse analysis to examine in
detail the many forms and strategies of white text and talk that
contribute to such processes of reproduction. From everyday conversations
with friends,-to textbooks, literature, movies, advertising, news
reports, a multitude of institutional (including scholarly) reports
and dialogues, among many other forms of discourse and communication,
we witness the defensive or persuasive expression of underlying
ethnic or racial prejudices developed to sustain the status quo
of white dominance. Overall topics, narrative structures, argumentation
strategies, lexical style, rhetoric, semantic moves, and conversational
features may thus all contribute to the expression and signalling
of white group membership, self-serving face-work ("I am not a racist,
but..."), and the systematic, though subtle derogation of the "others".
We thus witness how discourse expresses and confirms the racial
or ethnic status quo more overtly and crudely in spontaneous and
unmonitored "street-talk" or conversations among friends or family
members, but certainly more influential in the more guarded and
hence seemingly "tolerant" public texts of the political, corporate,
media, academic, legal, social or professional elites. There are
few areas where the term "silent majority" is less adequate than
The complexities of such a study of the discursive reproduction
of racism are considerable. It first requires the creation of a
sophisticated "diagnostic" battery of structures of text and talk
that are preferred in the expression or legitimation of ethnic prejudices
or dominant group relations. Even pauses, repairs and hesitations
in conversation may be relevant to detecting underlying processes
of self-monitoring speech on "delicate" topics. Narratives about
personal experiences with "them" may suddenly not only lose their
Resolution category--thereby signalling how the "unresolved problem"
of "foreigners" in the neighbourhood or city is cognitively represented
in mental models--but also essentially become embedded in an argumentation
in which "lived" personal events are used as persuasive premises
that support a generally negative conclusion: "They" do not belong
here. Tolerance is generally proclaimed, also by the most outspoken
racists: "We have nothing against them but ..". Even representative
of the Front National in the French Assemblé Nationale, as
well as their friends in other European parliaments, may often be
heard claiming that they are of course not racist. Thus, a vast
discursive framework is being set up to signal compliance with the
"official" norm, while at the same time seeking the strategic subterfuges
that allow them to "speak the truth" about their fellow citizens
These discursive structures and strategies should be seen as the
external, and hence social, manifestations of the underlying representations
and processes of social cognitions shared by many or most white
group members. These cognitions allow them not only to master and
explain the social world of ethnic and racial diversity around them,
but are also brought to bear in the practices of everyday racism.
From the apparently trivial, but in effect highly demeaning "irregularities"
experienced by minorities in the everyday life of shops, public
transport, work or school, to the more structural and consequential
practices of political decision-making about virtually all the aspects
of their social life, corporate or public hiring and firing, education,
research, media coverage, and other practices of the elites, we
witness the system of a dominant consensus (with its many varieties
and contradictions) that can only be kept in place by a powerful
framework of corresponding social cognitions. Discourse--and especially
elite discourse--is the key of this reproduction process, while
combining social cognitions with social practices at the level of
the everyday implementation of the overall system of racism.
Racism is but one example among many. Critical discourse analysis
has a long agenda. It is not a fashion, but a mission. It is a mode
of research and not a passing paradigm. By definition, it combines
theory and practice. It is multidisciplinary and does not fear to
explore everybody's backyard. Its practitioners know they sometimes
get into trouble. When "formal" linguistics, text analysis, semiotics
or psychology appeared to be leading to rather easy grants and subsidies,
the monies for critical research suddenly appear to be less available.
Critical discourse analysis is difficult, theoretically, analytically
and practically. At the same time, it is rich and challenging. It
is real scholarship. It may make a difference.
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Teun A. van Dijk is professor of discourse studies
at the University of Amsterdam. After earlier work in literary theory,
text grammar, discourse pragmatics, and the psychology of text comprehension,
his work in the 1980s focussed on the analysis of news in the press
and the study of the reproduction of racism in discourse and communication.
His major books in English in these latter domains are Prejudice
in Discourse (1984), Communicating Racism (1987), Racism
and the Press (1991), Discourse and Discrimination (edited
with Qeneva Srnitherman, 1988), News as discourse (1988),
and News analysis (1988). He is now preparing a new book on
discourse and racism. Teun A. van Dijk is editor of the Handbook
of Discourse Analysis (4 vols., 1985), founding editor of
TEXT and founding editor of Discourse & Society.