(or "Why there's no such thing as Critical Discourse)
An important field within Discourse Analysis is Critical Discourse Analysis. In today’s lecture James Gee posed the question: What is Discourse Analysis and what makes it Critical?
Discourse analysis (as Gee sees it) has two basic tasks. Looking at
- utterance-type meaning
- and utterance-token meaning
When we use language we have some specific expectations. How language “normally” is being used and how language has a certain “meaning potential”. Meaning potential: a range of possible meanings that the word or structure can take on in different contexts of use.
The second distinction is between vernacular styles of language and non-vernacular styles. Most linguists believe that this process of native language acquisition is partly biological. People use their native language initially and throughout their lives to speak in the vernacular style of language, that is, the style of language they use when they are speaking as “everyday” people and not as specialists of various sorts (e.g., biologists, street-gang members, lawyers, video-game adepts, postmodern feminists). Everyone’s vernacular style is as good as anyone else’s.
This claim bears important issues for education. From a linguistic point of view no child comes to school with a worse or better language than any other child’s. A child’s language is not lesser because that child speaks a so-called “non-standard” dialect. These claims are not politically contentious in modern linguistics, they are simply empirical.
Nearly everyone comes to acquire non-vernacular styles of languages later in life, styles used for special purposes, such as religion, work, government, or academic specialties. We can call these “social languages”. People usually go on to acquire different non-vernacular social languages connected to different social groups.
Discourse analysis of any type (whether critical or not) can undertake one or both of two related tasks. One task is what we call the utterance-type meaning task. This task involves the study of correlations between form and function in language at the level of utterance-type meanings. “Form” here means things like morphemes, words, phrases or other syntactic structures. “Function” means meaning or the communicative purpose a form carries out.
The other task is what we call the utterance-token meaning (or situated meaning) task. This task involves the study of correlations between form and function in language at the level of utterance-token meanings. Essentially, this task involves discovering the situation-specific or situated meanings of forms used in specific contexts of use.
Critical approaches go further and treat social practices, not just in terms of social relationships but also in terms of their implications for things like status, solidarity, the distribution of social goods, and power (e.g., how language in a job interview functions as a gate keeping device allowing some sorts of people access and denying it to others). Critical discourse analysis argues that language in use is always part of specific social practices and that social practices always have implications for inherently political things like status, solidarity, the distribution of social goods, and power.
Social practices are inherently political, since by their very nature they involve social roles or positions that have implications for potential social goods such as who is an "insider", and who is not, to the practice (and the social groups). Since critical discourse analysis argues that language in use is always part one or more specific social practices, language-in-use is itself “political”.
So the issue is: Is it enough to leave the analysis of the social at the level of how talk and texts function in social interactions or do we need to go further and consider, as well, how talk and text function politically in social interactions?
Does this render discourse analysis “unscientific” or “unacademic”, a mere matter of “advocacy”?
Gee’s view is that there are solid linguistic, even grammatical grounds, on which to argue that all language-in-interaction is inherently political and, thus, that all discourse analysis, if it is to be true to its subject matter (i.e., language-in-use) and in that sense “scientific”, must be critical discourse analysis.
Further reading: James Paul Gee, Discourse Analysis: What makes it critical?Posted by kris_r at November 23, 2005 05:54 PM