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Do you believe everything you read? Or do you think it's important to be critical of the things we're told? If you think it's important to be critical, you'll probably agree with Norman Fairclough's theory. Fairclough stated that discourse (written, spoken, or visual language) is often used to construct or maintain structures of power in society. He introduced his critical discourse analysis approach as a way to highlight and expose when language has been used in this way.
This article will introduce Norman Fairclough and his main theory, explain what critical discourse analysis (CDA) is, and provide an example of how to conduct CDA.
Norman Fairclough (1941-present) is a British professor of linguistics and the English language. Fairclough’s work has been highly influential in the field of language and power, and he is widely regarded as the pioneer of critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA is a method used to analyse the role discourse plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power.
Fairclough believes that language is a form of social practice. This means language is more than just vocabulary and grammar; it's a vital part of people’s lives and is habitually performed by most members of society. Because of this belief, Fairclough’s work has been influenced by linguistic theory (including the works of Michael Halliday) and social theory (including the works of Michel Foucault).
We’ll cover critical discourse analysis shortly, but first, let’s look at Fairclough’s theory.
Fairclough is best known for his theories on the relationship between language, power, and society.
In his book Language and Power (1989), Fairclough explored how language overlaps with social structures of power, suggesting it can be used to create, change, and maintain power relations in today’s society.
Fairclough’s theory of language and power is based on Michel Foucault’s discourse theory, which suggests that power is everywhere and is maintained and understood through 'accepted knowledge'.
Fairclough was interested in how language is used to create this knowledge and often used political speeches to highlight his theory. In Language and Power (1989), he critically analysed Margaret Thatcher’s (ex-prime minister of the UK 1979-1990) speeches to see how Thatcherism became a new ‘common sense’ (i.e. the accepted knowledge and ideology) in the UK. Thatcher wanted to instigate a move away from the socialist ideals of post-war Britain and towards a capitalist free-market economy.
Take a look at the following speech. How do you think Thatcher used language to give herself the power to construct a new 'common sense'?
It's your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer.
Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world's wealthiest and most prosperous people. [...]
It's not a dream. It's not a vision. It's not some bureaucrat's plan. It's for real. And it's only five years away. - Speech opening Single Market Campaign, Margaret Thatcher, 1988.
Fairclough also talked about the language used in advertising and its power over society. He coined the term ‘synthetic personalisation’ to describe the way large corporations address potential customers on a personal level to create a sense of friendship.
Fairclough suggests there are three stages to this process:
L'Oréal - ‘Because you’re worth it’
This famous slogan helps construct the narrative that women’s worth and happiness have a direct correlation to the beauty products they buy. It also uses the second person pronoun ‘you’ to create the impression the reader is being spoken to directly - this is sometimes referred to as ‘direct address’.
Fairclough has written a lot about language and society and this article is just an introduction to his most influential work. If you decide to study English language at university, you'll likely come across Fairclough again. Here is some suggested further reading for when that day comes!
N. Fairclough. Language and Globalisation. (2006)
N. Fairclough. Discourse and social change. (1992)
Critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach (not a theory!) used to analyse the role language (written, spoken, or visual) plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power.
Interdisciplinary approach = An approach that draws upon two or more academic disciplines. For example, CDA is based on both linguistic and social theory.
Critical discourse analysis recognises language as a social practice and places it into its social context, paying attention to what is being said by whom and where. CDA aims to analyse the existence of dominance, power, and control exhibited in language and critically investigates the role language plays in the creation and maintenance of social inequality.
According to Fairclough, the analysis of power in discourse can be split into two disciplines:
Power in discourse - Analysing the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power. Some common language features used to create a sense of power include: imperative verbs, rhetorical questions, personal pronouns, emotive language, and alliteration.
Power behind discourse - Analysing the sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why. For example, the UK mass media (e.g. newspapers) has power over its readers as the newspaper editors decide which information and which narratives their readers will see.
Here is an overview of the major principles behind CDA
When conducting critical discourse analysis it's important to remember why you're doing it and what you're hoping to achieve.
Here are the main aims of CDA:
To see how meaning and ideologies are created with language.
To uncover power structures.
To understand how power can be maintained and abused through language.
To encourage people to question what they are being told and why.
To give a voice back to historically marginalised or oppressed people.
Critical discourse analysis isn’t restricted to just written text and can be used to analyse all forms of discourse. Here are just a few examples:
Speech in a movie or TV show
A news report
A social media post
Remember, discourse also includes images and colours.
As previously mentioned, Fairclough recognises language as a social practice and believes there to be a relationship between texts, interactions, and context. Fairclough’s (1995)¹ three-dimensional model can be used as a framework to help conduct CDA and highlight these relationships. Fairclough proposed that the discourse be analysed in three stages: description, interpretation, and explanation.
The analysis of the text itself, including grammar, syntax, lexicon, phonological features, literary devices (e.g. rhetorical questions), and images.
This stage analyses how discourse is produced and distributed and then consumed by the reader/listener, i.e. the interaction that occurs. At this stage, the discourse is recognised as a discursive practice.
This stage examines the relationship between the interaction with discourse and the social context. Here, the discourse should be placed within wider society and considered a social practice.
When conducting CDA, try asking yourself the following questions:
There is no set way to conduct critical discourse analysis, and methods tend to differ across disciplines.
Let’s look at a potential process you might go through when critically analysing a newspaper article.
First, consider the text itself.
What’s the language like? Is it emotive, persuasive, friendly, demanding etc.?
Have any literary devices been used?
What are the images?
What is the headline?
Next, consider the production of the article and how it will be received and interpreted by the readers. Consider what type of newspaper it is (tabloid, broadsheet, online etc.) and who the target audience is.
Think about the motivation behind the article and question:
Who will read it?
Is a certain ideology being presented?
Who might benefit from that?
Who is the owner of the newspaper?
Who is the author of the article?
Finally, place the article into the context of wider society. Consider
The current cultural norms and values
Who the most powerful members of society are, and who are the most marginalised
The current political climate
What the current 'common sense' is in the country.
4. Examine the relationship
This stage is probably the trickiest part of the process! Remember when we said, ‘Fairclough recognises language as a social practice and believes there to be a relationship between texts, interactions, and context.’
Well, it’s time to think about those relationships by bringing the analysis of each stage together. There really isn’t a right or wrong way to do this and the aspects you’ll pay most attention to will depend on the context of your study or essay.
¹ N. Fairclough. Critical Discourse Analysis. (1995).
Fairclough first introduced his three-dimensional model for critical discourse analysis in 1989 and later adapted it in 1995.
According to Fairclough, critical discourse analysis is an approach to analysing the role language plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power.
No, critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach (using multiple disciplines) used to analyse language in context.
Fairclough is known for multiple theories. However, he is most well-known for his work on the relationship between language, power, and society. He is also considered a pioneer in critical discourse analysis and created the three-dimensional model for critical discourse analysis.
Fairclough is widely considered the pioneer of what approach?
Critical discourse analysis (CDA).
Fairclough believes that a language is a form of _______?
Fairclough's work has been influenced by linguistic theory and what else?
Fairclough based a lot of his work on whose discourse theory?
What term did Fairclough give to describe the way large corporations address potential customers on a personal level to create a sense of friendship?
Is critical discourse analysis a theory or an interdisciplinary approach?
It's an interdisciplinary approach to critically analysing language.
True or false, critical discourse analysis recognises the importance of social context?
True. critical discourse analysis revolves around placing the 'text' within the context of the wider society.
What are some of the main aims of critical discourse analysis?
To see how meaning and ideologies are created with language.
To uncover power structures.
According to Fairclough, the analysis of power in discourse can be split into two disciplines, what are they?
Power in discourse and power behind discourse.
What model can be used to help conduct critical discourse analysis?
Fairclough's three-dimensional model.
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