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Review of  Ideology in Language Use

Reviewer: Lorena Hernandez Ramirez
Book Title: Ideology in Language Use
Book Author: Jef Verschueren
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Issue Number: 26.2879

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Review's Editors: Malgorzata Cavar and Sara Couture


“Ideology in Language Use. Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research” by Jef Verschueren is a refreshing contribution to the study of ideology and language by means of a pragmatics-based approach to historical data. Grounded in the field of linguistic pragmatics, or as the author defines it, “the interdisciplinary science of language use” (p. xii), it offers a valuable guide for scholars and students in different fields of inquiry for whom the “societal construction of frames of reference […] as mediated through discourse” (p. xii) is relevant.

Both in the preface and in the introduction, the main purpose of the book is clearly stated: to serve as a research tool, providing a methodological frame for the study of ideology in discourse. Among others, political scientists, historians, sociologists, and anthropologists may benefit from this work. The main data source for the practical section of the book consists of historical texts, and the author uses them extensively through the chapters to illustrate his proposed methodology. More specifically, the corpus is comprised of a compilation of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century discourses on the colonial world and colonization in some British and French history textbooks. The first source used dates back to 1902 (Lavisse), and then the topic is narrowed down to episodes of the 1857 ‘Indian Mutiny’.

After the introduction, the author devotes Chapter 1, “Language use and ideology”, to define ideologies as sociocultural-cognitive phenomena, combining both description and prescription, embedded in social relations in the public sphere, and in contrast with other traditions such as the false consciousness of Marxism. This definition, therefore, seems to fall somewhere along the range between what Woolard (1998) considers the biggest divide in studies of ideology: the negative conception, and the neutral one. According to the negative notion, ideology results from an interest in a particular social position, and is presented as a universal truth. In the neutral conception, ideology is seen as a set of ideas aimed at acquiring or maintaining power (p. 27). Also, the notion of ideology behind Verschueren’s tenets is most closely connected to that presented by Eagleton (1990), who emphasizes the intertwining of power, politics, and discourse. Throughout this chapter, Verschueren offers four theses (with subtheses, in turn, for the first two) in order to describe the basic features of his definition of ideology. Given the scope of the book, theses one and three seem particularly relevant: “Thesis 1: We can define as ideological any basic pattern of meaning or frame or interpretation bearing on or involved in (an) aspect(s) of social ‘reality’ (in particular in the realm of social relations in the public sphere), felt to be commonsensical, and often functioning in a normative way” (p. 10); “Thesis 3: (One of) the most visible manifestation(s) of ideology is language use or discourse, which may reflect, construct, and/or maintain ideological patterns” (p. 17).

The thesis presented in the first chapter leads to the content of chapter 2, “Pragmatic rules of engagement”, where the author lays out a series of pragmatic-based rules for engaging with language use and ideology, in order to support the design of research questions and the collection of data. The importance of combining both horizontal and vertical variation is emphasized. The former refers to variation in genres, while the latter refers to variation in structural levels of analysis, as strategies drawn from discourse analysis. The last part of this chapter is devoted to justifying the selection of materials, which are compared in terms of language, temporal and geographical perspective, size and degree of detail, coverage, and intended audience.

Chapter 3,“Pragmatic guidelines and procedures”, is considerably more extensive than the previous two, and it can be considered the core of the book from the methodological point of view. It offers a series of practical guidelines and procedures to be used in the actual exercise of research. A number of caveats are also interspersed here, in order to warn the researcher and guide them further in their inquiries. Given the extensive list of guidelines, procedures, and caveats, only a few are summarized here for illustrative purposes:

“Guideline 1: Get to know your data thoroughly [...]
Guideline 2: Get to know the context of your data [...]
Caveat 2.1: Context is not a stable ‘outside’ reality, nor is it finite in any sense. Hence it cannot be described exhaustively [...]
Procedure 2.1: Investigate the wider (social, political, historical, geographical, etc.) context, to the extent that is accessible. In particular:
2.1.1: How does the context of the investigation relate to the context of the investigated discourse?
2.1.2: How does the context of the investigated discourse relate to the social, cultural, political, historical context which the discourse is (presenting itself as being) ‘about’?
2.1.3: How does the investigated discourse carve out lines of vision in the ‘world’ it refers to?” (p. 201-202)

In the conclusion, Verschueren points at the fact that writing about ideology is not a an ideology-free process. He also highlights what could probably be the most important theoretical contribution of his work, that is, “providing theoretically justified tools for analysis” (p. 199), by creating a parallelism with the origins of structuralism in the humanities and social sciences. According to Mauss and Lévi-Strauss, referring to Saussurean structuralism, linguistics was “the most scientifically advanced field in the social sciences” (p. 199), and it was a model extensively followed by other fields. According to Verschueren, in a similar way linguistic pragmatics can provide the theoretical framework, and the tools, as developed in this book, to further contribute to the social sciences.

At the end of the book, two appendices are included. Appendix 1 gathers all theses, subtheses, rules, guidelines, procedures, and caveats in a list form. This provides a quick summary of the content. Finally, Appendix 2 includes all the original sources that the author has used, which may serve as material for other researchers to carry further studies.


“Ideology in Language Use. Pragmatic Guidelines for Empirical Research” is undoubtedly a solid step towards building a methodology for the study of language and ideology. Grounded in a theory of pragmatic linguistics, the book constitutes a practical tool for producing empirical research in a field that up to date lacks of consistent guidelines for this purpose. The reader can literally follow the guidelines presented by the author step by step, and it will result in an empirical study of ideology and discourse in historical data. Also, the sources for further analysis are provided in Appendix 2, and thus, anyone who would like to engage in the topic and carry out further analysis can use it as a corpus. The author states his goals clearly and meets them throughout the book.

In the introduction, the following statement is worth analyzing: “Though the concept started its career that way, ‘ideology’ is no longer seen as the systematic analysis of sensations and ideas which should provide the basis for all scientific knowledge. Ideology is no longer an academic discipline, but rather an ‘object of investigation’” (p. 7). I believe that precisely one of the main strengths of this book is that it offers the opportunity to develop ideology, and in particular language ideologies, as both an object of study and as a discipline. The author seems to avoid the phrase “language ideologies”, perhaps because of his interest in discourse analysis and the pragmatic grounding of his work. However, I think this book could benefit from making a clear distinction, if considered necessary, between “ideology in language use” and “language ideologies”. There exists an effort to consolidate the latter as an academic discipline, especially in certain circles in England and in the United States (see, among others, Joseph and Taylor 1990, Taylor 1997, Schieffelin, Woolard, and Kroskrity 1998, Kroskrity 2000). Verschueren actually uses some of these traditions to frame his definition of ideology, even though he does not establish further connections between “ideology in language use” and “language ideologies”.

This book emphasizes the necessity for a solid methodology which will yield consistent empirical research regarding ideology and language, and therefore encourages researchers in a variety of fields to follow his proposed guidelines and use them in their own research.


Eagleton, Terry. 1991. Ideology: An Introduction. London: Verso.

Joseph, John E. and Talbot J. Taylor (eds.). 1990. Ideologies of language. London/New York: Routledge.

Kroskrity, Paul V. (ed.) 2000. Regimes of Language: Ideologies, Polities, and Identities. Santa Fe, NM: School of American Research Press.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1958. Anthropologie structurale. Paris: Librarie Plon.

Schieffelin, Bambi, Kathryn A. Woolard, and Paul V. Kroskrity. 1998. Language ideologies: practice and theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Taylor, Talbot. 1997. Theorizing language: analysis, normativity, rhetoric, history. Amsterdam/New York: Pergamon.

Woolard, Kathryn A. 1998. Introduction: Language Ideology as a Field of Inquiry. In Language
ideologies: practice and theory, edited by Schieffelin, B., K. Woolard and P. Kroskrity. NewYork: Oxford University Press, 3-47.
Lorena Hernandez Ramirez is a PhD candidate in the Hispanic and Luso-Brazilian Literatures & Languages program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research interests revolve around language ideologies, with a particular focus on Spanish in the US.

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