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Date: Fri, 29 Jul 2005 20:56:25 -0400 From: Shiv R. Upadhyay Subject: Discourse: A Critical Introduction
AUTHOR: Blommaert, Jan TITLE: Discourse SUBTITLE: A Critical Introduction SERIES: Key Topics in Sociolinguistics PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press YEAR: 2005
Shiv R. Upadhyay, Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics, York University, Toronto, Canada
Discourse, by Jan Blommaert, is one of the few books published so far by Cambridge University Press in a new series entitled Key Topics in Sociolinguistics. As the subtitle of the books suggests, this book essentially offers a critical overview of mainstream critical discourse analysis (CDA) and seeks to expand its scope by including language use in contexts hitherto overlooked in CDA and by amending the methodology used in the current critical study of discourse.
In Chapter One, Blommaert states the purpose of his book, which is to offer 'a proposal for critical reflection on, and analysis of, discourse' (p. 1). For Blommaert, however, the scope of critical discourse analysis is extended to cover the effects of power in discourse produced in the globalized context of language use. He accordingly argues that 'a critical analysis of discourse ... necessarily needs to provide insights in the dynamics of societies-in-the-world' (p.2). The author identifies linguistic anthropology and sociolinguistics as the 'building blocks' of his work. He outlines five principles that underlie his work. Four of them are derived from these building blocks, and the fifth one is his own view that 'communicative events are ultimately influenced by the structure of the world system' (p. 15).
In Chapter Two, Blommaert discusses the origin and development of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDC) and provides a critical survey of assumptions underlying its theory and methodology. He attributes the origin of CDA to the seminal work of 'critical linguists' at the University of East Anglia in the 1970s, which focused on the use of language in institutional contexts and the relations between language, power, and ideology. The work of these linguists was inspired by Michael Halliday's systematic-functional and socio-semiotic view of language. Blommaert also refers to the British cultural studies carried out at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Culture Studies as a significant source of influence on CDA. The Centre dealt with issues of political, social, and cultural nature in British capitalist society, many of which later became topics in CDA. Blommaert observes that, while some linguists are in favor of adopting diverse methodologies in CDA, the dominant practice has been for a methodology that involves 'linguistically defined text-concepts' (p. 29). He views textual structures as having 'a crucial function' of producing such social attributes as authority, power, inequality, and ideology. He refers to Fairclough's research methodology in CDA as having a three-way function, namely description, interpretation, and explanation. While the descriptive function is concerned with the analysis of linguistic/textual features of discourse and the interpretive function with the analysis of social, ideological, and cognitive resources employed by discourse producers, it is the explanatory function that is most crucial to CDA as it seeks to render discourse analysis 'critical' by exposing the underlying ideological perspectives through social theory. The rest of Chapter Two discusses two kinds of criticism made against CDA: (1) criticism made by others on method, methodology, and analytical approaches, and (2) criticism that is mostly Blommaert's own on the potential of CDA as 'a critical study of language.'
In Chapter Three, Blommaert begins by pointing out and explaining two principles, namely (1) context is always needed in discourse analysis and (2) contextualization is dialogical. He then critically discusses the use of context in two areas of discourse analysis, namely CDA and conversation analysis (CA). Blommaert disapprovingly points out that CDA involves a great deal of a priori contextualization. The use of social-theoretical concepts and categories in CDA in an 'off-hand' and 'seemingly self-evident' manner results in very 'simplified models of social structures and patterns of action' (p. 51). Similarly, power relations are generally predefined and tokens of them are then sought in the text. One major problem that Blommaert sees is that the critical discourse analyst's 'critique' generally becomes an object of belief rather than an object open for inspection. On the other hand, context in CA is not a priori but something that emerges from the interactional contribution of speakers and thus becomes observable in the interaction. While he points out that human interaction is viewed in CA as being dense and complex, Blommaert views its principles and 'self-imposed restrictions' on its methodology as having limited relevance to his own agenda. He points out two main problems with the CA methodology, particularly the one developed by Schegloff. First, CA entextualizes interaction; that is, it analyzes human interactions as mere texts, thereby stripping them of their social context. The practice of entextualization in CA leads to Blommaert's second problem, namely talk in CA tends to be 'mundanized,' and any special context must be established through the internal analysis of talk. However, this methodology poses a problem because the preference in CA for short sequences of talk disallows the connection between discourse and social structure, although the latter serves 'as a critical context for a text' (p. 57).
Blommaert then discusses three types of what he calls 'forgotten' contexts. The first one of them is 'the complex of linguistic means and communicative skills' (p. 58), generally viewed as resources. In a critical analysis of discourse, the context of resources provides an understanding of why some individuals, but not others, have access to these resources and how inequalities result between those who possess them and those who do not. The second 'forgotten' context that Blommaert identifies involves 'shifting texts between contexts' (p. 62), which are tied to the issue of power and hence are very relevant to critical discourse analysis. The third 'forgotten' context is that of the history of 'discourse data.' Its relevance to the critical analysis of discourse lies in the fact that our understanding of them is influenced by how the data were selected, gathered, and treated.
Chapter Four is a critical discussion of discourse and inequality. Inequality is associated with the issues of voice. Blommaert takes voice to be 'the capacity for semiotic mobility' (p. 69) and argues that understanding voice requires the investigation of how speakers achieve functional goals through the use of linguistic forms. Inequality thus ensues when speakers differ in terms of the extent to which they have access to resources, which in turn determines their ability to achieve mobility in various contexts of language use. In the globalized context of language use, inequality is significantly associated with orders of indexicality, a system by which languages or varieties of a language are attributed values and social meanings. Orders of indexicality allow institutions to manage inequality by assigning values to language forms, one result of which is that standard varieties are accorded superior values whereas non-standard varieties are assigned inferior values. Blommaert examines three samples of discourse that serve to demonstrate how the same discourses can receive different orders of indexicality in local and international contexts of language use, thereby explaining how inequality can arise in these contexts.
In Chapter Five, Blommaert makes the point that, while human communication consists of creative language forms, it is also constrained by 'normativities.' Thus, communicative events involve the interaction between the creativity of discourse forms and political, social and cultural constraints. Relevant to the discussion of the limitation of human communication is Foucault's notion of archive, 'a historical system of formation and transformation of statements' (p. 103), which varies across societies. Blommaert analyzes written documents produced by sub-Saharan Africans for use in the trans- location of Belgian society and demonstrates these documents to be multi-modal and 'encyclopedic' in that they involve the use of not only writing but also drawing, listing, tabulating, and clearly presenting 'topical divisions in sections and chapters' (p. 119). More importantly, his analysis points out that, while these 'hetero- graphically' produced texts may be befitting in the local orders of indexicality since they may be viewed as good and functionally adequate in sub-Saharan African society or its diasporic community in Belgium, they are evaluated negatively when subjected to the norms of literacy of Belgian society.
Chapter Six is a discussion of the view that, while discourse takes place within 'a real-time and synchronic event,' it simultaneously represents 'several layers of historicity' (p. 130). Discourse participants may or may not be aware of these layers of historicity. Blommaert refers to the works of such researchers as Norman Fairclough and John Thompson that point out that human activities represent history in various ways and that the process by which history is represented in discourse imposes restrictions on what participants can say. Discourse producers select certain layers of historicity and synchronize them to the position they take, thus performing an act of power.
In Chapter Seven, Blommaert begins by accepting a view of ideology in which the ideational aspect is 'materially mediated' (p. 164). Blommaert presents Antonio Gramsci's view of hegemony as the 'cultural domination' of the bourgeoisie and as soft power by which the bourgeoisie is related to other social classes. Gramsci's idea of socialist revolution consisted of two aspects; one was hegemony, as power by consent, and the other coercion. While hegemony was used to define the proletariat's relationship with their allied groups like the peasants, coercion was used to define the relationship with their enemy, namely the bourgeoisie. Blommaert identifies hegemony and coercion as dominant and determining factors, respectively, in ideological processes and observes that underlying the reproduction of dominant culture is the 'coercive and disciplining system of education,' which in Foucault's view is the 'locus of capillary power, all- pervasive surveillance, and perpetual punishability' (p. 167). Blommaert also points out James Scott's view that behind a 'smooth hegemony' there may be hidden 'dissenting views and practices,' also known as 'hidden transcripts,' which may surface at the time of crisis or conflict. Another significant point that Blommaert makes and illustrates through critical analyses of actual political texts is that ideological processes work 'in and through polycentric and stratified systems,' in which different ideologies function 'at different levels and in different ways' (p. 173).
In Chapter Eight, Blommaert begins by making two points about identity in discourse: one, as commonly held, identity is produced, enacted, and performed, and two, processes of identity construction, while semiotic, 'need not be interpersonal' (p. 206). He posits that identity, rather than being stable, is constructed as 'forms of semiotic potential, organized in a repertoire' (p. 207) and explains two advantages of his view of identity. First, the view shows how identities are connected to semiotic resources, and second how it allows the critical discourse analyst to examine the link between identity and inequality, particularly in the globalized context of verbal interaction.
Chapter Nine is the conclusion of the book, in which the author restates his main argument, namely the contextualization of discourse needs to be 'a central element' in an expanded study of language in society, particularly in critical discourse analysis, and that the existing scope of context must be broadened to include not only transnational and globalized contexts of language use but also the context long before and after the emergence of discourse 'as a linguistically articulated object' (p. 234). The author justifies the need for the expansion of the scope of critical discourse analysis based on his observation of 'new' discourse patterns emerging in transnational communication and in light of 'the body of theory produced on globalization in the social sciences' (p. 235).
Blommaert's book Discourse seeks to expand the critical study of discourse to a new domain of language use, namely the globalized world, and argues for a greater role of context in the methodology of CDA. CDA is generally viewed as the study of 'the relationship between discourse and power' (van Dijk, 2001, p. 363), a study that addresses social problems (Fairclough and Wodak, 1997). As long as the world continues to be globalized, one cannot disagree with Blommaert that the globalized world creates situations in which individuals and institutions representing different national, socio- cultural and dialectical backgrounds are involved in communicative events. Blommaert argues in this book that communicative events in transnational contexts produce discourse that is shaped less by 'textual or philosophical coherence' and more by 'the occasion, the particular point in time, and the actors involved' (p. 234). He has empirically and persuasively shown that, as discourse moves across socio-cultural as well as national boundaries, it undergoes changes in its order of indexicality and is subjected to power abuse and inequality. I believe that he has robustly argued for the need to expand CDA to include the analysis of discourse produced in globalized contexts as it pursues its core mission to 'understand, expose, and ultimately resist social inequality' (van Dijk, 2001, p. 352).
In Discourse, Blommaert also argues for a greater role of context in the critical analysis of discourse. He views the notion of context in current CDA as 'restricted' since it overlooks 'the modes of production and circulation of discourse' (p. 233). In Blommaert's view, ethnographically constructed context is the right way to address the problem of 'restricted' context. To the extent that he has empirically shown the changes that discourses in transnational contexts undergo in their order of indexicality, the socio-semiotic complexity of such discourses, and the new discourse patterns that emerge in them, his argument for ethnographically informed context makes a great deal of sense.
The significance that Blommaert attaches to context becomes evident when he says that '[A] critical analysis of discourse needs to begin long before discourse emerges as a linguistically articulated object, and it needs to continue long after the act of production' (p. 234). In a critical analysis of discourse that begins before and lasts after the production of discourse, the analyst must, following Blommaert, adopt an ethnographically informed notion of context as a crucial component of its methodology in order to adequately account for the relationship between language and power. Other critical studies of discourse (for example, Cicourel 1992, Philips 1992) have shown ethnographically informed context to be crucial to the critical study of discourse in institutional settings. However, Blommaert's methodology places much greater emphasis on ethnographically derived context than does the methodology of other critical studies of discourse, including CDA. To further support the legitimacy of ethnographically informed context, Blommaert also argues that, as long as discourse is accepted as 'contextualized language,' the critical discourse analyst must adopt the view of linguistics as 'a social science of language-in-society' (p. 235) beyond a certain point in the critical analysis of discourse. To conclude, Blommaert's book Discourse is a very important contribution to the critical study of language. In addition to providing an excellent overview of various aspects of critical discourse study, this book expands the field to the globalized context of language use and offers a methodology that is more elaborate and more theoretically motivated than that of current CDA. It is a must-read book for anyone who is seriously interested in the critical study of language.
Cicourel, Aaron V. (1992). The interpretation of communicative contexts: Examples from medical encounters. In Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin (eds.), Rethinking context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Fairclough, Norman and Wodak, Ruth (1997). Critical discourse analysis. In Teun A. van Dijk (ed.), Discourse Studies: A Multidisciplinary Introduction, Vol. 2. London: Sage.
Philips, Susan U. (1992). The routinization of repair in courtroom discourse. In Alessandro Duranti and Charles Goodwin (eds.), Rethinking context. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
van Dijk, Teun (2001). Critical Discourse Analysis. In Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi Hamilton (eds.) The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Shiv R. Upadhyay is a faculty member in the Department of Languages, Literatures, and Linguistics at York University in Toronto, Canada. He teaches content-based ESL and Linguistics. His main research interests are in discourse analysis, sociolinguistics, pragmatics, and second language acquisition.