How to do critical discourse analysis

Critical Discourse Analysis , developed in the late 1980s, is an approach to the role of discourse – language – as a social practice and all its areas of influence. The discursive context in Critical Discourse Analysis is a crucial part and center of the entire analysis, as well as the ideologies present in it.

Norman Fairclough is the author responsible for the development of Critical Discourse Analysis, or ACD. According to Fairclough’s analytical method, discourse has three areas of analysis that together make it possible to understand the social role of discourse: analysis of spoken or written texts, analysis of discursive practice – which consists of the total process of production, distribution and consumption of texts – and discourse analysis as a fraction of a society’s cultural practice.

The CDA analyzes discourse based on the level of access to the diversity of knowledge that a given population has, which access is controlled by social influences such as government, belief and economic level. From this, a more in-depth analysis of the discourse follows, which does not take and consider only aspects of linguistics or grammar, but the discourse as a reflection of the environment in which it is produced, and everything that it can reveal about the analyzed population. .

To consider Critical Discourse Analysis as hyperlinguistic or supralinguistic is to classify it as a comprehensive analysis of discourse, which goes beyond the lines of language and includes in the critique elements external to the spoken or written text, such as historical, socio-cultural and political context.

The Critical Discourse Analysis approach is based on social theory, taking into account thinkers such as Marx and Althusser, that is, the ideology present in the discourse analyzed by the CDA is the main object of examination. Fairclough places speech, language, as the main ideological tool in power struggles.

CDA is an in-depth analysis of discourse that takes into account its context of production, discourse as a social practice, and for that, the relations of power, domination, discrimination and control, as these relations are maintained through language. The discourse reflects the place of its production, so through it it is possible to understand the social context of a certain part of a society and all the aspects that may accompany it. The ideologies used by the domain groups and what are the discursive strategies used to maintain them.

Discourse reflects much of the context of a population, and Critical Discourse Analysis aims to exalt the means of discursive production, taking into account not only linguistic and grammatical aspects, but also socio-cultural aspects.

Brief History of critical discourse analysis

In the sixties and seventies of our century, many scientists began to adhere to a critical perspective in the study of language. Among the first was the French researcher Pesche [Pecheux 1992], who developed the ideas of the Russian theoretician Bakhtin (Voloshinov), who as early as the thirties formulated the thesis on the integration of language and social processes. At the end of the seventies, a group of linguists from the M. Halliday school at the University of East Anglia began to use the term “critical linguistics” to study the use of language in various institutes [see, for example: Fowler et al. 1979; Kress, Hodge 1979]. Kress and Hodge postulated the existence of strong and pervasive connections between the linguistic structure and social structure, arguing that discourse cannot exist without social meanings. These authors sharply opposed modern trends in pragmatics (for example, the theory of speech acts) and quantitative sociolinguistics of U. Labov. Since 1979, this general approach has been refined, expanded, undergone changes and has been re-applied by other linguists, adhering to other linguistic traditions. However, many believe that the relationship between language and society is complex and multidimensional and therefore requires interdisciplinary research. Scientists who develop the problems of sociolinguistics, formal linguistics, social psychology and literary criticism have made a great contribution to the development of a new direction and have specified areas of analysis such as racism, discrimination on ethnic or gender grounds.

How to perform a critical discourse analysis

The field of critical discourse analysis (CDA) requires a deeper qualitative evaluation of different types of text, whether in advertising, literature, or journalism. Analysts try to understand the ways in which language connects with social, cultural, and political power structures. As determined by CDA, all types of language and writing or visualization can transmit and shape cultural norms and social traditions. While there is no single method that covers all types of critical discourse analysis, there are some basic steps you can take to ensure that you do successful CDA. 

1- Choose a specific text that you would like to analyze. 

In ACD, the term “text” has many meanings, as it applies to all types of communication, be it words or images. This includes written texts (be they literary, scientific or journalistic), speeches and images. A text can also include more than one of these elements. For example, a text could have written language and images. According to Utrecht University, you can also perform discourse analysis on items without text if you “interpret” the way the text conveys the message. If you’re doing CDA in a college course, your professor may have assigned you a text to work with. Otherwise, choose your own. 

  • Texts could include works , an advertisement for a cologne, a conversation between a doctor and his patient, or a newspaper article describing an election.

2-Look for words and phrases that reveal the attitude of the text around the topic.

Start the CDA at the most specific level: look at the words in the text you have chosen. The choice of words may or may not be intentional; in any case, it can show what the author feels about the subject of the text. Ask yourself this question: what specific tone or attitude do these words convey? 

  • As a first step, circle all the adverbs and adjectives in the text. Then consider what they might suggest about the tone of it.
  • Look for tone words to determine what the author is trying to express.
  • For example, imagine you are reviewing a political newspaper article about the president. If the text describes him as “the puppet of the presidential office”, the attitude will be sarcastic and critical.
  • However, if you describe him as “the leader of the free world”, the attitude will be respectful and even flattering.
  • If the article simply calls him “the president”, his attitude will be neutral, as if the text refused to “choose a side”.

3- Consider how the text includes or excludes readers from a community.

One of the main claims of CDA is that all language is social and communicative. Texts build social communities using specific words and phrases to help readers feel engaged and understood. Analyze the text and identify some points where you try to develop a community. Identify the author’s intended audience and explain why you have come to this conclusion

  • For example, consider a news report about international immigrants arriving in a country. The presenter can generate different types of community by calling immigrants “unknown”, “refugees” or “foreigners”.
  • The word “refugees” will evoke sympathy among listeners and help develop a community between citizens and immigrants, while the word “foreigner” will generate hostile feelings and exclude immigrants from the national community.

4- Identify the interpretations that the text has already assumed.

As a critical reader, it’s your job to analyze the assumptions in the text that less critical people might miss. Read carefully to identify points where the chosen language, tone, and phrases reveal textual biases on the topic. All text has implicit assumptions, and it is your job as an ACD analyst to identify them. 

  • For example, a short story from the 18th century that begins “The savages attacked the unarmed villagers at dawn” contains implicit interpretations and biases about indigenous populations.
  • Another story that begins with “The natives and the settlers reached a peaceful agreement” has a positive interpretation of historical events.

5- Reflect on the way in which the text has been produced.

The textual production consists of the way in which the text has been created, which includes the historical and cultural context, the author and the format. This can convey a lot of meaning. In the case of literature, if the text has been composed by an author, this could express many of his personal perspectives and bias it. However, if it is a document with a selection of famous quotes, it will not show the beliefs or biases of a single person, as it has been written by multiple authors. 

  • You might consider the difference between an author who writes a novel for money and one who writes for pleasure.
  • The former will want to appeal to popular trends to make a profit, while the latter will care less about pleasing the public.

6-Evaluate the form of the text and consider who has access to it.

In a CDA, the form of the text and its audience are closely related. The form of a text can be more or less accessible, in ways that reveal the audiences the author wants to reach and those they want to keep out of the community the text generates. 

  • For example, consider the case of a CEO giving an in-person speech for his company. The fact that he gives a speech and does not send a public letter shows that being open and transparent is important to him and the culture of the company.
  • If you don’t deliver a speech and only email board members and top executives, changing the form would mean the text has a very different audience. E-mail would make the CEO appear less personal, unconcerned about his workers, and elitist in choosing whom to write to.

7- Analyze citations and language from other sources in the text.

Reflect on the function of these quotes and what the author might be trying to communicate. Texts often include quotes and excerpts from other well-known texts, or pay homage to famous texts. Quotations can assign a certain literary or journalistic tradition to a text, show admiration for history and the past, or reveal the kind of community the author would like to develop. 

  • Imagine that a contemporary writer begins a poem or a story with the following: “”It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Quoting Charles Dickens immediately shows that the author reads a lot and that he also focuses his writing in the literary tradition of the English Victorian era.

8- Evaluate the ways in which texts reveal traditions within a culture.

Texts are powerful tools that can reveal and create cultural values ​​and traditions. As an ACD analyst, you look for cultural clues in the texts in order to analyze them. A text can reveal what the author (or a group of people they represent) thinks about cultural traditions, or it can shape the way a culture develops. 

  • If a political spokesman says “Our ancestors smile at us today”, he will be using patriarchal language.
  • The term “culture” should be considered very broadly. Businesses can have cultures, as can communities of all sizes, countries, language groups, and racial groups. Even hobbyists can have specific cultures.

9- Compare similar texts to find differences between social cultures.

It will be productive for you to compare similar text (such as two commercials or 2 scripts) when doing a CDA. This can give you new information about the texts. Comparing them can also help you understand the differences between the social values ​​of different communities and cultures. 

  • For example, consider two different magazine ads for trucks. In the first, a robust-looking man is sitting in a truck and below the image is the message “The vehicle for men”. In the second, a family is sitting in a truck and the ad says “A truck to transport everyone.”
  • The first seems to resort to the stereotype of masculinity, while the second seems to be more inclusive.

10- Determine if there are norms present in a culture or subculture.

Many large groups (including businesses and other organizations) have many small subcultures. These often have their own norms and traditions that they may not share in the larger culture as a unit. You can analyze whether a perspective is present in a large culture or a small subculture by identifying the target audience for the group’s texts and finding out how they are received by different groups. 

  • Imagine a politician whose slogan is “All energy must come from coal!” Due to the extremist nature of this position, you might think that the candidate represents a radical party that does not share many of the positions of the conventional parties.
  • You could confirm this suspicion by analyzing the speeches of other candidates to determine how they approach the radical candidate. If others criticize him, he is likely to be part of a subgroup whose views are not shared by the mainstream political culture.

11- Consider the ways in which cultural norms can be present at the international level.

There are few cases where the power embedded in texts and textual practices creates a culture so strong that it crosses national borders. As an ACD analyst, your job is to determine where this type of culture exists. The effects of a strong international culture can be positive or negative. For example, in the corporate world, a shared culture might foster tolerance and inclusion, or exploitation and abuse of power. 

  • Companies like Ikea, Emirate Airlines and McDonald’s have strong cultures and norms that exist internationally.

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