Critical Discourse Analysis and Its Tenets

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What Is Discourse

Upon reviewing and thoroughly studying discourse, I came to understand that discourse is the use of language in any conversation. To add more clarity, it would be better to say that discourse is actually the set of codes, of a language, that is present in a specific society. By studying the language of a particular society we can understand how social relationships work in that particular society and it also gives us additional information about its culture, powerrelations and even taboos. According to John Fisk, a discourse is 'a language or system of representation that has developed socially in order to make and circulate a coherent set of meanings about an important topic area.' This means that discourse is the use of a language that has been fabricated in a set social environment that gives a sense of uniformity to its users as the meanings of the language are clearly understood by the users of that language.

Relationship between Discourse and Society

According to Teun A. van Dijk, ‘Critical Discourse Analysis is a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted, reproduced and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context.’ CDA takes an authoritative position in order to understand, expose and altogether avoid social inequality. It focuses on the social problems and political aspects of a society rather than focusing on other paradigms or fashion. The language that is used by the people of one society is critically analyzed to decode how a user exploits the language according to their needs. Various contextual factors like power and dominance have an effect on a user and these factors shape their language. Language use, according to status and power, give birth to social inequality and it is the job of a critical discourse analyst to understand and ‘expose’ these inequalities without being biased. CDA proposes a perspective of speculating and analyzing the language use. It is closely linked to the field of pragmatics, stylistics, sociolinguistics, etc. If we are given the task to analyze the language we ourselves use, we will note that the language we use changes from being formal to informal, according to the different situations we are put into. We will figure out how at some point we act powerful and use language accordingly to give orders and show authority and at some other point, we use the language to appear submissive depending upon the context. CDA regards discourse as ‘a form as social practice’ (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997), and takes consideration of the context of language use to be crucial to discourse (Wodak, 2001). It is generally the analyzation of a language with respect to its context. CDA is considered to be an approach, which comprises of different viewpoints for studying the relationship between the use of language and social context.

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Tenets of Critical Discourse Analysis

One of the most interesting concepts I have come across while studying CDA is the explanation of its principles summarized by Fairclough & Wodak (1997) These tenets are as follows:

  1. CDA addresses social problems: CDA not only focuses on language and language use, but also on the linguistic characteristics of social and cultural processes. CDA follows a critical approach to social problems in its endeavors to make explicit power relationships which are frequently hidden. It aims to derive results which are of practical relevance to the social, cultural, political and even economic contexts. (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). In order to comprehend this idea, we must know that CDA studies language as it is used in a society and a great deal of importance is given to the context with respect to which the language is being used that is why CDA addresses the issues of society through the analysis of language by understanding the social background.
  2. Power relations are discursive: CDA explains how social relations of power are exercised and negotiated in and through discourse (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). The use of language in order to display power comes under the study of Critical Discourse Analysis. If we look at the following example given in Norman Fairclough’s ‘Language and power, we can interpret the way power is presented through discourse. “This text is part of an interview in a police station, involving the witness to an armed robbery (w) and a policeman (p.) […] w, who is rather shaken by the experience, is being asked what happened, p is recording the information elicited in writing: (1) P: Did you get a look at the one in the car? (2) w: I saw his face, yeah. (3) P: What sort of age was he? (4) w: About 45. He was wearing a... (5) P: And how tall? (6) w: Six foot one. (7) P: Six foot one. Hair? (8) w: Dark and curly. Is this going to take long? I've got to collect the kids from school. (9) P: Not much longer, no. What about his clothes? (10) w: He was a bit scruffy-looking, blue trousers, black... (11) P: Jeans? (12) w: Yeah. Fairclough comments that the relationship between the woman and the policeman is unequal as the policeman seems to be in control and overpowers her. This is the display of power is understood by CDA.
  3. Discourse Constitutes Society and Culture: This tenet explains that every instance of language use makes its own contribution to reproducing and transforming society and culture, including relations of power. (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). This can be explained with reference to taboos. A society’s restricted customs can be easily detected from the use of language in that society. Every statement that is made within a context will contribute towards shaping the society and culture it is used in.
  4. Discourse does ideological work: Discourse also does ideological work. In other words, ideologies are often produced through discourse. To understand how ideologies are produced, it is not enough to analyze texts; the discursive practice (how the texts are interpreted and received and what social effects they have) must also be considered. (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997).
  5. Discourse is historical Thus discourses can only be understood with reference to their historical context. In accordance with CDA, it refers to extra linguistic factors such as culture, society and ideology in historical terms. (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997; Wodak, 1996, 2001). This explains that understanding discourse only requires its historical context, but CDA aims to understand discourse with special attention given to its culture, society and ideology, all three which are closely linked to discourse and its impact is seen on them.
  6. The link between text and society is mediated CDA is concerned with making connections between sociocultural processes and structures on one hand, and properties of texts on the other (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997; Wodak, 1996, 2001; Meyer, 2001; Scollon, 2001). This simply explains that discourse acts as a link between language, society and culture and helps interpret its use with reference to its context.
  7. Discourse analysis is interpretative and explanatory: CDA goes beyond textual analysis. It is not only interpretative, but also explanatory in intent (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997; Wodak, 1996, 2001). Meyer (2001) calls this process a hermeneutic process and explains that meanings and ideas can be understood with respect to the context of language. He further argues that hermeneutic explanation requires detailed linguistic analysis.
  8. Discourse is a form of social action The principle aim of CDA is to uncover opaqueness and power relationships. CDA is a socially committed scientific paradigm. It attempts to bring about change in communicative and socio-political practices (Fairclough & Wodak, 1997). CDA merely focuses to bring clarity by pointing out the ambiguities and inequalities of language.

Macro vs. Micro

Van Dijk mentions that ‘language use, discourse, verbal interaction and communication belong to the micro-level of the social order. Power, dominance and inequality between social groups are typically terms that belong to a macro-level of analysis. This means that CDA has to theoretically bridge the well-known 'gap' between micro and macro approaches.’ If we try to reread the above statement we can easily understand that language, its use, discourse and every conversation that a language user has, come under the micro level of social order. The words that we use in a conversation and the way we speak are all the concerns of micro level of analysis. When we move towards the understanding of meanings or the impact of the language used, we decipher several underlying factors such as power-relations and inequality, this level of analysis is the macro level. Van Dijk futher states that in almost everyday interaction both, the macro and micro level, are unified as one. ‘For instance, a racist speech in parliament is a discourse at the microlevel of social interaction in the specific situation of a debate, but at the same time may enact or be a constituent part of legislation or the reproduction at racism, at the macro-level.’

Power and Control

Van Dijk proposes ‘for our analysis of the relations between discourse and power, thus, we first find that access to specific forms of discourse, e.g., those of politics, the media or science, is itself a power resource. Secondly, as suggested earlier, action is controlled by our minds. So, if we are able to influence people's minds, e.g., their knowledge or opinions, we indirectly may control (some of) their actions. And, thirdly, since people's minds are typically influenced by text and talk, we find that discourse may at least indirectly control people's actions, as we know from persuasion and manipulation.’ I would like to speculate the statement above starting from ‘for our analysis of the relations between discourse and power, thus, we first find that access to specific forms of discourse, e.g., those of politics, the media or science, is itself a power resource.’ Being able to access the forms of discourse that make an impact directly on people’s minds itself is a power resource, whether it is political discourse, media discourse or scientific discourse, it is not easy to understand these discourses. ‘Secondly, as suggested earlier, action is controlled by our minds. So, if we are able to influence people's minds, e.g., their knowledge or opinions, we indirectly may control (some of) their actions.’ This is what power in discourse actually tries to do. By being authoritative and trying to influence people through discourse their minds can be controlled. The use of such techniques in media and politics helps the leaders to control the opinions of their followers, hence controlling them. ‘And, thirdly, since people's minds are typically influenced by text and talk, we find that discourse may at least indirectly control people's actions, as we know from persuasion and manipulation.’ In order to influence or control people’s minds, through discourse, the power of manipulation and persuasion is used, be it positive or negative, depending upon the context. CDA focuses on the abuse of such power, and especially on dominance used to control and manipulate the minds of people. According to van Dijk, ‘abuse' in this case can be possibly characterized ‘as a norm-violation’ that hurts others, if thought on the basis of ethics, such as laws or human rights principles. Using the simplest and the shortest way of explaining dominance in discourse, we can define it as the ‘illegitimate use of power’.

Concluding Thought

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is an interdisciplinary approach that studies discourse thoroughly and hold the view that language is a social phenomenon. The main argument of CDA is that factors which are not linguistic, such as society and politics, have a great impact on language and the main focus of this approach is to investigate how language is used to gain societal power.


  1. Teun A. Van Dijk, Critical Discourse Analysis.
  2. Norman Fairclough, Language and Power
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