What is Critical Discourse Analysis?

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What is Critical Discourse Analysis?

CDA needs to be understood as both a theory and a method (Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999: 16), in that it offers

‘not only a description and interpretation of discourses in social context but also offers an explanation of why and how discourses work’ (Rogers 2004:2).

Before beginning to address the issue of this theoretical approach, it is important to be clear about what we mean by the concepts of critical, discourse, and analysis, and these are terms that have been interpreted in differing and contested ways.

In CDA, the notion of ‘critical’ is primarily applied to the engagement with power relations associated with the Frankfurt School of critical theory. In this, it argues against a realist, neutral and rationalist view of the world. Instead the role is to uncloak the hidden power relations, largely constructed through language, and to demonstrate and challenge social inequities reinforced and reproduced.

Task 1 Part 1

What does the term ‘discourse’ mean to you? Make a few notes of your first responses on this question before reading on, then share your thoughts on this and the next task activity at the end of the subsection.


Discourse is a contested and contestable term. Perhaps the most useful way of handling this contestation comes from the work of James Gee (1990). Gee uses the term discourse (with a small ‘d’ to talk about language in use, or the way language is used in a social context to ‘enact’ activities and identities. This is the way that applied linguists such as McCarthy (1994) have used the term to discuss language beyond the sentence level - an analytical advance that allows use to consider some of the things that are happening in the language that are only observable if we look beyond single sentence examples e.g. the word ‘This’ can be used at the start of a discussion to foreground the topic under discussion and identify it as important to the speaker, whereas the word ‘That’ could be used to background or marginalise a topic and place it is a subordinate position, from the speaker’s point of view.

But Gee notes that language does not occur in isolation, but in specific social contexts. It occurs between people, in particular places, in particular sets of circumstances, at particular times, accompanied by particular semiotic signs (such as gesture, dress and symbols) and is influenced by a range of values, attitudes, beliefs, emotions and ideologies. It is this non-language ‘stuff’ that Gee terms as Discourse (with a big ‘D’). So discourse occurs within Discourses. For Gee,

"Discourses are characteristic (socially and culturally formed, but historically changing) ways of talking and writing about, as well as acting with and toward, people and things. These ways are circulated and sustained within various texts, artefacts, images, social practices, and institutions, as well as in moment-to-moment social interactions. In turn, they cause certain perspectives and states of affairs to come to seem or be taken as 'normal' or 'natural' and others to seem or be taken as 'deviant' or 'marginal' (e.g., what counts as a 'normal' prisoner, hospital patient, or student, or a 'normal' prison, hospital, or school, at a given time and place)" (Gee: 2000).

Gee’s work has been influenced by the thought of Michel Foucault (1972) who uses discourse as an authoritative way of describing. Discourses are spread by specific institutions and divide up the world in specific ways. For example, we can talk of medical, legal, and media discourses. Discourse is used to describe the way that language (and beyond!) operates to produce meanings, that is the range of forms of representation, codes, conventions and habits of language that produce specific fields of culturally and historically located meanings. In Foucault’s description, these discourses are hierarchically arranged and so have differing degrees of power and influence. The dominant discourses are understood by existing systems of law, education and the media, and are in turn reinforced and reproduced, and less powerful discourses marginalised, misunderstood and ignored. It is this conception of Discourse that Critical Discourse Analyst operate with. A concise, readable and informative discussion of the theoretical assumptions underlying notions of discourse can be found in Mills (1997).

In terms of analysis, CDA takes the view that texts need to be consider in terms of what they include but also what they omit – alternative ways of constructing and defining the world. The critical discourse analyst’s job is not to simply read political and social ideologies onto a text but to consider the myriad ways in which a text could have been written and what these alternatives imply for ways of representing the world, understanding the world and the social actions that are determined by these ways of thinking and being. A fuller discussion of these aspects of CDA can be found in Rogers 2004: 3-8.

Task 1 Part 2

In what ways is there a relationship between language and power? What does it mean to be critical? Make a few notes on your response to this question before reading on - then share reflections on this and part 1 of the task above with colleagues.