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Review of  Language, Society and Consciousness

Reviewer: Andy Van Drom
Book Title: Language, Society and Consciousness
Book Author: Ruqaiya Hasan Jonathan J. Webster
Publisher: Equinox Publishing Ltd
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 18.256

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AUTHORS: Hasan, Ruqaiya; Webster, Jonathan J
TITLE: Language, Society and Consciousness
SERIES: The Collected Works of Ruqaiya Hasan, Volume 1
PUBLISHER: Equinox Publishing Ltd.
YEAR: 2005

Andy Van Drom, Department of Language, Linguistics and Translation, Laval
University, Quebec


In this first volume of her Collected Works, Ruqaiya Hasan lays the
theoretical foundation for what follows in a series of seven volumes
presenting a selection of unpublished and previously published papers.
Therein, Hasan advocates a transdisciplinary theory designed to address
three interconnected domains: language, society and consciousness. Indeed,
the human story is as much told through language as it is about language and
any viable explicatory theory should span the biological, the sociological
and the linguistic. It is clear that Hasan’s work has been greatly
influenced by the ideas of three thinkers: Bernstein’s semiotic sociology,
Halliday’s sociological linguistics and Vygotsky’s sociogenetic psychology.
She comes to the conclusion that linguistic theory – which is evaluated by
some as impoverished, hollow and socially irrelevant - can acquire a more
socially relevant voice when it’s enriched through interconnections with
other fields of study.

Hasan explores the true nature of what she describes as “a dialectic between
the social and the semiotic by which the outside becomes the inside, and the
inside reveals itself.” (p. 1) In her opinion, this study cannot be
adequately completed by a single scholar, as specialisation has reduced
researchers to produce ‘legitimate’ discourse in only one single domain. In
other words, ‘endotropic’ theories, which “carve out a unitary area of human
interest and turn it into a universe sufficient unto itself” (p. 9) pale
before ‘exotropic” approaches that view “the object of study as a component
in a dynamic open system.” (p. 10-11) Moreover, this theory should be
‘transdisciplinary’ (allowing the domains concerned to interpenetrate each
other) rather than ‘interdisciplinary’ (simply stringing together these
different viewpoints).

In the first part of the book under review, Hasan presents in greater detail
the three aforementioned theories by Bernstein, Halliday and Vygotsky, which
fulfill her criteria for endotropic approaches. The first chapter in this
section, “Basil Bernstein: an exceptional 1924-2000”, combines three papers
published between 2000 and 2002, and elaborates on Bernstein’s theory of the
social, which demonstrates how consciousness and language are intertwined.
At the same time, it is an ‘open’ theory which allows other relevant domains
to elaborate the “canvas [of which] sociology is [the] point of departure”.
(p. 18)

Next, Hasan compares Bernstein’s theory with Halliday’s systemic functional
linguistics (SFL). She acknowledges that there are important differences
between both approaches, although these do not prevent metadialogue - “the
ability and willingness of scholars pursuing […] theories to cross the
barriers of distinct languages of description”. (p. 11) Hasan notes a
shortcoming in SFL, as it fails to “problematise the speaker’s recognition
of contexts in the way that Bernstein’s theory [does]”. (p. 19) The
findings presented in chapter three contribute to the discussion which
expresses the desire of SFL to be a “trans-disciplinary theory, which is
located at the intersection of semiology, sociology, and psychology”. (p.

Chapter four, “On social conditions for semiotic mediation: the genesis of
mind in society” (1995), demonstrates how Vygotsky’s genetic theory of mind
is compatible with the visions of Bernstein and Halliday. Chapter five
finally summarises the relation that these theories have:
“Vygotsky contributes to the understanding of our mental life by revealing
its deep connection to semiosis; in so doing he anticipates the literature
on the dialectic of language and mind: it is this dialectic that is
responsible for their co-evolution in the human species. Halliday
contributes to the understanding of our semiotic life by revealing its deep
connection with society; in so doing, he elaborates on the dialectic of
language and society which underlies their co-genesis. Bernstein
contributes to the understanding of our social life in modern societies by
revealing its inherent connection with consciousness created in semiosis in
the contexts of communal living; in so doing , he makes us realise how minds
need societies and societies need semiosis to survive, to develop, and to
change.” (p. 156)

In section two of the book, Ruqaiya Hasan enters the sphere of
sociolinguistics and presents her basic thesis, which is that “ways of
saying and meaning cannot be separated from ways of living”. (p. 157) In
chapter six, “Code, register and social dialect’ (1973), she emphasises that
“Language is used to live, just as social structure is used to live. This
introduces a complexity in the description of language and argues for a
weakening of boundaries between various systems for communication. The
exhaustive description of language is an ideal, which may perhaps never be
achieved, but there will certainly be much less chance of its being achieved
if language is separated from the living of life totally.” (p. 191) In
order to solve this problem, Hasan suggests applying Bernstein’s code
theory, which maps social elements onto semantic ones and thus helps to
bridge the gap between linguistic and social components.

Chapter seven, “Semiotic mediation and mental development in pluralistic
societies: some implications for tomorrow’s schooling” (2002), extends this
theme to the educational environment. Chapter eight picks up on this as
well, and focuses more specifically on the “complex interplay of the factors
active in the formation of consciousness and the unequal distribution of
knowledge”. (p. 158) Hassan points out that, although learning does not
begin at school, it is at school where “the business of learning is
institutionalised, and there develops a particular kind of discursive
experience, a particular form of consciousness”. (p. 227)

Inferring from analysis of teacher-pupil and mother-child talk respectively,
Hasan studies the ontogenesis of ideology in chapters nine (“Reading picture
reading”, 2004) and ten (“The ontogenesis of ideology”, 1986). She
concludes that the mechanisms for this ontogenesis are “the habitual forms
of communication, wherein the taken-for-granted nature of the social world
is transmitted”. (p. 159)

The third and last section of the book consists of two chapters, which
discuss the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s view of language. Chapter
eleven opens the debate with Hasan’s 1998 article “The disempowerment game:
Bourdieu on language” which was criticised by several scholars. The
response to these critiques is found in the final chapter “Bourdieu on
linguistics and language: a response to my commentators” (2002). Her
rationale focuses on four arguments (p. 275):
- Bourdieu’s view of linguistics and his reading of Saussure’s text would be
- Bourdieu’s view of language as a semiotic “ would fail to appreciate
crucial features”
- His concept of “spontaneous socio/linguistics” would fail to present a
convincing model of the relations of language and society
- If his view of language was accepted as the point of departure for
pedagogic action, its deficiencies would result in an unsatisfactory
educational programme


Studies on the interaction between language and society aren’t exactly new
phenomena. However, the array of different approaches that exists, suggests
that there is still a lot to say on this matter. The contributions of
Ruqaiya Hasan in this volume, which span the period of 1964 – 2004, offer a
powerful, daring and sometimes provocative viewpoint. Hassan demonstrates
that she is very well aware of the limits of research, whether it be
‘endotropic’ or ‘exotropic’, ‘interdisciplinary’ or ‘transdisciplinary’.
She delivers an enlightening presentation of Bernstein’s theory and compares
it critically to Halliday’s and Vygotsky’s approaches, drawing also on the
writings of Bakhtin and Whorf, amongst others. The articles brought
together in the second part apply this theoretical stance to some concrete
examples of discourse analysis, convincingly showing how this approach is
more successful in accounting for certain extralinguistic factors than
traditional sociolinguistic theory. In the last part, Hasan shows that she
doesn’t shy away from some controversy as she defends her critique of Pierre
Bourdieu. This collection of (mostly) previously published papers makes for
a surprisingly coherent whole, presenting a balanced combination of
theoretical reflections, practical applications and motivated criticism.

Andy Van Drom is a PhD candidate in Linguistics at Laval University, Quebec,
Canada. His research focuses on the linguistic expression of identity in
political discourse from a Critical Discourse Analysis perspective. He is
also attached to the ‘Trésor de la langue française au Québec’ as a research

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