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Review of  Discourse

Reviewer: Shiv R Upadhyay
Book Title: Discourse
Book Author: Jan Blommaert Rajend Mesthrie
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Anthropological Linguistics
Book Announcement: 16.2299

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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

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.


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.

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