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Review of  Dialogue in Politics

Reviewer: James Murphy
Book Title: Dialogue in Politics
Book Author: Lawrence N. Berlin Anita Fetzer
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.2737

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The book under review considers dialogue in politics as existing on a continuum -- with one end where participants are able to contribute to the dialogic action freely and collaboratively, to the other where participants are restricted to participating in the dialogue in strictly pre-defined ways. The individual chapters in the volume highlight case studies at different points on the continuum, from a variety of political traditions, media, and using different theoretical approaches, including but not limited to semiotics, (critical) discourse analysis and cognitive linguistics. I first summarise each chapter and then provide an evaluation of the contribution that the volume makes as a whole to the field.

The first chapter is an introduction by the editors, Lawrence Berlin and Anita Fetzer, outlining Chilton’s (2004) view, which they share, that politics is an action which is essentially co-operative in the Gricean sense. As a result, the desire to share a vision for the future leads to interactants seeking to persuade through dialogue. It is noted, though, that this persuasion can be self-serving, meaning participants in a political dialogue possess ‘the potential to obfuscate coercion as cooperation’ and ‘the ability to exploit or violate the Cooperative Principle without necessarily being readily detected within the verbal interaction’ (3). The editors go on to discuss the continuum already mentioned: with free contribution to a dialogue at one end (what the editors call ‘politics as interaction’), and the opposite end where hegemony is the order of the day (‘politics as imposition’). The remaining chapters are divided into parts under these headings. Berlin & Fetzer survey the main methods employed to analyse political discourse, summarising their own previous work, as well as some of Fairclough’s work on mediatisation, hybridisation and recontextualisation (i.a. Fairclough 1995, 1998).

The first chapter under ‘Politics as interaction’ is Titus Ensink’s ‘Internet newspaper discussion lists: A virtual political arena?’. Ensink discusses how newspaper discussion lists give the impression to readers of having the opportunity to directly contribute to current societal and political arguments. Ensink analyses discussion boards from three different websites and on different news stories. He shows that the format of the board affects the type of responses posted thereon -- for instance, ‘The Times’ website does not allow participants to respond directly to one another’s comments and thus messages posted there only really respond to the article itself. The other websites allow for such direct replies, and comments on these sites not only discuss the issues arising from the article, but also matters stemming from earlier postings on the discussion board.

Marjut Johansson’s chapter, ‘Political videos in digital news discourse’, also looks at the presentation of news in the online sphere, but with a focus on the functions of videos presented alongside written news articles. Johansson looks at twelve videos from French, British and Finnish news sources (with a heavy bias towards French news sources, with eight videos). The videos serve a variety of purposes -- the main ones discussed are: videos which resemble news packages found on broadcast news and contain quotes from the actors in the article; videos which contain press conferences or political speeches which allow readers to access the newsworthy item directly and become active participants in the dialogue (rather than passive recipients of the journalist’s interpretation of the news event); first hand footage (captured by ‘citizen journalists’ on mobile phones) which function as evidence for the claims of an article. These videos give readers an opportunity to become immersed in the news, and more emotionally engaged in it, Johansson argues.

Peter Bull’s chapter, ‘Watch dogs or guard dogs? Adversarial discourse in political journalism’, reviews existing research in the microanalysis of three areas of political journalism: broadcast interviews, press conferences, and news broadcasts. He does this in order to conclude whether journalists act as watch dogs, by holding governments to account, or guard dogs, who seek only to savage and attack politicians. The chapter sees Bull summarising Clayman & Heritage’s extensive work in this area (e.g. Clayman & Heritage 2002a,b; Clayman et al. 2006, 2007, 2010), in the main discussing their work on presidential press conferences which showed, using extensive multivariate analyses, an increase in adversialness in journalists’ questions. Work by Eriksson (2011) and Ekström (2001), finding that news reports move from mediating political stories to critically interpreting what is happening in the political sphere, is also summarised. Bull adduces these studies as background for his own work. A number of his studies find high rates of conflictual questions in British news interviews. These conflictual questions lead to equivocation on the part of the politician (Bull et al. 1996, Bull & Elliott 1998, Bull 2003). Bull describes the advantages and disadvantages of the increasing ‘guard dog’ role of journalists -- advantages being protecting the public from government abuses and disadvantages including increased cynicism and political apathy amongst the public at large.

‘Types of positioning in television election debates’ by Verena Minow analyses four television election debates from the US, Britain and Australia between 2008 and 2010. Minow gives details of constraints on interaction at such debates, including the presence of a moderator or live audience, whether the interactants are allowed to address one another directly and whether the politicians can make opening/closing statements. Minow then gives details of Positioning Theory (Harré & van Langenhove 1991; van Langenhove & Harré 1994), which asserts that speakers often refer to their personal attributes and personality traits in order to position themselves in conversation (and this implicitly positions conversational partners, too). Examples of positioning are given from the four election debates analysed, with personal narratives or other explicit positioning strategies used by politicians to highlight their likeability, ability, honesty and achievements. These positioning strategies either implicitly suggest that the converse is true of the political opponent, or these undesirable traits are somehow made explicit. Whilst the examples chosen were both interesting and informative, one would have liked to see an indication of the frequency that these strategies are employed, so that one does not have to trawl through the transcripts of the debates.

‘Personal marketing and political rhetoric’ by Vladimir Dosev analyses how Bulgarian politicians utilise marketing strategies to sell their images, as well as their messages. Dosev first describes the importance placed on the accents of the two candidates in the 2005 Sofia mayoral election. Tatyana Doncheva had a strong provincial accent which marked her as not being from Sofia; her campaign utilised this aspect of her ‘image’ to show her as being different from, and preferable to, her ‘tight-styled native Sofian’ (116) opponent. Dosev also notes the importance of footballing metaphors in Bulgarian political discourse: ‘football match’ (= election campaign), ‘injured players’ (= disappointing political colleagues), ‘significant transfers’ (= potential coalition partners), etc. This adds, Dosev suggests, to the view that political media genres are under pressure to entertain, as well as inform. In the final section, Dosev suggests how recurrent ‘political myths’ are manifest in the Bulgarian public sphere: ‘the myth of the Conspiratorial Enemy’, ‘the Valiant Leader myth’, and ‘the United We Stand myth’ (121-3), all played on by politicians and their spin-doctors.

Eric Anchimbe’s ‘Private dialogue in public space: ‘Motions of support’ letters as response to political action’ explores a discourse type common in Cameroon (and Francophone West Africa more generally) but not really found in Western politics -- the ‘motions de soutien’ (motions of support) -- public letters written by (senior) members of regional, ethnic or social groups to the President praising him or pledging support. Recurrent patterns are found in the letters, to the extent that these actions have become routinized. Firstly, authors introduce themselves and express why they are ratified to speak on behalf of others (133-4). The senders seek to establish common cause between themselves and the President, by praising his policies and previous achievements (134-5). This is followed by thanking the President for various actions which have benefited the group(s) they represent (135-6). The groups then commit themselves to supporting the President further (136-7). The previous strategies serve as mitigation for the requests for further beneficial actions which follow (137-8). A prayer for the long life of the President forms the subsequent part of the MoS, since ‘the job of the president is interpreted as a divine mission and he alone is viewed as the only one who can achieve it’ (138). An optional element of attacking the President’s opponents follows (139). The final act is the signature of the MoS, which gives it authenticity, especially if it is signed by a large number of people.

In the first chapter in Part III ‘Politics as imposition’, Liliana Ionescu-Ruxăndoiu explores how authority can be called into question and dialogue made persuasive in the Romanian parliament in ‘Perspectivation in the Romanian parliamentary discourse’. Ionescu-Ruxăndoiu discusses how quotation, rhetorical questions and irony are used in speeches made before the Romanian parliament during a debate about whether the President should be suspended from office for various breaches of the Constitution (the conclusion of the debate saw him suspended for thirty days). She shows how quotations in the debate were used as arguments of authority (‘argumentum ad verecundiam’), and took the President’s previous utterances and turned them into a source of ridicule (158-9). Rhetorical questions were used, Ionescu-Ruxăndoiu argues, to ‘implicitly claim a similarity of views between the speaker and a large part of the audience’ (160). This type of strategy is an attempt to align the speaker with the audience. The final strategy explored in this paper is the use of irony. Irony can be seen to bring criticism of the President into even starker focus. The author argues that all of these strategies have in common the Bakhtinian notion of ‘double-voicedness’, which allows speakers to be highly critical but, at the same time, dissociate themselves from the responsibility of what is said.

‘The making of a new American revolution or ‘a wolf in sheep’s clothing’: “It’s time to reload”’ is the contribution of one of the editors, Lawrence Berlin. In it he uses Positioning Theory to analyse Sarah Palin’s speech to explain her appeal to Tea Party supporters and show what he believes to be a lack of substance in her discourse. Berlin also uses his Multilayered Model of Context (Berlin 2007, 2011) to analyse the extrasituational, situational, interactional and linguistic contexts of two Palin speeches. He notes the importance of Palin speaking on Ronald Reagan’s birthday, in Republican states, at important points in the stages of the passing of the ‘Obamacare’ healthcare reforms. Analysing her interactional practices, Berlin notes how Palin is quick to relate to her audience: discussing her credentials as a wife and mother, contrasting herself with ‘a bunch of elites in Washington’ (179), as well as inclusivization with ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘our’ (180). In the analysis of her discourse, Berlin finds a great deal of evidence of redundancy (that is, flouting Grice’s quantity maxim), as well as instances of logorrhea (the flouting of quantity, manner and relation maxims). Berlin uncovers much evidence of contradiction in Palin’s speeches, too. She derides Obama for focusing on ‘that hopey, changey thing’ (186) but spends much of her speech referring to the need for change. Berlin argues that Palin’s use of positioning in her speeches (i.e. positioning herself as just like the Tea Party activists she is speaking to), outweighs the contradictions in her speech for her audience. She does not represent, in their view, the Washington elite which has left them feeling disenfranchised, and this explains, to some extent, her popularity amongst Tea Party members.

Ibrahim El-Hussari’s chapter, ‘Remaking U.S. foreign policy for a new beginning with the Arab and Muslim worlds: Linguistic and discursive features of President Obama’s Cairo speech’, explores how Barack Obama constructs the need for a ‘new beginning’ in relations between the U.S. and Muslim world and how he seeks a constructive dialogue between the two countries. The paper explores the speech because it can be seen as a firebreak between George W. Bush’s approach to the Middle East and the approach which Obama sets out. El-Hussari also argues that Obama is trying to cast himself as a man of peace in light of being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (198) -- this seems dubious to me, since the prize was awarded on 9 October 2009 and the speech being analysed took place some months before on 4 June 2009. Critical discourse analysis (CDA), it is argued, allows the analyst to not only give a deeper understanding of the text itself, but also what is not said by Obama (201). In his analysis, El-Hussari suggests that the speech follows a sequence of ‘situation-problem-solution’ (202). A number of examples support the idea that Obama seeks to be the willing peacemaker to facilitate solutions to problems between the West and the Muslim world (206). El-Hussari then goes on to describe how Obama cannot be the honest peacemaker he portrays himself as -- suggesting that Obama is biased in favour of the Israelis. It is here that El-Hussari makes increasingly political points, rather than focussing on the analysis on the speech itself, suggesting that Palestinian violence is akin to that found in the American War of Independence (209), for instance.

El-Hussari also analyses matters not found in the speech at hand, as further evidence that Obama is not an honest broker. Those include the idea that the Crusades were religious wars; the reasons violent extremists are adversaries of the US; the violations by Israel (which he describes as ‘inspired by a myth 2000 years old’ (214)) of the conditions set out at its founding; the increase in illegal Israeli settlements; the fact that Israel has nuclear weapons; and US laws which prevent Arab and Muslim contributions to humanitarian charity funds. In the conclusion, El-Hussari states that his work ‘as a CDA analyst’ (217) has guided the interpretation of the Cairo speech; the feeling that one gets from the chapter is that his political views have, to some extent, been the primary driving force of the analysis, rather than the linguistic content of the speech at hand.

‘War-normalizing dialogue (WND): The Israeli case study’ by Dalia Gavriely-Nuri looks at how political and military figures use discursive strategies broadly described as war-normalizing to gain the support of the public for (new) wars. The chapter describes various types of WND and where it occurs, as well as giving examples from previously published studies (Gavriely-Nuri 2008, 2009, 2010; Gavriely-Nury & Balas 2010) of such discourse from Israeli public discourse. According to Gavriely-Nuri, WND has four main functions: i) euphemization, giving a positive ‘spin’ on war, e.g. giving an opportunity for bravery, a feeling of self-worth, etc.; ii) naturalization, representing war as a natural force, e.g. the naming of Operation Blue Sky; iii) legitimation, representing war as a moral and rational act, e.g. Operation Iraqi Freedom was worthy since it had the aim of delivering freedom; iv) symbolic annihilation, excluding war and some of its components from the discourse, e.g. the avoidance of mentioning death and destruction. These discursive functions are joined with discursive elements -- naming, framing and metaphors -- to form discursive strategies.

These discursive strategies are found in Israeli war-normalizing discourse. For instance, more than a quarter of Israeli military operations were named after natural phenomena (e.g. Lightning, Cypress, The Poplar’s Song) (230). A number of war-normalizing metaphors are also discussed, including WAR IS SPORT, WAR IS A MEDICINE, and WAR IS BUSINESS. Gavriely-Nuri suggests that WND is used to turn an event that needs the consent and support of the public (war) into a normal event that causes as little disruption to the public as possible. Scope for comparative analyses on normalizing discourses around the world is noted.

The final chapter is Christoph Sauer’s ‘Multimodality and performance: Britain’s first Holocaust Memorial Day (BBC on January 27, 2001)’. Sauer analyses how informational and commemorative discourses are combined in the presentation of the ceremony for Holocaust Memorial Day on the BBC’s Memorial Day live broadcast. Informed by multimodal semiotics, audience design, and participation framework (Goffman 1981), Sauer discusses how two dialogues are maintained -- one for those present in Westminster Central Hall (where the commemoration took place) and one for the television audience who see the ceremony, which is supplemented by voice-over commentary. Sauer discusses in great detail how the images shown, the language used by the contributors and commentators, and the music which accompanies these aspects were frequently congruent, which aids viewers in their comprehension of the memorial and the events which are being commemorated. A substantial appendix provides a multimodal transcript of the event.

This volume is, to use a hackneyed phrase, a mixed bag. Anchimbe’s chapter is particularly welcome as a thorough study of a genre not found in Western political culture which has been the main source of research in political discourse analysis. Berlin’s chapter is a reminder of the importance of a multitude of different contexts to the interpretation of a text (situational, extrasituational, interactional and discourse). Sauer’s chapter is the result of a painstaking analysis of a multimodal piece of data, and is a model for the amount of detailed work which needs to be carried out to have a thorough understanding of what is going on in televised events of this type.

However, the overall impression this volume gives is of a collection of studies published before enough empirical work has been carried out -- many appear to be pilot studies which give interesting interim findings, but these are tentative ones more suited to a conference environment, and not a book which claims to offer ‘illuminating and persuasive analyses of dialogue in politics’.

In addition, there is evidence of an overly passive editorial approach, with some chapters suffering from issues with respect to clarity of expression (e.g. ‘We should look at where and how these discussion points are addressed in the discussion, and if the discussion has relevance to the discussion about these points’ (29)). Proof-reading could also have been more thorough: on the same page, one can find: ‘In about half of the reactions posters define there [sic] own identity’ (29).

The introduction contains some useful suggestions for how political dialogue can be studied (ethnomethodology, speech-act theory, facework and empirical political science are all mentioned (5)). If studies using these approaches were also found in the book, a more thorough exploration of dialogue in politics might have been provided. As it is, what is offered here is an occasionally interesting book demonstrating the importance of looking at dialogic data in political discourse analysis. However, a great deal more work needs to be done before we have a comprehensive understanding of this area of public communication.

Bull, Peter. 2003. The microanalysis of political communication: Claptrap and ambiguity. London: Routledge.

Bull, Peter & Judy Elliot. 1998. Level of threat: Means of assessing interviewer toughness and neutrality. Journal of Language and Social Psychology 17. 220-244.

Bull, Peter, Judy Elliott, Derrol Palmer & Libby Walker. 1996. Why politicians are three-faced: The face model of political interviews. British Journal of Social Psychology 35. 267-284.

Clayman, Steven & John Heritage. 2002a. The news interview. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Clayman, Steven & John Heritage. 2002b. Questioning presidents: Journalistic deferences and adversarialness in the press conferences of U.S. Presidents Eisenhower and Reagan. Journal of Communication 52. 749-775.

Clayman, Steven, Marc Elliot, John Heritage & Laurie McDonald. 2006. Historical trends in questioning the presidents, 1953-2000. Presidential Studies Quarterly 36. 561-583.

Clayman, Steven, Marc Elliot, John Heritage & Laurie McDonald. 2007. When does the watchdog bark? Conditions of aggressive questioning in presidential news conferences. American Sociological Review 72. 23-41.

Clayman, Steven, Marc Elliott, John Heritage & Megan Beckett. 2010. A watershed in White House journalism: Explaining the post-1968 rise of aggressive presidential news. Political Communication 27. 229-247.

Chilton, Paul. 2004. Analysing political discourse: Theory and practice. London: Routledge.

Ekström, Mats. 2001. Politicians interviewed on television news. Discourse & Society 12. 563-584.

Eriksson, Göran. 2011. Adversarial moments: A study of short-form interviews in the news. Journalism 12. 51-69.

Fairclough, Norman. 1995. Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. London: Longman.

Fairclough, Norman. 1998. ‘Political discourse in the media: An analytic framework’. In: Bell, Allen & Peter Garret (eds). Approaches to media discourse. 142-162. Oxford: Blackwell.

Gavriely, Nuri, Dalia. 2008. The ‘metaphorical annihilation’ of the second Lebanon war (2006) from the Israeli political discourse. Discourse & Society 19. 5-20.

Gavriely, Nuri, Dalia. 2009. Friendly fire: War-normalizing metaphors in the Israeli political discourse. Journal of Peace Education 6. 153-169.

Gavriely, Nuri, Dalia. 2010. Rainbow, snow, and the Poplar’s Song: The ‘annihilative naming’ of Israeli military practices. Armed Forces and Society 36. 825-842.

Gavriely, Nuri, Dalia & Tiki Balas. 2010. ‘Annihilating framing’: How Israeli television framed wounded soldiers during the second Lebanon war (2006). Journalism 11. 409-423.

Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Harré, Rom & Luk van Langenhove. 1991. Varieties of positioning. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 21. 393-407.

van Langenhove, Luk & Rom Harré. 1994. Cultural stereotypes and positioning theory. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 24. 359-372.
James Murphy is a PhD candidate in the Linguistics and English Language department at The University of Manchester. His PhD research explores the pragmatics of political apologies, focussing on those produced by British politicians. He uses speech act theory, conversation analysis, (neo-)Gricean pragmatics, and politeness theory in his work.