LINGUIST List 21.3197

Fri Aug 06 2010

Review: Discourse Analysis; Sociolinguistics: Wodak et al. (2009)

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        1.    Derek Irwin, The Discursive Construction of National Identity

Message 1: The Discursive Construction of National Identity
Date: 06-Aug-2010
From: Derek Irwin <>
Subject: The Discursive Construction of National Identity
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Announced at
AUTHORS: Ruth Wodak, Rudolf de Cillia, Martin Reisigl, and Karin LiebhartTITLE: The Discursive Construction of National IdentitySUBTITLE: Second editionPUBLISHER: Edinburgh University PressYEAR: 2009

Derek Irwin, English Studies, University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus


As a previous reviewer has pointed out (Galasinska 2010), reviewing this volumeis a daunting task: it has been highly praised by very discerning critics, fromits first German publication in 1998, through three other printings, until thearrival of this expanded volume. Although making a name as the harshestreviewer of this text is somewhat tempting, such would be a hard sell indeed: itis meticulous, accurate, and impressive in both its scope and depth. Thegeneral goal of the book is to explore how Austrians negotiate various forms ofbeing Austrian in spoken texts, from the public speeches of political leaders,through group discussions, and into private interviews. There are thus a numberof variables present, including the degree of dissemination of the various textsto a wider audience, the relative power of the speaker over the issues inquestion, and the level of formality in text production, to name a few. Theanalysis takes advantage of these different contexts of production tosystematically explore the various content and strategies that differentspeakers use in different situations to create and negotiate ideas of nationalidentity, and presents the findings in such a way as to suggest theirapplicability outside of the specific Austrian milieu.

The text is ''a considerably abbreviated version of the German edition'' (p. 1),although the present edition does have an updated chapter in which the analysisis brought up to the year 2008. The main arc of the arguments is therefore mademore convincing, as well as contemporaneous.

The book comprises eight chapters, as well as two appendices which includelistings of the publicly-available data. The chapters are as follows:

1. IntroductionThis short introduction serves to provide the theoretical orientation with whichthe authors explore the creation of national identity in Austrian discourse.However, the authors do point out that, following on Wodak (1996), ''we do notlimit ourselves to theory-building, but place great emphasis on the analysis ofour empirical data'' (p. 2). The analysis aims to ''conceptualise and identifythe various macrostrategies employed in the construction of national identitiesand to describe them using a hermeneutic-abductive approach'' (p. 3) - in otherwords, the authors emphasize their ability to interpret what is significant inthe data, assumedly because of prior familiarity with the discourse and culture. Two key theoretical underpinnings are the following of Benedict Anderson's(1983) notion of nations as ''imagined communities,'' and the concept thatnational identities are ''malleable, fragile and, frequently, ambivalent anddiffuse'' (p. 4). This text thus argues for a break from the traditionalnational constructs of the Staatsnation and Kulturnation (p. 6).

2. The Discursive Construction of National IdentityThis chapter deals with the two major issues in the title, namely those of''identity'' and the means with which to analyse it in various types of discourseof nationhood. In broad strokes, it uses the Vienna School of CriticalDiscourse Analysis method of triangulation (as per Cicourel 1969), i.e.''discursive phenomena are approached from a variety of methodological andtheoretical perspectives taken from various disciplines'' (p. 9). While perhapsopen to accusations of subjectivity, this approach allows the analyst tosynthesize various forms of text through a range of disciplinary methodologies,yielding results which are contextually bound yet meaningful in other situationswith similar variables of nationhood and identity construction. Such fluidityis also important in the approach because the notion of ''identity'' is itselffluid (p. 11), through various forms such as those of self, narrative,system-related, national, and, in fact, multiple. Out of these, perhaps themost pertinent to this study is that of the narrative identity, as that is themeans through which the imagined national figure - the ''homo nationalis'' - isconstructed, and there is a thorough discussion here of the various means withwhich the story of the nation is created.

The discursive practices are similarly thoroughly laid out in this chapter,divided into the ''contents'' and ''strategies'' employed in various discourses.The means and forms through which these contents and strategies are employed arelaid out in a series of tables (2.1-2.5, pp. 36-42), which provide a means ofreplicating this sort of study in other contexts.

3. On Austrian Identity: The Scholarly LiteratureThis chapter provides the service of contextualization for readers not familiarwith the Austrian context, giving an historical overview as well as a windowinto the practice of Austrian self-definition. It simultaneously recognizes theefforts to define the Austrian national identity, while at the same time showingsome of the problems with this process given the fact that much of theidentification is done against Germany while simultaneously being conducted in(Austrian) German. Further, there are a large number of Austrians who are notunilingual; ''members of local, regional, ethnic and national minorities aresubject to a far more complicated interplay of situation-specific, multipleidentity constructions than are those who belong exclusively to a unilingualmajority'' thus resulting in multiple identities (p. 57). Even in those areas inwhich identity seems fairly well-established, there are problems. The first ishistorical, and has to do with Austria's complicated relationship with theNational Socialists during the Second World War, both resisting and enabling thecrimes of that state. The second is political, and has to do with theidentification of Austria as a neutral state while simultaneously risking losingthat important piece of self-identity with the joining of the EU. The ways thatthese problems are dealt with in the discourse are explored in further chapters.

4. The Public Arena: Commemorative Speeches and AddressesThis chapter deals with the most public discourse, that of political leaders.The analysis here is largely concerned with the content of these texts, in whichit is found that ''they assigned praise or blame to certain moments of Austria'spast or present'' (p. 70) and that ''the thematic texture centres almostexclusively on the narration of a common political past and on the discursiveconstruction of a common political present and future'' (p. 74). In building upthe ''imagined community'' of Austria, these speakers first had to confront thepast of National Socialism, which they generally did by creating an equivalenceof victimhood: all Austrians suffered equally through that point in history.Moving to the present and future, the public speakers provided a kind of ''locusamoenus'': ''a 'beautiful landscape' often mentioned in a more general sense torefer to the common national territory or serving to depict a rather abstractideal political place where human beings live together happily, in affluence, inharmony and without conflicts'' (p. 98). Of course, it was found that the morepower the politicians had over the body politic, the more likely they were toemploy this theme, thus justifying and hopefully perpetuating their roles in thestate.

5. Semi-Public Discussion: The Focus Group InterviewsThis data was quite interesting, as the authors were able to use it ''to followclosely patterns of recontextualisation and the transformation of elite conceptsof national identity during group interactions'' (p. 107). In fact, the groupcontext was also significant as it led to the participants negotiating andco-constructing the underlying features of national identity, generally buildingconsensus instead of asserting definitions - and thus some were able to questionthe statements of the public discourse, even to the point where a groupdismissed a speech ''as typical 'politicians' babble' because of its ambivalenceand vagueness'' (p. 132). These groups tended to stress the inclusion of allmembers, simultaneously expressing ''explicit emphasis or presupposition ofintra-national similarity and sameness as well as emphasis of nationalsingularity and autonomy'' (p. 141). They did this in discourse by such devicesas metonymically employing ''Austria'' for the population, or using the somewhatvague ''we'' to sketch out in-groups.

6. Semi-Private Opinions: The Qualitative InterviewsThese twenty-four sessions were set up ''to resemble informal open-ended, privateconversations [thus] there was little observable pressure to articulatestatements conforming to group opinions or politically correct statements'' (p.146). Because of the open-ended nature, there were also some topics brought inthat the participants believed important to the notion of identity that were notmentioned in other forums. The ''homo Austriacus'' here did not have such a tightfocus on nationality; ''even where interviewees emphasised citizenship as acriterion for national membership and identity (which, by the way, did not occurvery often), most of them pointed to linguistically, culturally and ethnicallydefined elements of Austrian self-perception at a later point in the interview''(pp. 150-51). Significantly, it appears that the identification here was lessabout finding a national character to agree upon the ''Austrian-ness'' of, butrather to see how notions of that character could be used to project elements ofthe self into. In dealing with the national past, most of the participantsbelieved it necessary to confront it. ''However, the interviewees scarcely everindicated that they saw any connection to current and everyday racism andexclusionary practices. The topos of 'history teaching lessons', frequent inpolitical speeches, seems to be of no relevance in the individual-privatediscourse of national identity'' (p. 168). Also significant here was that asindividuals, participants tended to be much more positive towards the EU,contradicting the general consensus of groups in the last chapter and, moreovertly, the Austrian population in general (p. 172).

7. Conclusion: Imagined and Real Identities - the Multiple Faces of the ''homonationalis''The authors here present those parts of the findings which they believe to bepertinent ''across contemporary Europe'' (p. 186) - and I would argue, as aCanadian, these may certainly be extrapolated to much wider circles. In thisvein, they point out that ''The discursive constructs of national identitiesemphasise foremost national uniqueness and intra-national uniformity, andlargely tend to ignore intra-national difference (the discourses of sameness).Above all, however, the greatest possible differences from other nations arefrequently simultaneously constructed through discourses of difference, andespecially difference from those foreign nations that seem to exhibit the moststriking similarities'' (p. 186). Intra-nationally, the less public discussionsalso served to emphasize the importance of language to group identity: ''languagewas perceived as a crucial factor in differentiation (not being able to speak alanguage supposedly leads to alienation, fear and rejection), as was theforeigners' 'insistence on their traditions'. Integration, subordination andassimilation were demanded of foreigners living in Austria'' (p. 192). Finally,they list ''at least five different important macro-strategies which play asignificant part in the discourse of national identity. These are: constructivestrategies, strategies of relativisation or justification, strategies ofperpetuation, strategies of transformation, and disparagement and/or destructivestrategies'' (pp. 199-200). It would be compelling to see whether these samestrategies are as clearly employed in data taken from a different nationalgroup, especially those in which the linguistic borders are as fuzzy as thosethis text examines.

8. The 'Story' Continues: 1995-2008This chapter serves to bring the data into the present, integrating newinformation from the recent populist political movement in Austria, wherecertain discourse strategies have been made more overt. For example, ''theall-encompassing construct of the 'community of victims' is becomingincreasingly institutionalised and established… 'perpetrators' are morefrequently obfuscated, often by the use of passive constructions'' (p. 207,italics replaced with single quotes). We see more clearly in this data that thediscourse effect of confronting the National Socialism past is to create anequivalence of victimhood between, for example, concentration camp inmates andsoldiers (p. 212). Externally, joining the EU a fait accompli, there were a fewbumps on the road, such as the bilateral measures by the EU-14 in 2000 whichwere characterized as ''sanctions'' by the populist government, which then calledfor a ''closing of ranks'' around the ''fatherland''. The authors here argue that''calls for a 'national closing of ranks' are part of an authoritarian identitypolitics that imagines a homogeneous national community and aims at enforcing'false consent' and political conformity, which inhibits the pluralistarticulation of conflicts of interest and differences of opinion, which in turnare vital for a functioning democracy'' (p. 231). An interesting feature of thistrend is that the movement of populism from the opposition into the governmentmeans that the government no longer functions as a scapegoat, thus new''Feindbilder'' ('bogeyman images') are necessary (p. 214).


As I have already mentioned, many exceptional scholars have already praised thisbook, and rightly so. It is an excellent exploration of the means with which weconstruct identity through discourse, focusing in on the particular case studyof Austria with outstanding attention to patterns in very detailed data. It istranslated outstandingly by Angelika Hirsch, Richard Mitten and J.W. Unger,meaning that there is an effort to preserve those parts of the initial datawhich can inform our understanding of the linguistic issues while simultaneouslymaintaining thorough comprehensibility for non-German readers.

There are two somewhat paradoxical criticisms I might level, as they are alsothe very strengths of the book. The first has to do with the aforementioned''hermeneutic-abductive approach'' (p. 3), or ''triangulation'' (p. 9), which leavethis study open to some of the standard criticisms of Critical DiscourseAnalysis, namely that it risks either stating the obvious, or is somehow merelyreplacing the ideology of the discourse with that of the critic (or that theresults are somehow ''subjective''). However, the breadth of material and thedepth to which it is analyzed here counters the first issue, and perhaps thenumber of significant scholars involved in this project counters the second.The largest problem with this approach, then, is if it were to be replicated bythose without adequate backgrounds to be able to employ probabilistic abduction,but such a criticism is shallow, as poor results would similarly speak forthemselves as these significant ones do.

The second criticism is equally contradictory: there are times in which thecultural specificity of the Austrian-centered data might be somewhat off-puttingfor those significantly outside of that particular context. However, this isalso why this book is so authoritative, given that it is based firmly on thisdata, and so there is no reason, in this volume at least, to aim for somethingmore ''universal''. Those seeking a fascinating discussion on more generalizednotions of national identity and discourse can certainly confine themselves tothe Introduction and Conclusion, although much will be lost by doing so.

There are a few very minor errata, which I list simply to inform the nextedition. Typos: ''served'' should read ''severed'' in Note 4, p. 47; ''patters''should read ''patterns'' and ''interests'' should be singular on p. 231. There isalso a stray apostrophe after ''academics'' on p. 62.

There is also some minor repetition, which may or may not be deemed important:the Ethnic Group Act's bilingual sign measure (of 25 per cent of the populationbeing required for bilingual signs in an area) on p. 58 has already beenmentioned, as have Bruck and Stocker's ''optimal group size'' (p. 107) andParticipant CF5's observation on being Austrian (p. 120).

Finally, the introduction might be updated to acknowledge the additionalchapter. Although it is discussed in the preface to the new edition, anexplanation of how this new data fits in with the overall theory would beuseful, as there are some significant findings vis-Ă -vis the populist movementthat are quite significant in the overall construction of identity.

These minor points aside, I would certainly recommend this book as an excellentstudy on nation and identity, and a fascinating read on Austrian culture as well.


Anderson, Benedict (1983). Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins andSpread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Cicourel, Aaron (1969). Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: FreePress of Glencoe.

Galasinska, Aleksandra (2010) Review: The Discursive Construction of NationalIdentity. Applied Linguistics 31, 166-168.

Wodak, Ruth (1996). Disorders of Discourse. New York: Longman.


Derek Irwin is a lecturer in English Studies at the University of Nottingham Ningbo Campus. His work focuses on language contact, especially that in early Canadian English and the use of English in the Chinese context.

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