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Review of  Discourse and Power

Reviewer: Elena Tarasheva
Book Title: Discourse and Power
Book Author: Teun A van Dijk
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.45

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AUTHOR: Teun A. van Dijk
TITLE: Discourse and Power
PUBLISHER: Palgrave Macmillan
YEAR: 2008

Elena Tarasheva, Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, New Bulgarian
University, Sofia, Bulgaria


This book is a collection of previously published articles which contribute to
the development of the theoretical grounds for the discipline known as Critical
Discourse Analysis (CDA), or Critical Discourse Studies (CDS), as van Dijk
proposes to re-name it in the introduction. The articles address one of the
central conceptual fields in CDA - relations of power and domination in society
and their reflections in discourse. On a theoretical plane, working definitions
are given of non-linguistic concepts, such as power, access, ideology, and
racism from the point of view of Discourse Analysis (DA), which can keep DA
researchers afloat in the sea of definitions from other disciplines. From the
point of view of discourse, valuable descriptions are offered of the linguistic
mechanisms of manipulation, discrimination, lying, and political argument. A
particularly impressive interdisciplinary contribution is the description of the
cognitive processes involved in interpreting political discourse. Among the
noteworthy theoretical contributions is a novel definition of context suited to
the purpose of analysing power in society. All the theoretical insights are
illustrated with specific research results from studies of various discourses
such as political speeches and debates, newspaper articles, textbooks, etc. Van
Dijk says that although the theoretical frameworks are complex, his intention
was to keep his descriptions simple enough that students in various disciplines
in the Humanities can understand them.

In the first chapter, van Dijk outlines the rationale for CDS as a discipline
engaged with the projections of power in discourse. From the multitude of
concepts of power, the author motivates his choice to engage with abuses of
power, such as domination in society, racism, and inequality. He argues that
projections of power can be found in all the components into which discourse has
been analysed - phonological or morphological features, functional realisations
of language, figures of speech, or various technical aspects of film making. At
the same time, on the macro level access to and control of genres are additional
agencies through which elites exercise power in society. Finally, the practical
relevance of the discipline is outlined in spheres of day-to-day life, such as
mediation and consultancy, codes of practice, teaching, business relations,
alliances, and cooperation.

In Chapter Two the author defines his concept of 'power' and its realisations in
life. The definition is functional and consists of several characteristics, such
as: a. power is manifested in interactions; b. it projects ideologies; c. it
operates on the minds of people, and so on. Although various authorities are
enumerated at the beginning of the chapter, the formulations are van Dijk's own.
Personally, I would have preferred some reference to the sources of each claim,
which would reflect the fact that power is a concept widely discussed in various
disciplines, but the author's courage to define and defend his own grounds
befits his status. Then he goes on to outline how power is projected in
discourse. In this respect, the concept of ideology is introduced as ''a form of
social cognition shared by members of a group, class, or other social formation''
(p. 34). The rest of the discussion is based on discourse as the essential
vehicle which conveys and shapes social views and beliefs. Examples are quoted
of power in child-parent or men-women dialogues, racist talk, institutional
conversations, job interviews, and other social settings. Special attention is
given to political talk and media discourse. In conclusion, the basic questions
for CDS are formulated: who speaks to whom, who has access to what forms of
discourse, and which recipients can be reached with the discourse.

Chapter Three adds the notion of 'access' to the basic conceptual framework of
CDA. Domination is the term which is defined as a type of abuse of social power
which gives control over the minds and activities of people in an organised
fashion despite resistance. Thus access to genres is what determines the roles
which people can take in discourse. While socially powerful people set the
ideological agendas, 'symbolic elites' serve the function of conveying
ideological messages through vehicles of discourse such as textbooks, media,
etc. Ways are suggested of assessing the power of control over a social
situation - through analysis of planning, choice of a setting, and instruments
of control. At this juncture, the notion of racism is introduced through the
discussion of the access of minority groups to genres. The spheres of media,
politics, and academia are reviewed, and examples are given of the coverage of
immigration to the UK in British broadsheet and tabloid newspapers.

The fourth chapter, somewhat surprisingly, switches back to the title of the
research discipline familiar through the main bulk of past research - critical
discourse analysis (CDA). In the first chapter van Dijk proposes changing it to
Critical Discourse Studies, because what is done under CDA is not analysis but
studies (p.2). Whatever is envisaged with this fine distinction, however,
appears dropped after Chapter 4, because the author reverts back to CDA for the
rest of the book. The careful reader will have noticed the proviso in the
forward that this is a collection of previously published articles whose
original text has been preserved in spite of the suggestions in the original
chapter, but the absent-minded will be left wondering. The discipline is briefly
traced back in time to the Frankfurt School before WW2. The basic tenets are
summarised as: a. the discipline focuses on social problems; b. power relations
are discursive; c. discourse mediates between society and culture; d. discourse
is ideological and historical, interpretive and explanatory; e. discourse is a
form of social action. With the provision that CDA is not a unitary direction of
research, but uses any methods that suit its purposes, the conceptual frameworks
are described as including various levels of analysis: members-groups,
actions-processes, context-social structure, personal- social cognition. Then
two fields of impact are named: control of public discourse and mind control.
Examples of CDA are quoted from the existing research into gender inequality,
media and political discourse, and various nationalistic discourses. The
conclusion suggests that within the discipline gaps exist which need to be
filled by creative use of interdisciplinary research.

Chapter Five is devoted to the link between discourse and racism. Racism is
viewed as a social and cognitive phenomenon and the interplay between the two in
discourse is revealed. Discourse is briefly defined in a broad semiotic
perspective as a specific communicative event in any medium. Practically all
linguistic levels can be affected by expressions of racism - from non-verbal
structures to instances of complex interactions. The role of elites in
projecting racist ideologies is discussed, while context is introduced as a
factor explaining the dominant ethnic consensus. The spheres of media and
political discourse are studied as carriers of racial discourse, as well as the
domains of conversations, parliamentary debates, and school textbooks. All the
discourse types under review, according to van Dijk, project similar features
and reflect the elite ideologies.

In Chapter Six van Dijk suggests that racism tends to be expressed with a hedge
of denial (''I have nothing against these people but...''). He differentiates
among several types: act-denial, control-denial, intention denial, and goal
denial. Further types are elaborated in the press and in parliamentary
discourse. Projections of denial are traced on two levels - micro and macro.

Chapter Seven is perhaps the most interesting and novel, if one reads the text
as a book, rather than as a collection of previously published articles. There
van Dijk relates political discourse to cognition. Using an example from a
speech in the British Parliament, he demonstrates a conceptual framework for the
study of political cognition. The framework includes various categories of
mental processing and the way they relate to the interpretation of political
discourse. While Short Term Memory (STM) is responsible for the actual
interpretation of incoming information, Long Term Memory (LTM) stores a broad
knowledge base for making sense of input material. This is also where various
types of schemata are evolved and where evaluative beliefs are formed.
Ultimately, abstract representations of Social memory - the culture-specific
mechanism for understanding events - in collaboration with personal experiences
contribute to our political knowledge.

Chapter Eight discusses the war rhetoric of Spanish Prime Minister Aznar in his
speech in the Spanish Parliament. It highlights the typical features of positive
self-presentation, negative presentation of the supposed adversary, as well as
various rhetorical fallacies. The analysis serves as a case study exemplifying
methods and approaches of discovering and counteracting political lies.

In Chapter Nine, Tony Blaire's speech legitimating the war in Iraq is reviewed
as an example of manipulation. Manipulation is defined as ''a communicative and
interactional practice, in which a manipulator exercises control over other
people, usually against their will or against their best interests'' (p. 212).
Its projections in society are a discursive form of elite power reproduction,
which breeds inequality because it violates the interests of the dominated
groups. Manipulation is also discussed in relation to cognitive processes. It
transpires that both STM and LTM can be manipulated, to different effects. Acts
of manipulation are then related to various discourse forms.

Chapter Ten is about the pragmatics of lying, based on Aznar's justification of
the war in Iraq. At this point van Dijk proposes a new theory of context. From
the range of approaches adopted so far to context, van Dijk puts forward a
subjective interpretation: ''the definitions of the relevant aspects of the
communicative situation by the participants themselves'' (p. 239). Although it
partly stems from work in social psychology, a complete theory has not been
developed yet. In view of the fact that ideologies are treated as a form of
social cognition, such a theory seems suited to the effort to establish how
ideologies are created and maintained through discourse. Lying is then defined
as violating the ethical norms of truthfulness. Then conditions are described
which can prevent participants in parliamentary discourse from falling prey to
lies. Parliamentary discourse is analysed in terms of the forms of address,
political roles and relations, and knowledge. Aznar's speech serves as a source
of exemplification of these categories.


A book written by an established authority and one of the founders of CDA
naturally raises great expectations. Inasmuch as a theoretical background for
critical studies of discourse is provided, the book lives up to the expectation.
However, I would advise against reading the book without realising that this is
a collection of previously published articles, rather than a systematic
presentation of the subject matter. Van Dijk forewarns that repetitions may
occur, and they do. For example, the concepts that racism involves positive
self-presentation and negative other-presentation, and that racial discourse is
prefaced by negation recur several times, with precisely the same gloss, thus
hardly encouraging one to read further. Van Dijk himself suggests reading each
chapter in isolation from the others. If the chapters would have been presented
typographically as reprints of published articles the book would have been more

Additionally, the terminological confusion of introducing a new name for CDA -
Critical Discourse Studies - and abandoning it at the fourth chapter is another
feature which mars the impact of the book.

With a view to content, the book raises a few pragmatic questions. Firstly,
interdisciplinary work necessitates that a discourse analyst has to engage with
other fields - psychology, cognitive science, sociology, political science, and
others relevant to CDA. To seek projections of power in discourse, van Dijk, a
linguist, defines a concept from sociology and political science - power, or
adapts existing definitions. How competent his interpretations are - or how
acceptable for specialists in the field - is a question worth exploring. Perhaps
the fact that the analyses yield results justifies the venture into an unknown
field. Perhaps any theoretical assumption can be disparaged, be it from a
specialist or interdisciplinary worker. This reader hopes that van Dijk's brave
act of trespassing into fields outside of his traditional discipline and giving
his own definition seems acceptable to judges of authoritative definitions, when
it comes to quoting.

Secondly, van Dijk is known as an experienced researcher. He indeed quotes from
many studies but one still wishes to know more about the practical aspects of
carrying out the research. It is clear that the thrust of the book is
theoretical; however, a little insight into the how-to of the research would
have been welcome. In this respect, the book counterbalances other publications
which can merely serve as manuals in which one is left with the mammoth task of
digging for the theoretical premises of this type of research. Personally, my
preference would be a golden middle ground, but on this occasion, van Dijk has
gone for the purely theoretical alternative - for better or worse.

The present book is an excellent illustration of the importance of the style of
a research publication. Because the book collects individual texts, the text
flow between chapters is so poor that one is often discouraged from reading
further. Perhaps splitting hairs, one also notices that that a work by another
author is noted as being contained 'in this volume' (p. 93), whereas the volume
includes no writings by other authors. Van Dijk says that the collection is
produced for the sake of people with limited access to recent publications. As
one such person, I would have wished for a better presentation.

I am left feeling that the effort to review van Dijk's past work, reconsider it
and present it in an organised fashion would have cost the author a lot of
effort, but every minute of the work would have been worth it.

In conclusion, the book may not be an enjoyable read, but makes a brilliant
contribution to CDA (or CDS?), setting the theoretical background and mapping
ground for further exploration of the theoretical field.

Elena Tarasheva started life as a specialist in British Culture Studies and Inter-cultural Competence. Her Ph.D. thesis is in the field of Computational Linguistics. Since then she has worked extensively with corpora, especially for the purposes of discovering the role of East European researchers in international academic discourse. She is Assistant Professor at the New Bulgarian University, Sofia, Bulgaria.

Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0230574092
ISBN-13: 9780230574090
Pages: 320
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