On Discourse Analysis, Looking at a Sample of Spoken Discourse from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Conference Presentation.

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On Discourse Analysis, looking at a sample of spoken discourse from Michelle Obama’s Democratic National Conference Presentation.

In this paper I aim to apply different methods of discourse analysis to a selected extract of transcribed language. I have chosen to transcribe a speech given by the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama. Firstly, to briefly outline the context, the speech was given during the Democratic National Convention in September 2012, in the run up to the presidential election in which her husband, Barack Obama is rallying for re-election. Michelle is introduced by Elaine Brye, a ‘fellow mom’ and what’s more, ‘military mom’ of 5 sons, four of whom cover all of the American forces. Byre appropriately asks “What’s a mom like me doing in a place like this? I’m not even a political person!” She talks of her children as treasures, of how the Obama family have supported military families, and of how her and Michelle can relate ‘mom to mom’. This introduction sets the scene for what Michelle is about to talk about, giving rise to the topics of ‘ordinary-ness’, the stories of rags-to-riches, and the duty of ‘being mom-in-chief’, all of which appeals to the audience of American people. Michelle’s language has visible aims to make them feel united, empowered, proud, and hopeful. Michelle walks in wearing a cerise pink dress, waving and laughing and thanking the crowd for their applause, she is evidently humbled by the audience’s applause and cheer. There is also an apt choice of music by Stevie Wonder; with the lyrics “signed sealed delivered, I’m yours” this with a subtle, playful message perhaps hinting to their confidence in winning this election, given the physical acts of sealing and delivering a vote on election day, and of her husband ‘signing up’ for his new term in office. Michelle finally begins by thanking Elaine Brye, and uses the collective ‘we’, “We are so grateful for your family’s service and sacrifice, and we will always have your back” (YouTube clip 4:20)[1]. This ambiguous ‘we’ has the potential to be on behalf of either President Obama and herself, or indeed the American Public.

Young and Fitzgerald (2006) state that “critical discourse analysts use several different methods to help them ‘dig’ beneath the surface of the discourse” (2006: 16). These include conversation analysis, and looking at politeness strategies, but for the purpose of my chosen sample, a public speech, one technique I have chosen to focus on, is Systemic Functional Linguistics, in an analysis ‘partnership’ with CDA. SFL is “a way of understanding the functions that language performs and the choices people make when they speak to exchange meaning with listeners” (2006: 16), and from my understanding of the process, it is necessary to ask a certain set of questions, when carrying out SFL research, which eventually lead us to answer “why a speaker or writer made these types of choices; and how they reflect relationships between powerful and weaker groups” (2006: 23).

The first questions at this stage of SFL, is who is participating, and what are the processes and circumstances. Young and Fitzgerald comment:

“When studying a discourse, SFL researchers are interested in the meanings that participants, processes and circumstances are creating. Using these labels helps analysts figure out ‘who is doing what to whom: when, where and how’ (2006: 16-17)

There is the brief discourse between the first speaker Elaine, and Michelle, and between all speakers there is a sustained interaction with the audience, within the circumstance of a 23,000-seat North Carolina arena (MacAskill 2012). Therefore, for the most part, the purpose of Michelle’s language is to engage the American political supporters, although this audience is later extended to a world-wide audience due to the filming of the speech, it’s broadcast on ABC News, and subsequent access via the internet. She begins speaking, “with your help, with your...
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