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20. Political Discourse

JOHN WILSON

Subject Linguistics » Discourse Analysis

Key-Topics political

DOI: 10.1111/b.9780631205968.2003.00021.x

0 Introduction

The study of political discourse, like that of other areas of discourse analysis, covers a broad range of subject matter, and draws on a wide range of analytic methods. Perhaps more than with other areas of discourse, however, one needs at the outset to consider the reflexive and potentially ambiguous nature of the term political discourse. The term is suggestive of at least two possibilities: first, a discourse which is itself political; and second, an analysis of political discourse as simply an example discourse type, without explicit reference to political content or political context. But things may be even more confusing. Given that on some definitions almost all discourse may be considered political (Shapiro 1981), then all analyses of discourse are potentially political, and, therefore, on one level, all discourse analysis is political discourse. This potentially confusing situation arises, in the main, from definitions of the political in terms of general issues such as power, conflict, control, or domination (see Fairclough 1992a, 1995; Giddens 1991; Bourdieu 1991; van Dijk 1993; Chilton and Schaffer 1997), since any of these concepts may be employed in almost any form of discourse. Recently, for example, in a study of a psychotherapeutic training institution, Diamond (1995) refers to her study of the discourse of staff meetings as “political,” simply because issues of power and control are being worked out. They are being worked out at different levels, however: at interpersonal, personal, institutional, and educational levels for example, and in different strategic ways (Chilton 1997). By treating all discourse as political, in its most general sense, we may be in danger of significantly overgeneralizing the concept of political discourse. Perhaps we might avoid these difficulties if we simply delimited our subject matter as being concerned with formal/informal political contexts and political actors (Graber 1981); with, that is, inter alia, politicians, political institutions, governments, political media, and political supporters operating in political environments to achieve political goals. This first approximation makes clearer the kinds of limits we might place on thinking about political discourse, but it may also allow for development. For example, analysts who themselves wish to present a political case become, in one sense, political actors, and their own discourse becomes, therefore, political. In this sense much of what is referred to as critical linguistics (Fairclough 1992b) or critical discourse analysis (van Dijk 1993; Wodak 1995) relates directly to work on political discourse, not only because the material for analysis is often formally political but also, perhaps, because the analysts have explicitly made themselves political actors (see van Dijk, this volume). But such a delimitation, like all delimitations, is not without its problems. For example, how do we deal with the work of Liebes and Ribak (1991) on family discussions of political events? Is this political discourse, or family discourse of the political? In one sense it is both – but the issue of which may simply be a matter of emphasis (see, for example, Ochs and Taylor 1992). While delimitations of the political are difficult to maintain in exact terms, they are nevertheless useful starting points. Equally, while one can accept that it is difficult to imagine a fully objective and nonpolitical account of political discourse, analysts can, at best, and indeed should, make clear their own motivations and perspectives. This may range from setting some form of “democratic” ideal for discourse against which other forms of political discourse are then assessed (Gastil 1993) to explicitly stating one's political goals in targeting political discourse for...
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