Political discourse and political cognition
Teun A. van Dijk
Relating politics, cognition and discourse
The aim of this chapter is to explore some of the relations between political discourse and political cognition. Separately, both interdisciplinary fields have recently received increasing attention, but unfortunately the connection between the two has largely been ignored: Political psychology has not shown much interest in discourse, and vice versa, most scholars interested in political discourse disregard the cognitive foundations of such discourse. And yet, the relationships involved are as obvious as they are interesting. The study of political cognition largely deals with the mental representations people share as political actors. Our knowledge and opinions about politicians, parties or presidents are largely acquired, changed or confirmed by various forms of text and talk during our socialization (Merelman 1986), formal education, media usage and conversation. Thus, political information processing often is a form of discourse processing, also because much political action and participation is accomplished by discourse and communication. On the other hand, a study of political discourse is theoretically and empirically relevant only when discourse structures can be related to properties of political structures and processes. The latter however usually require an account at the macro-level of political analysis, whereas the former rather belong to a micro-level approach. This well-known gap can only be adequately bridged with a sophisticated theory of political cognition. Such a theory needs to explicitly connect the individual uniqueness and variation of political discourse and interaction with the socially shared political representations of political groups and institutions. Thus, a biased text about immigrants may derive from personal beliefs about immigrants, and these beliefs
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in turn may be related to the shared racist attitudes or ideologies of a larger group. The theoretical framework of this chapter is complex and multidisciplinary. It relates various levels and dimensions of the political domain. The base level consists of individual political actors, as well as their beliefs, discourses and (other) interactions in political situations. The intermediate level, constituted by the base level, consists of political groups and institutions, as well as their shared representations, collective discourse, relations and interactions. The top level, which in turn is based on the intermediate level, is constituted by political systems, and their abstract representations, orders of discourse, and socio-political, cultural and historical processes. Of course these levels are related in many ways, so that the micro and the macro levels seem to manifest themselves at the same time. Thus, a representative giving a speech in parliament speaks as an individual and thus expresses his or her personal political beliefs in a unique way and in a unique context. At the same time, that person speaks as a member of parliament or Congress, as a member of a party and as a representative of a constituency, thus possibly `doing' opposition against another party or against the government, and expressing the attitudes or ideologies of the own group. And finally, by doing so he or she is enacting a system of parliamentary democracy, reproducing the discourse order of democracy and democratic ideologies, and presupposing a historically variable Common Ground of cultural knowledge, norms and values, shared by all other groups of the same culture. This chapter will focus on some of the relationships between the first two, lower, levels of political analysis, that is, on how political text and talk of individuals are related to socially shared political representations and collective interactions of groups and institutions. Given the complexity of these relations between the...