Language and Power in English Texts
Susana Murcia Bielsa, Mick O’Donnell
Course overview: The aim of this course is to provide an understanding of how English language works to express power-relations and ideology in different kinds of text (both written and spoken). Through the study of different kinds of discourse, we will be looking at how particular linguistic features are used to persuade and manipulate, and convey social, racial or sexist ideologies.
Notions of Power
‘Power’ refers to the ability of an entity (e.g., company, individual, social group, etc.) to make change, or conversely, to maintain things as they are. In discussing the power of language, we need to consider two distinct uses of language:
Language as public discourse: the language used in the public print media, television and radio, and now, on the Web.
Language as interpersonal communication: the language used when we as individuals interact with other individuals, e.g., friends talking, doctor and patient, teacher and students.
1 Power in Public Discourse
In one sense, the word ‘power’ in the title of this course refers to the power of dominant institutions within our society, and how these institutions maintain their dominance through the use of language: media (newspapers, television), advertising, etc. The public institutions of our society have powers of various sorts. One important power is to control the flow of information: what gets into the press, and how it is presented. The public media is the primary means of shaping public opinion. And if one can shape public opinion, one can change (or strengthen) the power structures that exist (see figure 1). Fairclough (2001, p3) uses the term ‘manufacture of consent’: if one can convince the people to accept your right to act in specific ways, then you can so act.
Figure 1: Power controls the media & the media maintains power 1
These institutions include legally defined entities such as governments, political parties, companies, etc. For instance, if a political party holds some control over a newspaper or television station, then they can control, to some extent, the content delivered through that medium, and also, how that content is expressed. Here in Spain, the government controls some television channels, and the 2 major parties own some newspapers and radio stations. Companies also can be seen to exert ‘power’ through the media. Firstly, in advertising, a company expresses a message directly to potential consumers. They choose their language carefully to persuade readers to buy their product. Less directly, companies influence the content of news media – the owners of a paper or television station do not like to offend their larger advertisers, and so choose carefully what news they publish, and how it is expressed. For instance, a paper in which McDonalds frequently advertises might ignore reports of foodpoisoning in McDonalds, or else place the article in position of low prominence, and lessen the impact of the article by mitigating strategies (e.g., blaming the provider of raw materials instead). More covertly, since the amount a newspaper can make from advertising depends on how many copies it sells, papers aim to sell as many papers as possible. There is thus a process of selection in what they print – they print what the readership wants to read. Unpopular news will not appear. Similarly for television.
Powerful institutions and individuals often interact to support each other, building power structures. Power structures use public discourse to strengthen their own control, and to weaken the power of other groups. For example, the World Bank and the IMF are not totally independent, but swayed by their major contributors (typically U.S.-based multinationals and larger western governments) such that loans to poorer countries are tied with conditions that favour the contributors, e.g., that the recipient...
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