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CDA as Approach, Stance, Method(s) – Interview With Normal Fairclough Part III

Rebecca Rogers: Can you talk about the various approaches to CDA? And, then, how your own approach fits into the various traditions?

Norman Fairclough: Again, I want to complicate that because I think it is risky classifying too sharply between different approaches. I would not… I find it difficult to say what my own approach is because it has changed so much. I think the different approaches have fed into each other. So I don’t think one can say there is this approach and that approach and that approach. There are differences and some of them are clearer than others.

Like I’ve already said, Teun van Dijk has always been (always, I don’t whether that is quite true, he will tell you) but as long as I have know him has been focusing on the cognitive interface between the textual and social and that has been the distinctive feature of his work. I suppose to some extent in Ruth Wodak’s work at certain stages.

Ruth Wodak on the other hand, a noticeable feature of her work has had a consistently historical approach that she has tended to collect bodies of material looking at racism that span decades looking at continuities and differences. So there are differences. Some people have been more closely to SFL (systemic functional linguistics) like Theo van Leeuwen’s work came out of—his own particular approach—I am sure he would accept me saying that—is his own particular adaptation of, what is the word I am looking for?

Developing a type of systemic linguistic framework without regard to the orthodoxies of systemic linguistics. So I think his work has been rather unorthodox. But nevertheless, has taken strong influence from that tradition.

Similarly, Gunther Kress, and his critical linguistics work is very strongly attached or drawing upon the work of Michael Halliday and others in systemic linguistics which and lot of us have seen as a linguistic theory that has been exceptionally compatible with what we are trying to do. Because it is a socially oriented linguistic theory. It had a strong point of reference outside of linguistics itself in the work of Michael Bernstein. It was oriented to text. It was oriented to choice and toward the social conditions of choice and text.

And in all of these ways it was an approach that many critical discourse analysts found very fruitful. But that is much stronger in the work of Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress and to a lesser extent in my work. It is not really so strong in Teun van Dijk’s work. Ruth Wodak’s more recently has been more oriented to or getting more into a systemic approach but I do not think early on she was. So there are these sorts of differences.

In terms of my own work, I think that I have increasingly focused on questions of social change. That was already there in the Language and Power book and then I did a book on Discourse and Social Change in 1992 and ever since then my main focus has been on looking at the major social changes of the epoch. Things people talk about as globalization or knowledge societies, knowledge based societies, information societies, transition is a current concern. In terms of the question of what particular importance of efficacy—more general —has discourse as a moment of research has in these moments of social change? Another distinctive element of my framework, has been the centrality placed on, one can say that if you are doing CDA that everyone has this problem of mediation. That is, how do you move from the social analysis to textual analysis?

But I think my approach to that has been centered on the idea of the concepts of order of discourse and interdiscursivity. Order of discourse in the sense of particular articulations of discourses, genres and styles that are relatively stabilized around networks of social practices such as the field of media or politics.

And interdiscursivity as a way of looking at a more concrete level, at the way in which particular texts or conversations, or interviews, draw upon and potentially rearticulate these more stable combinations of discourses, genres, and styles. So that, for me, has been the mediating element.

On the assumption that you are talking about discourses, genres, and styles, you are talking about entities that are already half linguistic and half social. So it is a way of moving between social analysis, political analysis, political-economic analysis, and linguistic analysis, and semiotic analysis between texts and interactions. So what have we gotten to?

So, yes, I have applied that sort of approach to various things. I did a book on the language of New Labour in Great Britain in 2000. We set up the language and new capitalism website. People like Phil Graham…

RR: You were talking about the website

NF: So that for me was part of this developing work. I mean, the names that I and others
have used here are varied. People have talked about globalization about new capitalism.

The work I am doing now is specifically on transition in Central Eastern Europe. And which is obviously a process of the introduction of a new capitalist market economy and western democratic styles of political life. But it tends to involve all of these issues like knowledge based economies and information societies because these things are being promoted at the same time.

As part of the transition toward capitalism. And so that is sort of a summary of some aspects. You should probably ask me another question [laughs].

RR: Can you talk a bit about the orders of discourse – of genre, discourse and style. Can you explain each of these concepts?

NF: Genre, discourse, and style?

Well it is a way of identifying the main ways in which the semiotic—using that term in a very general way to mean any moment or element of the social—what people call discourse in the abstract sense. It is a way of asking or answering a question, in what main way does the semiosis figure into the processes of the social?

And what this particular schema says (discourses, genres, styles) is that it figures first in representations of the social. And the term discourses is used for different representations from particular positions or social fields or organizations of particular areas of social realities. So discourse is used in a very familiar sort of sense. It is very similar to how Foucault uses discourse.

Genres are seen as ways of acting or ways of interacting with a focus on semiosis because, of course, action is not entirely semiotic in character. So whereas with discourses we are talking, for instance, about different political discourses—social democratic, conservative, labor, or whatever. In the case of genres we are talking about interviews, lectures, and newspaper articles. So there are different more or less stabilized ways of acting and interacting in a semiotic aspect.

The concept of style is probably the least familiar in the sense in which I use it. It is a familiar term and lots of people use it in other ways. However, I am using it particularly for the dimension of the semiotic—as a moment of the social—that has to do with identity. So for me, styles are particular ways of being, or particular identities in the semiotic aspect. So I am talking here about—since my interest is in change—about changing styles of political or managerial leadership or whatever it may be.

Which again, I would say, is not just a matter of semiosis but a complex interplay between semiosis and embodiment if we can think of it in those terms. Even that is complex because embodiment, you can see, is partly semoitized but I don’t think is reducible to the semiotic. You can’t reduce a body to semiosis but you can’t separate it, either. And I think that is an important thing to add.

The approach that I have adopted is very much a dialectical approach. That is, it sees relationships between semiosis or discourse in this abstract sense and other elements of the social in a way that recognizes that they are different from one another so you can’t reduce everything to semiosis. And conversely you can’t reduce semiosis to other things.

If you are investigating whatever area it may be—schools, or political parties, or government, or economies— you are immediately confronted with the fact that partly that the research topics and the objects that are emerging are semiotic in character, but they are not simply semiotic. And to say that they—as some people have tried to say that they are—is for me, quite reductive.

On the other hand, the relationship between semiosis and the other elements is such that they are not discrete from one another. There is a—as David Harvey puts it in his book Dialectics of Discourse—there is an internalization of the semiotic in other social elements and vice versa.

So any organization, well, one can think of any organization as always starting with a discourse, an imaginary discourse which is then enacted, inculcated, materialized in a material environment, infrastructure of the organization, the procedures of the organization, the subjects, the identities that are involved in the organization and so on. And similarly if we start from texts, we have to say yes texts are not reducible to anything else but as soon as you start analyzing texts, everything is in there, institutions are in there, relations of power are in there. So we have to see these things as different and yet as not different. So there is a sort of paradox there. That is what I mean when I talk about being dialectically related.

RR: Can you talk about the issue of methods of analysis in general? A thread through the
conference has been problematizing methods. Can you talk more generally about how
you see the role of methods?

NF: My view of methods is that you find a research topic, as I was saying earlier, you
apply a set of theoretical resources to that research topic to produce coherent objects
of research and in light of the objects of research that you select appropriate methods.

I think that is taking the approach that Bourdieu takes, basically. So I would not want to
talk about the methods of critical discourse analysis. If we mean by that how it collects
data, how it analyzes data, and so it is appropriate for CDA or work with CDA in certain
circumstances to do what some people have begun to do, that is, to actually move into
forms of ethnographic work and in a sense to bring the resources of critical discourse
analysis into ethnographic work. If you are addressing research questions that are to do with the work I am doing in transition, for example. How are these new discourses that are being re-contextualized in transitional countries actually being operationalized in social life?

And that is a dialectic from discourses, to ways of acting and to genres, to ways of being and to styles, as well as to more material aspects of life. Now to answer that question you have to go looking, for instance, in a country like Romania where I am working, at policy texts or the way in which the Romanian government is enacting policies of e-government by constructing government websites to really know what the effectivity these discourses are having, one has to start looking in localities and companies and so on.

Like any country that is a recipient of aide from the World Bank, it is increasingly subject to these processes of monitoring against increasingly more specific set of benchmarks to actually see where these things are happening in practice. But all of this says that we have to investigate these issues, have to move into an ethnographic way of working that is trying to get some close touch with insider perspectives and experiences in particular localities or companies or government offices.

RR: Can you comment on, in any way that you would like to, how you see CDA and ethnography working together? Conceptually or empirically or with an insider perspective, along those lines.

NF: Yeah, there is quite interesting range of ethnographic studies of transitional societies which have been carried out by people like Michael Burawoy. One can, right, I think the same applies there as to other social research. One can read that work and say, yes, this is very interesting because it does start to address what is happening in reality on the ground on.

It also addresses the important question of what potentials there are for people to be resistant from processes that are introduced from on top in transitional societies and economies. That is one important argument for ethnographic studies. But one also reads these papers and my reaction to them is that they are using, of course, interview material, maybe documents, they are using a lot of discourse materials but they are doing very little analysis.

So we can actually contribute to the work that is already going on in a sense by saying what else can you find out if you have the resource of critical discourse analysis to analyze in a much more fine-grained way. At the moment what is being said about these materials is mainly thematic. Which is interesting enough but I think there is a lot more to say.

And partly things to say in a more fine-grained way about the very nature of appropriations and resistances in these local contexts as manifested in the interdiscursivities of talk. So bringing talk into that whole process of what resources people can draw together for a basis for—I don’t know—combating the intent to impose waste dumps (I am thinking of one example) in Hungary which was to be used for dumping wastes, essentially.

There was a campaign around that and a successful one. And there was some good ethnography done on it but I think it could be developed if there were better resources for analyzing the interview material, recordings of meetings and so on.


Rogers, R. (2004, May). [Interview with Norman Fairclough.] In Companion Website to R. Rogers (Ed.) An Introduction to Critical Discourse Analysis in Education (second edition). New York: Routledge. []

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