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History of Critical Discourse Analysis – Interview With Norman Fairclough Part I

Rebecca Rogers: What do you see as the history of CDA?

Norman Fairclough: I guess that is two different questions. Do you mean the history of this particular network? Or the history of critical work on language and discourse? Because I think they are two very different things.

RR: Good point. Can you talk a little bit about both?

NF: The history of this group, that is now operative internationally that has met here set
itself up as a network and I guess the beginning of that was probably the European group meetings that started in Amsterdam I think in about 1991 initiated by Teun van Dijk and attended initially by people like Ruth Wodak, Theo van Leeuwen and myself and Luisa Rojo, and a bit later others but it was a very small group and a group of graduate students was there, too. That group has kept going ever since and has gradually pulled in other people. And that has come to constitute a CDA network… Since then it has expanded because various people have started their own networks in other places.

So some of us are in touch with Jay Lemke and Jim Gee in the States, we’ve been in touch with people in Australia and some of the people in the network do work in Australia such as Theo van Leeuwen and Gunther Kress and it has gradually has become more international. The original groups were European and then they became more international and attended by Jay Lemke from the States and Phil Graham from Brisbane and so on.

So that is the way it has developed as a network but I guess intellectually we are, the earlier work done in critical linguistics, the book published by Fowler & Kress & Trew in 1979 and Kress’s work on Language & Ideology at the same time and so that work was a direct feed into the development of this network and then some of us started talking about critical discourse analysis as opposed to critical linguistics in the mid 1980s, something like that.

So that is some of that history. But if we think of the critical analysis of discourse in a broader sense you can trace that back as long as you want to really. You can go back to classical rhetoric which was in a sense was a particular sort of critically looking at discourse. Or more recently the work of people like Bakhtin and Volsonov, which I think was very influential for many of us getting into this area.

Also, I think importantly, the fact that a critical discourse analysis emerged somewhat earlier than this network in France tied particular to the work of Michel Pecheux but also Dominique (inaud.) was talking about this in his plenary, very much tied to a particular type of Marxism and Althusserian Marxism and with the demise of the popularity of that version of French Marxism, generally, in France, the development has been a common (inaud.) In the sense the opposite from what has happened what happened in the Anglo-world.

Whereas in the Anglo-world you have the emergence of critical linguistics, distancing itself from formal linguistics and that then led to critical discourse analysis. In the French context, what emerged first was this critical approach to discourse and people tended to move away from that. So, for example now, Dominique would not refer to himself as a critical discourse analyst.

Other people have distanced themselves from that—Pecheux, for instance. And one could go on, John Reagon (in his speech at the conference) referred to (inaud.) and to Derrida. All of whom have done some form of critical work on discourse.

RR: Can you talk about the emergence of the critical discourse analysis network? What conditions made it possible for that network to emerge? What conditions made it possible for some of this before the network—in the 1970s and 1980s—more broadly for the methodology and theory to emerge?

NF: Maybe we should also think of the network as the fact that it exists as this rather loose network and structure. Very loose in fact. There is no center, no organizers, always casual, it’s always been natural: Who will organize the next meeting?

Someone says “I will” and then maybe they do and maybe they don’t. And that has always been the way its been done. So it has always had this kind of loose structure and I suppose the conditions of possibility for have been the broader emergence of that network that is part of academic life, so in a sense it is a part of that. So it has not been tied to particular institutions or schools, these have developed as a part of that, Ruth Wodak has the most elaborately developed school or institutional base in Vienna, Teun van Dijk in Amsterdam and me in Lancaster. But, it’s dependent very much on this loose flowing group of people who continually change in their constitution, comings and goings and so on. And that is the way it has tended to develop.

RR: Are there any kind of social conditions outside of academia or particular intellectual traditions that you think have moved this forward?

NF: Well, yes. If we think of the intellectual traditions. I think one needs to be careful here. I think the thing I want to say is that CDA is not a unitary position neither theoretically, methodologically, or intellectually.

Different people draw on different traditions. But having said that, there are certain traditions that one can see that have been more or less important for people. One is certainly ideology critique and the Althusserian work is reflected in the early Fowler and Kress’s work in critical linguistics.

So ideology critique in those works forms the Frankfurt school as far as Althusser and so on. So those traditions are important. And behind those, Marxism. And then I guess for quite a number of us, Habermas, more recent Frankfurt school work and Habermas particularly because his distinctive way of approaching critical theory has been, in a sense, to revise historical materialism and look at communication alongside of the labor of speakers in a basic sort of anthropological premises of human existence, so communication of language, and discourse as distinct.

This has influenced Ruth Wodak and me and others. Then I suppose for me, and say for, I would think Gunther Kress for instance, Bakhtin’s work, dialogical view of language, Bakhtin’s work on genre, back in Voloshinov tradition has been influential. For some of us Foucault, particularly in the area of discourse, which in one of my books, Discourse and Social Change, I was arguing that what one ought to be trying to do is specifically set up bridges between the nontextual and more oriented to knowledge systems types of discourse analysis and traditions of linguistic text analysis.

So these are some of the influences but I think I should stress, if you think of Teun van Dijk, he has been quite influenced by work in cognitive theory whereas many other people in the area haven’t. So there is quite a bit of diversity in terms of the work that people draw on and it has been changing as people go along. So my recent work has been drawing on work in the political economy, for example.


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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