tl;dr CDA is a way of analyzing power structures in text that loads of people are doing already, it just adds a lot of fancy words to it.
So, this is more methodology than theory, but I’m putting it under Theory mainly to make categorizing easier.
Long story short, I am tired of seeing “Critical Discourse Analysis” being wielded as a tool only for academics to maintain control of the Legitimate understandings of oppressive systems, when the fact is that everyone in an oppressed and/or marginalized population is using at least the barebones of CDA in their daily life. I find it particularly ironic and head-desky that, in describing the Aims of CDA, van Dijk claims that it “implies a critical and oppositional stance against the powerful and the elites, and especially those who abuse of their power” and that “studies in CDA try to formulate or sustain an overall perspective of solidarity with dominated groups” (1995, p.18). Nice thoughts, but when most scholarly articles on and using CDA are written with incomprehensible jargon, it starts to fall apart. A certain set of academics have managed to appropriate the ways marginalized people analyze and recognize everyday discrimination, going so far as to suggest that we can’t fucking see it without their help.
Example: The teacher that taught me CDA decided to use gender as an example to explain what made it so complex after I pointed out that it wasn’t complex at all. A very bad choice. He quoted Butler, explained that “gender is a social construct” and then informed me “this has some serious implications, especially for transsexuals, as you can imagine”. Not only did he completely show his lack of care for of actual trans people by failing to use our vocabulary in the way it is used currently (“transsexual” is a word best not used by cis people unless explicitly requested), he literally thought he, an older (cis) man, could educate a group of what he thought was young girls (I wasn’t out in that class) on gender. He didn’t see the power inequality in age, gender, or our teacher/student relation. And, in fact, he later abused his power over our grades to manipulate us, completely oblivious to how he was one of the elite his beloved CDA was supposed to stand against.
I’d love to CDA the heck out of CDA-based research more, but, for now, what I want to do is break down what CDA is so that it can become more accessible. On one hand, it’s a really basic concept that I see high schoolers using without realizing it all the time. On the other hand, with a little manipulation and a shot of vocabulary, it’s really easy to take the Obvious and communicate it in a way that appears more legitimate and makes people listen and take more seriously. Which, if you’re a member of a marginalized group, is incredibly powerful.
The foundation of CDA
Here, I’m going to talk about “text” because I usually use CDA against written word, but this can easily be expanded to include all of discourse – text, spoken word, images, videos, sound… van Dijk refers to one such instance as a “communicative event”, so basically – anything that communicates something (which is more or less everything).
If we’re just glancing at a text, information appears to go:
Writer –> Text –> Reader
Except, when you read a text, you bring yourself to it. For example, a trans exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) will read a text very differently from a nonbinary person. A binary trans person will bring their different experience of transness. I might read something negative about nonbinary identities in indigenous societies and get incredibly angry about how poorly nonbinary identities are discussed and completely miss the racism inherent in the arguments. A cis indigenous person reading the same article may get incredibly angry about the racism but miss the anti-nonbinary edge.
Basically, no matter who writes a text or how it is written, it is read differently by every person, because we are all individuals. So, we actually have:
Writer –> Text <–> Reader
Except writers are also readers. No one simply writes, you need to get information from somewhere. In the previous example, both me and the cis indigenous person go off to write something, using the article as a source (as both of us seem opposed to it). We would write two completely different things because we had two different takeaways from the article. What is read impacts what is written. So we have, in fact:
Writer <–> text <–> Reader
In which information is constantly being passed via text between people that are both readers and writers.
Everything that is communicated has an impact. It will be read and interpreted and will affect the discourse of anyone that reads/interprets it. Nothing is ever a single, one-off, innocent instance. Language establishes ideology. Even seemingly neutral language expresses an ideology or a stance. These ideologies will then inform the ideologies of society. This is a huge part of what builds social constructions.
So, ideology and social constructions and discourse is nice and all, but what do we do with that? Now we have a theoretical foundation, we can start using tools to figure out what a text is actually saying instead of what it appears to say. If you want a really good example (and have the energy for this), I suggest going through recent news reports on police and gun-related violence. Note the race of the perpetrator, and then note how often forms of the word “alleged” is used. I haven’t quite solidified my data yet, but I’ve definitely found that violence from white people, especially white cops, is “alleged”, while violence from a black person gets no modifier. It seems obvious, but it’s a subtle distinction that continues to build on how society views black people as dangerous.
That was an example of how lexicon, or vocabulary, expresses ideology. This is the microtool. We can look at patterns of word choice, like that example, or note how one word is chosen over another (ex. In terms of my teacher, using the term “transsexual” instead of “trans”, communicated his particular position to and awareness of the trans community).
This is the one for people that like grammar, but really it comes down to the question of who does what to whom. Consider news reporting on terrorist attacks (while noting the lexical choice of “terrorism”). For example, the Wikipedia entry for the 2017 London Bridge attack starts “The June 2017 London Bridge attack was an Islamic terrorist attack” (linke=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_2017_London_Bridge_attack), specifically exampling that islamic terrorists attacked. The entry for Finsbury Park attack which happened soon after starts, “On 19 June 2017, a van was driven into pedestrians in Finsbury Park, London, injuring at least eight people.” (link=https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2017_Finsbury_Park_attack). Here, the perpetrator, a white man that had become markedly islamophobic after the London Bridge attack, is cleverly hidden through word choice and the passive voice (which means a subject is not necessary).
When is the perpetrator an active player in a scene? When are they not? Who does what? Who has what done to them? This says a lot.
The narrative of the text is more of a big picture view. Especially in terms of news articles, but also in almost every form of discourse, things are rarely communicated in chronological order. Even they are, each type of discourse has a specific formula. Both following and disrupting the formula says different things. More importantly, what is said first affects how information is understand. For example, the introduction to the Wikipedia entry on the Finsbury Park attack is shaped like this: First, the incident and the casualties are mentioned, without a perpetrator. Then, it is mentioned that it happened outside a mosque. It then mentions a fatal casualty with an unclear link to the incident. Then, it is mentioned as a possible terrorist attack. And only then is the attacker mentioned. By taking so long to identify the incident as an islamophobic terrorist attack, the article suggests that what happened is much more important than who did it, or why, once again, subtly hiding the attacker and his islamophobic motives.
There are loads of other “tools” to CDA, but I have found that these three in particular, are the most useful and, are the ones already being used all over the place through other names.
A final note on art and CDA
While I’ve mainly been discussing news articles here, because that’s how I learned CDA and it gives some clear examples, it’s really important for every artist to understand that the work they create is also discourse. I intend to write more on this later, from a choreological perspective (choreology being the theory of movement). But for now, I’d like to leave you with this:
As an artist, it is my duty to know what I’m communicating. So, while I talk as a trans person, I use CDA-type tools both subconsciously and consciously to analyse what I’m reading and watching, or to understand why I feel a certain way about a certain discourse, I then have to turn back and use it on my own work – what am I subconsciously saying? What are the ideologies I am communicating when I present this piece of work? What social constructions am I breaking down or reinforcing? Is this something I can fully get behind?
No one is perfect. I know that. I hope to grow and change and become better. But, I do strongly believe that I should never present work I am not fully convinced by at the time of presentation. CDA is a necessary tool for finding the holes in my thought processes and patching them up and doing them better.
Works cited/further reading
Richardson, J. Analysing newspapers. (Basingstoke [England]: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007). (see the book here https://www.amazon.com/Analysing-Newspapers-Approach-Critical-Discourse/dp/1403935653)
The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, ed. by Deborah Schiffrin, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi E. Hamilton (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2001) <https://lg411.files.wordpress.com/2013/08/discourse-analysis-full.pdf> [accessed 5 November 2017.
Thompson, John B., Ideology and Modern Culture, (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 1990). (American version of book here https://www.amazon.com/Ideology-Modern-Culture-Critical-Communication/dp/0804718466)
Van Dijk, Teuk, ‘Aims of Critical Discourse Analysis’, Japanese Discourse, 1 (1995), 17-27, <http://discourses.org/OldArticles/Aims%20of%20Critical%20Discourse%20Analysis.pdf> [accessed 5 November 2017].