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Paolo Donadio » 2.Theoretical framework: discourse analysis and ideology

Lesson plan


  1. The social function of language
  2. The interface text-discourse-society
  3. Discourse(s)
  4. Language and globalization
  5. The ‘form’ of ideologies (Engels, 1893)
  6. How ideologies work
  7. Ideology as a cultural system
  8. The ’structure’ of ideologies


In this second lesson, we will try to describe the major points of our theoretical framework. We will see that our focus on language will be based on a functionalist perspective aiming to discover how language works to reproduce or restructure social/power relations and convey particular values.

We will see that there exists a deep connection between actual processes of (economic) globalization and the discourses of globalization – i.e. how economic, military, political globalization is represented through language (N. Fairclough, Language and Globalization, Routledge, 2006).

We shall introduce the basic assumptions underlying Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and we will try to explore the notions of 1) discourse and 2) ideology.

The social function of language

“Social phenomena are linguistic, on the other hand, in the sense that the language activity which goes on in social contexts (as all language activity does) is not merely a reflection or expression of social processes and practices, it is a part of those processes and practices”
(Fairclough N., Language and Power, Longman, 1989).

The interface text-discourse-society

“Three elements: social practice, discoursal practice (text production, distribution, consumption) and text, and the analysis of a specific discourse calls for analysis in each of these three dimensions and their interrelations. The hypothesis is that significant connections exist between features of the texts, ways in which texts are put together and interpreted, and the nature of the social practice
(N. Fairclough, Critical Discourse Analysis, Longman, 1995).


“It is even more interesting to see how orders of discourse differ in terms of the relationship (complementarity, opposition, mutual exclusion or whatever) between conversation and other discourse types. For instance, conversation has no ‘on stage’ role in legal proceedings, but it may have a significant ‘off stage’ role in, for example, informal bargaining between prosecution and defence lawyers. In education, on the other hand, conversation may have approved roles not only before and after classes are formally initiated by teachers, but also a form of activity embedded within the discourse of the lesson”
(N. Fairclough N., Language and Power, Longman, 1989).

Language and globalization

“… There are real processes of (e.g. economic) globalization, independently of whether people recognize them or not and of how they represent them; as soon as we begin to reflect upon and discuss these real processes we have to represent them and the ways in which we represent them inevitably draw upon certain discourses rather than others . So we might say that the problem turns into that how we decide which discourses to draw upon in reflecting upon and discussing these real processes- how we determine whether and to what extent particular discourses provide us with representations which are adequate for these processes”
(N. Fairclough N., Language and Globalization, Routledge, 2006).

The ‘form’ of ideology (Engels, 1893)

“Otherwise there is only one other point lacking, which, however, Marx and I always failed to stress enough in our writings and in regard to which we are all equally guilty. That is to say, we all laid, and were bound to lay, the main emphasis, in the first place, on the derivation of political, juridical and other ideological notions, and of actions arising through the medium of these notions, from basic economic facts. But in so doing we neglected the formal side — the ways and means by which these notions, etc., come about — for the sake of the content. [...]
Ideology is a process accomplished by the so-called thinker consciously, indeed, but with a false consciousness. The real motives impelling him remain unknown to him, otherwise it would not be an ideological process at all. Hence he imagines false or apparent motives. Because it is a process of thought he derives both its form and its content from pure thought, either his own or that of his predecessors. He works with mere thought material which he accepts without examination as the product of thought, he does not investigate further for a more remote process independent of thought; indeed its origin seems obvious to him, because as all action is produced through the medium of thought it also appears to him to be ultimately based upon thought”.
(Engels to f. Mehering, 1893)

How ideologies work

“So far we have more questions than answers. For instance, we have few explicit ideas about the internal structures of the mental representations of ideologies. And without such representions we are unable to detail the ways ideologies influence the underlying mental processes involved in discourse and other social practices”
(T. Van Dijk, “Discourse, Ideology and Context” in Folia Linguistica, XXX/1-2, 2001, pp. 11-40).

Ideology as a cultural system

“The reason for this weakness is the virtual absence in strain theory or in interest theory either of anything more than the most rudimentary conception of the processes of symbolic formulation. There is a good deal of talk about emotions “finding a symbolic outlet” or “becoming attached to appropriate symbols” but very little idea of how the trick is really done. The link between the causes of ideology and its effects seems adventitious because the element connecting the autonomous process of its formulation is passed over in virtual silence. Both interest theory and strain theory go directly from source analysis to consequence analysis without ever seriously examining ideologies as systems of interacting symbols, as patterns of interworking meanings
(C. Geertz, Ideology as a cultural system, 1973).

The ’structure’ of ideologies

“Cognitively, ideologies are a form of self-schema of (the members of) groups, that is, a representation of themselves as a group, especially also in relation to other groups. Processes of social identification ultimately take place on the shared social representations we call ideologies. The social inspiration for a theory of ideological structure therefore must be sought in the basic properties of (social) groupness, of which the following ones have particular relevance:

1. Membership devices (gender, etnicity, appearance, origin, etc.): Who are we?
2. Actions: What do we do?
3. Aims: Why do we do this?
4. Norms and Values: What is good or bad?
5. Position: What is our position in society, and how do we relate to other groups?
6. Resources: What is ours? What do we want to have/keep at all costs?”
(T. Van Dijk, “Discourse, Ideology and Context” in Folia Linguistica, XXX/1-2, 2001, pp. 11-40).

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Progetto "Campus Virtuale" dell'Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, realizzato con il cofinanziamento dell'Unione europea. Asse V - Società dell'informazione - Obiettivo Operativo 5.1 e-Government ed e-Inclusion