Welfare reform and computer-mediated practices of dissent


Barton, D. (2001) Directions for literacy research: Analysing language and social practices in a textually mediated world. Language and Education 15(2-3): 92-104.

Bennett, J. (2011) A critical social semiotic study of the word chav in British written public discourse, 2004-2008. Unpublished PhD thesis. Birmingham: University of Birmingham.

Bennett, J. (2012) Chav-spotting in Britain: The representation of social class as private choice. Social Semiotics.

Bennett, J. (2013) Moralising class: A discourse analysis of the mainstream political response to Occupy and the August 2011 British riots. Discourse & Society 24(1): 27-45.

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Fairclough, N. (2006) Language and globalization. Abingdon: Routledge.

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Pennycook, A. (2001) Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Scollon, R. (2001) Action and text: Towards an integrated understanding of the place of text in social (inter)action, mediated discourse analysis and the problem of social action. In: R. Wodak and M. Meyer, eds. Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: SAGE, 139-183.

Tyler, I. (2008) “Chav mum chav scum”: Class disgust in contemporary Britain. Feminist Media Studies 8(1): 17-34.

Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting subjects: Social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books.

Unger, J. (2010) Legitimating inaction: Differing identity constructions of the Scots language. European Journal of Cultural Studies 13(1): 99-117.

Unger, J. (2012) Confronting critical discourse analysis with social media. Paper presented at Language and Social Media: New Challenges for Research and Teaching Linguistics, 26-27 April 2012, University of Leicester.

van Leeuwen, T. (2008) Discourse and practice: New tools for critical discourse analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Wodak, R. (2001) What is CDA about – a summary of its history, important concepts and its developments. In: R. Wodak and M. Meyer, eds. Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: SAGE, 1-13.

Wodak, R., de Cillia, R., Reisigl, M. and Liebhart, K. (2009) The discursive construction of national identity, 2nd edition. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

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Welfare reform and computer-mediated practices of dissent

On Wednesday 1st May I’ll be presenting a the LIP research group at Lancaster University. Here is my abstract (with the Prezi to be added later):

Welfare reform and computer-mediated practices of dissent

Against the background of the global financial crisis, the current Coalition government has introduced and extended various reforms to welfare in the United Kingdom. While certain institutions within the fields of politics and the media attempt to justify such reform by stressing the need for reduced spending, others would suggest that such reforms are built upon the stigmatisation of particular groups of people (Tyler 2013) and reconfigure a structural crisis of neo-capitalism as a moral crisis (Bennett 2013). Aside from academic responses, however, many people have utilised the affordances of social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube in order to contest welfare reform and the discourses that such reforms draw upon.

Researchers working with a critical discourse analysis (CDA) approach have started to turn their attention to issues surrounding social media (Unger 2013; KhosraviNik 2013). However, this has predominantly focussed upon the methodological challenges brought about by computer-mediated data. A further challenge is that CDA researchers have given relatively little attention to practices of protest, resistance and dissent, arguably emphasising structure over agency (see Pennycook 2001).

This paper presents an analysis of a series of events involving contestation over (discourses of) welfare reform: the publication of a newsletter from a Manchester-based Housing Association detailing information about reforms to housing benefit (also known as the Bedroom Tax), the practices of dissent employed by protesters through social networking platforms, the association’s subsequent apology and the recontextualisation of this series of events in a number of mainstream newspaper reports. My argument is twofold. Firstly, I show that the news media’s recontextualisation of events stresses the emotionality of people’s practices, ultimately constructing social networking sites as a media for the expression of feelings rather than critique. Secondly, I argue that a practice-based approach (see, e.g. Couldry 2004) to dissent complements CDA’s relative (over?) emphasis upon structure.

Bennett, J. (2013) Moralising class: A discourse analysis of the mainstream political response to Occupy and the August 2011 British riots. Discourse & Society 24(1): 27-45.

Couldry, N. (2004) Theorising media as practice. Social Semiotics 14(2): 115-132.

KhosraviNik, M. (2013) Critical discourse analysis and new media (digital) discourses: Issues and debates. Paper presented at Language, Ideology and Power (LIP) Research Group, 27 February 2013, Lancaster University.

Pennycook, A. (2001) Critical applied linguistics: A critical introduction. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Tyler, I. (2013) Revolting subjects: Social abjection and resistance in neoliberal Britain. London: Zed Books.

Unger, J. (2012) Confronting critical discourse analysis with social media. Paper presented at Language and Social Media: New Challenges for Research and Teaching Linguistics, 26-27 April 2012, University of Leicester.

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Discourse analysis “with an attitude”?

Today I received an email linking a short article written by Teun van Dijk. His argument is that CDA is not and should not be considered a method. This is hardly anything new, of course, but probably is worth reiterating. It’s this paragraph I found interesting though:

“Playing with words, then, CDA is DA “with an attitude” as one would say in the USA, that is, with a rebellious attitude of dissent against the symbolic power elites that dominate public discourse, especially in politics, the media and education. In other words, CDA is (any) DA of critical scholars, and hence CDA is rather a social or political movement than a method. Of course, the kind of DA they do, should be adequate to realize their critical goals, namely to analyze and denounce domination and social inequality.”

This is hardly a new stance from van Dijk, who has positioned CDA as dissent before. But is a “rebellious attitude” really enough? Are CDA scholars really in a position to “denounce domination and social inequality”? If they are, are they even doing this?

When CDA scholars refer to CDA as a political movement they set up problems for themselves. I’m not referring to the sorts of problems Widdowson identifies, but if you’re arguing that your research is socio-politically committed then it has to be… well… socio-politically committed. And it needs to be made explicit how.

Norman Fairclough makes a series of points in the 2001 edition of Methods of critical discourse analysis that are still very useful. He argues that CDA scholars should work alongside the groups they are ‘rooting’ for and think about how their research is distributed. While getting a newspaper article published is of course highly problematic, there is no reason why every CDA scholar should not be distributing their research via slideshare/prezi, blogs, and Twitter. There is no reason for not uploading every article you write – while there may be issues of copyright, this usually does not stop you uploading an earlier draft (or, say, ‘accidentally’ uploading your article to Scribbd, or asking someone else to do it).

If you’re arguing that people are deceived into believing certain representations of the world and your aim is to enlighten them (and some CDA scholars have argued this), then publishing in Discourse & Society, or reading a paper at CADAAD, is hardly going to achieve this. It will hardly put pressure on the ‘elites’ that van Dijk talks about either.

This isn’t meant to devalue publishing in Discourse & Society or presenting at conferences, however. Nor is it meant to devalue the transmission of research to students in a University setting. There isn’t, for example, a choice to be made between publishing in a journal and writing something for a blog. What’s more, if you finish a research project and cannot make it understandable for a wider audience then there is a problem with what you are researching in the first place.

Rather than making statements like that quoted above, van Dijk ought to be thinking about (a) how to distribute research in such a way that denouncing domination and social inequality will make a difference and (b) how to work alongside the many groups and organisations who are challenging the very same inequalities that CDA analyses.

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Twitter and Microblogging conference at Lancaster (#LUtwit)

Just thought I’d post the abstract that has been accepted for the Twitter and Microblogging conference in Lancaster in April. More details on the conference here (and, closer the time, using the hashtag #LUtwit).


A discourse-historical approach to media framing of activists use of Twitter

The aim of this paper is to explore media framing of the use of Twitter by activists protesting against the current Coalition government’s austerity measures, with UK Uncut and Boycott Workfare highlighted as examples of these activist networks. Recent research from within social movement studies suggests that the definition of political opportunity structures must be broadened to include media opportunity structures (Crossley 2002; Cammaerts 2012). This approach contends that activists are aware of mediated political representations of their strategies, which in turn influence activist’s protest repertoires.

This paper adopts a discourse-historical approach to critical discourse analysis (Wodak 2001) to show how media framing of the utilisation of social media platforms, specifically Twitter, by activists is used as a discursive strategy to delegitimise the claims of protesters, extending CDA to issues surrounding social media (see also Unger 2012). I argue that claims made by journalists and politicians within the field of mediated politics, such as on BBC’s Newsnight, frame the use of social media for activism in a variety of negative ways. Twitter is represented both as a medium colonised by radical and extremist opinion and an instrument employed by individual activists in order to mobilise their followers. Activists’ use of twitter is represented in dualistic terms (Jurgenson 2012), where a separation between online and offline is strategically employed to discredit activists. This analysis paves the way for further questions relating to how activists respond to these representations, both within the news media and through social media.


Cammaerts, B. (2012) Protest logics and the mediation opportunity structure. European Journal of Communication 27(2): 117-134.

Crossley, N. (2002) Making sense of social movements. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Jurgenson, N. (2012) When atoms meet bits: Social media, the mobile web and augmented revolution. Future Internet 4: 83-91.

Unger, J. (2012) Confronting critical discourse analysis with social media. Paper presented at Language and Social Media: New Challenges for Research and Teaching Linguistics, 26-27 April 2012, University of Leicester.

Wodak, R. (2001) The discourse-historical approach. In: R. Wodak and M. Meyer, eds. Methods of critical discourse analysis. London: Sage, 63-94.

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Oversharing… and activism

Earlier today, @nathanjurgenson tweeted a column from the NY Times opinion pages by Roger Cohen. It’s here if you want to read it in full but, to save you the hassle, Cohen makes the claim that people overshare on social networking sites and that he is inundated with inane updates.

Nathan makes the point that “people share mundane info all the time, why such different standards for the web?”. Everybody can probably provide examples of this. My girlfriend works at a shop which sells greeting cards (am I oversharing here?) and many customers will often tell her why they are buying this or that card – for my daughter’s graduation, because I missed our anniversary, because I really like this girl in the office but she doesn’t know and…

This sort of phatic communication is the basis of most if not all human relationships, from the fleeting to the long-standing. But this isn’t my main issue with Cohen’s comments.

Readers of the column, in the comments section, have also made the point that Cohen can choose not to listen. He doesn’t have to read all the tweets, all the status updates. He doesn’t even have to close down his accounts in order to do this. But this isn’t really my main issue either.

My issue is with this. Cohen states the following:

Now I was determined to get through 2012 without doing a peevish column, not wishing to appear cantankerous or curmudgeonly, determined to be sunny and youthful as the times demand, but everyone has a tipping point. Mine occurred when I came across this tweet from Claire:

“Have such a volcanically deep zit laying roots in my chin that it feels like someone hit me with a right cross.”

Good to know, Claire.

I don’t know if Roger Cohen follows Claire on twitter (as I haven’t bothered to look). What I do know is that Claire’s comment is a real comment that has been posted to the website oversharers.com. And it was posted there in June 2010, and is dated from February. So not only is Cohen’s argument based on seemingly flawed understanding of how people communicate as well as a flawed understanding of social media (he can choose not to listen), it seems he wasn’t necessarily listening in the first place – that his twitter feed, or Facebook feed, isn’t actually as full of inane details as he is making out. Going to a website that decontextualises tweets that are interpreted as oversharing to then recontextualise that tweet in order to make the point that people are going around relaying seemingly mundane details to whoever may listen is a little bit shifty.

And the irony of Cohen being in a position to share details about his own life seems to be lost on him.

So, what about activism? (see the title of this post). I realise that Cohen isn’t talking about activists nor about the sort of sharing that activists might do. But at the root of Cohen’s argument is the idea that only some people should be allowed to share information (columnists of major newspapers, for example) and that some people are in a position to judge on other peoples behalf the usefulness of that information (columnists of major newspapers, for example). This is a problem for activists. Politicians and the media often utilise a variation of this argument to discredit activists, further emphasised when they speak of social media in dualistic terms (see @nathanjurgenson again!). Protester’s opinions are discounted; they don’t reflect what the real people on the streets think – and at the same time, we don’t really want to know what the real people think because that’s oversharing. This is further tied together by describing activist’s social media use as “rabble-rousing” or as “hate campaigns” (see articles in The Sun, for example) – and usually one specific figure is condemned for doing this, missing the point that social media is used by people in order to express their politics, using the means they have available to them.

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Discursive approaches to activism and protests

One of the main presuppositions of my own research is that research into social movements and protests is relatively underdeveloped in CDA and, more broadly, in sociolinguistics more generally. Initially, I would even say something like it is entirely underdeveloped; that no linguistics or discourse analysts are really interested in social movements, activism and protest. Of course, this is entirely misleading. Part of the problem, however, is that interest in activism, protests, dissent and resistance arises across multiple (sub-)disciplines and so teasing out a suitable approach, informed by CDA, becomes problematic. Yet the relative underdevelopment remains a concern for CDA because many definitions of CDA mention “resistance” alongside “power”. I still think it stands though that research into discourses of power is more developed than research into discourses of resistance; that research into the powerful (government, media, institutions) and their discourses is more advanced than research into the relatively powerless (social movements, activists) and their discourses.

My more overblown statement (“no linguists are interested in activism and activists”) overlooks a number of areas where linguists and discourse analysts are interested in precisely these topics. I think it’s worth outlining these areas – in the hope that some broad agreement can be teased out – although that’s not something I’m going to attempt to do at this stage.

Firstly, it’s very easy to miss unpublished research and so to conclude that CDA is not interested in a particular area. There are, however, plently of MA dissertations, PhD dissertations, unpublished conference papers and so on that deal with the broad area of discourses of protest.

Secondly, sociolinguists, broadly defined, are interested in “activism”. Studies in LPP may be interested in how groups pressure government language policy, for example. If we broaden out the meaning of the “political” to include more “personal” or “private” actions, then huge numbers of studies would fit within the remit of looking at resistance in text and talk. Research that looks at various micro-strategies at the level of interaction, whether they be silences, turn-taking, interruptions and so on, is often looking at “resistance”. Research that looks at literacy practices may also be looking at “resistance”, so too more ‘traditional’ variationist sociolinguistic work that looks at how actors present themselves as, perhaps, dissenting or resistant. Of course, this creates problems with what we mean by “resistance” and the general observation still stands that discourses of political resistance are still somewhat underdeveloped.

Thirdly, the research methods employed by some within CDA suggest that they are interested in discourses of resistance. Ruth Wodak’s use of focus groups may be one example, although we can question whether focus groups are the place to find these discourses.

Finally, CDA researchers are interested in the representation of protests – from day one, in fact. Fowler’s much-cited example of the media coverage of a riot, for example. However, the focus has largely been upon the representation of protests and/or protesters (something that Christopher Hart has recently extended in a more cognitive line) rather than the discourses drawn upon by protesters or the framing of events by protesters themselves.

So, someone interested in activism and protest, wishing to approach it from a CDA perspective, is not left with no previous research but an array of it. Within linguistics and discourse analysis though, it sometimes feels a little fragmented. Work from within sociology and communication studies, I think, may offer a clearer way to incorporate these disparate strands of linguistic research.

In contrast to linguistics, I’d suggest that the situation in other disciplines is a little bit more straightforward, in the sense that there are areas where reseachers are explicitly interested in the discourse of activism and activists. Work into discourses of protest has mainly fallen within three broad approaches: communications research into the rhetoric of social movements, social movement research centred upon the idea of “framing” and media research into activist/alternative media. Here, scholars are explicitly interested with the arguments social movements make, the ways in which they present their views, the discourses that they draw upon, the strategies used by protesters and, in line with CDA, the representation of protests by mainstream institutions. The parallels don’t end there: Much of this research draws from a number of the same scholars (Marx, the Frankfurt School, Habermas, Gramsci, Foucault, Bourdieu) that provide the ‘basis’ of CDA. Some of it could be said to be “discourse analysis” in the more socio-psychological, Loughborough sense. The trajectory of studies in rhetoric also mirrors CDA in many respects – a movement away from canonical ‘texts’ (i.e. speeches by politicians) towards other modes (e.g. images), coupled with a broadening out of whose discourses are considered, and where these might be found, which perhaps mirrors James Martin’s call for a positive discourse analysis.

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Boycott Workfare

So I’ve been looking at protest groups use of social media and the Internet more generally, and this led me to looking at the Boycott Workfare campaign. Now, the campaign website, facebook group(s) and wikipedia page may lead you to think that these schemes were introduced, or at least radically extended, under the Coalition government. A brief newspaper archive search suggests otherwise.

The formation of the campaign is noted as taking place in 2010 on the Boycott Workfare site. The wikipedia page, “Workfare in the United Kingdom”, was created in September 2012. The earliest date in the history section is November 2011, referring to government proposals. The earliest cited article is a June 1999 BBC news article, stating “Britain is inching towards a US-style workfare system, where the most vulnerable are forced to accept any work or lose benefits, says a leading charity.” In combination with the campaign website and the wikipedia page, it would seem that “workfare”, in a UK context, only starts to be proposed in the late nineties (“Britain is inching…”), put into action sometime after that, with public backlash starting to take shape from 2010 onwards.

Given that the main workfare entry on wikipedia dates the term, and its popularisation, to Richard Nixon in August 1969, it would seem strange that the policy had no effect on the UK until over thirty years later yet is common in many other countries. A brief search through the archives of the UK national press shows that “workfare” has a longer history than the Boycott Workfare campaign site and wikipedia page suggest.

The earliest reference I found was in a Guardian article dated June 1986. The report deals with suggestions made in the house of commons relating to the occupation of private land by “hippy travellers” in Hampshire. The report notes that the introduction of a US-style workfare scheme is advocated by a Tory MP, with Thatcher quoted as saying “I am only too delighted to do anything we can to make life difficult for such things as hippy convoys.” This is more explicit in the Times article of the same date, where Thatcher is quoted as saying:

“We are looking at the way Workfare works in the United States. We are finding some of the things we have, such as the community programme and job start, would rank as workfare schemes there. Some of these things are being extended.”

The debate surrounding “workfare” builds during the eighties, specifically relating to “Employment Training” (incidentally, a useful way for the government to re-frame the debate and, at least partly, enabling them to deny the associations with US-style workfare). Criticisms are consistently present throughout the 90s in relation to various Training and Enterprise Council schemes. This is not to say that the workfare schemes that Boycott Workfare are protesting against today are the same as those that began to be introduced in the late eighties. But I think it does point towards the dangers of framing digitally-augmented protest groups as “new”. If boycott workfare is seen as a “counter-discourse” then it clearly has a historical precedent – similar “counter-discourses” arose from trade unions, from the Labour party, and from journalists since the late eighties. It also questions the extent to which we think that protest groups have an effect on the mainstream media – we might suggest that the boycott workfare campaign has made the issue more visible but this seems to ignore the fact that the media have been reporting on debates surrounding workfare for over two and a half decades.

Two things are worth pointing out. Firstly, the more contemporary criticisms surrounding workfare, particularly those from Boycott Workfare, don’t draw the analogy with US-style workfare schemes or earlier Thatcherite proposals, which in turn backgrounds the neoliberal presuppositions of the schemes. Secondly, more contemporary criticisms have drawn a (I think problematic) analogy between workfare and “slavery”. Critics (in the late 1980’s) tended to draw an analogy between workfare and, either, conscription or the workhouse. For example, we have a guardian article in 1987 entitled “echoes of the workhouse in this rhetoric” and comments by Tony Benn equating schemes with conscription. There are no mentions of the term “slavery”. Compare this with the following from the wikipedia page (emphasis added):

“Supporters argue that such policies help people move off of welfare and into employment whereas critics article [sic – argue] that they are analogous to slavery and counterproductive in decreasing unemployment.”

While Boycott Workfare’s campaign page has no mention of slavery, this image is posted to their facebook page:

Not sure what my point is yet, to be honest, apart from pointing this out and warning against treating contemporary protest groups as ahistorical. Maybe more on this soon!

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