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Firstly, it’s very easy to miss unpublished research and so to conclude that CDA is not interested in a particular area. There are, however, plently of MA dissertations, PhD dissertations, unpublished conference papers and so on that deal with the broad area of discourses of protest.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