CRITICS: Relativism, ideology and discourse

Teun A. van Dijk teun at
Fri May 10 13:53:52 UTC 1996

Jonathan, wonderful, super-useful, and thanks on behalf of all those who
have heard vaguely of 'relativism', wanted to know what (excatly) it is,
but were afraid to ask...

Incidentally, I also deal with the notion in my new book on the theory of
ideology I am now working on (the first in a series of books I am planning
on discourse and ideology). Here, among many other things, I also examine
the role of ideologies (defined as shared basic social cognitions of
groups) vs. knowledge (or other beliefs), an opposition debated in the
classical (Mannheimian) paradigm, still obvious in Althusser et al., that
contrasts (scientific, etc.) Truth (or social 'facts', a la Durkheim) to
Ideology, defined as misguided or false beliefs (or false consciousness,

Examining these old issues (in a new perspective that combines
contemporary discourse analysis, social sciences and cognitive science), I
provisionally conclude --with some others-- that the notion of 'truth' is
irrelevant for the (negative) identification of ideologies, and that
relevance, effectiveness, or usefulness (for the group) are the defining
notions.  But all that needs detailed explanation, also relative to
discourse analysis, and in my case, specifically with respect to a
(leftist, but non-marxist) *critical* discourse analysis (one of the
points where I differ from e.g. Norman Fairclough on ideology --but that
is another debate).

More specificaly, my conclusion (and proposal) in this old debate on
ideologies and 'foundationalism' (including relativism, etc.), is that we
can and should usefully combine relativist and non-relativist positions,
as follows:

(a) Theoretically (and cognitively) all understanding (of social events
and hence of discourse, etc.) is of course a function of the socially
shared knowledge, opinions, values and other beliefs of a group,
community or culture. Since these may historically change, we need to
conclude that, theoretically or epistemologically, we are committed to
relativism. Where this is explained in postmodernism as some mysterious,
mythical or otherwise vague notion, elementary psychology combined with
some notions of history and the social sciences, spell this out in
somewhat more explicit detail. This is obviously true for social
knowledge and evaluation (e.g., about gender and 'race'), but also for
scientific 'facts' -- which are 'true' relative to theories,
observations, experiments, etc. (see also John Searle's new book on the
social construction of reality).

(b) HOWEVER, *within* each domain --social, practical, scientific,
religious, etc. -- we may well, and do usually accept some kind of
foundations and the 'methods' to arrive at 'truths', e.g., consensus,
common sense, axioms, ideologies, values, norms, a catechism, etc. (even
when these may be historically or culturally variable, see above). This
means that we may accept as 'true' or 'correct', etc., e.g., feminist
discourse on male dominance, or anti-racist positions on ethnic
inequality, and so on, within a broader framework of egalitarian ideology.
This allows, obviously, critical scholarly positions (as in CDA), as long
as we stay within the basic paradigm. Hence, type (a) relativism does not
exclude type (b) critical scholarship.

In other words, universally and epistemologically, relativism seems
unavoidable, but contextually and 'for all practical purposes' people do
not understand and evaluate social events and actions in this relativist
way, but operate on the basis of some foundational 'axioms' (values,
norms, ideologies, theories, etc.), and are able to --and often *do*--
make judgements about what is 'true' and 'false', 'good' or 'bad', etc.

Where postmodernism embraces 'relativism' it is trivial with respect to
(a), and empirically misguided with respect to (b) when denying the
presence of overall principles, ideologies, or (using their unfortunate
metaphor) 'narratives'. All groups, communities, nations or cultures have
and need to have such 'foundations' for their understanding, evaluation
and the coordination of their social practices, including discourse. Only
they often remain implicit, are frequently denied, or not (yet) made
explicit. Indeed, the 'best', while most effective, ideologies are those
that are based on total consensus, as unquestioned and taken for granted,
as Gramsci already suggested with his (otherwise pretty vague) notion of
'hegemony'. Critical scholarship (and hence CDA) should make such
principles explicit, instead of obfuscating them or explaining them away.

It is an empirical and historical question when and where and how (b)
applies. For instance, during the human rights debate in Vienna a while
ago, some Asian countries attacked the 'West' to impose 'western' values
as being 'universal'. That was perhaps a misguided but yet smart form of
ideological critique (universalisation is a major strategy of ideological
persuasion), of western 'individualism' against eastern 'communalism.'
The problem was of course that this was the official government position
(meant to hide, deny or justify violations of human rights), and human
rights and other opposition groups in these Asian countries themselves
denied such cultural relativism and explicitly embraced the 'universal'
application of humanitarian principles.

Unfortunately, general (universal) acceptance of humanitarian principles
does not refute type (a) liberalism (given the historical nature of such
principles: they were once 'invented' --see the beautiful books by e.g.
U.S. historian Robert Wuthnow, e.g., his Communities of Discourse), but
only shows that some kinds of type (b) foundationalism may eventually
extend to humankind as a whole (under specific, historical conditions of
international interaction, communication, etc.).

It is against this (vastly simplified) framework that --in my opinion--
the foundations of CDA should be developed.

- ---------

Teun A. van Dijk
University of Amsterdam
CRITICS / Program of Discourse Studies
210 Spuistraat, 1012 VT Amsterdam
Phone: +31-20-525.3834 (dept., direct, 10-12 hrs)
Phone: +31-20-525.3865 (dept. secr.)
Phone: +31-20- (home, after 13 hrs).
Fax: +31-20-639.1727 (not for articles)
E-mail: teun at

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