Book Review

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Tue Apr 22 12:22:09 UTC 2003

Politics as Text and Talk: Analytic Approaches to Political Discourse

Chilton, Paul A. and Christina Schaffner, ed. (2002) Politics as Text
and Talk: Analytic Approaches to Political Discourse, John Benjamins,
Discourse Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture 4.

Elisabeth Le, University of Alberta

The linguistic study of political discourse is increasingly attracting
interest, and it benefits now from its own specialised publications, the
''Journal of Language and Politics'', and the book series, ''Discourse
Approaches to Politics, Society and Culture'', both edited by Ruth Wodak
and Paul Chilton.  Published in this series, ''Politics as Text and Talk:
Analytic Approaches to Political Discourse'', edited by Paul Chilton and
Christina Schaffner, is offered as an introduction to the field. The book
is intended to provide a methodological survey (although necessarily
incomplete) in order to ''try to delineate the emergent methodology of the
field'' (p. vii). The first chapter presents ''Themes and principles in
the analysis of political discourse'', and each of the six successive
chapters introduces a particular type of analysis.

In the introductory Chapter 1, Paul Chilton and Christina Schaffner start
on the premise that politics is largely language, and thus argue for the
study of politics by linguists alongside political philosophers and
political scientists. Indeed, with their fine-grained methods, discourse
analysts bring a new dimension to the comprehension of old and new
problems in politics. Politics is understood as a struggle for power but
also as co-operation in order to resolve clashes.  Both phenomena take
place at the micro level (between individuals) and macro level (between
institutions).  Individuals interact through discourse, and institutions
produce types of discourse with specific characteristics. As language is
closely linked in practice with culture, and culture is itself linked with
the practice of politics, the cultural context of the analysed political
discourse always needs to be taken into account. The authors review some
main principles in the analysis of discourse: speech acts (Searle),
co-operative principle (Grice), politeness (Brown & Levinson), validity
claims (Habermas), context and intertextuality, dialogism (Bakhtin), and
functionalism (Buhler, Halliday). Then, they briefly expose how political
discourse can be looked at in its cognitive dimension and in its pragmatic

The first part of the book comprises four chapters that deal with
institutions and identities. In Chapter 2, ''Politization and
depolitization: Employment policy in the European Union'', Peter Muntigl
''attempts to provide political conceptual tools combined with linguistics
tools for reading the political'' (p.46). He proceeds to demonstrate these
concepts with the analysis of a speech from a Commissioner of the European
Union. In ''politicking'', i.e. in both ''politicizing'' (creating
opportunities for action) and in ''depoliticizing'', one of the main
discursive resources is metaphors. According to Chilton (1996:50-55), the
four most common metaphors in international relations are: container,
path, force, and link. It has already been shown how the first metaphor,
container, functions politically to delimit spaces of existent or
non-existent competing interests (Sondermann, 1997). In the Commissioner's
speech that is analysed, the three other metaphors of path, force, and
link present the EU policy as the only one to follow, and efface potential
alternatives. Thus, their interconnected use depoliticizes the question of

Stephan Elspass studies ''Phraseological units in parliamentary
discourse'' (chapter 3). A phraseological unit ''consists of at least two
words (but is no longer than a sentence), is syntactically and
semantically not the results of the mere combination of its constituents,
is used as a lexical unit in a language community, and may in some cases
be idiomatic'' (Burger, 1998: 32). Such units can be, for example,
proverbs, catch phrases, greetings, gambits, stereotyped comparisons.  Of
particular interest is the non-intentional deviant use of phraseological
units that appear in spoken speeches but are not necessarily recorded in
official transcriptions. The parliamentary discourse analysed here is
composed of three post-war debates in Germany during which MPs were not
bound in their speech or vote by their parties. Their quantitative
analysis shows that phraseological language represents about 10% of a
speech, and thus is not a marginal phenomenon. In the qualitative
analysis, it appears that non-idiomatic phraseological units function as
important elements in grammatical cohesion and textual structure, while
idiomatic phraseological units affect the style of the speech. When
phraseological modification is used creatively, it can function as a
powerful linguistic device, but when it is the result of blunders, it can
completely discredit the speaker.

Christoph Sauer adopts a functional-pragmatic approach to analyse
''Ceremonial text and talk'' (chapter 4), in this case a speech given by
John Major for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. In
the Functional Pragmatics (FP) of Buhler and Ehlich, language use involves
external purposes (social differentiation, i.e. illocution) and internal
purposes (procedures that orient mental activities). The combination of
both dimensions forms a complex speech action model that is composed of
five fields (symbol, deictic, prompting, toning, and operative)
characterised by a choice of lexical and grammatical means. The
application of this model allows to link the language of the surface
structure (the words Major uses in his speech) with underlying structures
(what he intends to communicate and the strategies he follows).

In chapter 5, ''Fragmented identities'', Ruth Wodak exposes the
discourse-historical approach in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). This
ethnographic approach assumes that discourse is shaped by and influences
social and political reality, and that national identities are produced
and reproduced in discourse. Notions that make up a national identity are
internalised through socialisation; this implies a discursive construction
of difference that is dependent on context. Thus, not one, but different
national identities are constructed. The study of Austrian national
identity involves five content-related areas: the idea of a 'homo
Austriacus' and a 'homo externus', the narration of a collective political
history, the discursive construction of a common culture, the discursive
construction of a collective present and future, the discursive
construction of a 'national corpus'. In these defined areas, different
strategies (of construction, of perpetuation and justification, of
transformation, of destruction) represent plans of action that are
expressed with a variety of linguistic means. The study of these three
interrelated dimensions (content, strategies, and linguistic forms)
reveals how narratives of identity that Austrians can identify with are

Two chapters form the second part of the book, ''Interaction and
Cognition''.  In chapter 6, Anita Fetzer examines questions of sincerity
and credibility in political interviews ('Put bluntly, you have something
of a credibility problem'). In order to define the notions of sincerity
and credibility, speech act theory and Grice's cooperative principle are
reinterpreted in a contextual approach that attempts to integrate the
results of the politeness and face research in an interactive framework.
''Sincerity is defined as speaker's communicative intention meant as
uttered and thus restricted to the participants' private domains.
Credibility, on the other hand, is not restricted to an individual's
attitude towards their illocutions, but interdependent on both
illocutionary force and propositional content'' (p. 180).  The combination
of a pragmatic and a conversation-analytic approach shows how the function
of sincerity in political discourse is to help remedy credibility

In the seventh and final chapter, Teun van Dijk exposes his approach to
''Political discourse and political cognition'', and illustrates is with
the analysis of a speech by Sir John Stokes, a (very) conservative MP from
the British House of Commons. Van Dijk argues that for the study of
political discourse to be relevant, discourse structures must be connected
to properties of political structures and processes with a theory of
political cognition. The purpose of this theory is to function as an
interface between the personal (relations between episodic mental models)
and the social (socially shared political representations of groups). In
other words, meaning and forms of political discourse are related to
political context not directly but through the intermediary of the
participants' construction of this interactional and communicative
context, that is based on their knowledge, attitudes and ideologies.

This book illustrates well one of the difficulties in defining the field
of political discourse, a difficulty that also constitutes its richness,
the diversity of analytical approaches.  It would not be overtly
exaggerated to say that any combination of relevant principles in the
domains of pragmatics, text linguistics and discourse analysis, provided
it can be justified theoretically, can be used for the linguistic study of
political discourse. Indeed, the linguistic study of political discourse
is first a linguistic study of discourse, and thus it requires a basic
knowledge of domains such as pragmatics, text linguistics and discourse
analysis; then only, it is a study of political discourse. For centuries,
political philosophers, and then political scientists have attempted to
define the concept of politics; it has remained somewhat elusive, and the
notion of political discourse is therefore rather large. News discourse,
not included in this book, could also be considered political discourse in
certain circumstances. Thus, what is the specificity of the field of
political discourse? Some comprehensive frameworks are presented in this
book (i.e.  Sauer's functional-pragmatic approach, Wodak's
historical-discourse approach, van Dijk's political-cognitive approach) to
which Scollon's approach to ''Mediated discourse as social interactions''
(1998) should probably be added. These approaches could also be situated
in the framework of Critical Discourse Analysis, and some of them figure
in Wodak's and Meyer's ''Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis'' (2001).
Through its presentation of varied analytical approaches, this book does
not offer so much an introduction to the field for newcomers (a number of
non-linguists and linguists not specialised in the relevant fields would
probably benefit from a simpler presentation of theoretical principles) as
a starting point for a needed general reflection on the study of political


Burger, H. (1998) Phraseologie. Eine Enfuehrung am Beispiel des
Deutschen.  Schmidt, Grundlagen der Germanistik 36.

Chilton, Paul (1996) Security Metaphors: Cold War Discourse from
Containment to Common House. Peter Lang.

Scollon, Ron (1998) Mediated Discourse as Social Interactions - A
Study of News Discourse. Longman, Language in social life series.

Sondermann, K. (1997) Reading politically: National anthems as textual
Icons. In T. Carver & M. Hyvarinen, eds, Interpreting the Political:
New Methodologies. Routledge. 128-142.

Wodak, Ruth & Meyer, Michael (2001) Methods of Critical Discourse
Analysis.  Sage.


Elisabeth Le is Assistant Professor of Applied Linguistics in the
Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies at the University
of Alberta (Canada). She works in the framework of Critical Discourse
Analysis on the representation of international relations in French,
American, and Russian media discourse.

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