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Discourse, A Critical Introduction
Jan Blommaert

Key Topics in Sociolinguistics
Cambridge University Press, 2005
£34.99, 299 p., ISBN 0-521-53531-X


Reviewed by Albert Hamm



Jan Blommaert is Professor of African linguistics and sociolinguistics at Ghent University. In his preface, he presents his book (dedicated to John Gumperz) as a synthesis of works, thoughts and approaches which, due to the economy of academic publishing, have never before been brought together. It also appears that various parts of the book were previously published in journals or book chapters, so that this highly valuable critical approach to discourse theories and concepts has undergone a double process of synthesis.

The result is a well-organised book exploring within nine chapters the basic principles, theories, methods and issues required for a global approach to discourse—an analysis of the effects, outcome and impact of (language-in-use) power in a context of globalisation. Thus, although each chapter of the book offers and discusses language materials and examples, and examines an impressive amount of linguistic literature and arguments, the reader is informed that the book has a wider scope than that of a purely linguistic work.

We are therefore provided with a six-page glossary, proposing definitions for special uses of familiar terms (archive—determination…) as well as for less familiar concepts (dogmatisation— entextualisation—heterography…), and a comprehensive bibliography of over 350 references, ranging from great predecessors in linguistics (Boas, Sapir, Jakobson), to the most recent developments (Silverstein, Wodak) and, outside the field of linguistics proper, from Barthes to Bourdieu, Bloch to Braudel, Gramsci to Hobsbawm.

The chapters are well-structured and a small section at the end of each of them lists suggestions for relevant further reading, and a general index offers over a thousand entries, with well-conceived multiple sub-entries, to concepts, person and place names, as well as book titles. The different chapters read easily, all the more so because the notes—kept to a remarkably small number considering the density of the text and complexity of the topics—are grouped towards the end of the book.

In his introduction, Blommaert claims that what he is basically talking about is the centrality of power. For this very reason, "the focus will be on how language is an ingredient of power processes resulting in, and sustained by, forms of inequality, and how discourse can be or become a justifiable object of analysis, crucial to an understanding of wider aspects of power relations" [2].
Three central notions are clarified in this perspective. The conception of discourse is broadened: linguistically, in reference to the most activity-centred approaches to analysis; on an interdisciplinary basis, through confrontation with semioticians, literary analysts, philosophers and anthropologists; and 'non linguistically', to include all forms of meaningful human activity connected with social, cultural, and historical patterns.
The social nature of discourse is redefined as something that invites investigation about "how discourse can become a site of meaningful social differences, of conflict and struggle, and how this results in all kinds of social-structural effects" [4]. The object of critical investigation is similarly specified as the analysis of voice, defined (with Bakhtin, Ducrot and Hymes among others) as the study of the reasons for and "the way in which people manage to make themselves understood or fail to do so" [4].

Blommaert then describes his critical pool, the "space of ideas and scholarship" [5] from which he draws his inspiration: chiefly CDA (Critical Discourse Analysis, with people such as Fairclough and van Dijk), American and English linguistic anthropology (from Boas and Sapir to Cameron and Milroy), sociolinguistics (Gumperz and Hymes, but also Labov, Bernstein and Bourdieu), and gives a brief overview of approaches and issues.
He concludes his introduction by summarising four basic theoretical principles, fundamental to his argument: focus on what language use means to its users; be aware of how language operates differently in different environments; focus on language varieties i.e. "the actual and densely contextualised forms in which language occurs in society" [15]; and focus on the fundamental inequality of the language repertoires constraining the voices of language users. To these, he logically adds another, more personal, one: his belief that all communication events are ultimately influenced by the structure of the world system and its in-built inequality.

The ensuing chapters of the book address various central issues: a critical evaluation of Critical Discourse Analysis (ch. 2), a discussion of the text/context relations (ch. 3), a description of the patterns of inequality in language (ch. 4), the dialectics of choice and determination (ch. 5) and of history and process (ch. 6), the highly controversial issues of ideology (ch. 7) and identity (ch. 8). They are completed by a conclusive reformulation (ch. 9) in the form of a general reflection on the status of discourse and discourse analysis in the social sciences.

Each chapter offers both textually focussed 'micro' analyses of particular sets of data and the discussion of 'macro' issues, and Blommaert illustrates his method with the following metaphor: "these materials are a Coca-Cola can on a table; if you walk around the table while watching the can, stop every now and then and describe the can as you see it. The description will each time be partly similar and partly different. Yet it is the same can…" [17].
This reminds us of the 'breadcutting' analogy used by Deborah Schiffrin in her 1995 book on Discourse Analysis [16]: if we were trying to cut a piece of bread with different tools—a saw, a butter knife, a screw driver and a pair of scissors—we would learn a lot about the tools, as much as about the task we are engaged in, and the material we are cutting. Although Jan Blommaert does not mention her in his bibliography, we would recommend comparing her more static, content-rooted analysis of the various theoretical approaches to discourse with this definitely synthetic, 'globalising' study.

Chapter 2, on Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), offers a good overview of the sources, development, and theoretical and methodological assumptions of this multi-faceted 'school'. It tries to bridge the gap between applied work on particular discourse genres and social domains, and their social-theoretical foundations. These are to be found in theories of power and ideology and in their linguistic translations, as developed by people as different as Foucault, Althusser, Thompson or Fairclough, as well as in the various attempts to overcome structuralist determinism through linguistic-communicative theories (Giddens, Bourdieu, Habermas).
The general bias of CDA towards linguistically defined text-concepts is discussed and contrasted with recent evolutions towards the study of macro conditions on the production and distribution of discourse, and with Fairclough's methodological proposal of a progression from description to interpretation and to explanation. The theoretical and methodological defects of CDA are examined, as well as its potential and limitations.

Chapter 3, on Text and context, addresses the main challenges posed by context for a critical analysis of discourse and proposes definitions—Auer on contextualisation as comprising "all activities by participants which make relevant, maintain, cancel… any aspect of context which, in turn, is responsible for the interpretation of an utterance in its particular locus of occurrence" [41]—and general guidelines for its analysis. It differs with the widespread consensus on the dialogic nature of meaning in its insistence on the fact that dialogue does not necessarily presuppose co-operativity, sharedness or symmetry in contextualising power. The accent is placed on the translocal dimension of context, as illustrated by theories of intertextuality (Bakhtin, Kristeva) and entextualisation (Bauman and Briggs, Silverstein and Urban), which both add metadiscursive context to the text. The shortcomings of the conceptions of context developed in CDA and Conversation Analysis are discussed, and the analysis of fragments of 'home narratives' from asylum seekers in Belgium is used to demonstrate the need for the study of text trajectories or histories and the importance of forgotten contexts.

Chapter 4, on Language and inequality, argues that the issue of voice is eminently social and cannot be dealt with in purely linguistic terms. Linguistic approaches of functional relativity and mobility (Hymes) are used to demonstrate the existence of normative geographical and social spaces, producing stratified orders of indexicality which organise inequality between in-group discourse and displaced, entextualised discourse. Several examples are given of "texts that do not travel well" [78] showing the differences in value and status of the language resources used in letters or narratives produced in English by Tanzanian, Congolese or South African speakers in their normal environment, and in a 'displaced' environment as a result of globalisation processes, in which they simply fail to perform certain essential functions.

Chapter 5, on Choice and determination, questions the traditional assumption of the speaker's choice and shows that "a lot of what is observed in human communication is not a matter of freedom, choice, or creativity, but […] is constrained by normativities, determined by the general patterns of inequality" [99]. The relationship between creativity and determination is discussed with reference to Foucault's Archaeology of Knowledge and to his key-concept of archive, ultimately defined as "the general system of the formation and transformation of statements" [14]), defining the historical, but also political, social, and cultural limits within which discourse operates. In this perspective, according to Williams, creative practice can only develop in the borderline zone of existing hegemonies, modifying them by shifting the borders in order to produce new forms of consciousness.
A case analysis of a set of documents produced by an African applicant in a Belgian asylum procedure illustrates the non-transferability of literacy values and the change of status of the documents from ortho- to hetero-graphic. In the new world system, characterised by global patterns of inequality, the transfer of linguistic signs does not entail the transfer of their functions and values.

Chapter 6, on History and process, provides further illustrations of the inflation of context, the fact that several layers of context, operating at various 'higher' levels, have to be called upon for the interpretation of given texts or communication situations. Bourdieu's concept of habitus and Braudel's attention to longue durée are evoked. The first to refer to the "principles which generate and organise practices and representations that can be adapted to their outcomes without a conscious aiming at ends" [12]). The second as an example of the slow transformations of societies which remain beyond the grasp of subjects-in-history. Further examples are provided to illustrate the complexity of intertextualities: Adrian Sofi's trial in 1990 for charges dating back to the 1972 Brigato Rosso period; the different layers involved in the choice of formal or informal address forms in academic discourse; the particular set of references to history and the speaking position assumed by a war veteran in an internet message supporting the Iraq invasion of 2003; the analysis of historical roles and relationships as evidenced in a collection of political speeches held in Warsaw on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the 1944 uprising. They all confirm the role of history as an additional factor of inequality and the necessity to explore the forms in which several historical layers condensate in discourse.

Chapter 7, on Ideology, is probably the most personal. Blommaert lists the most basic differences in definition and approach, providing a useful distinction between one line of thought in which ideology is defined as a specific set of symbolic representations—which he calls the 'well-known –isms', describing the ideology attributed to a school or individual—and another category, defining ideology as a general phenomenon, characterising the totality of a particular social or political system. He sets out to clear up the 'terminological muddle of ideologies' and discusses a series of oppositions and problems: ideational vs material, or total vs group-specific ideologies; generalisation and internalisation of hegemony. Particular attention is given to the importance and forms of coercion in ideological processes, and to the existence of 'hidden transcripts', the fact that hegemonic appearances can hide deeply dissenting views and practices, covered under an orthopraxy, by which people will behave as if they shared the required beliefs and ideas. An illustration is provided by the study of discourse samples produced by the Belgian-Flemish Socialist party in the context of its 'ideological' renovation congress of 1998. It also demonstrates how dogmatisation, reformulation and appropriation strategies operate and shows how the orthodoxy can be progressively shifted, as the ideological heterogeneity is both enacted and made invisible by textual homogeneity.

The introduction to chapter 8, on Identity, is a reflection both on the various 'identities' people have to assume either in their daily lives or when abroad, and on how "these identity categories have to be enacted and performed in order to be socially salient" [204]. In the context of globalisation it is suggested that identity should be seen as "particular forms of semiotic potential, organised in a repertoire" [207], and that such a perspective allows a performance approach to identities. Many examples of globalised identity work (multi-ethnic youth talk in the UK, the Tanzanian bourgeoisie, a University of Cape Town radio station programme) are provided, illustrating the appropriation of identity markers and the stereotypical social categorisation processes used to interpret them. Comparative analysis shows that this approach integrates higher level contexts which are not covered by Conversation Analysis. This lead to analyses of the construction of state discourses on identity, of the importance of space and place factors in understanding identities and of their stratification and effects.

The book ends with chapter 9, a conclusion on the role and status of Discourse in the social sciences, and on the ambition of the author to have provided us, through a critique of Critical Discourse Analysis and other prominent trends in the critical study of language, with a highly valuable framework.

There is no doubt that he has produced what he describes as a "sketch of a theory of linguistic inequality, which focused on the existence of polycentric and layered systems within which language and other forms of semiosis become socially meaningful and from which discourse derives its effects” [233]. Yet, although the book presents itself as a Critical Introduction, it is clearly not a text for beginners and presupposes familiarity with and critical appraisal of the main approaches to discourse. Non-beginners will agree that Jan Blommaert's 'stepping out' of linguistics can indeed be seen as one more step towards a comprehensive global anthropology.





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