1. Language and power

1.1 Institutions, Ideology and Dominant Discourse

The model of language and power to be used in this dissertation is derived chiefly from Fairclough (1989). His is an avowedly materialist view of the world and, like the society it analyses, a complex one. Before giving a concise but detailed description of his model it would help point the way ahead to have a succinct view from a similar perspective given in plain terms. This comes from Anderson (1988) and is worth quoting in full.

If we reduce power to its crudest form it rests on the ability to move a rock with a stick, to cook some food with a fire or physically force someone to do what one wants. If we want to get beyond this very limited relationship with physical nature and other people we must communicate with others in order to coordinate our efforts. If we develop a common language we can fulfil more complex plans and organise ourselves socially. The power we gain through nature helps us develop our social institutions. Physical and economic power become translated into social and ideological power. Some of the time we work together to achieve common aims but at other times we are in direct conflict with each other. Power can be used collectively to get something done for all but it can also be used to maintain inequalities.

Of all the institutions we have, the state has, in modern times, become the most powerful. Fairclough sees the state not as some neutral entity ‘above’ society but as the central element in maintaining the power of what he calls the dominant bloc – an alliance of capitalists and others, e.g. many professional workers who see their interests tied to capital. Those who have power can maintain it through coercion or consent (or a mixture of both), the smoothest and least risky mode being that of consent. Ideology is the key element in rule by consent, and as language is the favoured vehicle of ideology, herein lies the vital role played by discourse in the transmission of the dominant ideology via the whole range of social institutions – education, law, religion, the media, the family etc. (pp.32-4). (Fairclough defines ideology as ‘ideas that arise from a given set of material interests’ (p.94).)
For Fairclough, then, language is seen as a form of social practice. This involves three main elements. Firstly, language and society are not separate but have an internal and dialectical relationship. ‘Language is part of society; linguistic phenomena are social phenomena and social phenomena are (in part) linguistic phenomena’ (p.23), in that the former are socially determined and have social effects, and the latter do not merely reflect language but have it as an integral part of their process.

Secondly, these social processes involve, from a linguistic point of view, the process of production, of which the text (written or spoken) is the product, and the process of interpretation, for which the text is a resource (p.24). Thirdly, an essential ingredient in these sociolinguistic processes is what Fairclough calls ‘Members’ Resources’ (MR), but what are commonly known as schemata (Bartlett 1932), that is, people’s knowledge of language, representations of the natural and social worlds they inhabit, values, beliefs, assumptions and so on. While all of these are ‘cognitive in the sense that they are in people’s heads’ they are also ‘social in the sense that they have social origins – they are socially generated, socially transmitted, and, in our society, unequally distributed’ (p.24, emphasis added). In short, ‘People internalise what is socially produced and made available to them, and use their internalised MR to engage in their social practice, including discourse’ (p.24.) This is represented diagrammatically in Figure1 below.

figure 1
Figure 1- Discourse as text, interaction and context (Fairclough 1989:25)

It must be noted that to understand any given discourse in this model one must not simply analyse texts but also analyse the relationship between texts, interactions, and contexts (p.26). Or as Dascal, writing on another topic puts it, ‘understanding is always pragmatic understanding’ (1985:96).

The contents of the discourses will vary considerably as we experience society and the social institutions in which we operate as divided, demarcated and structured into different spheres of action, each which has its corresponding types of practice. For example, there is the social order of law, and one of its practices is that of the courtroom; both the social orders and their practices have corresponding discourses. Fowler et al (1979) put it thus: ‘linguistic variations reflect and, what is more, actually express the structural social differences which give rise to them. They express social meanings (p.1)’ Fairclough offers the following diagrammatic representation:

figure 2

Figure 2. Social Orders and Orders of Discourse (p.29)

In any type of discourse there are various constraints acting on the participants. Fairclough distinguishes three types:

contents - what is said and done
relations - the social relations people enter into in discourse
subject positions - the roles of participants in discourse

An example: a doctor giving specialist evidence in court. S/he will be required to give evidence according to a set routine (contents) while operating as an expert to the court, yet be subordinate to the judge (relations) in his/her dual roles of doctor and witness (subject positions).

Now that an outline of the essential features of Fairclough’s model of language and power has been drawn it is time to flesh it out somewhat with a concrete example. The following text is part of an interview at a police station in the UK involving a witness to an armed robbery (W) and a policeman (P). W is rather shaken by the robbery and P is recording the information elicited in writing.

(1).P. Did you get a look at the one in the car?
(2).W. I saw his face, yeah.
(3).P. What sort of age was he?
(4).W. About forty-five, he was wearing a …
(5).P. And how tall?
(6).W. Six foot one.
(7).P. Six foot one. Hair?
(8).W. Dark and curly. Is this going to take long? I’ve got to collect the kids from school...
(9).P. Not much longer, no. What about his clothes?
(10).W. He was a bit scruffy looking. Blue trousers, black...
(11).P. Jeans?
(12). W. Yeah.
(Fairclough. p18)

Even though it is the witness that has the desired information and thus, in one sense, holds power, the social setting – a policeman in a police station interviewing a member of the public – places the officer in a stronger position socially and legally. The contents, relations and subject positions of the discourse confirm this and also serve to reproduce the social relations of the dominant ideology. For example, even though W has had an upsetting experience there is no attempt by P to soften the task of eliciting information, by the use of such cushioning phrases as ‘Did you by any chance…’ etc. His questions are baldly put (1) and become more direct and unmitigated (5,7,11) showing that the norms of form-filling override the sensitive nature of the situation. Further, there is no acknowledgment nor thanks from P for the information W provides; its provision is taken for granted. Also, when W wishes to answer in her own way P interrupts (5 and 11) without apology. And when W expresses concern about her children (8) P’s response is unconcerned and vague and he immediately reasserts control with another question relevant to the only topic he considers worthy (9). (Many of these observations come from Fairclough (pp.18-9).

The obviously asymmetrical properties of this exchange lead Fairclough to comment that they are not arbitrary but stem directly from the nature of police/public relations in this society; indeed they are part of those relations. Should these relations undergo a dramatic change, for example, if members of local communities were elected by those communities to act as police officers on a triennial renewable basis, then it is highly likely that police/ public relations would also dramatically change (p.19).
Though the police-public power differential is such an obviously unequal one that it might be considered untypical of social relations generally, it is, in fact, only one of such many such relationships which we experience in important areas of our everyday life from childhood on. Tanner (1987) observes that:

the professionals, in numerous contexts, are doing something they do all the time, whereas the others are doing something they do rarely. Thus doctors, lawyers and teachers, in examining rooms, courts, and classrooms (respectively, of course) are doing business-as-usual on their own home turf, while their clients pass through the system, always confused and often ignorant of the intricacies of the system.

As stated in the introduction, it is these areas of institutionalised power which lend themselves so readily for analysis from the works of the Marx Brothers and on which the second part of this dissertation shall focus.

But, of course, there is social life outside of institutions and institutionalised roles, and Tanner also notes that it would be misleading to reify power as if in any given situation there was but one source of it and some people had it and others didn’t.

I suggest that there are many different kinds of power and influence that are inter-related and have varied manifestations. When people are taking different roles, it may not be the case that one has the power and one doesn’t, but that they have different kinds of power, and are exercising it in different ways. (p.5)

Fowler et al (1979) make a relevant point. Referring to the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis they note that (according to Whorf) the Hopi speaker’s world-view is different from the English speaker’s world-view as the structures of these languages cut up the world in different ways. Fowler et al suggest that a similar process takes place within one language: ‘Different styles of speech and writing express contrasting analyses and assessments in specific areas of experience, not total world views but systems of ideas’ (p.1). This intracultural relativism, as it might be dubbed, receives further specification from Kramare et al : ‘language behaviours differ depending on such variables as geographical location, social groups, sex and age’ (1984:13)… [EDIT]…