Critique of the Critique of Critical Discourse Analysis
Updated: Mar 6
Up until now, scholarship around discourse has been divided into two distinct approaches: "non-critical" or "descriptive" Discourse Analysis, and "critical" Discourse Analysis. While each approach has its own distinct advantages and drawbacks, neither of them can be said to be completely without criticism.
Generally, a major weakness attributed to the descriptive discourse analytical theorisation has been elaborated by Norman Fairclough based on the fact that this approach –despite undoubtedly yielding fresh insights– completely “lacks a developed social orientation” failing to address issues linked with the way in which “relations of power have shaped discourse practices” as well as “to situate […] discourse historically in processes of social struggle and change.” (Fairclough, Discourse and Social Change 15) Moreover, Fairclough argues that a second weakness linked to DA is to be found in the considerable level of confidence placed in the interpretative possibilities of a text whose transparency is optimistically rarely questioned. (Mills 125) This means that, by claiming pure objectivity, DA is content to design ever more complex catalogues of analytical categories and methods although the heuristic added value of which is not proven. (Scharloth, Eugster & Bubenhofer 346) Similarly to the former, in the case of CDA, its interpretations are generally considered to be too simplistic based on how the relations between texts and power relations, form and function, are established. (Mills 140) Larchel, in this sense, argues that CDA’s shortcomings lie not in its alleged bias, but in the failure to live up to its own promises, not being able to actively engage in the type of politics that would truly benefit the disadvantaged (40), which is linked to the fact that it “is one of those broadly progressive projects whose founders and dominant figures are nevertheless all straight white men.” (Lazar 3)
Descriptive approaches in discourse linguistics must take into account the fact that they, too, presuppose a normative setting to accomplish their descriptive activity. Complicating their own definitions is, therefore, a priority. In these terms, Martin Riesigl (2018) tries to deconstruct the origin of this separation between descriptivists and criticises to make sense of this distinction and at the same time interrogates its validity. He reconstructs the origin of this apparent inconceivable dichotomy in the Greek quarrel between grammatikòs and kritikòs –those who stop in front of the superficial layer of language and those who transcend it. (175–6) To this, he also digs into the concept of critique itself drawing from Kantian philosophy. (176–7) But what is really interesting about this attempt to problematise the differences is that (182–3; translation mine):
descriptive approaches in discourse linguistics must take into account the fact that they, too, presuppose a normative setting to accomplish their descriptive activity.Thus, scientific descriptions as perspective- or theory-dependent descriptions of perceivable objects (e.g., discourses) and processes or actions (e.g., discursive practices) are based on normative settings such as objectivity, informativeness, relevance, precision (detailedness) and comprehensibility (concreteness, clarity, etc.).
Hence it is possible to deduce that the mere scientific act of describing discursive phenomena is already an example of critical inquiry because it entails already a certain degree of "normativity" embedded in the description –to be understood as "the adhere[nce] to these norms in a critical manner" (183; translation mine). However, description alone does not suffice to make it scientific. To be considered scientific, more than just a description is needed, and an explanation and –if the explanation is challenged– justification is always implicit although not always acknowledged by scholars. (182–3) When an explanation is provided, it is no longer just a description but takes the shape of a self-standing argumentation that often accompanies the analysis process. (185)
Conclusively, I must vehemently disagree with the need to maintain such a debate concerning DA and CDA. Both DA and CDA offer invaluable tools in the study of discourse, but the true need for a market seems to be founded more on CDA's explicit affiliation to an ethical or social justice takeaway associated with the research rather than on radically different epistemological challenges and limitations. Accordingly, the difficulties scholars face in taking an explicit critical standpoint seem to be motivated by –a perhaps politically flavoured– escape from this ethical dimension of the research (Wodak and Meyer 7–8).
Similar to Tognini-Bonelli's famous distinction between corpus-driven and -based corpus linguistics, I do believe that being aware that imagining a unique discourse analysis approach –which does not consider truly distinct critique form description– may only be beneficial to the broader field of discourse studies.
Larcher, Sylvia Bendel: Linguistische Diskursanalyse. Ein Lehr- und Arbeitsbuch. Gunter Narr, 2015.
Lazar, Michelle M. ‘Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis.’ The Routledge Handbook of Critical Discourse Studies, edited by John Flowerdew and John E. Richardson, Routledge, 2017, 372–387.
Mills, Sara. Discourse. Routledge, 2004.
Scharloth, Joachim, David Eugster, and Noah Bubenhofer. ‘Das Wuchern der Rhizome. Linguistische Diskursanalyse und Data-driven Turn.’ Linguistische Diskursanalyse: Neue Perspektiven, edited by Dietrich Busse and Wolfgang Teubert, Springer VS, 2013. 345-380.
Reisigl, Martin. 'Diskurslinguistik und Kritik.' Handbuch Diskurs. Edited by Ingo H. Warnke. De Gruyter, 2018. 173-207.
Wodak, R., & Meyer, M. 'Critical Discourse Studies: History, Agenda, Theory and Methodology.' Edited by Wodak & Meyer Methods of Critical Discourse Studies. SAGE, 2015. 1-22.