Critical Discourse Analysis

By Debra William-Gualandi

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) covers a number of methods and theoretical underpinnings in academic research. It provides some excellent tools for the work we do in English A: Language and Literature. It can also be seen as providing some of the background for the creation of the course itself. Other pages on the site make use of CDA in practical exercises and applications. This page serves to offer a broad overview of what is meant by the term, and some of the ontological and epistemological considerations. Much of the information here has been taken from the first chapter of the book 'Critical Discourse Analysis in Education', edited by Rebecca Rogers. 

CDA provides a framework for bringing together critical social theories and theories of language. Some of the contextualizing of the literary texts that we will do in this course involves this sort of critique, because we, too, are interested in the role of discourse in the construction and representation of the social world. 

Power is a central concept, and the way texts reflect the effects of power, the outcomes of power and what power does to individuals or groups may be an exciting and elucidating approach in the classroom. If we ask our students to consider 'the power to', 'the power over', and 'the power behind', we may provide them with a framework that helps them approach the texts in a useful way. CDA views domination through power in various ways, depending on the emphasis of the analyst, but all are concerned with oppression, which can be defined as the obstruction of one's human essence and development. This may be:

  • Marxist inspired, where capitalism and neo-liberalism alienate people from their creative powers by reducing their labor to wages from which an elite class profits. Consider texts by writers such as Dickens, Orwell, Lewis, Miller.
  • Feminist inspired, where patriarchy defines gender roles and expectations that limit women's freedom and creative powers. Consider texts by Atwood, Shakespeare, Rhys, Austen, Bronte.
  • Race inspired, where racism defines the material and social positions of people of colour, thus limiting the full development of people living under racism. Consider texts by Conrad, Angelou, Wright, Joubert, Coetzee.

Another facet of CDA is the way discourse is understood. At the base is the assumption that all meaning is made through representational systems - language being one of them, but also including objects, artifacts, technology, gesture, voice. All meanings are understood to be embedded within social, historical, political, and ideological contexts. All meanings are motivated, that is, when people use them, they do so to accomplish something (or attempt to accomplish something). For example, they may build relationships, increase knowledge, establish identities, and expand or promote world views. 

An important aspect of the use of representational systems is the premise that meanings are always being invented. People actively create meanings and make choices about which systems to use, and how. Discourses both construct and represent the social world. This adds a significant responsibility to the teacher in the classroom. We need to be aware that how we present texts and frame discussions about texts may perpetuate rather than interrogate representational systems that are used to dominate. CDA is intimately concerned with engaging with the world in order to change it, for the better. 

Further reading

James Gee - An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: theory and  method

Norman Fairclough - (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Longman.

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