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Power Resistance




Discourse has been described as 'a form of social action' (van den Berg 2003: 120) and 'intimately involved in the construction and maintenance of inequality' (Wetherell 2003: 131). Thus a careful study of discourse will ultimately reveal the power relations between the parties involved. This has been one of the major foci of Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). According to van Dijk, CDA 'studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context.' (2001: 352). Every discourse invariably reveals the power relations between the interlocutors, whether it is symmetrical or asymmetrical. CDA pays more attention to the asymmetrical power relations. This presupposes the existence of a dominating party as well as a dominated party. Most CDA has focused on what van Dijk calls the 'top down relations of dominance' and not on the 'bottom-up relations of resistance, compliance and acceptance' (2001: 300). This essay attempts a study of the bottom-up relations by analysing four open letters to President Barack Obama by some African elite, published in the January-March 2009 edition of the BBC Focus on Africa magazine. This essay sets out to show the levels of acceptance or resistance exhibited in the letters.


Discourse Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis

Trappes-Lomax has observed that the preoccupation of discourse analysts is what ordinary people do instinctively and unconsciously, which is 'notice patternings of language in use and the circumstances (participants, situations, purposes, outcomes) with which these are typically associated'. However, the discourse analyst differs from the ordinary person in that they 'do the noticing consciously, deliberately, systematically, and, as far as possible, objectively, and...produce accounts...of what their investigations have revealed' (2004: 133). This view no doubt distinguishes the professional discourse analyst from the non-professional, but it does not give the 'complete' picture of what discourse analysis does. Over the years, the term discourse has been a nebulous one to define as scholars define it usually to reflect their backgrounds and/or trainings. Jaworski and Coupland (2006: 1-2) present about ten different definitions of discourse, definitions that are not exhaustive of all that exist in the literature. From this corpus, they now deduce that discourse goes beyond 'language in use'. In their words, discourse in 'language in use relative to social, political and cultural formations - it is language reflecting social order but also language shaping social order, and shaping individuals' interaction with society' (p. 3).

This corroborates the earlier assertion that power relations between interactants are usually embedded in their discourse. Thus Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) practitioners seek to 'investigate, reveal and clarify how power and discriminatory value are inscribed in and mediated through the linguistic system' (Caldas-Coulthard and Coulthard 1996: xi). They do not study discourse for the purpose of identifying patterns of language use. Rather they aim at creating 'a world where people are not discriminated against because of sex, colour, creed, age or social class' (ibid). As Trappes-Lomax puts it, CDA 'seeks not just to understand the social world, but to transform it' (2004: 140). Expatiating on the adjective 'critical' in an interview with Gavin Kendall, Ruth Wodak says that it means 'not taking things for granted, opening up complexity, challenging reductionism, dogmatism and dichotomies, being self-reflective in...research, and through these processes, making opaque structures of power relations and ideologies manifest' (Kendall 2007: para 17). This study of the relations between power and ideology is (part of) the thrust of seminal works like van Dijk's Discourse and Power (2008), Fairclough's Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language (1995), Grillo's (ed) Power without Domination (2005), Caldas-Coulthard and Coulthard's (eds) Texts and Practice: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis (1996), Wodak and Meyer's (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis (2001), Toolan's (ed) Critical Discourse Analysis: Critical Perspectives in Linguistics (2002), among many others in the literature.

CDA has been applied to various sectors of the system, especially the political sector. Van Dijk (2006) showcases the manipulative influence of Tony Blair's speech in the House of Commons to legitimate UK's participation in the US-led war against Iraq in 2003. The mass media has also been viewed as not been objective in their presentation of news. Chouliaraki (2000) demonstrates how the news media privileges particular representations of the country by the news media to the detriment of the Greek audience. But racism appears to have got a lot of attention from scholars like van Dijk (2008, 2001a or b, 1993, 1992), Forster (2009), Fozdar (2008), among others. Van Dijk (2001 a or b) explicates how an MP's speech tacitly supports and legitimises racism while Forster (2009) foregrounds how some white students ironically defend racism even in their bid to deny being labelled racist. Some other areas that have attracted CDA studies are police interviews (Coulthard, 1996 and Haworth, 2006) and wedding invitations (Al-Ali, 2006). Coulthard (1996) demonstrates how the police manipulate the audience by presenting a somewhat doctored version of interviews. On his part, Al-Ali (2006) analyses the sexist nature of Jordanian wedding invitations. Two other seminal projects on Feminist Critical Discourse Analysis are Wodak (ed) (1997) and Lazar (ed) (2005).

It will be noticed that most of CDA studies focus on the manipulation of power by the 'oppressor' and not the action, reaction or inaction of the oppressed. A number of researches have been done on the latter though. Haworth (2006) discusses how a police interviewee deflates and resists the domineering power of his interviewer. Fozdar's (2008) study reveals that anti-racist talks betray traits of racist talks, as in, anti-racist talks fight racism with the same tools with which racism is established. However, such studies of the 'bottom-top' relationship are not many. This essay is a modest contribution to the corpus of research on this relationship.


As indicated in the title and discourse above, the methodology adopted for this essay is CDA. Incidentally, there is no one approach to CDA. Different scholars propose different models and focus on different topics usually determined by their different linguistic backgrounds. Meyer (2001) talks about

a wide variety of theories, ranging from microsociological perspectives (Ron Scollon) to theories on society and power in Michel Foucault's tradition (Siegfried Jager, Norman Fairclough, Ruth Wodak), theories of social cognition (Teun van Dijk) and grammar, as well s individual concepts that are borrowed from larger theoretical traditions. (p. 18)

These differences in methodologies are also criticised even within the same sub-school. A case in point is Billig's (2008) criticism of the language of CDA especially in relation to nominalisation, and the rejoinders by van Dijk (2008) and Fairclough (2008). However, one feature that seems to cut across all of these models is that they are interdisciplinary. This is not surprising considering that CDA, according to Wodak, 'aims at investigating complex social phenomena which are inherently inter- or transdisciplinary and certainly not to be studied by linguistics alone' (Kendall, 2007: para 30). Meyer (2001) supports this 'interdisciplinary claim' by further drawing attention to CDA's closeness to 'sociological and socio-psychological perspectives' (p. 16).

This study combines features of van Dijk's socio-cognitive model, Leeuwen's re-contextualisation of social practice model and some aspects of Functional Grammar. It must be pointed out that these are not mutually exclusive approaches as there are overlaps among them even in the use of terminologies. Van Dijk's model enables a fine blend of the micro features of language use, discourse, verbal interaction, and communication and the macro issues of power, dominance, and inequality. However, Leeuwen approach points up some finer linguistic details.

Teun van Dijk's socio-cognitive model relates discourse to the manipulative structure of its social environment as well as the cognitive processes utilised by the manipulator. He observes that manipulation is facilitated by a number of social factors like group membership, institutional position, profession, material or symbolic resources as well as access to or control over scarce social resources. He also holds that the victims of manipulation are human beings whose psyche the manipulator works on for their selfish gains, hence the cognitive aspect of his model. Such cognitive manipulation could be of the short term or long-term memory (van Dijk 2006). Manipulating short term memory could be achieved by drawing attention to certain parts of a text either via emboldenment or by positioning them in strategic places. This may also involve levels of complexity of sentences and choice of verb forms. An idea might be blurred by couching it in a rather too complex sentence while another may be emphasised by making the sentence in which it appears very simple and direct. Verb forms like voice and transitivity are also used to control the recipients' comprehension of a text. Long term memory is affected when a discourse controls the audience's knowledge, attitude and ideologies. Understanding is usually influenced by past knowledge and experience. A discourse manipulates a person's long term memory when it reconstructs their mental models as this now forms the basis for future memory and understanding.

Such reconstruction of mental models is what Leeuwen has called the recontextualization of social practice. Leeuwen credits the concept to Bernstein (1990: 184) who observes that semantic shifts take place 'according to recontextualising principles which selectively appropriate, relocate, refocus and relate to other discourses to constitute its own order and ordering'. But Bernstein seems to concentrate mainly on pedagogic discourse. Leeuwen extends it beyond pedagogic discourse by assuming that 'all discourses recontextualise social practices, and that all knowledge is, therefore, ultimately grounded in practice, however slender that link may seem at times' (Leeuwen 2008: vii). As mentioned earlier, people make sense of s text by recourse to their previous knowledge. So the sequence of activities in a text, and the actors in the said activities, all inform the way the text is appreciated. Leeuwen developed this model from earlier works on anthropology (Bourdieu 1977, Parsons 1977, Durkheim 1976) and linguistics (Schank and Abelson 1977, Levinson 1973, Brown and Yule 1987, Gleason 1973, Grimes 1977, among others). He defines social practice as 'socially regulated way of doing things' (2008L 6) and identifies the following as some of the elements of this practice: participants, (sequence of) actions, performance modes, eligibility conditions, presentation styles, times, and locations. And this recontextualisation may result in transformations like substitutions, deletions, rearrangements, additions, repetitions, reactions, legitimations, and evaluations.

It should be emphasised at this juncture that all of these can also be found in non-manipulative texts, even in persuasive texts. However, the difference lies in the intention of the text-producer, in the context of use. A text is said to be manipulative if it distorts the information and makes the audiences' understanding partial or biased to the best interest of the text producer.


Open letters are usually letters meant for an individual or group of individuals but made to be read by the general public, intentionally. Though they are usually addressed to the individual or group concerned, they are made public through newspapers or magazines or internet blogs. Most open letters are critical of particular situations or individuals, mostly political figures. Quite a few of them are to show solidarity with or acceptance of some act. Whichever be the case, open letters generally state a writer's position on an ongoing debate; (formally) draw the public's attention to an issue; begin or end a public debate over an issue; or to call for some action from the addressee, and obtain some emotional support from the public thereby 'forcing' the addressee to act in the writer's favour. Incidentally, our primary texts fall under the last category.


The letters were written by two clergies, one Christian and the other Muslim, and two non-religious people, one an environmentalist and the other a reggae artist. The groups roughly reflect the older/younger generation dichotomy respectively.

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