Positive Discourse Analysis

‘Discourse is shaped by relations of power, and invested with ideologies’.

 (Fairclough 1992: 8 in Jaworski and Coupland 1999: 2).

Critical Linguistics: a consciousness-raising tool

According to Tom Bartlett (2010), in the 70s and 80s the study of texts took a political turn in the UK, with the rise of Critical Linguistics (CL) (Kress and Hodge, 1979). The main aim of CL was to reveal how texts can hide or distort important aspects of the events they claim to represent. Analysis focused on grammatical features as well as vocabulary choices. A central aim was to unpackage biases and points of view that were concealed in publications such as newspapers, articles and school books.

One aspect of analysis that is still discussed today is that of agency, the way in which grammar allocates responsibility to participants. Here is an example from Kieran O’Halloran (2003):

  1. Police shot 10 people today as violence again flared in Jerusalem.
  2. Ten people were shot dead today as violence once again flared in Jerusalem.

These two sentences construe the same event, but in a different way. In 1, we are told who did the shooting, who is responsible. However, in 2, we don’t know who is responsible.

Another aspect interesting for CL analysts is power in interaction: who does most of the speaking and who shows the most authority. Bartlett (2010) argues that we take for granted roles of power and these interactions become common sense. This is what Fairclough calls the ‘power behind language’: where control over talk is a feature of a particular social institution (e.g., police).

An important aspect of CL and for PDA specifically is the aim to take back findings to the communities involved in order to contribute to improving social interaction and promote change in practices.

What is discourse?

The term discourse is used differently  at different times so it is important at this point to highlight key uses. When we speak about analysing discourse, we mean analysing talk as it occurs in real life. But we can also talk about discourse(plural noun), we refer to the shared representations of the world. The CL approach argues that if these discourses are repeated on a daily basis, over time they become common sense, the natural order of things.

Fairclough’s conceptualisation of discourse is that ‘Discourse constitutes the social. Three dimensions of the social are distinguished – knowledge, social relations, and social identity – and these correspond respectively to three major functions of language … Discourse is shaped by relations of power, and invested with ideologies.’ (1992: 8)

What is discourse analysis?

Analysing discourse as an end in itself in which linguistics describe language forms and their functions in socially situated interaction. This differentiates sociolinguistic approach to language from the descriptive field of semantics and syntax for example, where language is studies out of context.

Analysing discourse can be also viewed as a means to some other end. For example studying language forms and functions in order to find out about individuals, groups, social/cultural practices:

‘Discourse analysis can range from the description and interpretation of meaning-making and meaning-understanding in specific situations through to the critical analysis of ideology and access to meaning-systems and discourse networks.’ (Jaworski and Coupland 1999: 7)

An important feature of discourse analysis is that texts do not occur is isolation. They are seen as both examples of wider discourses in society and are also reproducing these discourses. Texts are weaving within them other past texts (intertextuality) and other discourses (interdiscursivity).

What is the difference between Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and Positive Discourse Analysis (PDA)?

CDA is best known for its work on language and semiosis in revealing, or deconstructing power inequalities in texts. It focuses on dominant (hegemonic) ideologies that lead to discrimination in various social areas: gender, class, ethnicity and, recently, with the burgeoning  field of ecolinguistics – animals and the environment. It originated in critical linguistics and continues to develop throughout the rich analyses of Norman Fairclough and Ruth Wodak.

 ‘Discourse is a major instrument of power and control and Critical Discourse Analysts […] feel that it is […] part of their professional role to investigate, reveal and clarify how power and discriminatory value are inscribed and mediated through the linguistic system: Critical Discourse Analysis is essentially political in intent with its practitioners acting upon the world in order to transform it and thereby create a world where people are not discriminated against because of sex, colour, creed, age or social class’ (Caldas-Coulthard & Coulthard, 1996: vi).

In his 2004 study, James Martin discusses the reasons why a move towards PDA is a natural and essential next step. According to Tom Bartlett (2010), PDA shifts the emphasis from highlighting injustices to identifying and promoting alternatives. PDA is firmly based in existing work in CDA that critically illuminate how language can be used by powerful groups to maintain their hegemonic role in society but it goes beyond it to identify discourses that can be effective in promoting the change we want to see. PDA essentially highlights where discourse works and in this way engages with real-world problems, much like CDA. Furthermore, Bartlett suggest that using an ethnographic approach can strengthen a PDA analysis by framing the text within a broader description of the customs and routines of the people who produce them.

Bartlett illustrates the approach to PDA in his fieldwork in Guyana, South America. His case study brings out the point that what makes language powerful depends on the context in which it is used. Bartlett argues that we need to consider how members of a particular group operate on a daily basis before we explain why one text illustrates a problem while another contributes to the solution.

My own research of PDA concerns exactly what Bartlett suggested above. I am examining the way Esther the Wonder Pig’s dads talk about animal rights, veganism and animal equality as my case study for an example of PDA texts (including spoken interaction). I specifically look at moments where ‘the dark side’ creeps up and how they mitigate it. Esther’s dads employ a different approach to their animal rights activism: they operate on two counter-discourse strata, one counter discourse that goes against the mainstream meat eating discourse, and the other, against the mainstream vegan discourse, exemplified by PETA and many other animal rights campaigners. More on this coming soon!


Martin, J.R. (2004) ‘Positive Discourse Analysis: Solidarity and Change’, Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses, 49, pp. 179–202

Bartlett, T. (2010) ‘Towards intervention in Positive Discourse Analysis’, in Coffin, C., O’Halloran, K., and Illis, T. (eds.) Applied Linguistics Methods: A Reader. Abingdon: Routledge, The Open University, pp. 133–147.
From Esther the wonder pig: https://www.facebook.com/estherthewonderpig/?fref=ts

10 thoughts on “Positive Discourse Analysis

  1. Look forward to hearing more – this is very interesting. With topics that might depress people (animal rights, deforestation, etc.) it’s important to know how to address them without losing your audience!

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Congratulations to the Award Winner. You met all nine (9) crucial criteria:

        Intellectually curious
        Socio-eco-linguistically oriented
        Raise her voice for exploitable sentient beings
        Write about text analyses
        Appreciate vegan humor

        Here is a Descartes-Like phrase that does not describe you:

        “I exploit, therefore I am”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. *blushing* Thank you so much, it’s so kind of you. I must say that your blog has inspired me and your writing is so witty and fluid, I still have so much to learn. BTW, if I may ask, how did you become vegan?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hallo Mira, Thank *you* for the kindest compliments, they buoy my spirit. And now you inspire me with your BTW. I’ll call it “Bill’s To Whit” to repurpose the BTW.
    And it’s about time I fessed up on the assigned topic “how I became vegan during Summer vacation” 🙂
    Happy Wednesday!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. dear its a good effort. i am also working on ecolinguistics. i am in dire need of material on positive discourse analysis. if you could share any relevant material related to the application of PDA, that would be quite nice of you,
    Rashid khan

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Rashid, thank you for stopping by my blog. Yes, PDA has not had too much written about it. In fact, many linguists (including my supervisor) question whether it is a framework different from CDA. So that might be worth investigating first. I would look into Dr James Martin who wrote about PDA. This is a fascinating paper on counter discourses which I think might be useful. http://www.gei.de/fileadmin/gei.de/pdf/abteilungen/schulbuch_als_medium/Macgilchrist_2007-PDA-CADAAD1-1.pdf


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