Academia and Activism: Direct Action through Discourse Analysis

22 November 2017, Manchester


For some, academia is a pathway to develop personal and cumulative knowledge, engaging in mentally stimulating work. But for others, academic research (and teaching!) is an inseparable component from their personal moral and ethical paradigms.

View from the museum onlooking the Irwell River

The location of this conference makes the discussions and our subject matter tangible and urgent. Taking place in Manchester’s People’s History Museum, a beautifully re-purposed industrial building, history’s activists, artists and the power of people’s voices is all around us. At the moment Savage Ink’s exhibition on the cartoon and the political caricature underlines much of our discussion today on using Critical Discourse Analysis on power and ideology. Situated on River Irwell, the rapid flow of the water adds to the meaning of change and the force people can have when united around good.

No plastics at this event!

The consciousness of activism begins in the details carefully planned by welcoming organisers Emma Franklin, David Benbow, and Christina Bernnan. Coffee, tea and drinks are served in mugs and glasses (no paper and plastic!), accompanied by soya milk and vegan snacks. Striking up a conversation at the refreshment table is easy and immediate – although the researchers are all from various disciplines, we have much in common: all are passionate to make a positive change in all walks of life, both human and nonhuman.

Dr. Arran Stibbe

Our first keynote speaker is Dr Arran Stibbe (about whom I wrote previously here) discussing today ecolinguistics in the context of: New academic identities: discourse, activism and the impact agenda. Arran’s talk is interactive he does not let us slowly snooze into his talk by asking us questions, and getting us to share our experience of ecolinguistics.

What do we understand by ‘Impact’? For Stibbe, it is the bridge between activism and academia. Having an impact in your research carries out an effect on change, or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services , the environment or quality of life beyond academia’s contested REF (Research Excellence Framework) that while presenting problematic ways for assessing the impact of research, as Stibbe goes on to demonstrate, can be used in a strategic way that could allow us to be active in our research.

Particularly, the discipline of Ecolinguistics uses linguistic analysis to reveal the stories we live by. Stories are all the cognitive things that contribute to the way we live and central to ecolinguistics is the question: Does the text(s) promote an intrinsic value of living beings? Does the text align with an ecosophy that considers humans and animals, and the natural environment? The stories we live by right now are not working and are endangering the existence of the planet and all living things. Stibbe examines the way advertising stories shape the way we live. For example, a prevalent story we live by is that purchasing products is the path to happiness. An example given from Stibbe’s research is ‘Cordless freedom’ advert showing a happy couple in bed smiling and laughing conspiratorially, suggesting that you have to have the keyboard to be happy.

“People working within CDA don’t see a division between academia and activism”

Another example is from the domain of agribusiness. The discourse of the meat industry is one in which female pigs are represented as a sausage machine, ‘designed’ to endlessly give birth to piglets turned into sausages. In the meat industry animals are treated as object which makes it easier to exploit them. (and in politics where the government just made it easier to exploit animals.)

Stibbe argues, and I completely agree, that in order to not only survive but build better relationships with other human and nonhuman animals, we need to find new stories to live by. Some examples of new stories can be found in Rachel Carson, the author of Silent Spring, nature writing, haiku, new economics as exemplified in the gross national happiness in Bhutan. Using Positive Discourse Analysis would look for alternative ways to construct reality.

But how can impact be measured?

There are several methods for gathering impact evidence. For example, Stibbe’s work has been cited by the Poultry Industry which, based on linguistic analysis undertaken by Stibbe, now call for a different way to view animals as sentient beings. Another example is from Stibbe’s analysis of the Cooperative bank’s newsletter copy titled ‘Living the Dream’: How to purchase the perfect holiday home’, which develops a lifestyle that has a negative effect on the environment. On behalf of his study, Stibbe received a letter that acknowledges the validity of his work. More significantly,  looking at the following issues, things seem to have changed.

If you would like to learn more about ecolinguistics, Dr Stibbe created the free online course: ‘Stories we live by’ (to which I had the opportunity to make  modest contributions). You can sign up here.

Round table discussions expand the concept of impact. My table is fascinating, and I get to hear about very different projects going on from Chris Hart, co-organiser Christina Bernnan, Eyal Clyne, Abi Masefield, and Marwa Mahmoud El-Khodairy, just to name a few.  One topic we discuss is Direct Action – What is direct action? Is it Visibility Activism: communicating a message supported by motivation behind our actions? Is keyboard activism direct action?

We break up for lunch and a tour of the museum. Lunch is completely vegan: tasty sandwiches with imaginative fillings and fresh fruit. We get to continue our conversations and meet new colleagues. The atmosphere is very friendly and the curiosity to learn new things leads us to explore the museum. I explore Savage Ink’s satirical cartoons and caricatures exhibition, and the museum’s main gallery themed: Revolution:

Two hundred years ago Manchester was at the centre of Britain’s Industrial Revolution.  Based on the cotton textile industry, the town became the world’s first industrial city.Despite high wages in good times, workers endured appalling living and environmental conditions.  Little could be done to improve these; there was no political structure and Manchester, for example, had no MP. On 16 August 1819 a reform meeting held on St Peter’s Field in Manchester attracted over 60,000 mill workers and their families. Magistrates sent in soldiers to arrest the leaders.  There were 18 dead and over 400 seriously injured. The event became known as the Peterloo Massacre and led to the first reform of Parliament in 1832.

(Cited from:

After lunch, we undertake a challenging task: the Plan of action worksheet. Identifying our goals as academic activist researchers and how to achieve them is an important step in realizing our objectives.

Passion and the urgent need for change in many domains is evident all round the table as researchers talk about their projects. Cristian Iturriaga Seguel’s research on deaf communities in Chile is fascinating and actually highlights to me how indeed marginalized their disability is, particularly in education and the effect it has on their life opportunities. Another difficult research from Artemis Christinaki who works as a psychologist in refugee camps. When she talks about her experience I cannot help but feel hopeful for the future. Compassion, passion and dedication are some of humanity’s strengths and in this room the collective strength is palpable.

Prof Chris Hart

As they say, save the best for last and it is Professor Christopher Hart who gives a fascinating talk titled: Reaching Beyond the Academy with Critical Discourse Analysis.

We are currently living in dire socioeconomically social equality where salary gaps and workers falling short on work capability assessment are as a result of government austerity.  Corporations not paying taxes eliminate safety nets for society. We see division rather than unity, migrants, who instead of being welcome, are being detained and treated as criminals. Part of this division gave rise to Brexit and the system is at a brink of collapse.

The questions is, what can linguistics, engineers, psychologist and others do about it? From the perspective of linguistics, Hart is taking on Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), an approach to discourse analysis concerned with social identities, inequalities and injustices as they are reflected in and reproduced through language and other semiotic modalities. CDA is critical in so far as it is rooted in a radical critique of social relations (Billig, 2003).

Power and ideology are encoded in language, all the way down to the minute linguistic detail. Critical discourse analysis can resist these ideologies. Therefore, CDA is characterised as having an emancipatory agenda: CDA intervenes on the side of the oppressed, openly declares the emancipatory interests that motivate CDA (Fairclough and Wodak, 1997). People working within CDA don’t see a division between academia and activism. CDA has been criticised as being inherently self-undermining due to this, but CDA scholars do not see themselves as biased but rather working towards positive social and political change. One’s analysis always supports the researcher’s analysis.

How can this emancipatory agenda be realised? Is it in some way problematic? Living in a post-expert world, the fact that CDA analysts are experts presents a problem. We are also part of the system because we claim for power as researcher. Widdowson critiques CDA by saying the analysts claim privileged authority to pronounce on significance presenting what they read into a text what the text really means. Additionally, by using highly specific complex academic register, we exclude others from the discourse. This metalanguage stands in the way of what we try to achieve.

Despite these problems, CDA is a worthwhile endeavour, according to Hart. In terms of approaches to CDA, we can see:

  1. Bottom-up approaches, for example in campaign groups and alternative media
  2. Top-down approaches such as media advocacy, NGOs

Most of the analysis relies on the concept of frames. Frames are cognitive knowledge structures that represent a particular area of experience. You know what to expect in a particular social setting. In discourse, frames are activated by linguistic cues which provide a way to understand a situation functioning to delimit our action. Often they function metaphorically, providing a template to provide understanding a more abstract area of life. For example, the words refugee and migrant are used interchangeably by the media. But they invoke different issues: the migrant frame foregrounds economic issues while the refugee frame foregrounds political/humanitarian issues.

Some frames function metaphorically:  Katie Hopkins’ rubbish: Rescue boats? I’d use gunships to stop migrants’ was published and analysed in Hart’s talk. This is an exaggerated example of a conventional way used to talking about refugees. Even leading politicians talk about ‘swarms of migrants’ e.g. David Cameron himself talked about ‘swarming migrants’. This kind of metaphor not only quantifies refugees but also dehumanizes them. This creates a huge gap between migrants and other people. By equating them with cockroaches being on the lower level in the chain of animals.

What can we do about this?

One example is the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) whose aim is to raise awareness among journalists and media professionals through education of the importance of ethics, human rights and good governance. While using academic language to publish papers, it is important to translate the research to reach wider audiences. Working with the NLP (New Left Project) that can reproduce academic research into more accessible language.

To finish this post on a hopeful note, the museum’s exhibition of radical socialists and environmentalists and the risks they took, at times costing their lives, reminds us that change is possible. The impact of academic work with its inherent activism needs to be considered in incremental terms over time.

A big thank you to our organisers!

Finally, I would like to thank Emma Franklin, David Benbow and Christina Brennan for organising this incredible opportunity to meet such a diverse group of researcher all sharing a commonality to drive positive ecological and social change.


7 thoughts on “Academia and Activism: Direct Action through Discourse Analysis

  1. It’s great that they did without water bottles and served vegan food. I’ve been to many biology conferences where people warn about the perils of pollution, deforestation, climate change, etc., and I can’t help seeing the discrepancy as they take a swig from their plastic water bottle. I understand that organizing a conference is a huge endeavour, but until we “walk the path” we are going to be lost. The little details (like serving water in mugs) may seem like details, but that’s actually where the “battle” is won.

    Liked by 2 people

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