What can CDA and Ecolinguistics contribute to Social and Environmental Accounting? 2 Days at the Toulouse Business School in search of better stories to live by

After meeting Prof Delphine Gibassier at the conference in Hamburg and sharing my plans for my methodology and passion for CDA and ecolinguistics, she kindly and generously invited me to her faculty at the Toulouse Business Centre to disseminate and share how CDA and ecolinguistics can be operationalized in social and environmental research.

The most important aspect that both CDA, ecolinguistics, and social and environmental accounting share is their fundamental roots in critical theory, and thus in their aim to critique a societal and environmental wrong and find new ways towards change. Therefore, I approach the two fields as emancipatory, as ‘academic activism’, if you will. As Ruth Wodak emphasizes, CDA has an advocacy role in its aim to highlight oppression and inequality by exposing hidden power relations and exploitation. In CDA and social and environmental accounting there is a strong link to political and other social science research, and indeed in the sessions we touch on many areas of concern such as sustainability, animal rights, education, equality and gender.

The river Garonne

Day 1

On the first day we started off by deconstructing CDA into its parts, asking what does it mean to be critical and how do discourse analysts theorise criticality. We then proceeded with a rather difficult question: what is discourse? We defined the concept as used by its various users: from laypersons’ use to mean ‘talk’ or ‘speech; to the way linguists use it, referring to ‘language in use’, or language above the sentence. We saw that there are many ways to conceptualize ‘discourse’, with some linguists referring to plural discourses, seeing reality as discursively constructed by people using the different ‘discourses’ available to them to make and remake social reality.  The first session concluded with a practical activity of spotting discourses in a news text. How many different discourses can you spot? Try it here.

The second session was devoted to the different schools of CDA. First, it was important to give an overview of the different theories used in CDA such as activity theory (e.g., Aleksej Leontjew), the socio-cognitive theory (e.g., van-Dijk)and discourse theory (e.g., Ruth Wodak). We discussed Fairclough’s Dialectical-relational approach, which sees discourse as a communicative event and stemming from the interaction between social structured (viewed as abstract entities), orders of discourse – the conventionalised practice of genres, styles and registers, and linguistic structures such as grammar, lexis, semantics, and cohesion. An important aspect of this approach for social and environmental accounting is Fairclough’s conceptualisation of discourse as semiosis, extending meaning making to modes other than language.

The Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA) as developed by Ruth Wodak views discourse as context-dependent. Its focal point is in politics, where it develops conceptual frameworks for political discourse. The DHA is particularly concerned with the analysis of rhetoric and other linguistic features, discursive strategies such as nomination, predication, intensification, etc. Particularly useful for social and environmental studies is DHA’s basing its critique on a the notion of emancipation, therefore it is a practical tool for enacting change.

The third session is the most exciting and the closest approach to my heart – the ecolinguistic approach. In as much as CDA is about modifying and critiquing language, ecolinguistics view language and society as interdependent and co-constructing discourse. However, as Trampe (2018) suggests, it is not about creating ecological correctness, but avoiding anthropocentric representation of the natural world, and building using language in such a way as to construct a new relationship between humans and nonhumans, between human and nature that would halt the destruction and exploitation currently underway. Therefore, like for CDA, ecolinguistics is applied in real contexts in order to contribute to sustainable development and construct new stories to live by:

“As the ecological crisis is also one of communication manifesting itself specifically in language, ecolinguistis may justifiably be expected to play an important role in the mastering of the crisis” (Trampe, 2018: 336)

Ecolinguistics has been researched in many domains, showing how dominant discourses in industrial civilization promote ecologically destructive behaviour (Stibbe, 2018: 165). These dominant discourses include consumerist discourse, economic discourse, greenwash, and agricultural discourse, to name a few. However, artificially changing our language is not a viable option. Instead we should look for new stories to live by. Some examples are Rachel Carson’s work, where she uses ordinary language to construct better relationships with nature. Another example is what is termed imaginative naturalism, a school of lyrical science writer such as the wonderful Robert Mcfarlane portray the the world in a way that encourages care and respect for nature.

Using the exercises from the free online course in ecolinguistics The Stories We Live By, the team tried their CDA analytic hand at analysing texts looking for marked items, connotations, vertical metaphors, negations, and negative prosody. They also examined various quotations and analysed whether the stories or discourses in them were destructive or beneficial. Finally, each reflected on their own ecosophy (or ecological philosophy) against which to judge discourses.

We had such excellent discussions that we ran out of time, and had to leave multimodality and systemic functional linguistics till tomorrow.

I feel privileged to have worked with (From left:) Kim Ceulemans, Anne Riviere, Marie Boitier and Delphine Gibassier

Day 2

On the second day we started off with multimodality and systemic functional linguistics, the gateway to doing micro analysis (at least one possible gateway). Joining us today was  PhD candidate Richard Jabot who worked for many years for the Médecins sans Frontière and is now pursuing a fascinating project on SDGs and CSR.

Systemic functional linguistics (SFL) studies the relationship between language and its functions in social settings operating on three metafunctions of field, tenor and mode. These components determine the register of a text through the choices the authors make in their grammatical and lexical use. This notion of choice leads us on to the next session, exploring multimodality (or MCDA – Multimodal Critical Discourse Analysis): how discourses are communicated, naturalised and legitimised beyond linguistics through colour, fonts, images, videos. For example, we looked at how moods and spacing are used to communicate a relaxed mindset in utility bills!

One interesting discussion that arose was on how both CDA and social and environmental accounting can bring in visual analysis in a way that would be both legitimate and not ‘reinventing the wheel’. This problem was discussed by David Machin  in the MCDA 2016 special issue, that there is a danger of not collaborating interdisciplinarily with other fields where visual analysis has been thriving for decades such as media studies (this is where the call for CDA to be named CDS, Critical Discourse Studies originates). For MCDA, we have the seminal work by Kress and van Leeuwen: Reading Images that draws on SFL:

Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design by Kress and van Leeuwen

After an initial exposition (= me talking for a long time), we went through exercises that exemplified finding in various linguistic research using features from SFL: how are participants represented in news reporting on war, how do different newspapers report on the same event given their political stance and how does the grammar and lexis analysis can propose evidence to support their bias? How are metaphors, euphemisms and presupposition used in a text?

One of CDA’s and social and environmental accounting’s epistemology is in uncovering and making visible the ideologies that contribute to the destruction of nature and social ills. So our next session uses Part 2 of the free online ecolinguistics course to look at how ideology, in particular neoclassical ideology, as a story shared by a particular group in society justifies hegemonic discourses such as limitless growth. One example we analysed was from the Pork Industry Handbook, where pigs’ health is described only in terms of production, creating the story of PIGS ARE MACHINES. This story, created by farm factory industries justify cruel and environmentally damaging practices.

We didn’t stop there, at texts that don’t work to advance a better world, and moved on to look at some Haikus, analysing how they represent animals and whether these examples would be considered a better way of talking about nature. Specifically we looked at the linguistic features that are used to achieve this representation, such as transitivity, verb choices and participant choices.

We took a break from analysis and moved on to talk about corpus linguistics as an excellent way to do not only triangulation on the data collected, but also to examine collocations, evaluations, processes (verbs) and participants (nouns) and compiling our own corpus. Specifically, we looked at #LancsBox and #GraphColl as it is a wonderful, easy to use tool and most importantly – free! I also mentioned the excellent annual Lancaster University Corpus Linguistics Summer School #LancsSS18 which has both a linguistics stream and a social sciences pathway.


The last session before we wrap up is about framing, also taken from the online ecolinguistics course. We particularly focused on the framing of climate change which could be framed as an environmental issues, a security threat, a problem, or a predicament (there is a difference between the two!). In each case, we think of climate change differently.

Caroline Lucas, the Green Party MP here in the UK advocated for the change of frame for climate change from an environmental issue that should be sorted at the level of engineers and the energy department, to a security threat: “we need to reframe it as the overwhelming threat to national and global security which it is”. We had an interesting debate on whether this is a beneficial frame or whether it entails other problems. Another reframing suggested by Rebecca Solnit advocates for climate change to be reframed as violence: “Call climate change what it is: violence. Climate change is global-scale violence, against places and species as well as against human beings”. One of the objections to this reframing as discussed in our session was the disconnect between a person’s individual actions and the impact it has. In other words, when we have a bag of crisps, we do not see or feel as though we have committed a violent act. Perhaps this disconnect is the problem?


In the evening I had the amazing opportunity to be invited for dinner with the team and joining us was Prof Jan Bebbington.

It was wonderful to meet and work with the team, I was inspired by their work and felt that the discussions we had in the sessions enriched my understanding of the two fields!

Pretty fish at the Japanese Garden



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