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Norman Fairclough

Do you believe everything you read? Or do you think it's important to be critical of the things we're told? If you think it's important to be critical, you'll probably agree with Norman Fairclough's theory of language and power. British linguist and social theorist Norman Fairclough stated that discourse (written, spoken, or visual language) is often used to construct or maintain structures of power in society. He introduced his critical discourse analysis approach as a way to highlight and expose when language has been used in this way. 

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Norman Fairclough

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Do you believe everything you read? Or do you think it's important to be critical of the things we're told? If you think it's important to be critical, you'll probably agree with Norman Fairclough's theory of language and power. British linguist and social theorist Norman Fairclough stated that discourse (written, spoken, or visual language) is often used to construct or maintain structures of power in society. He introduced his critical discourse analysis approach as a way to highlight and expose when language has been used in this way.

This article will introduce Norman Fairclough and his main theory, explain what critical discourse analysis (CDA) is, and provide an example of how to conduct CDA.

Norman Fairclough: introduction

Norman Fairclough (1941-present) is a British professor of linguistics and the English language. Fairclough’s work has been highly influential in the field of language and power, and he is widely regarded as the pioneer of critical discourse analysis (CDA). CDA is a method used to analyse the role discourse plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power.

Discourse = Discourse refers to any spoken, written or visual language. According to Fairclough, the term discourse can be used to make a connection between language and the wider society.

Fairclough believes that language is a form of social practice. This means language is more than just vocabulary and grammar; it's a vital part of people’s lives and is habitually performed by most members of society. Because of this belief, Fairclough’s work has been influenced by linguistic theory (including the works of Michael Halliday) and social theory (including the works of Michel Foucault).

We’ll cover critical discourse analysis shortly, but first, let’s look at Fairclough’s theory.

Norman Fairclough: power theory

Norman Fairclough is best known for his theories on the relationship between language, power, and society.

According to Fairclough, power in language is exercised in two ways: power in discourse and power behind discourse. 'Power in discourse' refers to power relations that are enacted, performed, or negotiated in discourses. 'Power behind discourse' points to the social and ideological setup that shapes and influences discourses.

For example, a teacher in a classroom has power in discourse because they control the conversation and subject matter. The broader educational system, societal norms, and ideologies represent the power behind discourse, shaping how that conversation happens and what is deemed appropriate or relevant.

Norman Fairclough: language and power

In his book Language and Power (1989), Fairclough explored how language overlaps with social structures of power, suggesting it can be used to create, change, and maintain power relations in today’s society.

Fairclough’s theory of language and power is based on Michel Foucault’s discourse theory, which suggests that power is everywhere and is maintained and understood through 'accepted knowledge'.

Fairclough was interested in how language is used to create this knowledge and often used political speeches to highlight his theory. In Language and Power (1989), he critically analysed Margaret Thatcher’s (ex-prime minister of the UK 1979-1990) speeches to see how Thatcherism became a new ‘common sense’ (i.e. the accepted knowledge and ideology) in the UK. Thatcher wanted to instigate a move away from the socialist ideals of post-war Britain and towards a capitalist free-market economy.

Take a look at the following speech. How do you think Thatcher used language to give herself the power to construct a new 'common sense'?

It's your job, the job of business, to gear yourselves up to take the opportunities which a single market of nearly 320 million people will offer.

Just think for a moment what a prospect that is. A single market without barriers—visible or invisible—giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world's wealthiest and most prosperous people. [...]

It's not a dream. It's not a vision. It's not some bureaucrat's plan. It's for real. And it's only five years away. - Speech opening Single Market Campaign, Margaret Thatcher, 1988.

Fairclough also talked about the language used in advertising and its power over society. He coined the term synthetic personalisation to describe the way large corporations address potential customers on a personal level to create a sense of friendship.

Norman Fairclough and synthetic personalisation

Synthetic personalisation is a term coined by Norman Fairclough that refers to the way in which advertising and other forms of mass communication use language to create a sense of personal connection or relationship with consumers, despite being part of a mass audience. This is achieved through the use of second-person pronouns like 'you', or through conversational and colloquial language that makes the consumer feel like they are being individually addressed, even though the message is being broadcasted to a large audience.

For example, when a television advertisement says, 'We've got the perfect solution for you', it is employing synthetic personalisation. The ad is not truly personal—it's the same for every viewer—but it uses language to create a sense of personal engagement.

Stages to synthetic personalisation

Fairclough suggests there are three stages to the process he calls synthetic personalisation:

  1. Use personal pronouns, informal language, and personalised cultural references to build relationships with potential customers.

  2. Carefully select the vocabulary and visuals used to manipulate the readers’ worldview and ensure it aligns with the ideology being sold.

  3. Create a consumer willing to receive the ideological message being sold to them.

L'Oréal - ‘Because you’re worth it

This famous slogan helps construct the narrative that women’s worth and happiness have a direct correlation to the beauty products they buy. It also uses the second person pronoun ‘you’ to create the impression the reader is being spoken to directly - this is sometimes referred to as ‘direct address’.

Norman Fairclough Image of woman reading a magazine StudySmarter

Fig. 1 - Direct address creates a more personal connection with a reader.

Norman Fairclough: Critical discourse analysis (CDA)

Critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach (not a theory!) used to analyse the role language (written, spoken, or visual) plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power. Fairclough's approach to CDA emphasises the intrinsic connection between language and social practice, viewing discourse as a form of social action. Fairclough's model of CDA focuses on investigating how societal power relations are established and reinforced through language use. His work has been influential in a range of fields, from linguistics and communication studies to sociology and political science.

Interdisciplinary approach = An approach that draws upon two or more academic disciplines. For example, CDA is based on both linguistic and social theory.

Critical discourse analysis recognises language as a social practice and places it into its social context, paying attention to what is being said by whom and where. CDA aims to analyse the existence of dominance, power, and control exhibited in language and critically investigates the role language plays in the creation and maintenance of social inequality.

According to Fairclough, the analysis of power in discourse can be split into two disciplines:

  • Power in discourse - Analysing the lexicon, strategies, and language structures used to create power. Some common language features used to create a sense of power include: imperative verbs, rhetorical questions, personal pronouns, emotive language, and alliteration.

  • Power behind discourse - Analysing the sociological and ideological reasons behind who is asserting power over others and why. For example, the UK mass media (e.g. newspapers) has power over its readers as the newspaper editors decide which information and which narratives their readers will see.

Here is an overview of the major principles behind CDA

  • View language in the context of the wider society.
  • Consider things such as gender, ethnicity, race, culture and question how these social factors are represented and constructed in discourse.
  • Consider who the marginalised people in society are and who the most powerful are.

What are the main aims of critical discourse analysis?

When conducting critical discourse analysis it's important to remember why you're doing it and what you're hoping to achieve.

Here are the main aims of CDA:

  • To see how meaning and ideologies are created with language.

  • To uncover power structures.

  • To understand how power can be maintained and abused through language.

  • To encourage people to question what they are being told and why.

  • To give a voice back to historically marginalised or oppressed people.

Norman Fairclough: using Critical Discourse Analysis

Critical discourse analysis isn’t restricted to just written text and can be used to analyse all forms of discourse. Here are just a few examples:

  • Newspaper articles

  • Political speeches

  • Novels

  • Educational textbooks

  • Speech in a movie or TV show

  • A news report

  • Advertisements

  • A social media post

  • Song lyrics

Remember, discourse also includes images and colours.

Norman Fairclough: Discourse and social change

As previously mentioned, Fairclough recognises language as a social practice and believes there to be a relationship between texts, interactions, and context. Fairclough’s (1995)¹ three-dimensional model can be used as a framework to help conduct CDA and highlight these relationships. Fairclough proposed that the discourse be analysed in three stages: description, interpretation, and explanation.

The three dimensions of critical discourse analysis

Description

The analysis of the text itself, including grammar, syntax, lexicon, phonological features, literary devices (e.g. rhetorical questions), and images.

Interpretation

This stage analyses how discourse is produced and distributed and then consumed by the reader/listener, i.e. the interaction that occurs. At this stage, the discourse is recognised as a discursive practice.

Explanation

This stage examines the relationship between the interaction with discourse and the social context. Here, the discourse should be placed within wider society and considered a social practice.

Norman Fairclough Image of Fairclough's three-dimensional model StudySmarterFig. 2 - Fairclough's three-dimensional model for critical discourse analysis.

When conducting CDA, try asking yourself the following questions:

  • Who wrote this text, and who is it intended for?

  • What narrative is being promoted?

  • Who benefits from this text? Who is marginalised by it?

  • Is the evidence credible?

  • What ideas are normalised by this discourse?

  • Where is the power in the discourse? Where is the power behind the discourse?

There is no set way to conduct critical discourse analysis, and methods tend to differ across disciplines.

Norman Fairclough: Examples of Critical Discourse Analysis

Let’s look at a potential process you might go through when critically analysing a newspaper article.

1. Description

First, consider the text itself.

  • What’s the language like? Is it emotive, persuasive, friendly, demanding etc.?

  • Have any literary devices been used?

  • What are the images?

  • What is the headline?

2. Interpretation

Next, consider the production of the article and how it will be received and interpreted by the readers. Consider what type of newspaper it is (tabloid, broadsheet, online etc.) and who the target audience is.

Think about the motivation behind the article and question:

  • Who will read it?

  • Is a certain ideology being presented?

  • Who might benefit from that?

  • Who is the owner of the newspaper?

  • Who is the author of the article?

3. Explanation

Finally, place the article into the context of wider society. Consider

  • The current cultural norms and values

  • Who the most powerful members of society are, and who are the most marginalised

  • The current political climate

  • What the current 'common sense' is in the country.

4. Examine the relationship

This stage is probably the trickiest part of the process! Remember when we said, ‘Fairclough recognises language as a social practice and believes there to be a relationship between texts, interactions, and context.’

Well, it’s time to think about those relationships by bringing the analysis of each stage together. There really isn’t a right or wrong way to do this and the aspects you’ll pay most attention to will depend on the context of your study or essay.

Norman Fairclough: suggested further reading

Fairclough has written a lot about language and society and this article is just an introduction to his most influential work. If you decide to study English language at university, you'll likely come across Fairclough again. Here is some suggested further reading for when that day comes!

  • N. Fairclough, Language and Globalisation (2006).
  • N. Fairclough, Discourse and social change (1992)

Norman Fairclough - Key takeaways

  • Norman Fairclough is a renowned British linguist who is widely recognized for his work in the field of critical discourse analysis (CDA). Born in 1941, Fairclough has contributed significantly to our understanding of the relationship between language and social practice.
  • Fairclough's work has been highly influential in the field of language and power, and he is widely regarded as the pioneer of critical discourse analysis (CDA).
  • Fairclough believes that language is a form of social practice and states that the term discourse can be used to make a connection between language and the wider society.
  • Fairclough explored how language overlaps with social structures of power and suggests it can be used to create, change, and maintain power relations in today’s society. An example includes synthetic personalisation.
  • Critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach used to analyse the role language (written, spoken, or visual) plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power. Fairclough’s (1989) three-dimensional model can be used as a framework to help conduct CDA.

References

  1. N. Fairclough. Critical Discourse Analysis. (1995).

Frequently Asked Questions about Norman Fairclough

Fairclough first introduced his three-dimensional model for critical discourse analysis in 1989 and later adapted it in 1995. 

According to Fairclough, critical discourse analysis is an approach to analysing the role language plays in the construction of knowledge, ideology, and power.

No, critical discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary approach (using multiple disciplines) used to analyse language in context. 

The major principles of critical discourse analysis are:

  • View language within the context of the wider society.
  • View language within the context of the wider society.
  • Consider things such as gender, ethnicity, race, culture and question how these social factors are represented and constructed in discourse.
  • Consider who the marginalised people in society are and who the most powerful are.

Fairclough is known for multiple theories. However, he is most well-known for his work on the relationship between language, power, and society. He is also considered a pioneer in critical discourse analysis and created the three-dimensional model for critical discourse analysis, as well as coining the term synthetic personalisation.

Norman Fairclough is a renowned British linguist who is widely recognized for his work in the field of critical discourse analysis (CDA). Born in 1941, Fairclough has contributed significantly to our understanding of the relationship between language and social practice. 

Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

Fairclough believes that a language is a form of _______?

According to Fairclough, what term can be used to make a connection between language and the wider society?

Fairclough believes that language is...?

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