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Critical Discourse Analysis: Ruth Wodak’s Discourse-Historical Approach

Aiming to understand the functioning of social dynamics, social sciences' scholarship has increasingly shown interest in how discourse reflects social realities and how individuals collectively construct them. The use of discourse analysis as a tool to study diverse phenomena has spread rapidly across disciplines. In particular, Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is used not only to understand these phenomena but to ‘critically address’ how discourse can reveal the power relations between individuals, communities, or other political entities, thus pointing at systemic inequalities and oppression directed toward certain actors. Ruth Wodak is one of the main scholars that has specialized in CDA, and her work has been highly relevant in the field of discourse studies. Therefore, this article delves into the main tenets of Wodak’s work and showcases its relevance in the field of discourse studies.

‘Criticality’ in CDA

Before starting to unfold the intricacies of Wodak’s work, it is necessary to establish the main characteristics that define CDA. Firstly, CDA is considered critical because its focus is not to be merely descriptive, as this is only the initial stage of the analysis. Instead, its focus is to understand the interconnection between language and society. Thus, there is an explanatory nature to CDA, which aims to understand social phenomena through the analysis of discourse (KhosraviNik, 2015). It can be said that

[CDA] explains why, and with what consequences, the producers of a text make such specific linguistic choices (or avoid doing so), given the various options that are available. Such a framework is then capable of accounting for absences as well as presences in the data. (KhosraviNik, 2015, p. 52)

Thus, this understanding of discourse analysis highlights the way in which language is used and why it is used in that specific way, by understanding it not as an isolated phenomenon but as a manifestation of its own context. Therefore, the ‘criticality’ of the method relies on the contextualization of the descriptive discourse analysis, as well as in the reflexive observation found in its methodological approach (KhosraviNik, 2015).

Figure 1. CDA pays close attention to the use of language and its relation to power dynamics. Often, CDA is used to study the rhetoric of right-wing populist actors such as Donald Trump, former president of the United States.

CDA and the Discourse-Historical Approach (DHA)

Once having the foundational knowledge of what is CDA and why it is ‘critical’, one can delve into the central ideas in Wodak’s version of CDA. Specifically, the DHA in CDA, created by her and colleagues at the University of Vienna, is an influential approach that highlights the relations between the Self and the Other (KhosraviNik, 2015). As Wodak puts it (2016), the DHA is “problem-oriented”, which means that understanding the linguistic dimension only constitutes a part of the research and it should not be limited to it. This linguistic development must in turn be contrasted with its context, which involves the linguistic piece to be analyzed, its relations to other texts and discourses, the situational context (for example the space in which a speech took place), and the historical and sociopolitical conditions in which the text or speech is embedded. By analyzing the discourse and contextualizing it, the DHA aims to “analyze, understand, and explain the complexity of the objects under investigation” (Wodak, 2016, p. 3).

Furthermore, DHA considers discourse to be socially constructed and socially constitutive, which means that it both constructs social practices and is, in return, constructed by social practices. It is a group of interconnected linguistic practices linked to a broader topic and related to ‘validity claims’ or normative stances that involve multiple social actors (Reisigl & Wodak, 2015, p. 89). Similarly, Wodak makes a differentiation between discourse and text, for text is a constitutive part of discourses and, in a way, makes objects out of linguistic practices (Reisisgl & Wodak, 2015).

Figure 2. Discourse is context-dependent, and can interconnect with other discourses.

Interdiscursivity and Intertextuality

To contextualize discourses, the DHA employs two different concepts: interdiscursivity and intertextuality. The former refers to the relation between different discourses. To exemplify it, Wodak states, “a discourse on climate change frequently refers to topics or subtopics of other discourses, such as finances or health. Discourses are open and often hybrid; new sub-topics can be created at many points” (Reisigl & Wodak, 2015, p. 90). To visualize this example, when political leaders refer to climate change, they may address that combatting it may bring health benefits to the population and a better quality of life; however, some leaders could also state that moving from fossil energy to green energy requires large budgets and therefore some measures may not be considered possible to implement.

On the other hand, intertextuality points to the connection between texts. On that note, this relation can be made “through explicit reference to a topic or main actor; through references to the same events; by allusions or evocations; by the transfer of main arguments from one text to the next, and so on” (Reisigl & Wodak, 2015, p. 90). These references to other texts often involve a process of ‘recontextualization’, where the information from other texts is framed again (Reisigl & Wodak, 2015). For example, a politician can use news articles on a topic to solidify their arguments, or they can also refer to a previous speech of a political rival to ridicule them and present their own ideas as superior. Intertextuality and interdiscursivity are two concepts that provide meaning to the discourse analysis and can help to unravel power relations.

Figure 3. David Cameron, former Primer Minister of the UK. His Bloomberg Speech has been analyzed by Wodak, who argues that some arguments for Brexit can be traced back to it.

Therefore, throughout the text, the central ideas of CDA, in particular of DHA, were thoroughly exposed. The work of Ruth Wodak can provide some light on how to analyze discourse and understand that discourses do not live in a vacuum, but can be connected with each other. While discourses can spread from one field of action to the other, it is important to understand the context in which they are found. CDA aims to pinpoint how these discourses are articulated but at the same time recognizes the importance of its context and the power relations embedded in it, further explaining their influence in the discourses at play. It is because of this reason that CDA has increasingly become a widespread tool in the study of social sciences, for its purpose is to criticize social issues and phenomena, and in return change social realities for the better (Carta & Wodak, 2015).

Bibliographical references

Carta, C., & Wodak, R. (2015). Discourse analysis, policy analysis, and the borders of EU identity.

Discourse Analysis, Policy Analysis, and the Borders of EU Identity, 14(1), 1–17.

KhosraviNik, M. (2015). Theoretical Background. In M. KhosraviNik, Discourse, identity and

legitimacy: Self and other in representations of Iran's nuclear programme (pp. 47-79). John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Reisigl, M. & Wodak, R. (2015). The Discourse-Historical Approach. In R. Wodak & M. Meyer,

Methods of Critical Discourse Studies (Introducing Qualitative Methods series) (Third (pp.87-121). SAGE Publications Ltd.

Wodak, R. (2016). "We have the character of an island nation". A discourse-historical analysis of

David Cameron's "Bloomberg Speech" on the European Union. European University Institute.

Visual references


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Rodrigo Bielma Silva

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