miércoles, 16 de octubre de 2013

Is discourse analysis an excellent tool for studying how groups or individuals seek tool influence politics? 

Nowadays we live in the media reality. We will know news of the antipodes just in a few minutes after it has happened. The development of communication has made possible be interconnected as never before. The communication technology is everywhere: televisions, radios, computers, even mobile phones have become the most powerful tool to be informed and connected every time and everywhere, but is the information that we receive an objective one? Are we being manipulated by the owners of the media?

The media has been involved with politics since its origins, from papyrus to press. The rulers have needed to publish the rules which have created and legitimize their power against other individuals or to unite citizens against a common enemy. The media is a political tool used in different forms to achieve different objectives. The leader´s discourses has been ever reproduced and published by the media. Discourses which have ever had intentionality, they were not innocent; they pursued a goal although not ever the goal is achieved. How the politicians use the discourse to influence politics?

What is Discourse Theory?
“Discourse Theory is concerned with the role of meaningful social practices ideas in political life” (Howarth, 1995). Discourse Theory has been used to analyze the way systems of meaning, discourses, speeches, images, even advertisement and films shape the way people understand their roles on society and influence their political activities. The importance of dominate the hegemon discourse in democratic systems is a key to achieve the electoral success, whereas dominate the hegemon discourse in dictatorial or totalitarian systems is the key to avoid the collapse of the system as we can see in political regimes as North Korea, Cuba or China, where the information is not free.

Discourses, however, are not ideology. Discourses are the tool to influence individuals and obtain legitimacy to support different policies or modify certain forms of conduct. It includes all types of social and political practice as well as institutions and organizations. However not all the political systems and societies are the same one. Each one has differences from each other. Each society and country has a different history, a different perspective of the world, a different situation which is going to frame their vision about the world. Each society or country has a different identity which is going to shape their understanding.
Laclau and Mouffe argued that all objects and practices are discursive (Laclau and Mouffe, 1987 cited in Howarth, 1995). It means that activities, words, actions and expressions to be meaningful, must be part of particular discourses. They argued that the identity confer meaning to the objects, words, speeches, actions and institutions in relation with the context of which they form part. Laclau and Mouffe (ibid) argued that discourses are historically contingent and constructed politically. Meaning that one expression or act does not mean the same in different times and places. The environment that surrounds us gives the meaning to our world.

How is identity created?
Identities have different components which are going to define their main characteristics. Eric Hobsbawn (1992) enunciated key characteristics to the creation and the definition of national identity such as religion, ethnicity, race, culture and language. But these are not the unique characteristics which define an identity, the feminist perspective use sex and gender as elements to create identities, the Marxism uses the social class, liberals use the individual… Sometimes these identities are going to converge, creating conflict between them.
Each identity is going to create a framework where words, speeches and actions acquire different meanings. Identity is created by common values, common characteristics which cohesion the group into a compact identity. All the members of the group share some defining characteristics and the actions of the group are going to be around those main characteristics.

One useful tool to create a new identity is the antagonism. Howarth (1995), pointed the antagonism as an essential element in discourse theory. The antagonism plays a special role in three respects: The first one, antagonism creates an antagonistic relation producing an enemy or a different group with different and maybe, mutually excluding goals. It produces a political boundary, a separation of the others. The second respect is that this separation is central to create an identity or social agents. The third one respect is the identity created by the antagonism is going to be the basis of all the behaviors and policies against the other group.
The semantic speech follows a common structure when it wants to create identities. It describes positively the group which we belong (in-group) and its members, allies and followers while the external groups or foreign groups (out-groups) are described in negative terms. Fiske and Taylor (cited in Van Dijk, 1999) studied the inter-groups relations theory arguing that the negative description and the attribution of negative values and actions to the out-groups will reinforce the unity of the in-group and its identity.

The identity has been one of the most powerful tools to mobilize individuals to achieve political goals. Nationalism movements are a clear example of this question. One time we have built an identity, how can we use for our goals? This question will be answered by hegemony concept.

Howarth (1995:124) said that “struggles for hegemony and the establishment of hegemony by political projects are of the utmost importance”. The principal reason because the hegemonic practices are central in political process is that hegemonic mainstream is going to determine the creation, the meaning, the function, the power and the dissolution of discourses. The hegemonic power will determine the main behavior, the social context, the general way of think. If this political force dominates the mainstream and the hegemon discourse, it will get the support of the citizens to its politic goals.  To obtain hegemony is necessary the drawing of political frontiers, using antagonism, and require the use of constant signifiers which are used to create and to set an identity, supporting a political project which articulates the meaning to this discourse.

Van Dijk (1999) defines the social power in control terms. He said that “groups have more power if they are capable to control by own interest, the acts and the minds of members of other groups”. These power means a privilege access to the media, which are limited such as money, fame, knowledge, information, culture, et cetera (Lukes 1986, cited in Van Dijk 1996). This premise means that if the minds control the people´s acts, if we control the minds, we will influence the acts and behavior of the people. Texts and speeches as advertisement and other media are tools which are well served in the people´s minds and permit manipulate and persuade them.

Not ever are the individuals going to be influenced by the media. It depends if they share values and interest with the speaker or the emitter legitimate the message which is sending. The individuals use to accept the arguments and ideas of sources (speakers, scientist, politicians, newspapers, et cetera) which are thinking as valid to emit that message.

Depending political systems will not exist other sources of information which provide other information and create another belief or the individuals will not have enough knowledge to affront the mainstream or the information which they are exposed (Nestler, 1993, Downing, 1984 and Wodak, 1987 cited in Van Dijk, 1996). However, there are checks and balances in the democratic societies which avoid the complete mind control by the powerful groups who fight for the power.

Mind control strategies.
Powerful, credible, expert and handsome speakers will be more influent, independently the message they send, than other speakers who do not have those qualities (Van Dijk, 1999). The individuals use to believe that speakers who are thinking with special features are more credible. It will relate with Weber´s charismatic legitimacy.

Reading texts or listening speeches will build social mind models about history, social beliefs, et cetera. The social mind models belong to groups when they are shared jointly (Farr y Moscovici, 1984, cited in Van Dijk, 1999). These mind models control the social discourse although each individual has a history, beliefs and personal values which are going to shape the discourse and the ideologies.

Van Dijk (1999) has put in order different types of speeches and argument which are used depending on the situation.  Some examples are:

Auto-identity descriptions which are used to define the in-group in relation with another groups constructing the identity based in differences.

Activity descriptions which are normally used by groups which define itself by what they do.

Purpose descriptions try to justify its actions by a final purpose. The discourse of the group will be ever positive, never negative. It is a ideological legitimacy which will not be right.

Values and norms descriptions which are used in a lot of ideological speeches. They are used to define the in-group´s values, which value is correct and which one is wrong. The enemy is described as a person who breaks the in-group´s rules making appear as intolerant, antidemocratic, et cetera.

Resource descriptions are of vital importance to the existence of the group. If these resources are threatened the in-group will defence them. The minority groups will use the absence of these resources as discourse.

Is the discourse analysis a valid tool?
There are some criticisms about discourse theory. The philosophical critique argued that the approach of discourse analysis is idealist, means that discourse approach does not deny the existence of a reality outside our heads, and it is claimed that the approach is a variant of relativism. The assumptions of discourse theory suggest that we are always part of a particular discourse and tradition. The substantive critique argued that the discourse theory results in the complete fragmentation of social structures and relations, and inability to analyze social and political institutions.

Illustrating the discourse analysis.
The creation of identities and the transmission of values are really important in politics when politicians seek to obtain the support of the citizens. The International Relations has been marked by the American War on Terror during the last ten years. 9/11 was an historic event which changed the world and the international conflicts. Below we can see two examples, an antagonistic between them, of how the identities are constructed across speeches and how in-group values are used to legitimate policies, war policies in this case. The speeches analyzed belong to George W. Bush and Osama Bin Laden, the main political actors during the first years of the War on Terror. 

After the 9/11 World Trade Center attack the American´s vision of the world changed completely. America was vulnerable and its heart had been attacked and destroyed. But the attack not only surprised America, the rest of the countries were really impacted by the events in the World Trade Center. The terrorist attack opened a new era where the United States pretend to be the leader against the terror and defender of liberty, democracy and human rights. George W. Bush, the then president of the US, used all the American military force and intelligent resources to defeat the new threat to the US and the free world. His speech on twentieth of September of 2001 reflects his determination to begin a new war, this time, against “the Terror”.

The Bush´s speech is directed to American citizens and American politicians, but not only them. The international community, the Taliban and the terrorist are objective of this speech too.

The creation of identity and political/values boundaries along all the speech are a constant. Bush tried to cohesion all the Americans and its allies against a “devil enemy” using antagonism and universal values as common link. Bush defined the enemy and later he describes it to get the citizens and chamber´s support.
Bush described the terrorist as “enemies of freedom”, criminals comparing them with the mafia “Al-Qaida is to terror what Mafia is to crime”, a global enemy who threat all the countries “There are thousands of these terrorist in more than 60 countries”.

Bush tried to separate the radical Islamic terrorist and the governments who support the terrorism, of the common Muslims to avoid confrontation with Muslim world.

Bush presents the American society as innocent and without fault of the attack “Americans are asking, why do they hate us?” denying all the suffering that the United States has created along the last decades with its foreign policies.  Americans as benevolent people even radical Muslims as terrorist and antidemocratic persons.

The American values as freedom, liberty, democracy, equality, et cetera are constantly mentioned to create the antagonism with the terrorists. Bush used the most ancient American values to explain the terrorist actions in terms of enemies of the democracy and American values; “They hate what they see…in this chamber: a democratically elected government. Their leaders are self-appointed. The hate our freedom: our freedom of religion our freedom of speech, out freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other”.

Bush used the American history and the most violent chapters of it to describe the enemy, identifying them with precedent enemies, and legitimize the policies that the government was going to take. “We have seen their kind before. They are the heirs of all the murderous ideologies of the 20th century. By sacrificing human life to serve their radical visions, by abandoning every value except the will to power, they follow in the path of fascism, Nazism and totalitarianism.”

In a war there are two groups which fight one against each other. Bush tried to create those two bands using universal values as common ties of the in-group. He was speaking to fight a global enemy around the entire globe. “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorist…any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the US as a hostile regime… This is not, however, just America´s fight. And what is at stake is not just America´s freedom. This is the world’s fights…This is the fight of all who believe in progress and pluralism, tolerance and freedom”.

Using universal values which have not a concrete definition, Bush is trying to integrate the major number of allies to his cause. Which democratic state does not believe in progress, pluralism, tolerance and freedom?

We can find the American exceptionalism across all the Bush´s speech, making an antagonism of the American values with the terrorist values at the same time:
“We are a country awakened to danger and called to defend freedom… This country (America) will define our times, not be defined by them”.  Bush defined America as the world defender of peace and liberty “As long as US of America is determined and strong, this will not be an age of terror. This will be an age of liberty here and across the world…, the advance of human freedom…, now depend on us”. Bush used the divinity as legitimacy factor of the War on Terror “Freedom and fear, justice and cruelty, have always been at war, and we know that God is no neutral between them”.

This speech was recorded the seventh of October in 2001, after the terrorist attack of 9/11.

Bin Laden tried to create a cohesion identity based in the Muslim religion to fight against Occident and specially, against America. Bin Laden knew that the United States were the most powerful military state over the world. He needed to obtain allies, powerful and nuclear allies, as Muslims states as Iran or Pakistan. Maybe it was one of the multiple reasons which Bin Laden pretends to achieve with this speech.

The description of the occidental culture, especially Americans, is based in the religious cleavage as we can see in the speech: “The nations of infidels have all united against Muslims”.

Osama Bin Laden used the American actions as war actions against the Islam trying to encourage to other Muslims to fight against these enemies, and maybe more important, Osama identified himself with the Islam trying to create a new icon who guide the arm fight, using the Muslim history to define this fight as a crusade: “The war against Afghanistan and Osama Bin Laden is a war on Islam. This is a new battle, a great battle, similar to great battles of Islam, like the conquest of Jerusalem”. Osama emphasized the cleavage opened by the US across the world, a religious cleavage where the people were with them or against them as Bush did before “These events have split the whole world into two camps: the camps of belief and the camps of disbelief. Every Muslim should support his religion…”

God name´s had been used to legitimize the actions against the Americans as in the Bush speech, but in reverse. Maybe Osama wanted to attract the most fundamental sector of Muslims: “They (Americans) support the murder against the victims so God has given back to them what they deserve”

We can see as both speeches tried to create a common identity, with definite values, to achieve their political success. The use of metaphors and comparisons, even though antagonistic, are constantly used to create the in-group and the out-group, them and us.


Discourse analysis is a useful tool to analyse the creation of political and social imaginaries in the society across the speech, text and different media. A tool, which is usually used by the most powerful groups of a country, to achieve their goals manipulating and modifying the social behaviour. However, the discourse analysis does not explain clearly how the speeches and media manipulate the people´s minds and when it does. Subjectivity is present during all the discourse analysis, only a few things will be objective. In despite of everything I think that discourse analysis will explain how the politicians and powerful groups pretend to achieve their goals, what lens they want to be used for us and what we must think. At least the democratic checks and balances as thinking freedom, speech freedom and publish freedom avoid us to be more manipulated than in other systems, or not?


Howarth, D. 1995. “Discourse theory”.  First Edition. London. McMillan.

Teun A. van Dijk. 1999. “Critic Discourse´s analysis “.Anthropos (Barcelona), 186, septiembre-octubre 1999, pp. 23-36.

Teun A. van Dijk. 1996. Análisis del discurso ideológico. Versión 6. UAM-X. México. Pp 13-43

Townshend, J. 2002. Discourse Theory and political analysis: A new Paradigm. Political Studies Association annual conference April 2002.

Laclau, E. 1993. Discourse. Published in Robert, G and Pettit, P. The Companion to Contemporany Political Thought. The Australian National University, Philosophy Program 1993.

Fairclough, N. 1992. Doing Discourse Analysis and social change. pp 225-240. London: Verso.

7.    George W. Bush speech: http://www.historyplace.com/speeches/gw-bush-9-11.htm (accessed on 16 October 2013)

8. Osama Bin Landen speech: http://www.rense.com/general14/CNNandAP.htm (accessed on 16 October 2013)

9. Hobsbwan, E.J. 1992. Nations and nationalism since 1780. Cambridge University Press.

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