Episode 60: How linguistics can save the world

Image via Pixabay CC0

Welcome back to the Structured Visions podcast! In this episode we save the world. For me, saving the world means identifying ‘new ways of thinking about social structure’. Here are the things that need rethinking:

  • the inequitable distribution of resources
  • the isolation and marginalisation of difference
  • an impulse toward self-destruction, and
  • a lack of respect for the natural world.

We can tackle all of these from a range of different disciplines, but on the Structured Visions podcast, we spend most of our time in the ‘linguistics’ section of the world library. If linguistics is going to change the world, we’ll need a new story about language. In the old story, language comes at the end of an evolutionary narrative – it’s a means by which complex organisms can communicate with their species. In the new story, language isn’t the newcomer – it was there from the beginning, approximately squillions of years ago. According to the new story, language is primarily a mechanism for producing structures. Like DNA, and RNA.

To explore this idea, we need to know something about how DNA and RNA produce structures. Thankfully, we have John Perry from Stated Clearly and Your genome to help us.

And we’ll have a look at a strand of language from Marcus, an American in Strasbourg. What structure is he producing when he says, about French people in the supermarket, ‘They’re all like, “Stupid American”’?

So here’s how to save the world with linguistics, in three simple steps:

  • Put attention to the social structures produced in tiny strands of grammar
  • Recognise any patterns that contribute to self-destruction
  • Identify alternative patterns.

And then cultivate these alternative patterns. Imagine new structures, and cultivate them.

What ideas do you have about saving the world? Let me know in the comments. Or on twitter: @jodieclarkling

Can’t wait to hear from you.

Download Episode 60: How linguistics can save the world.

Episode 59: Enquiry, imagination and action

Linguist, communication expert and digital media scholar Erika Darics asks ‘Shouldn’t scholars in Critical Discourse Studies be political activists? What is the point of exposing injustice if we stop there?’

In this episode I address Erika’s question. Spoiler alert: the answer is a resounding YES.

And I celebrate the question ‘What is the point?’

Please keep sending me suggestions for podcast topics. I welcome them with an open imagination and a commitment to enquiry and activism.

Download Episode 59: Enquiry, imagination and action.

Episode 58: Communities of Sara Mills


In this episode I share the talk I gave at the Symposium at Sheffield Hallam University on January 12, 2017, in honour of Professor Sara Mills’s retirement.

Many thanks to all who participated in the event, including fellow speakers, Chris Christie, Lucy Jones, Shân Wareing and Karen Grainger.

Special thanks to Dave Sayers and Alice Bell for organising such a moving tribute to Sara.

Is there something you’d like me to discuss in an upcoming podcast? Get in touch!

Click here to access the slides from the talk.

Download Episode 58: Communities of Sara Mills.

Episode 57: Redneck roots

kaleidoscope © Belinda Allen
kaleidoscope © Belinda Allen

Remember Christina from Episode 7? She’s the one who spared no time at all in getting as far away from Awayville, USA as she could. This week we return to Christina, and we get introduced to her mom… the redneck. Not that Christina’s embarrassed about that, or anything.

Revisiting Christina’s conversation gives me the opportunity to illustrate more specifically how my approach to discourse analysis both draws on and differs from Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). (Episodes 55 and 56 provide a bit of background for this discussion, if you’d like to learn more.)

Get a copy of the transcript here.

I first offer a CDA-style analysis of Christina’s remarks about Awayville. I’m using the approach to CDA developed in Norman Fairclough’s work (Language and Power is a good introduction) and Lilie Chouliaraki and Norman Fairclough’s Discourse in Late Modernity.

I explain that a CDA approach would recognise this conversation as a text that was co-produced by three social actors. It might note that Christina’s representation of her hometown in Extract 1 draws upon two discourses – a discourse of socioeconomic pressure and a discourse of ‘rugged individualism’. One effect of her juxtaposing these is that it enables her to ‘blame the victims’. In other words, the people who suffer because of decisions made by local governments are blamed for not getting themselves out of a bad situation.

CDA contributes to social change through its consciousness-raising effects. In the example I’ve given, I’ve encouraged listeners to start paying attention to other texts in which individuals are implicitly blamed for what are, in effect, structural inequalities.

Then I move on to illustrate my own approach to discourse analysis. My perspective on texts is rather different. Instead of seeing texts (conversational, written, performed, etc.) as products of communication processes, I treat them as artefacts that reveal particular ways of structuring information.

I’m looking for patterns in the grammar. Look at this clause, for instance, from Extract 2 (line 1):

  • they’re all into Nascars

Now compare it with this clause from lines 4-5:

  • my mo:m is all about Nascar

There’s a repetition of grammatical and lexical structure here. The non-repeated elements show how this structure changes. It moves from the general (non-specific, third person plural they) to the unique, in the form of the specific referent, my mo:m.

Also, have a look at the ‘middle-o(f)-nowhere’ towns. These show up in both extracts.

In Extract 1, it takes this form:

  • they closed it [the army depot] and so now all these people who live like in the little towns outside like in the middle o(f) nowhere (lines 13-15)

In Extract 2, it looks like this:

  • she moved to this little like western North Carolina middle-o(f)-nowhere town and it’s like she belongs there (lines 34-35)

The movement in both clause complexes that mention middle-o(f)-nowhere towns is from a material action process (closed in Extract 1 and moved in Extract 2) to a relational process (live in Extract 1 and belongs in Extract 2). The pattern reveals a type of transformation that has to do with the relationship between people and their local economies and their socioeconomic status.

In the first extract, people only thrive when their local economies thrive – and later we learn it is their responsibility to divest themselves of their low socioeconomic status.

In the second extract, we have an image of an individual who thrives because she moves to an environment that supports and accepts her without requiring her to change her status.

Did you catch that? There’s a moment of transformation there – where we can begin to re-imagine social structure.

The old social structure looks something like this: generic groups of people move in and out of environments which are either supportive or hostile. The environment can change from being supportive to hostile at a moment’s notice, without any regard for the people affected.

The new social structure? An individual moves into a new environment that feels like a good match. The environment shapes itself to embrace this new person, such that she belongs. The individual and the environment are in a mutually beneficial relationship.

My approach to discourse analysis is one that begins by revealing the oppressive social structures that are often masked in discursive configurations. I use the tenets of CDA to help me with that. And then I move on to seek out new social structures – welcomed and welcoming alternatives to these hostile worlds. Where do I find these? In the patterns of the texts themselves.

Download Episode 57: Redneck roots.

Episode 56: A story about language


artwork © Nico Vassilakis 2012

To engage in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), the linguistic methodology I discussed last week, requires understanding language primarily as a form of communication that can be manipulated to represent the world in different ways. Indeed, language is often understood as a form of communication that is unique to human beings, and linguists describe the specific ‘design features’ that make human languages different from forms of animal communication. (See George Yule’s textbook, The Study of Language, for a summary.)

I’ve said that my work differs slightly from CDA, one of these differences has to do with my particular take on language. For me, language is not first a foremost a form of communication. (Sperber and Wilson’s book on Relevance Theory is where that idea first sparked for me.) I see language instead as primarily a way of structuring information. And while human beings may be the only creatures who use this structuring device as a mechanism for communication, they are certainly not the only ones who have access to language. Drawing upon Alan Watts’s description of the earth ‘people-ing’, I paint a picture in which the earth has been structuring information for squillions of years, in the form of water molecules, single-celled organisms, mosses, DNA, etc. Human languages represent a new way of structuring information. Not only is it new, it’s also distinct – cut off – it’s a structure that does not allow immediate access to the other information structures the earth has produced. These information structures are stored in texts produced as conversational, written, performed or electronic forms.

Analysing these texts, then, gives us a way of identifying the new possibilities that are emerging from the earth’s new structuring system.

Remember last week when I said that my way of doing CDA is to consider the text as a mid-point, rather than an endpoint? What I meant is that we have the opportunity to explore incipient social structures in their processes of becoming.

And remember when I said CDA can be depressing? Well, my way of doing CDA can be depressing too, especially when you recognise that some of the social structures that are emerging have the power to destroy the earth’s own ecosystems and bring about violence to its inhabitants. But it’s not only a depressing story. Some of the new structures – especially the fleeting ones – offer real promise for more welcoming, integrated new ideas.

Download Episode 56: A story about language.

Episode 55: Critical condition

The Oregonian/2003 http://www.oregonlive.com/lake-oswego/index.ssf/2012/06/peggy_halley_lake_oswegos_firs.html

The Oregonian/2003

This week I discuss the branch of linguistics – Critical Discourse Analysis, or CDA – that most informs my approach to grammatically analysing texts. It’s the ‘critical’ part of CDA that appeals to me most – an aim of most practitioners of CDA is to explore the role language plays in maintaining or challenging social injustices.

To give you an idea of how CDA usually works, I analyse a recent news item from Fox News. (Click on the headline below for the full article.)

Women train to become prospective firefighters

Doing CDA requires being explicit about what critical position you’re coming from when you interpret the text. The position I bring to my analysis of this piece is a feminist one. I put forward my view that the article (a) downplays the structural inequities in an institution in which there is a phenomenal gender gap and (b) draws implicitly upon the assumption that such inequities are ‘natural’, or to be expected.

The grammatical analysis of conversational texts that you’ve heard me do in these podcasts, though, is different from ‘traditional’ CDA in an important way. In CDA, the text is seen as an end product, and CDA explores the processes by which the text came into being. CDA is rooted in Marxist thought, and an analogy is helpful here. A Marxist perspective on a garment in a department store might raise questions like, what were the conditions under which this piece of clothing was manufactured, and how does it come to be priced so low? What workers were involved in producing this item? Were they treated fairly? How were the paid for their labour? A t-shirt is seen as the end of a long line of manufacturing process, and exploring those processes is likely to reveal systemic social injustices.

Similarly, Critical Discourse Analysts view a text as a product of a set of language processes that involve construing reality in a particular way and drawing upon assumptions that mask damaging ideologies about the social world.

It can get a little depressing.

How is my own work different?

I too, start from the position that social injustices structure the social world, and I too, want to do something about it. But rather than assuming that the text is the ‘end product’ and going backwards to look at the processes of its construction, I assume that the text is a ‘midpoint’. The work I do is looks forward, not back. My idea is that the analysis of the grammar of a text can generate new possibilities for more welcoming, inclusive social structures. If CDA reveals the sinister secrets hidden in the production of a text, my work reveals the germs of new, transformative ideas that I believe are also hidden there.

This perspective requires a radical new look at language and society. Join me in an upcoming podcast for more!

Download Episode 55: Critical condition.


Episode 54: I was so hungry


Our explorations in phenomenology have led us to understand consciousness as submerged in the world of perception. I have made a case for understanding this phenomenological world  not as material world, but as a social world. I keep drawing upon Merleau-Ponty’s image of the blindfolded person who uses a stick to gain perceptual experience of the objects in a darkened room. In today’s episode I play with the idea that it is language, or grammar, that serves as the ‘stick’ by which social bodies move through and perceive the social world.

The episode moves from green coffee cups (not coffee green cups) to those blue suitcases, to the mainstream three pretty girls in a young woman’s account of being bullied at school. It’s the personal account that’s most important. My favourite way to explore the structure of the social body/world is to go megalocal: to examine personal, intimate accounts of people’s felt sense of belonging or not belonging.

Here’s a transcript of Maryam’s account:

(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)
(click to enlarge)

Download Episode 54: I was so hungry.