The Politics of Representation: A Critical Discourse Analysis of an Aljazeera Special Report

By Wenden, Anita L. | International Journal of Peace Studies, Autumn-Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Representation: A Critical Discourse Analysis of an Aljazeera Special Report


Wenden, Anita L., International Journal of Peace Studies


Abstract

This paper focuses on the role of language in social life, specifically on discourse as the focus of political struggle, i.e. the struggle for the power of representation. It reports on the results of a discourse analysis of twelve articles posted on Aljazeera's English website to mark the third anniversary of the al-Aqsa Intifada. The study provides a profile of Aljazeera's perspective on this second Intifada, outlining the themes used to represent the Intifada, the ideologies revealed by these themes, the characterization of the actors, their actions and the events that make up this conflict, and the attribution of agency. The conclusion points to the utility of including a linguistic perspective in planning interventions for achieving a culture of social and ecological peace.

Introduction

Referring to two basic themes found in the traditional study of politics and in discourse studies, Chilton and Schaffner (2002, p.5) define politics "as a struggle for power, between those who seek to assert and maintain their power and those who seek to resist it" on the one hand, and on the other "as cooperation, as the practices and institutions a society has for resolving clashes of interest over money, power, liberty and the like". The first theme points to power struggle as the essence of politics while the second views politics as the management of conflicting interests in a nonviolent manner, further listing examples of what may be the focus of such conflict. While the role of discourse as the instrument of politics has been recognized by the theoretical writings of philosophers, e.g. Plato and Aristotle (cf. Chilton and Schaeffner, 2002), communication scholars (e.g. Shapiro, 1988; Gorsevski, 2004), cognitive linguists (e.g. Chilton and Lakoff, 1999; Lakoff, 2004) and discourse analysts (e.g. Fairclough, 1989; Haidar and Rodriguez, 1999; Musolff, 1999; Muntigl, 2002; Wodak, 2001; 2002) and while the power of language in the realm of politics is intuitively recognized by the lay person, less appreciated is the fact that, like liberty, power and money, discourse can also be the focus of struggle, i.e. a struggle for the power of representation.

Politics of Representation

As used in discourse analysis, representation refers to the language used in a text or talk to assign meaning to groups and their social practices, to events, and to social and ecological conditions and objects (e.g. Fairclough, 1989; 1995; van Dijk, 2002). (1) Implicit in this view of the role of language in social life is that meaning is not embedded in the reality that is perceived but rather that it is construed by linguistic representation (Fairclough, 1992; Goatly, 2000; Halliday, 1990; Hodge and Kress, 1993; Mehan and Wills, 1988; Muntigl, 2002; Shapiro, 1988; van Dijk, 2002; Wenden and Schaffner, 1999; Wodak, 2002). Of course, modes of representation will vary depending on the perspective from which they are constructed, whether biographical, historical, socio-cultural (Voloshinov, 1986 cited in Mehan and Wills, 1988). Ideology will also influence the manner in which groups represent matters of import and relevance to the body politic (e.g. Fairclough, 1989, 1992; 1995; Hodge and Kress, 1993; Bloomaert and Verschueren, 1998; van Dijk, 1999; Goatly, 2000), including the achievement of a culture of peace. Moreover, inasmuch as linguistic representations determine the way in which we think about particular objects, events, situations and, as such, function as a principle of action influencing actual social practice (Shapiro, 1988; Fairclough, 1989; Hodge and Kress, 1993; Wodak, 2002; Karlsberg, 2005), there will be competition among groups over what is to be taken as the correct, appropriate, or preferred representation (Holquist, 1983; Fairclough, 1992; Wodak, 2001).

The competition over meaning among groups is referred to as the "politics of representation" (Holquist, 1983; Shapiro, 1988). …

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