Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis

By Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard; Malcolm Coulthard | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

The representation of social actors

Theo van Leeuwen

1 INTRODUCTION

The question I shall attempt to answer in this chapter can be formulated simply: what are the ways in which social actors can be represented in English discourse? Which choices does the English language give us for referring to people? In addition I shall address another, more specific question: how are the relevant social actors represented in an instance of a particular kind of racist discourse—a discourse which represents immigration in a way that is founded on fear—the fear of loss of livelihood and the fear of loss of cultural identity as a result of the ‘influx’ of immigrants who are perceived as ‘other’, ‘different’ and ‘threatening’.

The first of these two questions is a grammatical one, if, with Halliday, we take a grammar to be a ‘meaning potential’ (‘what can be said’) rather than a set of rules (‘what must be said’). Yet, unlike many other linguistically oriented forms of Critical Discourse Analysis, I shall not start out from linguistic operations such as nominalisation and passive agent deletion, or from linguistic categories such as the categories of transitivity, but instead seek to draw up a sociosemantic inventory of the ways in which social actors can be represented, and to establish the sociological and critical relevance of my categories before I turn to the question of how they are realised linguistically.

There are two reasons for doing so. The first stems from the lack of bi-uniqueness of language. Agency, for instance, as a sociological concept, is of major and classic importance in Critical Discourse Analysis: in which contexts are which social actors represented as ‘agents’ and which as ‘patients’? But sociological agency is not always realised by linguistic agency, by the grammatical role of ‘Agent’; it can also be realised in many other ways, for instance by possessive pronouns (as in ‘our intake of migrants’) or by a prepositional phrase with ‘from’, as in example 1.1, in which the grammatical Agent is sociologically ‘patient’:

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