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Political Discourse Analysis Between

Ambiguities and Clarity


Salim Fathy Meridji

Université de Ouargla


Abstract: This paper intends,  first,  to expose the two ambiguities related to both the term 'political discourse' and the notion 'political discourse analysis'. The two ambiguities are  clearly  explained. Later, the concern of the paper moves to  explaining  the two confusions existing in both Shapiro's (1981) and Graber's ( 1981) definitions  of political discourse. At the end, the very appropriate definition of political discourse   is provided. Actually, defining   political discourse on the basis of contextual features blocks  the  rise of ambiguities and confusions.


Key words: political discourse, political discourse analysis, ambiguity, confusion, critical  linguistics,   context,  institution, political  discourse genres.



   Both the term 'political discourse' and the notion 'political discourse analysis' are ambiguous. The possible interpretations of  the  two terms are explicitly referred to. Next, the   concern of the paper shifts to two confusions  which are due to Shapiro's (1981) and Graber's (1981) definitions of political discourse. Actually, both definitions lead to the rise of confusions. This is demonstrated by the works of Diamond ( 1995) and Liebes  and Ribak (1991).


        Given these ambiguities  and confusions, the right  definition  of political discourse must be sought. At first , it is shown that political discourse includes other participants, as many  other discourses do. Limiting the scope of  political discourse  to its context is advantageous. It helps excluding other discourses which are at the boundary  of  politics. Political  discourse is a class of genres, and not only one single genre. 


1.Ambiguities and confusions :

The term political discourse conveys  two possible meanings ( cf. Wilson , 2001 : 398). Therefore , it is ambiguous. Concerning the first interpretation , the term means that the discourse is itself political. The structure ' political discourse ' is the output of three ordered transformational  rules ( see Meridji, 1999: chapt.  02 ).

        At first , the relative clause transformational rule is applied ( cf. Huddleston , 1976: 102). This results in the next restrictive relative clause :' a discourse which is political'. Second,  the segment 'which-tns-be' is deleted by the relative pronoun deletion rule (see Baker, 1978: 315). The remaining structure is the following:' a discourse political '. Third, the post- modifier 'political' is moved by the noun modifier shift rule ( see Baker,  1978:317 ) to a pre-modifying position , and  is eventually inserted between the indefinite  article 'a ' and the noun 'discourse '.


        The occurrence of an adjective in such a position shows ''... a permanent or characteristics feature.'' (cf. Quirk et al , 1972). This indicates that the discourse is having the characteristic feature of being political.


         The second meaning expressed by the term 'political  discourse' can be seen in the idea  that political discourse  is analyzed as a discourse type. This indicates  that the  investigator's  attention is focused on the discourse  itself , and  reference is neither made to political context nor to political  content. At this level,  it is worth mentioning that a political discourse could be studied  from different points of view : pragmatically, syntactically, semantically, lexically, or sociolinguistically (cf. Gastil, 1992 ; Baylon, 1991 ).


        A second ambiguity related to the  notion 'political discourse analysis'  is identified by Van Dijk (1998:11). Actually,   the notion means two things. At first it tells that the analysis is concerned  with a political discourse  Second,  it means that a given discourse is politically

analyzed ,i.e., a political  approach is followed in  the analysis of a discourse. This interpretation is emphasized by critical discourse analysts. Here, reference  to Wodak's  ( 1996 : 204) words,  which are next,  could clarify the joint :


        In other words , critical  discourse analysis aims to investigate    critically social  inequality as it is expressed, signaled, constituted, legitimized etc,  by language use ( or  in        discourse).


        A confusion  regarding the field of political  discourse may also be noted in Shapiro's (1981) opinion. According to him, all discourses could be political. This very confusing situation has arisen because the 'political’ is defined on the basis of the following concepts: power, control, conflict, or domination (cf. Fairclough, 1992; Van Dijk, 1993; Chilton and Schaffer, 1997).


        As an illustrative  case,  reference may be made to Diamond's  ( 1995) study . Although  her work is concerned with the discourse of staff meetings , she herself considers it 'political' . This situation is mainly due to the fact that  issues,  such as : power and control are being  employed.


        Another confusion is also seen in the definition of political discourse  as given by Graber  ( 1981: 196 ). As he sees , political discourse  includes both formal and informal political contexts and political actors operating  in political environments to  achieve political objectives. This  conception gives rise to the following problem : how can we consider,  as Wilson ( 2001:399) questions, the work of Liebes and Ribak ( 1991 ) on family discussions of political events ? Is  this political discourse or family discourse of the political.


2. Defining political discourse:

Defining political discourse by simply referring to authors and actors is very limited as a definition (cf. Van Dijk,1998). Since  legal, medical, and educational discourses include the next participants, respectively, lawyers and   defendants, doctors and patients, and teachers and students,  so does a  political discourse. This is to mean that political activity requires the intervention of the following groups: citizens and voters , people as members of pressure and issue groups, demonstrators and dissidents, and so on ( see verba et al, 1993).


        These groups participate in the operation of politics. Thus, they take part in political discourse. The point that is worth making here is that relating politics and consequently political discourse to the public sphere makes the appearance of other participants possible( see Van  Dijk,1998: :12) .


        Another basic characteristic of political discourse resides in the fact that it is produced by politicians (cf.  Van Dijk, 2001:05).This obligatorily excludes those discourse genres et the boundaries of the field of politics with other domains, such as the discourse of a student demonstration. In spite of the fact that such a discourse may have some influence on political decision making, still it is far from being a political discourse. In effect, this discourse belongs to an other social domain. On the opposite, a bill about education policies is a genre of political discourse in spite of the fact that its objectives are totally limited to education ('see Van Dijk, 2001:05). .


        Given the fact that political discourse is produced by a politician, then it must be produced in an institution. In short, political discourse is an institutional discourse. So as to a discourse must be political, it must be uttered or written  by a politician in an institutional setting (see Van Dijk, 2001; Baylon,1991). In addition, political discourse  must also reach a political act in an institution, such as governing(see Van Dijk,2001).


        A final characteristic of political discourse lies in the idea that it is a class of genres defined by the domain of politics ( see Van DIJK,2001).

This signifies that government deliberations , parliamentary debates, party programs, and presidential speeches are genres of political discourse.. Defining the genres of political discourse rests upon context: the kind of profession the political speaker is occupying, the institution where the discourse is communicated, the result the political discourse intends to achieve , and finally the consequences of the political discourse : laws legislated, policies decided , or laws reviewed



   To conclude, political discourse is very complex to define in the realm of discourse analysis. In spite of the fact that it is a discourse type, still it has its own distinguishing features . unlike other discourse types , political discourse includes many genres . These  genres are defined solely by politics

         So as to a discourse could be qualified as being political, it must contain at least  the next elements . First , the  speaker or writer must be a politician by profession . Second , the discourse must be communicated in an institution . Third , the discourse must achieve a result .


References :


Baker, C. L. (1978). Introduction to generative  transformational Syntax. USA: Prentice Hall/Inc.

Baylon , C.  (1991)  . Sociolinguistique: Société, Langue et Discours.   France: Nathan.

Chilton, P. and Schaffer , C. ( 1997 ). ''Discourse and politics''. In:  Discourse  and Social Interaction, T. Van Dijk (ed.), Vol. 2. London: Sage, pp. 206-231.

Diamond, P. (1995). Status and Power in Verbal Interaction:  A study of Discourse in Close Knit Social Network. Amesterdam: Benjamins.

Fairclough, N. ( 1992). Discourse and Social Change. Oxford: Blackwell.

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical Linguistics. London: Longman .

Gastil, J. (1992). ''Undemocratic Discourse : A Review of Theory and Research on Political Discourse''. In : Discourse and Society, Vol.3, 4, pp. 469-500..

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Sage,  PP. 195-224.

Huddelston, R. (1976). An Introduction to Transformational Syntax. London:  Group limited

Liebes, T.  and Ribak, R. ( 1991 ).” A Mother's Battle Against  News:  A Case Study of Political Socialization”. In:  Discourse and society , Vol.2, 2,  pp. 202-222.

Meridji, Salim Fathy ( 1999). Relative Clause Construction in English and Arabic: A Contrastive Study. M. A. Thesis. Algerria: University of Annaba.

Quirk et al (1972). A Grammar of Contemporary English. London: Longman Group Limited.

Shapiro, M. J. (1981). Language and Political Understanding. New York: Yale University Press.

Van Dijk, T.  (1993). The Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis. In: Discourse and Society,  Vol. 4, 2, pp. 249-283.   

Van Dijk,  T. ( 1998). ''What is Political Discourse Analysis?” In :  Political Linguistics,  Jan Blommaert and Chris Bbulcaen (eds. ). Amesterdam:  Benjamins,   pp. 11- 52

Van Dijk, T.  ( 2001 ) ''Political  Discourse and Ideology''. Paper for Jornadas Del Discurso  Politico. Bercelona:   UPF,  pp. 1-17

Verba, S. et al (1993). “ Citizen Activity : Who Participates:  What do hey Say”. In: The American Political Science Review 87(2),  pp, 303 – 318

Wilson, John  ( 2001 ).  ''Political  Discourse.'' In: The Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Deborah Schiffrin et al (eds.). USA: Blackwell Publications, pp. 398-415.

Wodak, R.  ( 1996) . ''Critical Discourse Analysis''. In : Handbook of Pragmatics  ,  Jef Verschuren et al (eds.). Amesterdam/ Philadelphia: Benjamins Publishing Company, pp. 204-210.



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