Theories on Discourse and Changes in Ideology


23 Mar 2015 14 Dec 2017

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Language, that makes us the "Crown of Creatures", empowers us with an expressive medium which we exploit to communicate, understand, interpret, negate, acknowledge, appreciate, influence, persuade, dominate, control, etc. Metaphorically speaking, language helps us to caress and comfort our feelings, excite and thrill our spirit, rattle our nerves, kill our desire, and so on. Language is a variegated phenomenon. It can emotionally move and affect us as powerfully as physical actions. This is the power of language.

1.1 What is Discourse?

The term discourse has been derived from French word discours meaning 'talk.' In linguistics, discourse is "a sequence of utterances." Grammarians define discourse as "large pieces of speech and writing: stretches of language longer than a sentence."

Language is used to 'mean' something and to 'do' something, and this 'meaning and doing' is determined by the context of its usage. As discourse is dialogic in nature, the things which make it different from ordinary language use are context, creation, reception and interpretation. It should not be confused with either of the Chomsky's or Saussure's categories. It is neither performance or parole which is concerned with language in its actual utterances, nor competence or languewhere language is a code system and a system of communicative conventions. Although it contains both the elements, it goes beyond the distinction of performance or parole and competence or langue; it is the study of 'language use.' If language is 'speech act' and social behavior, discourse is a form of 'social practice.'

Foucault defines discourse as

"ways of constituting knowledge, together with the social practices, forms of subjectivity and power relations which inhere in such knowledges and relations between them. Discourses are more than ways of thinking and producing meaning. They constitute the nature of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern." (Weedon, 1987)

"a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance." (Diamond & Quinby, 1988)

In other words, discourse is a 'string of utterances' concerned with the production of meaning. Discourse is a socially organized way of speaking. According to Foucault, discourse constructs the topic. It governs what can and cannot be said about the topic.

Apart from governing the topic, it is also used to influence people to change ideas into practice (be it personal or others ideas), and to regulate the conduct of others. As discourse is concerned with the 'production of meaning,' the utterances have a relation to 'common sense assumptions.' Cultural hegemony is maintained through 'common sense assumptions' which become 'universal ideologies' through language or in other words 'discourse.'

"Language exerts hidden power, like a moon on the tides." (Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1998)

1.2 What is Ideology?

Ideologies are those ideas, values, attitudes, and (general or cultural) ways of thinking that shape our 'belief systems' and 'mind sets' about what is /isn't correct, and how it must be. Ideologies, be they religious or political or social, maintain power structures and social hierarchies and remain dominant and prevalent in the society through rhetorical discourse or hidden power in discourse.

The main purpose of ideology is not only to change the existing structures, but also to maintain already existing 'set of ideals.' Ideas, beliefs, and attitudes which 'maintain status quo' become dominant or prevalent ideologies of the society. These ideologies are so powerful that they ignore and sideline those ideas which are against its very existence through a normative thought process and politics of the language.

Ideologies when become 'shared experiences' start making sense. People start making sense of their lives while observing them. In other words, they are no more false beliefs and ideas, rather a true and 'lived experience.'


The social theory has contributed in many ways to explore the role of language in exercising, maintaining and changing power. Firstly, the work in the theory of ideology talks about 'ideology as a mechanism of power' without using coercive means and language 'as a locus of ideology' which is significant in exercising power. Secondly, Michel Foucault's work ascribes "central role to discourse" in the development of power structures of forms. Thirdly, Jurgen Habermas' "theory of communicative action" - which challenges Marxist focus on economics or alienated labor- is considered as the sole determining factor of oppression. He argues that key to liberation is rather to be found in language and communication between people.

2.1 Marx and Ideology

Karl Max, a social thinker of 19th century, talked of ideology in terms of 'an instrument of social production.' He gave 'economic base and superstructure model of society,' where base denotes the relation of production and superstructure denotes the dominant ideology. Base shapes the superstructure of any society, while the superstructure maintains and legitimates the base.

According to Marx, bourgeoisie create and reinforce particular 'ways of thinking', in other words, particular ideology which in turn reinforce the structure of the society, thus maintaining status quo and existing hierarchies of status and power.

Fig. 1: Marx's Base & Superstructure Model of Society

According to Karl Marx, social ideologies not only cause status quo or hegemony in the society, but also a 'conditioning' where 'false consciousness' created by the ruling class is justified. This conditioning makes us think that the way our society operates is for the best, and lower class justifies its own lower position in society.

Michel Foucault in "The Order of Discourse"

In "The Order of Discourse," Foucault argues that the discourse is controlled by certain functions, actions and rules. In particular, certain topics are prohibited and who speaks is limited. Reason is valued and madness is ignored. It is also controlled by what we choose to comment on and by the will to truth.

"[T]he highest truth no longer resided in what discourse was or did, but in what is said: a day came when truth was displaced by from the ritualized, efficacious, and just act of enunciation, towards the utterance itself, its meaning, its form, its object, its relation to its reference." (1462)

"In every society, the production of discourse is at once controlled, selected, organized and redistributed by a certain number of procedures whose role is to ward off its powers and dangers, to gain mastery over its chance events, to evade its ponderous, formidable materiality" (p.210).

Foucault also talks about "procedures of exclusion" and procedures of inclusion. He states that prohibition of including or discussing certain topics "very soon reveal [discourse's] link with desire and with power" (p.211).

At another place he says that "discourse is not simply that which translates struggles or systems of domination, but is the thing for which and by which there is struggle; discourse is the power which is to be seized" (p.211).

In Weedon's (1987) in interpretation of Foucault is:

"A dynamic of control between discourses and the subjects, constituted by discourses, who are their agents. Power is exercised within discourses in the ways in which they constitute and govern individual subjects."

Foucault's focus is upon questions of how some discourses have shaped and created meaning systems that have gained the status and currency of 'truth', and dominate how we define and organize both ourselves and our social world, whilst other alternative discourses are marginalised and subjugated, yet potentially 'offer' sites where hegemonic practices can be contested, challenged and 'resisted'.

Foucault developed the concept of the 'discursive field' as part of his attempt to understand the relationship between language, social institutions, subjectivity and power. Discursive fields, such as the law or the family, contain a number of competing and contradictory discourses with varying degrees of power to give meaning to and organize social institutions and processes. They also 'offer' a range of modes of subjectivity (Weedon, 1987). It follows then that,

"if relations of power are dispersed and fragmented throughout the social field, so must resistance to power be" (Diamond & Quinby, 1988).

Foucault argues though, in The Order of Discourse, that the 'will to truth' is the major system of exclusion that forges discourse and which 'tends to exert a sort of pressure and something like a power of constraint on other discourses', and goes on further to ask the question 'what is at stake in the will to truth, in the will to utter this 'true' discourse, if not desire and power?' (1970, cited in Shapiro 1984, p. 113-4).

Thus, there are both discourses that constrain the production of knowledge, dissent and difference and some that enable 'new' knowledges and difference(s). The questions that arise within this framework, are to do with how some discourses maintain their authority, how some 'voices' get heard whilst others are silenced, who benefits and how - that is, questions addressing issues of power/ empowerment/ disempowerment.

2.3 Louis Althusser's view of Ideology

Louis Althusser builds on the work of Jacques Lacan to understand the way ideology functions in society. He thus moves away from the earlier Marxist understanding of ideology. In the earlier model, ideology was believed to create what was termed "false consciousness," a false understanding of the way the world functioned (for example, the suppression of the fact that the products we purchase on the open market are, in fact, the result of the exploitation of laborers).

Althusser revised Marx's view of ideology, which he described as:

"...thought as an imaginary construction whose status is exactly like the theoretical status of the dream among writers before Freud."

He saw human individuals being constituted as subjects through ideology. Consciousness and agency are experienced, but are the products of ideology 'speaking through' the subject. Above all, ideology is an imaginary construction that represents the real world. However, it is so real to us that we never question it.

Althusser posits a series of hypotheses that he explores to clarify his understanding of ideology:

"Ideology represents the imaginary relationship of individuals to their real conditions of existence" (Lenin 109).

The traditional way of thinking of ideology led Marxists to show how ideologies are false by pointing to the real world hidden by ideology (for example, the "real" economic base for ideology). According to Althusser, by contrast, ideology does not "reflect" the real world but "represents" the "imaginary relationship of individuals" to the real world; the thing ideology (mis)represents is itself already at one remove from the real. In this, Althusser follows the Lacanian understanding of the imaginary order, which is itself at one step removed from the Lacanian Real. In other words, we are always within ideology because of our reliance on language to establish our "reality"; different ideologies are but different representations of our social and imaginary "reality" not a representation of the Real itself.

"Ideology has a material existence" (Lenin 112).

Althusser contends that ideology has a material existence because "an ideology always exists in an apparatus, and its practice, or practices" (Lenin 112). Ideology always manifests itself through actions, which are "inserted into practices" (Lenin 114), for example, rituals, conventional behavior, and so on. It is our performance of our relation to others and to social institutions that continually instantiates us as subjects. Judith Butler's understanding of performativity could be said to be strongly influenced by this way of thinking about ideology.

"all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects" (Lenin 115).

According to Althusser, the main purpose of ideology is in "'constituting' concrete individuals as subjects" (Lenin 116). So pervasive is ideology in its constitution of subjects that it forms our very reality and thus appears to us as "true" or "obvious." Althusser gives the example of the "hello" on a street: "the rituals of ideological recognition [...] guarantee for us that we are indeed concrete, individual, distinguishable and (naturally) irreplaceable subjects" (Lenin 117). Through "interpellation," individuals are turned into subjects (which are always ideological).

Althusser's example is the hail from a police officer: "'Hey, you there!'" (Lenin 118): "Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject" (Lenin 118). The very fact that we do not recognize this interaction as ideological speaks to the power of ideology:

what thus seems to take place outside ideology (to be precise, in the street), in reality takes place in ideology [....] That is why those who are in ideology believe themselves by definition outside ideology: one of the effects of ideology is the practical denegation of the ideological character of ideology by ideology: ideology never says, "I am ideological." (Lenin 118)

"individuals are always-already subjects" (Lenin 119).

Although he presents his example of interpellation in a temporal form (I am interpellated and thus I become a subject, I enter ideology), Althusser makes it clear that the "becoming-subject" happens even before we are born. "This proposition might seem paradoxical" (Lenin 119), Althusser admits; nevertheless, "That an individual is always-already a subject, even before he is born, is [...] the plain reality, accessible to everyone and not a paradox at all" (Lenin 119). Even before the child is born, "it is certain in advance that it will bear its Father's Name, and will therefore have an identity and be irreplaceable. Before its birth, the child is therefore always-already a subject, appointed as a subject in and by the specific familial ideological configuration in which it is 'expected' once it has been conceived" (Lenin119). Althusser thus once again invokes Lacan's ideas, in this case Lacan's understanding of the "Name-of-the-Father."

Most subjects accept their ideological self-constitution as "reality" or "nature" and thus rarely run afoul of the repressive State apparatus, which is designed to punish anyone who rejects the dominant ideology. Hegemony is thus reliant less on such repressive State apparatuses as the police than it is on those Ideological State Apparatuses (ISAs) by which ideology is inculcated in all subjects. (See the next module for an explanation of ISAs.) As Althusser puts it, "the individual is interpellated as a (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall (freely) accept his subjection, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection 'all by himself'" (Lenin 123).

Louis Althusser's ISA

Althusser proposed a materialistic conception of ideology, which made use of a special type of discourse: the lacunar discourse. A number of propositions, which are never untrue, suggest a number of other propositions, which are true. In this way, the essence of the lacunar discourse is what is not told (but is suggested).

For Althusser, beliefs and ideas are the products of social practices, not the reverse. What is ultimately important for Althusser are not the subjective beliefs held in the 'minds' of human individuals, but rather the material institutions, rituals and discourses that produce these beliefs.

Althusser identified the Ideological State Apparatus (ISA) as the method by which organizations propagate ideology primarily. Violence or threat of violence is secondary. ISA's for Althusser were religious, educational, family, cultural institutions. This is in contrast to the Repressive State Apparatus (RSA), by which compliance can be forced and includes the army, police, government, prisons. Force or threat of force is primary, while ideology is secondary. For example, arrest imprisonment, corporal punishment, etc.

2.4 Discourse as Social Practice

Social relations of power and domination are sustained through ideology. To Fairclough, ideologies construct realities which give meaning to discursive practices. Through power relations implicit in orders of discourse, discourse becomes invested ideologically. Hence the discursive practices, loaded with ideologies not only produce, but also reproduce or transform social identities, social relations and systems of knowledge and belief.

2.4.1 Fairclough and Ideology:

There are two ways of exercising power: through coercion and through consent. According to Fairclough, "Ideology is the key mechanism of rule by consent," and discourse is a "favored vehicle of ideology." It functions to establish, sustain or change domination or power relations in the society. For Fairclough, ideologies are constructions of reality which are built into various dimensions of the forms and meanings of discursive practices. Through power relations implicit in orders of discourse, discourse becomes invested ideologically. Through being ideologically invested, discourse is a mode of producing, reproducing or transforming social identities, social relations, and systems of knowledge and belief.

Fairclough (1992) makes three claims about ideology, based in part on the French Marxist philosopher, Althusser:

Ideology has a material basis in the social practices of institutions. As a form of social practice, discourse practices are material forms of ideology.

Ideology 'interpellates subjects'. It works by constituting people as subjects within the framework of ideology. Patriarchal ideology interpellates individuals as more powerful men or less powerful women. Racist ideology interpellates groups as 'ourselves' and 'the Other' (see Hall 1997 'The Spectacle of the Other').

Ideology operates through powerful 'ideological state apparatuses'. Althusser contrasts what he terms the repressive agencies of the police, the military, prisons and the courts, with the ideological state apparatuses of the mass media, education and popular culture. In Fairclough's theory, all of these give rise to institutional and societal orders of discourse (the societal order of discourse is a condensation of the institutional orders of discourse).

2.4.2 Fairclough and Discourse

Discourse involves two kinds of social conditions: social conditions of production and social conditions of interpretation. These social conditions are naturalized through the ideological functioning of the practices of dominant class. Fairclough describes underlying conventions of discourse - which in fact determines discourse - in terms of what Foucault refers to as 'orders of discourse.' To Fairclough, these orders of discourse embody particular ideologies.

Fairclough refers to the three dimensions of discourse. They are discursive practice (discourse practice), social practice (socio-cultural practice), and text.

Social practice includes discourse which not only reflects reality, but also effect social structures which play active role in social change. Different subject positions determine different discoursal rights and obligations of individuals.

Discourse practice refers to the production and reception of messages. Participants indulged in discourse construct their social identities and relations by knowing 'how to act' in certain situations. For this participants draw on what Fairclough refers to as 'members' resources' (MR). This include internalized knowledge of social structure and social practices; knowledge about production and interpretation of discourse types; and detailed knowledge of particular linguistics and textual structuring devices.

Text is the record of a 'communicative event'. It can be written, spoken or visual. While analyzing text in terms of ideologies embedded in it, two things are very important: firstly, representation of ideological facts and beliefs and construction of participant identities (writer and reader), and secondly, textual function which frames the message.

3.How Ideologies are Embedded in Language

Language produces, maintains and changes social relations of power. It also contributes to the domination of some people by others. Power is exercised through language in conversations and other forms of text or talk. When people interact linguistically, the conventional talk embodies "common sense" assumptions where power structures are treated as 'legitimized.' According to Fairclough, these assumptions are ideologies which are closely linked to power and language. Power relations determine the conventional ideological assumptions, which in turn legitimize existing social relations and unequal power.

Language, a social behavior, relies on 'common sense assumptions.'

"The exercise of power in modern society is increasingly achieved through ideology, and more particularly through the ideological working of the language." (Fairclough, 1989)

Further he says, "Ideology is the prime means of manufacturing consent."

3.1 Memory Resources

Ideological assumptions are mere "common sense" assumptions, and contribute to sustain existing power relations. To Fairclough, these common sense assumptions are "memory resources" (MR). when sender encodes a message, the receiver not only decodes it, but also interpret it by comparing and contrasting 'features of utterances' with representations stored in long term memory. Fairclough refers to these prototypes as 'member resources': grammatical forms, structures, shapes of words, sequence of events, systems of meaning, sounds, etc. Interaction between interpreted utterance and MR results in comprehension.

According to Fairclough, understanding how language, power, and ideology are interrelated requires "attention to the processes of production and comprehension" because MR/ representations/ prototypes are "socially determined and ideologically shaped." They are so automatic, natural, legitimate and 'common sense' assumptions that they remain in disguise.

The sociologist Harold Garfinkel, describes 'the familiar common sense world of everyday life' as a world which is built entirely upon assumptions and expectations which control both the action of members of society and their interpretation of the action of others. Such assumptions and expectations are implicit, back grounded, taken for granted, not things that people are consciously aware of and rarely explicit. Effectiveness of ideology depends to a considerable degree on it being merged with this common sense background to discourse and other forms of social action.

3.2 Language Ideologies in Text

Language ideologies are not just ways of explaining language and language use for economic reasons, but are the language 'ideas' of the dominant groups in society. They may equally be inter-changed with 'discourses about language.' Ideologies are not 'untrue' - indeed, like stereotypes, there may be a degree of truth in them.

Ideology is to study its effects on discourse forms and meanings and how discursive structures may in turn contribute to the formation and transformation of ideologies. However, ideologies are also at play when language users engage in the ongoing construction of context as subjective, as well as group sensitive, interpretations of social situations.

While talking about ideologies embedded in text, we can say that this genre of discourse is a level of language use which is super-ordinate to sentences and texts. Text is not something having a beginning and an end. It involves exchange of meanings. Text are created by speakers and writers who share society's beliefs concerning 'what is right' and 'what is wrong' or about 'the way things should be for the best' in society. When they want to maintain their belief systems or ideologies, they take the help of language. These ideologies remain implicit in the text as they seem natural or 'common sense'. The ideologically loaded language of the text grants it the ideological power. Such langue has 'judgmental value' and 'meaning' as well. Many ideologically loaded words have their judgemental value because their meaning is rational. They exist as 'binary pairs': 'master/mistress', 'housewife/working mother', 'middle class/working class', 'freedom fighter/terrorist', 'hero/coward', etc. Some linguists maintain that all language - all meaning - is an 'ideological construct'.

Following are few texts which are all related to social problems for one and social beliefs for the other. In other words, they contain social ideologies which are neutralized in the society.


Long-range social changes are driven by changes in ideology. But at a local level, change in actual discourse practices can be cumulative in effect. Both discourse and ideology are based on the relationship between power and knowledge.

'We tend to think of knowledge as empowering ourselves' (Sarup, 1993).

Besides this, knowledge is the ability to exercise power over others. So, power is both positive (productive in creating identities), and negative (destroy identities). In productive power, one is not reduced to one dimension as in ideologies and power is not held by one person or group for good. Rather, it exists as a circuit, something which is 'exercised' by everyone in different situations. As where there is power there is always resistance, power can be challenged.

We might not say certain things in certain situations, but by 'breaking the rules', we can re-define the limits of discourse. Hence, redefining the limits of discourse is something productive about power.


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