Sociological Theories of Language and Power


23 Mar 2015 14 Dec 2017

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Given that sociological theories are just that- theories, it is impossible to say that they can sufficiently explain or define any aspect of our lives. However, sociological theories can help us to understand the way in we interact with each other and society thereby broadening our knowledge and perspectives. In the following discussion we will look briefly at some of the main sociological perspectives. We will then look at language as a means of communication and social interaction. Finally we will examine the relationship between language and power by exploring mass communication and its effect on social life.

Sociology is concerned with society, with individuals in society, with institutions and with its norms and values. As Bilton et al state, 'social life is a puzzle and sociologists spend their professional lives trying to make sense of it.' (2002 p4) Within sociology, there are several different influences which affect how theorists explain or attempt to explain social phenomena. These include functionalism, conflict theory and Marxism among others. Functionalism views the various parts of society as interrelated parts of a complete system. It sees behaviour as being structured and social relationships as being patterned and recurrent. It also emphasizes the role of value consensus within society. For example from a functionalist perspective, the family structure as a recurring social unit plays an important role in society. The family is the main socialising agency for young people and acts as a stabilising influence in society by propagating the shared norms and values of society (Haralambos and Holborn 1995, p8-9).

In direct contrast, conflict theory is concerned with social structure as a cause and reflection of social inequality. Wallace and Wolf outline three basic assumptions of conflict theory. Firstly it assumes all people have basic common interests. Secondly that power is central to all relationships and thirdly it assumes that values and ideas are seen as weapons used by groups in their own interests rather than a way of defining society as a whole (1999, p68). It is similar to the Marxist perspective of society as operating through 'the fundamental conflicts of interests between the social groups involved in the production process' (1995, p12).

Another sociological perspective is structuralism, which was strongly influenced by the work of Sauserre in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Sauserre developed the study of linguistics by looking at language as it is structured. According to Sauserre, analysing the structures of language means looking for the rules which underlie our speech. He argued that the meaning of words is derived from the structures of language, not the objects to which they refer. In this way, meaning is created by the differences between related concepts which the rules of a language recognise (Giddens 1989, p698-699). The field of semiotics is largely derived from Sauserre's work on linguistics. The semiotic approach that meaning is located in the sign, has important consequences for how we view culture and language and through these, power.

Sauserre described semiotics as 'a science that studies the life of signs within a society'. It is concerned with meaning as something which is socially produced and proposes that the decoding process of communication is as important as the encoding process. In semiotics, meaning is derived from signs through their structural organisation. Sauserre conceived of signs as being made up of the sound image, termed the signifier and the mental concept, termed the signified. In this way signs can differ between individuals. For example when one person in a group refers to a car, everyone would conceptualise a car but each person's car would be very different.

According to Mulholland (1991, p17), 'language is the instrument by which meaning is realised and by which effective social interaction can be created and sustained'. She adds, 'language is not a neutral toolwhenever one encodes something of the world into language one is fitting it into a systematic code which works to produce meaning both paradigmatically (by choice of one item from a similar set of items) and syntygmatically (by arranging choices into sentence patterns).This can influence how it works to represent both propositional content (the happenings of the world when they become the subject matter of speech) and interpersonal content (the attitudes, role, tone and so on of relationships) (Mulholland 1991, p18).

Therefore language is much more than a set of words and phrases which we use to communicate. And aside from spoken or written language, communication is also achieved through body language, a look or a gesture can say all that needs to be said. Much of our communication is based on shared codes and cultures. Day to day conversations are based on a knowledge of ourselves and the people we are communicating with. However, there are many factors which influence how we communicate. For example, our audience, the context, the desired outcomes of the communication and shared terms of reference. For example teenagers may be comfortable talking together about the latest rap artists and may even adopt some of their lingo whilst their parents may have no idea what they are talking about. This is because the parents are not familiar with the context (rap) of the conversation.

Another factor which affects communication is the power and relative status of the speakers. Consider for example being told to step aside on a pavement by a police officer. Most people would comply with the request since the police (generally speaking) have an authority bestowed on them by their uniform. Similarly, we are inclined to give credibility to news broadcasts because we believe that the newsreader has authority and therefore what he or she is telling us must be true. Although Eldridge (1993) and others have argued that news is just a social construction anyway and as such cannot be considered unique or impartial, 'it is not reality which is constructed but a semblance of it'. (1993 p33)
However many argue that the media and the language it uses is manipulated by those who are in power in order to reinforce and legitimate that power. According to Adorno and Horkheimer (1979) the media is a technological system which is grounded in economic power. They argue that through the media, power and social systems are reproduced which in turn reproduce forms of social inequality 'in which political and economic spheres are inextricably mixed' (cited Eldridge 1993, p34). They argue that 'news' as such is just the result of what is considered important or proper between a select and unrepresentative group of business people, reporters and officials.

In contrast to this a pluralist conception of mass communication is that there is such an enormous flow of messages and images that we can choose among them which to believe and which to discard. The Marxist response to this is that whilst it is true that the media occupies a contested space which has economic, cultural and political constraints as well as commercial pressures, these merely lead to different patterns of domination and agenda setting. (Eldridge, p36) For example, Williams has stated
'the commercial character of television has then to be seen at several levels: as the making of programmes for profit in a known market; as a channel for advertising; and as a cultural and political form directly shaped by and dependent on the norms of a capitalist society, selling both consumer goods and a way of life based on them in an ethos that is at once locally generated, by domestic capital interests and authorities and internationally organised by the dominant capitalist power.' (cited in Fairclough 1995, p43)

Mass communication is frequently discussed in terms of its effect on listeners/ viewers/ readers. In this way, it can be said to be a powerful force in our everyday lives. Therefore the language it employs also has a certain power. The formal language of the newsreader for example implies knowledge and authority and we are inclined to trust this voice. Likewise, the more commercial an image becomes, the less we are likely to trust it.


Sociological theories such as structuralism are very useful in enhancing our understanding of language and power in society. By comparing differing theories of language and of power we may not come up with definitive answers but we are certainly more knowledgeable about the processes. Power is exerted through many different means and language is just one of these. However it is potentially a very influential source of power and one which is exploited wherever possible. This can be seen in many facets of social life from politics, economics even religion and popular culture.


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