Being critical: Elements of Critical Theory in the work of critical discourse analysts

Diego Romeo
University of Edinburgh

The constellation of linguistic research broadly labelled as Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) can hardly be understood as the homogeneous product of a monolithic theory or methodology. The variety of approaches employed by critical discourse analysts has in fact induced several scholars to prefer the term Critical Discourse Studies (CDS), which ceases to imply the existence of a methodological unity and hints instead at the diversity that characterises this kind of research. Indeed, as van Dijk (2013) has pointed out, “CDA is not a method of critical discourse analysis. […] Methodologically, CDA is as diverse as DA in general.”

This lack of clarity as to what really defines CDS may be due to its elusive object of study, as scholars in this tradition are “not interested in investigating a linguistic unit per se but in studying social phenomena which are necessarily complex and thus require a multi-disciplinary and multi-methodical approach” (Wodak & Meyer 2016: 2). Consequently, Wodak chooses to refer to CDS as a school or programme, instead of a discipline or method, but affirms that its research is nevertheless “derived from quite different theoretical backgrounds” (ibid.: 5). All of this seems to beg the question: What unifying elements tend to be shared by all CDS research? What makes the existence of a single label not just possible, but meaningful?

In contrast to other areas of linguistic study, CDS aims to explain linguistic facts and conventions “as the product of relations of power and struggles for power” (Fairclough 2001: 1). In this, CDS needs always to be goal- or problem-oriented, meaning that the research question determines the method that is selected to address it. If it is not a method or theory that unites scholars across CDS, then it must be the critical perspective from which problems are addressed. But what exactly does it mean to be ‘critical’? Should this term be seen in toto as a legacy of the work of the Frankfurt School or simply as a generic residue thereof which is shared with critical approaches in other disciplines? This uncertainty is a consequence of the variable emphasis placed on Critical Theory by different scholars. For van Dijk (2013), for example, “being critical […] is a state of mind, an attitude, a way of dissenting,” a definition that is so simplistic that it lacks an explicit connection to any theory, critical or not. On the other hand, McKenna (2004: 10) attributes to the “Frankfurt and neo-Marxian tradition” a foundational role in the formation of CDS, as do Wodak and Meyer (2016: 6), who openly acknowledge the influence of the work of the Institute for Social Research on CDS by pointing out its crucial role in shaping a “shared perspective,” and list two “core concepts” of Critical Theory that are relevant in the context of discourse analysis: the necessity to direct it at the totality of society in its historical specificity and the aim to ameliorate the understanding of society by integrating all the major social sciences.

However, Fairclough, Mulderrig, and Wodak aptly observe that although the spirit of Critical Theory frames the work of pretty much all critical discourse analysts, not always do they clearly position themselves within the legacy of Western Marxist philosophy (see van Dijk 2011). Fairclough, for instance, never concealed his affiliation with Marxist thought, but he rarely explicitly mentioned Critical Theory itself as an influence. Still, some continuity, albeit implicit, does exist, as Fairclough (2010: 2) shows when he claims to be “working within a tradition of critical social research which is focused on better understanding of how and why contemporary capitalism prevents or limits, as well as in certain respects facilitating, human well-being and flourishing.” In fact, here is a clear, programmatic affinity with the words of Horkheimer, who in 1937 stated that

Critical thinking […] is motivated today by the effort really to transcend the tension and to abolish the opposition between the individual’s purposefulness, spontaneity, and rationality, and those work-process relationships on which society is built. Critical thought has a concept of man as in conflict with himself until this opposition is removed.
(Horkheimer 1972: 210)

The drive to call into question “the hidden assumptions and purposes of competing theories and existing forms of practice” (Bronner 2017: 1) that is embedded in Critical Theory we find consistently in CDS as well. Again, in the words of Fairclough:

A primary focus of CDA is on the effect of power relations and inequalities in producing social wrongs, and in particular on discursive aspects of power relations and inequalities: on dialectical relations between discourse and power, and their effects on other relations within the social process and their elements.
(Fairclough 2010: 8)

To summarise, whether being critical constitutes a way of dissenting or signals the adherence to a school of thought, the ideals and motives of Critical Theory seem to function as a guiding principle of CDS. The idea that the true social function of the critical theorist can emerge when they and their work “are seen as forming a dynamic unity with the oppressed class, so that his presentation of societal contradictions is not merely an expression of the concrete historical situation but also a force within it to stimulate change” (Horkheimer 1972: 215) would still be somewhat applicable to the mission of the critical discourse analyst today. While class struggle might not be the focus anymore, the emancipation of the oppressed certainly is.

Another fundamental feature of CDS is its programmatic multidisciplinarity. Fairclough has repeatedly expressed how CDA does not just focus upon semiosis as such, but “on relations between semiotic and other social elements” (Wodak & Meyer 2016: 87), something which requires it to be part of frameworks for transdisciplinary research. It is thus not sufficient to analyse the structural and semantic features of texts: they must be linked to the social conditions that generated them. To do so, the resources of linguistic analysis are clearly not enough, and help is needed from other disciplines. Similarly, the proponents of Critical Theory believed that explaining the causes behind the limitations of human freedom would only be possible through interdisciplinary research including “psychological, cultural, and social dimensions” (Bohman 2005). With CDS, the context and the aims change, but the principle remains the same, as we find Wodak and Meyer (2016: 7) stressing that “in agreement with its Critical Theory predecessors, CDS emphasises the need for interdisciplinary work in order to gain a proper understanding of how language functions in constituting and transmitting knowledge, in organizing social institutions or in exercising power.”

As they search for visible and less visible structures of domination and discrimination embedded in language, critical discourse analysts attribute to language the ability to absorb and conceal ideologies, and thus greatly contribute to the maintenance of a noxious status quo. The following quote by Habermas, widely endorsed across CDS, summarises the question extremely well:

Language is also a medium of domination and social force. It serves to legitimate relations of organised power. Insofar as the legitimations of power relations, whose institutionalisation they make possible, are not articulated, insofar as these only express themselves in the legitimations, language is also ideological.
(Habermas, quoted in Thompson 1981: 82)

It is unsurprising, then, that Wodak and Meyer (2016: 7), identifying the function of CDS with that of Critical Theory, insist that “even with differing concepts of ideology, Critical Theory seeks to create awareness in agents of their own needs and interests.” However, while the critique of ideology is a guiding principle for CDS, Critical Theory has provided little material that has been as influential in explaining the production, reproduction, and dissemination of ideologies as the work of other philosophers – most notably Foucault and Althusser.

To conclude, there certainly are connections between Critical Theory and CDS, but although no scholar will probably deny the existence of a relationship between the two, its nature is seldom further articulated, making for a largely superficial link. Critical Theory in CDS can be described, at best, as a “socio-philosophical orientation” (Wodak & Meyer 2016: 24) and at worst as a faint residue of a past intellectual debate, too distant from today’s concerns to be seriously taken into account. It can serve as a theoretical background to which to refer, which can provide useful analytic categories and inform the interpretation of the concepts that are “constitutive of every approach in CDS/CDA” (ibid.) such as ‘critique,’ ‘ideology,’ and ‘power.’ The Frankfurt School’s idea of critique, in particular, encapsulating a negative and a positive moment, is still central to the Discourse-Historical approach of Wodak and Reisigl and to the Dialectical-Relational approach of Fairclough; moreover, the programmatic statements of Critical Theory are still valid for many prominent scholars in CDS and its multidisciplinary scope guides this school of discourse analysis as well.

On the other hand, Critical Theory has had arguably little to contribute to linguistic analysis proper, i.e. the core activity of scholars in CDS and the means through which its positive function can be achieved. Even as far as theory is concerned, the insights of Gramsci, Althusser, and even Marx himself on hegemony and ideology may have proved more useful and enduring for CDS researchers. Beyond its general ideas and intentions, virtually none of the three main elements of Critical Theory enumerated by Bottomore (1984: 48) – the epistemological and methodological critique of positivism in the social sciences, the critical attitude towards the ideological influence of science and technology in the creation of a technocratic-bureaucratic form of domination, and the preoccupation with the culture industry – has been taken up integrally by CDS, and certainly none serves as a goal for the programme. The work of critical theorists has furthermore been widely criticised for lacking historicity (see for instance Bottomore 1984), and their claims for being too broad, too exasperated, or simply proved wrong by historical developments, despite Wodak and Meyer’s claims that historical specificity should be a fundamental aspect of Critical Theory.

Ultimately, the main point that sets the Frankfurt School apart from the work of critical discourse analysts is the former’s inability to turn theory into praxis. CDS is in fact goal-oriented and very much practical: it is rooted in data, and theory is needed to interpret the data. Now, while given the multidisciplinarity of CDS the work of a single author or collective of authors would not have sufficed to construct a complete theoretical framework, much of Critical Theory remains probably essentially too convoluted, and to an extent self-contradictory, to be of use (see, for instance, Adorno’s theory of ideology in Arato & Gebhardt 1978: 201ff). This is not a fault nor a merit of Critical Theory, but it clearly has prevented it from playing a more essential role in the enterprise of critical language study.


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Wodak, R., Meyer, M. [eds.] (2016), Methods of critical discourse studies (3rd ed.). London: Sage.

How to cite this post

Romeo, Diego. 2020. Being critical: Elements of Critical Theory in the work of Critical Discourse Analysts. History and Philosophy of the Language Sciences.

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Posted in Article, Linguistics

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