Reading Fairclough

The full thesis draft is about to be complete, so I guess it’s understandable to have been away for a while (although this has been a long while!)

Usually at this final stage, we are advised not to read further unless that is something really essential to the reference list. We all know however it is technically impossible: there is ALWAYS something essential. In my case, I focus on stance and voice in academic writing, so all the “essential” studies have been lined up and discussed thus far. There is one small part that troubles me – academic discourse. We can treat it as a commonsense term to refer to academic writing, but I don’t feel very comfortable leaving it out. It is the term torn between two worlds – on the one hand it’s a practice (something we do in the academy); on the other hand it’s a product (of the practice). So “academic discourse” can be posited in situ between context and language, which I have pretty much explained in detail in my literature review. But how much should I write about it? This question also cycles back to how much I should read

In my confirmation report, I threw mindlessly a list of names who mentioned “discourse” in the lit review – Bernstein, Foucault, Habermas – proven to be non-recyclable. These big names cannot be reused in my thesis (not even in my report), as my supervisor reminded me, because “discourse” are defined and interpreted from different perspectives in these works, and they are very different from my perspective, which mainly deals with discourse as a linguistic product. So it looks very slippery if I don’t choose my allies carefully. The last thing you want to see is your examiners have the exact opposite view as yours (or EITHER ONE OF THEM does).

My supervisor asked me to read a bit of Fairclough. I’ve borrowed the third edition of Language and Power (2015) and see how far I should go. I should have read Fairclough and Gee (Discourse with a capital “D”) in greater depth, especially as a discourse analyst. I’ve been relying on Hood, Martin, Rose and White and I need to blame myself for seldom getting out of my comfort zone, but I’m here anyway. I love taking notes of what I’ve read, and I think it’ll be nice if I can blog about it with my notes so I can share with you my reading log, and also hear from you if you wish to comment or recommend further reading.

This is one nice cover art, but not in the library version.

The two big concepts as I started the book are Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) and discourse. Quoting Fairclough, CDA is a combination of

[C]ritique of discourse and explanation of how it figures within and contributes to the existing social reality, as a basis for action to change that existing reality in particular aspects.” (Fairclough, 2015, p. 6; original emphases)

Fairclough stresses that CDA does not stop at “critical”, but also asks why a discourse is expressed in a certain way – we look for explanations, and seek ways to improve the discourse/social reality.

Discourse, in Fairclough’s definition, is more than language. He suggests the term “semiosis” – meaning-making and resources for meaning-making. (p. 8) In this sense, we as discourse analysts are interested in “texts” primarily, and the resources that generate texts. In my case it is language. In many of my classmates’ studies, it involves a combination of language, visual images, sounds, gestures and so on. These texts are “multi-semiotic”, or “multi-modal” in Kress and Leeuwen’s (2006) term. Of course, if we consider “discourse” in a broader sense, it also includes material practices, social relations, power, institution, values and beliefs (Harvey, 1996) – something similar to Gee’s “D”iscourse (you don’t just talk the talk – you also walk the walk)?

My immediate reflections on these two terms are: what is it that I am critiquing in my research? Thus far I am analysing students’ texts to describe the ways they write proposals and dissertations. The findings aim to enhance understanding of development of interpersonal meaning in their texts, and to look for ways to teach stance and voice better. But I believe I’m not doing CDA, at least it’s not my intention to figure out the whys of their practices. It would be very interesting to understand the reasons for their writing in certain ways, but at the same time there are unfathomable variables that make comparisons impossible.

The “variable” question was the very first question I got asked in my admission interview. If I were to answer this question again, perhaps it would be “differences within sub-fields of a discipline” or “types of text”. But I would emphasise my focus on describing evident changes across text types (as well as time) rather than investigating why there are changes (or not). I hope this comes up again in my viva so at least I’m prepared for it!

So much for now. I have three options for tonight: read on, write on, or sleep right away.

Again, please let me know what you think about the topic. I’d love to answer any questions, and hear from your comments and/or recommendations for reading. Thanks in advance and good night!


Fairclough, N. (2015). Language and Power. Routledge.

Harvey, D. (1996). Justice, Nature and The Geography of Difference. Wiley.

Gee, J. P. (2014). An Introduction to Discourse Analysi: Theory and Method. Routledge.

Kress, G. & Van Leeuwen, T. (2006). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. Routledge.

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