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Discourse and Institution

Discourse and Institution


The agent-client approach

          Institution as a concept originated in sociology, it is used to describe those activities by which individuals construct and maintain a society. Institutions can be viewed as the mediators between individuals and society as a whole, or as the means by which individuals can form a society. William Sumner (1906) explained these origins by examining the nature of humanity. All humans have the same basic needs (food, intimacy).  Three aspects of the concept institutions are important in discourse studies.

a.       Role behavior

In the institution ‘education’, for example, there are roles for the school principal, the teacher, the student, the class president. The roles determine the individuals’ behavior and what each may expect of others in their roles. A good example is the rules governing interruption.

b.      Differentiation trends

The language within the institution ‘research’ must meet different requirements (such as precision) than language in education (comprehensibility). In higher education there are more ways of imparting information than there were in previous centuries: lectures, seminars, tutorials, one-on-one sessions. Language behavior in these meetings varies from more formal to more informal.

c.       Institutional power

The power aspect also includes the tendency towards domain enlargement. The power relation is specifically in focus, as it manifests itself in the interaction between the agents and the clients of an institution: teacher-student, attorney/defendant-witness, doctor/therapist-patient, civil servant-citizen, priest-parishioner.



            The characteristics of the language of politicians are related to the strategy of obeying the face-keeping principle. It is important to make subtle distinctions and modifications in opinions defended at an earlier stage in the public debate, without losing face. These two forces, the need for modification and the need for persuasion, explain why some phenomena occur more frequently in political discourse than in everyday discourse.

a.       The need for modification

Three phenomena have attained special attention; the hedging strategy, euphemisms and strategic ambiguity. Hedging can be used as a strategy to avoid full responsibility for the proposition that is made in an utterance. Compare the following examples :

1.      My opponent based his viewpoints on misinterpreted data

2.      It seems to me that my opponent based his viewpoint on, what I might call, data that are to some extent possibly misinterpreted.

The clear statement (1) can be attacked directly, but with (2) the speaker only gives his own’humble’ opinion, and merely suggests the possibility of misinterpretation to a certain degree.

The use  of euphemism is most criticized in political language.

b.      The need for persuasion

The debate focused on whether giving financial information had to be accounted for as the illocution announcement, request or suggestion.

Some manipulation ploys (Shmelev, 2001)

1)      Hiding a presupposition

2)      Using an implicature as suggestion

3)      De re interpretation


Discourse concerning the administration of justice is often criticized in three ways; in judicial interaction, a layman citizen who wants to explore his rights in judicial documents is often confronted with the unreadable text of a law, and a third criticism is that a conviction or ruling often depends on the way in which the law or the behavior that lead to the initial indictment is interpreted.

a.       Characteristics of judicial interaction

A current approach to analyzing institutional forms of interaction, like the judicial one, is the analysis of illocutions, especially the patterns in a series of illocutions.

b.      Legal documents and generic integrity

In many societies action groups like the Plain English Movement claim that every citizen has the right to understand any document concerning civic rights and duties. If one tries to reformulate a law in order to communicate with a layman audience then the generic integrity of a law is violated, because the genre of laws or legal documents is a special form for a special occasion.

c.       Forensic Linguistics

In judicial paractice language plays an important role. Many decisions depend on interpretations of legal documents or verbal behavior of people who defend their cases in the courtroom. Some questions in forensic linguistics :

Ø  Is the voice on this tape the voice of the suspect?

Ø  What kind of personal characteristics could be derived from this anonymous letter?

Ø  Can this utterance relly be interpreted as a request or an order?



            In the interaction between government and citizens, one of the most prevailing characteristics is asymmetry. Many research projects concerning bureaucratic discourse deal with the harmful consequences of this asymmetric interaction for both government and citizens. Many approaches in discourse studies focus on analyzing this miscommunication and suggest improvements in document design in order to tone down this asymmetry.

a.       Research on effective governmental documents

Some characteristics of governmental forms:

  • ü  Obligation  to provide information, without explication o relevance
  • ü  Questions concerning routine information that is already available at the organization
  • ü  Pre-sets of questions in which personal situations often do not fit
  • ü  Obligation to answer before a certain date without information about reaction time
  • ü  Lack of support and motivation to give the required information

Jansen and Steehouder designed different formats to test which design prompted subjects most  effectively to read explanations when necessary. They placed the explanation at three different places: on a separate sheet, in the form to the left of the question, and in the form to the right of the question.

b.      Research on government image

Another approach in the study of bureaucratic discourse is research into the effect of image. In Sarangi and Slembrouck(1996) this issue is addressed with reference to the fact that tax authorities in European countries are trying to change their images by using a different register in their leaflets.



            The discourse approach to media can be seen as a special branch within the study of mass communication, the study of the continuous process of disseminating messages by professional communicators without restrictions on the number of audiences via public channels like press, television, radio and internet.

            The challenge of the media discourse approach is to prove from discourse analysis and research into production and perception to what extent news stories are biased, in what way this is caused by the opinions of the journalists and to what extent this influences readers or listeners.

a.       The production of news

Many attempts have been made to systematically analyze reports in different newspapers to detect differences in ideologies. Fang (2001) analyzed China’s official newspaper and taiwan;s official newspaper in order to detect ideologically motivated differences. He chose ‘civil unrest’ as a topic, as the controversy between government and demonstrators could provoke different ideologically motivated reports.

b.      The perception of news

In the study of news perception, research into persuasion plays an important role.

Hal 269/279


Health Care

            Labov and Fanshel (1977) analyzed fifteen minutes of interaction between a therapist and a client suffering from anorexia nervosa. One of their examples is the following ( T is the therapist, C is the client).

T          : And it never occured to her to prepare dinner

C         : No

T          : She was home all afternoon

C         : No, she doesn’t know how

            What is remarkable here is the fact that the client indicates, by giving the reaction “no”, that she understands a statement as a question. In this example the therapist refers to facts or events that are only known by the client.

a.       Stylistic analysis of therapeutic discourse     

Social psychologist Baus and the linguist Sandig (1985) started from the assumption that a therapy is successful to the extent that a client can talk coherently about feelings. Therefore, they examined the way clients talk about their feelings.

b.      Power relations in doctor-patient interaction

Ruth Wodak (1996) addressed the power relation between  doctors and patients as she tried to answer the question about the typical discourse patterns that can be identified in doctor-patient interaction.

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