Language and Power

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One way of classifying types of power, according to Waering (1999), is in terms of whether they represent political, personal or social group power. These may be summarised as follows:

Political power - That held by politicians, the police, and those in the working law courts.

Personal power - Those who holw power as a result of their occupation or role such as teachers and employees.

Social group power - Those who hold power as a result of social variables such as class, gender and age. Typically (though not exclusively) white, middle class men hold positions of power.

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Fairclough (2001) distinguishes between power in discourse and power behind discourse.
The former is concerned with where power relationships are set up and enacted.
The latter is concerned with the organisation of institues and effects of those power relationships on various use of language. 

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According to Fairclough (2001), advertising exists as a prime example of ideology at work through building a relationship between text producer and reciever by constructing a 'product image' that, in turn, helps to position the reciever as a potential 'consumer'.

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An important way through which texts position their reader is through a distinction between what can be called the 'message' of the text and the text's 'code'. The message is what a text offers at 'surface level' (i.e. in an ad for a new pair of jeans - "here is a new pair of jeans"); the code is what the text offers at a 'pragmatic' or inferred level (e.g. "buying jeans is what cool people do - and you're cool, aren't you?!").

Althusser recognised that while the text's target audience could easily resist what the text offered at the level of it's message, resistance at the level of its code was far more difficult. This is because at the level of code, the text presents what its audience percieves to be the domiant - the 'normal' ways of thinking, i.e. what it means to be normal in their particular social group, society or culture.

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Brown and Levison

Social Distance + Power Distance + Degree of Imposition = Weight of Face Threat to be Compensated by Appropriate Linguistic Strategy

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Tesco Voucher

Imperative Verbs:

  • 'Hand this coupon...'
  • 'See on-line for details...'


  • Epistemic - express a degreeof possibility/modal verbs (probability/certainty)
    Shall/will(Coupon - 'Shall remain the property of... ', 'defaced coupons will not be accepted.'
  • Denotic - express degree of necesity/obligation (modal verbs)
    May/must - (Coupon - 'Age restrictions may apply...', 'coupons mus be redeemed to...')

Verb 'to be' adds clarity to other forms of control and obligation.

  • 'Coupons are the property of...' 
    Ownership - power/control
  • 'Tobacco products... are excluded.'
    Exclusion - exception to rule prohibition 
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Small Talk
-Talk that is primarily interactional in orientation and is geared towards establishing relationships.
-Some researchrs argue that small talk is relatively important. 

Repressive discourse strategy - a more indirect way of exercising power and control through conversational constraints.
Oppressive discourse strategy - linguistic behaviour that is open in its exercising of power and control.

Politeness and Power in Organisations
-Powerful participants use politeness strategies to ensure a productive workplace.
-On the other hand, less powerful participants need to adopt an appropriate register when talking to a superior colleague. 

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Erving Goffman

Positive face - the need to feel wanted, liked and appreciated. 

Negative face - the need to have freedom of thought and action and not feel imposed on.

Face-threatening act - a communicative act that threatens someone's positive- or negative- face needs.

In politeness theory, face can be catgorised as either positive face or negative face. Positive face is an individual's need to feel valued, liked and appreciated, while negative face represents an individual's need to not feel imposed on or have their freedom of action threatened.

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Forms of Address

The ways people address each other are a good indicator of relative status and power. 

Asymmetrical or non-reciporal address forms usually reflect a diffference in status.

Asymmetrical/Non-Reciprocal - when people adress each other in ways that show power.
E.g. a teenager working in a shop calls his boss "Mrs Roberts" but she calls him Gary.

Symmetrical - when people address each other in similar ways.
E.g. a stage might be reached when he will be able to call her by her first name instead - the change will usually be initiated by the one who has the most power. 

Forms of address can be altered by factors such as race, family, context etc.

  • Race- social inequalities between white and black races used to be reflected in asymmetric address,
  • Family- younger family members will often use titles when addressing older relatives ("Mum", "Grandmother", "Uncle John". 
  • Context- titles are more likely to be used in a formal situation (e.g. Our guest of honour is the Right Honourable Sir David Tennant ^.^)
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