Discourse: A critical introduction

Discourse: A critical introduction. By Jan Blommaert. (Key topics in sociolinguistics.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. Pp. xiii, 299. ISBN 052153531X. $35.

Reviewed by Marián Sloboda, Charles University

Jan Blommaert is a professor of African linguistics and sociolinguistics in Belgium, whose Belgian and African life experience seems to have provided him with uncommon sensitivity to issues not only of social inequality, globalization, and migration of people but also of discourses and ways of speaking, and their effects. His view of discourse and its critical analysis differs in some respects from that of the well-established critical discourse analysis (CDA). He shares objects of interest with CDA, particularly power, social system, ideology, and identity, but he also provides a critique of several aspects of that stream of research (Ch. 2). His book is, therefore, not an introduction to CDA.

B does not aim at a mere description or overview of approaches to discourse and its critical analysis. In the course of the book he gradually develops his own approach, drawing especially on linguistic anthropology, sociolinguistics, and leftist or critical philosophy. He conceptualizes discourse widely as a social, rather than a narrowly linguistic, phenomenon (the meaning of the word ‘discourse’ is not confined to a mere linguistic object here). This is connected with his intention not only to design a critical approach to discourse for (socio)linguists, but also to provide an approach, a discourse, that could be shared with sociologists, historians, and other social scientists.

B discusses the most common topics of the critical analysis of discourse, but some marginal topics, such as the relationship between identity and space, are included as well. The book covers the following topics: ‘Text and context’ (Ch. 3), ‘Language and inequality’ (Ch. 4), ‘Choice and determination’ (for participants in discourse production and uptake) (Ch. 5), ‘History and process’ (Ch. 6), ‘Ideology’ (Ch. 7), and ‘Identity’ (Ch. 8). With every topic B (re)considers an eclectic set of concepts that can be useful in a critical analysis of discourse (the book includes also a glossary of sixty of them).

B’s approach is characterized by emphasis on the historicity of discourses, on simultaneous and patterned layering of historical and ideological positions, which emanate from different actors to which people orient (‘centering institutions’) and historical epochs, but are present in discourse synchronically. Without denying a certain amount of free choice in discourse production and uptake, B underscores the existence of prediscourse constraints imposed on people in communication and the determining role of the discourses produced. Therefore, according to him, ‘a critical analysis of discourse needs to begin long before discourse emerges as a linguistically articulated object, and it needs to continue long after the act of production’ (234). As the author shows, social inequality stems from such prediscourse conditions as differential access of people to semiotic resources for making oneself understood or from new ways of communication in the globalized world, where discourses and semiotic resources migrate to other contexts and, therefore, the functions they (can) perform often radically change, and so on.

Theoretical explications in B’s book are supported by illuminating and interesting examples of data analyses, which include, for example, an extract from a South African radio program, a contribution to an internet discussion on the last war in Iraq, and documents written by African asylum seekers in Belgium. In addition, every chapter ends with suggestions for further reading. The book is very well organized and its style makes it highly readable. It is a ‘noncompendial’ type of introductory text with an appreciable impression of an inventive author.