and Power in Education
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
For a Word
version of this article
When we speak or write, we "tailor" what we say
to fit the particular situation in which we are communicating
and, at the same time, how we speak or write creates that
very situation. '[W]e fit our language to a situation or context
that our language, in turn, helped to create in the first
place' (Gee, 1999: 11). Furthermore, it seems that we always
build and rebuild reality not just by dint of the language
we employ but through language as discourse, i.e., language
used in tandem with non-linguistic cues and symbol systems,
tools, actions, interactions, technologies, and particular
ways of thinking, feeling, or believing (ibid.). According
to Gee (1999: 12), when we speak or write, we build six 'areas
of "reality"': the meaning and value of aspects
of the material world; activities; identities and relationships;
politics; connections; and semiotics (an in-depth analysis
of these areas is not within the purview of the present study).
Here, one of our aims is to show that language is social practice
and not a phenomenon that functions in a vacuum; it is not
an 'autonomous construct' (Fairclough, 1989: vi) but action,
both shaping and shaped by 'the structures and forces of [the]
social institutions within which we live and function' (ibid.).
Moreover, we will be concerned with the construction of discourse
within the classroom, where the seemingly salient participant,
that is, the teacher, may negotiate meaning while still remaining
the main purveyor of knowledge and wielder of latent power.
Thus, we will draw upon several teacher-students sequences,
with a view to shedding light on the role of discourse in
establishing the teacher's authority over the students, as
well as the power relationships attending the construction
of knowledge in the classroom. It is hoped that the present
study will 'help correct [the] widespread underestimation
of the significance of language in the production, maintenance,
and change of social relations of power' (Fairclough, 1989:
1), and draw our attention to how language contributes to
Discourse as social practice
It is not uncommon for linguists and laymen alike to talk
about the relationship between language and society, as if
these two were separate entities that may occasionally come
into contact. Yet, we could argue that language and society
are inextricably related: 'linguistic phenomena are social
phenomena of a special sort, and social phenomena are (in
part) linguistic phenomena' (Fairclough, 1989: 23). On the
one hand, linguistic phenomena are social, in that, whenever
we engage in some talk, we do so in ways that are socially
determined and can be said to have certain social effects.
In the case of speech acts, for example, utterances such as
I bet you six pence it'll rain tomorrow or I apologise perform
acts that go far beyond the meaning of the words comprising
them. In fact, their force 'is situated in specific social
and cultural practices, and is continually transformed in
those practices' (Gee, 1999: 63). In other words, what has
been dubbed as "discourse" is language which is
'customized in, to, and for context, used always against a
rich store of cultural knowledge (cultural models) that are
themselves "activated" in, for, and by contexts'
(ibid.). A rather telling example of how a cultural model
operates is the case of "bedrooms." When we think
about bedrooms, we actually "trigger" any pertinent
situated meanings and cultural models regarding houses, families,
relationships, and so forth (ibid.: 61). The bottom line is
that meaning, even literal meaning, is not abstract but 'wedded
to local, "on-site," social, and cultural practices'
What we can glean from all this is that social phenomena are
also linguistic, in the sense that the language activity transpiring
in social contexts does not merely reflect social practices,
but is a part of those practices. According to Fairclough
(1989: 23), there is no symmetrical relationship between language
and society; '[t]he whole is society, and language is one
strand of the social'. At this juncture, it is of consequence
to introduce another term, that of subject positions, used
in Fairclough (ibid.), which better illustrates how discourse
determines and is determined by social structures. Let us
consider the example below and try to clarify what a subject
position is. What follows is part of an interview in a police
station (found in Fairclough, 1989: 18). The witness to a
robbery (W) is being asked what happened, while the policeman
(P) is writing down the relevant information.
P: Did you get a look at the one in the car?
(2) W: I saw his face, yeah.
(3) P: What sort of age was he?
(4) W: About 45. He was wearing a
(5) P: And how tall?
(6) W: Six foot one.
(7) P: Six foot one. Hair?
(8) W: Dark and curly. Is this going to take long? I've got
to collect the kids from school.
(9) P: Not much longer, no. What about his clothes?
(10) W: He was a bit scruffy-looking, blue trousers, black
(11) P: Jeans?
(12) W: Yeah.
The relationship between the policeman and the witness is
undoubtedly an unequal one, the way the interview develops
being under the interviewer's control, who does nothing to
mitigate the demands he makes in the form of questions. For
example, in turn (1) the interviewer might have used a mitigated
form such as Did you by any chance have a look at the person
in the car. Furthermore, in (5) and (7) the policeman reduces
questions to words or phrases-how tall and hair, respectively.
As Fairclough (1999: 18) insightfully remarks, 'the sensitive
nature of the situation does not override the norms of form-filling'.
We should also notice the way in which the policeman exercises
control over W's contributions: P interrupts W in (5) and
(11), while in (9) P fails to acknowledge W's problem, asking
another question instead.
How much leeway are we left with in asserting that all these
features touched upon above are arbitrary? In some respects,
they are but, on reflection, they are contingent upon social
conditions-more specifically, upon the relationship between
the "police" and members of "the public."
Thus, the social structure of the social institution called
"the police" involves, inter alia, a set of 'social
roles' (or subject positions), as well as a set of approved
purposes for discourse (ibid.). To hark back to our example,
the policeman and the witness occupy different subject positions,
that is, they are assigned different social roles. It is by
virtue of the subject positions they occupy that they are
constrained to act and talk in certain ways. In this light,
in the interview above, mitigated expressions and acknowledgement
of the interviewee's needs are not generally expected, nor
is lack of them experienced as a problem for someone versed
in the conventions for such interviews.
a police officer or being a police witness is a matter of
occupying the subject positions set up in discourses such
as the discourse of (information-gathering in) interviews
it is only in so far as people do routinely occupy these positions
that the conventional personae of police officer and witness
are reproduced as a part of the social structure of policing
as an institution (Fairclough, 1989: 41).
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