and Power in Education
by Dimitrios Thanasoulas
Discourse and power
In keeping with the discussion above, we will try to add an
important proviso: power is inherent in "face-to-face"
as well as cross-cultural discourse where interactants come
from different ethnic groupings or communities. Moreover,
power is a kind of commodity, so to speak, which 'can be won
and exercised only in and through social struggles in which
it may also be lost' (Fairclough, 1989: 43). It is this "negotiable"
character of power and discourse that we will focus upon,
thus laying the theoretical foundations on which an evaluation
of educational discourse is to be based later on.
Power in discourse
Fairclough (1989) makes the distinction between power "in"
and "behind" discourse but we will only be concerned
with the former. Let us begin our discussion of power in discourse
by adducing an example of "face-to-face" discourse-what
Fairclough (1989: 44) calls an unequal encounter. The following
is an extract from a visit to a premature baby unit by a doctor
(D) and a group of medical students (S). A spaced dot is used
to indicate a short pause, a dash a longer pause, brackets
overlap, and parentheses talk not distinguishable enough to
transcribe (conventions adhered to throughout this study).
D: and let's gather round . the first of the infants-now what
I want you to do is to make a basic . neo-natal examination
just as Dr Mathews has to do as soon as a baby arrives in
the ward . all right so you are actually going to get your
hands on the infant . and look at the key points and demonstrate
them to the group as you're doing it will you do that for
me please . off you go
(2) S: well first of all I'm going to [ ( )
(3) D: [ first . before you do that is do you wash your hands
isn't it I . cos you've just been examining another baby (long
silence) are you still in a position to start examining yet
(4) S: just going to remove this .
(5) D: very good . it's putting it back that's the problem
isn't it eh-
(6) S: come back Mum-
(7) D: that's right. OK now just get a little more room by
shifting baby . er up the . thing a bit more that's very good
. well now . off you go and describe what's going on
(8) S: well here's a young baby boy . who we've decided is
. thirty . thirty seven weeks old now . was born . two weeks
ago . un is fairly active . his er eyes are open . he's got
hair on . his head [ . his eyes are [ open
(9) D: [ yes [ yes you've told me that
(10) S: um he's crying or [ making
(11) D: [ yeah we we we've heard that now what other examination
are you going to make I mean-
(12) S: erm we'll see if he'll respond to
(13) D: now look . did we not look at a baby with a head problem
(14) S: right
(15) D: and might you not make one examination of the head
almost at square one . before you begin .
(16) S: feel for the ( )
(17) D: now what [ . the next most important thing .
(18) S: [ er gross mo-gross motor [ function
(19) D: [ well now you come down to the mouth don't we.
(20) S: yes
(21) D: now what about the mouth
What is most striking is that the doctor constantly interrupts
the student in turns (3), (9), (11), (13), and (19), not simply
because he is talkative, as many people sometimes are. He
interrupts because he wants to control the student's contributions
so as to ensure that only the relevant information is given.
Let us see in what other ways the doctor's "authority"
is manifested. First of all, in turns (1) and (7), he explicitly
announces when the student should talk and examine and when
to stop (see off you go and just get a little more room).
Secondly, the doctor gives instructions as to how things should
be done (see turn (3)). Thirdly, he comments upon, and evaluates,
the student's contributions (very good in (5) and that's right
in (7)). On the face of it, these seem to be positive features,
yet there is more to it than meets the eye: the discourse
employed by the doctor is interspersed with various 'techniques
of control which would be regarded as presumptuous or arrogant
if they were addressed to an equal or someone more powerful'
(Fairclough, 1989: 45). Finally, the student is in a way "put
on the spot" in (13), (15), (17), and (19), whereby the
doctor tries to lead him through the stages he has not mastered.
Such examples lend credence to our contention that power in
discourse embroils, as it were, two groups of people, powerful
and non-powerful participants, in a struggle, discoursal and
social, where the former control and constrain the contributions
of the latter (Fairclough, 1989: 46). On a general note, according
to Fairclough (ibid.), there are three types of such constraints:
constraints on contents-what participants say or do; relations-what
social relations participants enter into, as this is manifested
in discourse; and subjects-what subject positions participants
can occupy. It is noteworthy that, as often as not, this kind
of "manipulation," which has far-reaching social
implications, is rarely explicit; the doctor is far from directly
controlling the student. 'Rather, the constraints derive from
the conventions of the discourse type which is being drawn
upon' (Fairclough, 1989: 47). Nevertheless, the doctor is,
in some respects, in control, inasmuch as the onus is on him
'to determine which discourse type(s) may be legitimately
drawn upon' (ibid.).
Power in cross-cultural interactions
What we have dilated upon are some of the techniques used
by certain socially 'powerful participants' to control certain
'non-powerful' participants in unequal encounters. We have
seen that students or members of "the public" (see
also the first example on pages 2-3) can only operate within
the constraints on what is considered 'legitimate discourse'
(ibid.). But what happens when non-powerful participants come
from cultural and linguistic backgrounds which are at odds
with those of the so-called powerful people? In job interviews,
for instance, a dominant cultural group determines whether
certain people are eligible for a particular job. In Britain,
it is preponderantly white middle-class people who decide
on the status of members of various ethnic or cultural minorities
as candidates. Discourse types vary across cultures but in
such encounters it is very likely that the dominant group
and its concomitant powerful discourse type will reign supreme.
Let us have a look at the following extract from a job interview
for a post in a library with a member of an American cultural
minority (CM) (found in Fairclough, 1989: 48).
What about the library interests you most?
CM: What about the library in terms of the books? or the whole
Interviewer: Any point that you'd like to
CM: Oh, the children's books, because I have a child, and
you know there's so many you know books
for them to read you know, and little things that would interest
them would interest me too.
Obviously, CM has not interpreted the interviewer's question
in the way she, as an interviewee, is expected to. She has
not provided any information on her professional background
and how she is going to cope with the "job exigencies"
her post will entail. Yet, 'there is no inherent reason why
people should not show how their work interests relate to
their family and other interests in response to a question
of this sort' (Fairclough, 1989: 48). It is regrettable, though,
that interviewees are assumed to be conversant with the "dominant
way" of conducting interviews. The possibility of miscommunication
on the grounds of differences in discoursal conventions is
rarely, if ever, considered. The interviewee who does not
"comport herself" in the "dominant way"
is denigrated for lack of the 'requisite knowledge or experience'
(ibid.), or uncooperativeness. As a result, many people are
denied jobs and other 'social goods' by virtue of belonging
to different cultures.
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