The concept of power, who holds it and how they use it has been of great interest to almost every field of social science. A crucial way in which power is expressed and resisted is through language. Ng and Bradac (1993) argue that language reveals power, language creates power, language reflects power, and language obscures or depoliticizes power. It has even been claimed that there is no language situation, involving either public or private discourse, free from effects of power.
Types Of Power
Power can basically be defined as involving an unequal relationship between at least two people. Different types of power have been identified. French and Raven (1959) developed a framework of power which has been very influential. It contains five main categories: legitimate power (power due to position), referent power (power or ability to persuade and influence others), expert power (power derived from skills or expertise in an area), reward power (power that depends on the ability of the person in power to confer valued rewards), and coercive power (power that relies on using negative influence to get people to do things).
These types of power involve situations where one individual or group has power over another. Out of the five, coercive power is felt to be the least effective form, since it builds resentment and resistance. The overt marking of all five types of power has been decreasing in some societies over recent years, e.g., in Great Britain, making issues of empowerment and consultative power relevant. Consultative power involves someone, in, e.g., a position of legitimate power, seeking information from subordinates, considering their advice, and making plans with others rather than just telling them what to do.
Social Theories Of Power
Power is a complex and highly theorized phenomenon. Work in the 1950s and 1960s from a behaviorist perspective saw power as residing in individuals and as being observable through behavior. One major problem with this approach is that power is only understood to have been exerted if the recipient of the power acts in a way they would not otherwise have done. This approach also sees power as quantifiable. In contrast, the structural model of power developed by theorists such as Steven Lukes views power as more abstract, ideological, and hegemonic. All social action is seen to involve power because behind all language and action are ideas and values. Power is seen to shape people’s perceptions and has the effect of making people accept things as they are and act in certain ways, even if it is not in their best interests to do so and even if they are not aware that they are doing it.
Poststructuralist theories of power include the work of Michel Foucault. Rather than viewing power in terms of dominance and ideology, Foucault proposes a concept of power as a complex and continuously evolving web of social and discursive relations.
Language is acknowledged as having an important role to play here.
Critical Discourse Analysis
The structural view of power has been influential in the area of critical discourse analysis (CDA). One of the fundamental tasks of CDA is to account for the relationships between discourse and social power. Power is seen as already accruing to some people and not to others. This power is determined by institutional role and socioeconomic status, gender, or ethnic identity (Fairclough 1992; van Dijk 1993). In CDA, therefore, the role of power in discourse tends to be a question of examining how those members of society who possess it reflect, reinforce, and reproduce it through the language they use. The issue of access to discourse is an element of this, in terms of both private and public discourse.
The focus of CDA is ordinary, naturally occurring language. Fairclough (2001), e.g., illustrates power in discourse using data from newspapers as well as face-to-face spoken interaction. An example from face-to-face interaction involves the use of interruption by a doctor when interacting with medical students. The doctor interrupts a student several times. Fairclough interprets this as an indication of the doctor controlling the student’s contributions, with interruptions here being seen as a device used to exercise and reinforce power.
Power may be exercised in different ways. Fairclough distinguishes between power through coercion and power through consent. As with French and Raven’s “coercive power,” “coercion” here refers to the use of negative influence to get people to comply. Consent power involves winning consent to, or at least acquiescence to, the possession and exercise of power.
Powerful Ways Of Speaking?
Early work in sociolinguistics on language and gender took the view that there are more or less powerful ways of speaking. Women are seen to be in a more powerless position in relation to men, and the linguistic strategies they use are in turn felt to be less powerful than those typically evident in the speech of men. As shown by numerous empirical studies, however, it is not the linguistic form or strategy that is powerful. Rather, it is a question of who uses it and how. The same strategy can be used to exercise power or to show solidarity, or even to do both. Interruptions, e.g., may be used by a speaker to provide support for another speaker rather than as a device for directly controlling the other speaker’s contributions. Furthermore, as Tannen (1994, 23– 24) points out, “what appears as attempts to dominate conversation (an exercise of power) may actually be intended to establish rapport (an exercise of solidarity). This occurs because . . . power and solidarity are bought with the same currency: The same linguistic means can be used to create either or both.”
The situation is further complicated by the fact that different speakers have different norms, or expectations. An example which clearly shows this is given by Tannen (1995) and involves two men, one from Detroit and one from New York City. The first man feels that the second man is pushy and uninterested in what he has to say because the man from New York City never leaves him the length of pause he expects in order to take a conversational turn. On the other hand, the second man feels that the man from Detroit has nothing to say. Not only are the two men unable to communicate effectively, but they also ascribe powerful and powerless intentions to each other that were not intended.
A further example provided by Tannen involves the use of questions. Gender has been seen to be a relevant factor when considering whether and when people ask questions.
Women have been found to ask more questions than men and do not see question-asking as a powerless strategy. Tannen argues that men are more aware of the potential facelosing aspect of question-asking. Men with this view do not ask questions because it might reflect negatively on them. They are also likely to have negative opinions of other people who do ask questions.
The use of language in context determines the function and effects of an utterance. Discursive power is a contextually sensitive phenomenon. Speakers draw on different linguistic devices more or less successfully depending on the people they are interacting with and the speech situation.
A recent area of sociolinguistic research which captures the idea of different norms involves the concept of communities of practice. Under this model every community, be it a family, a company, or a country, has a culture of locally constructed values, relations, and ways of communicating and doing things. What counts as powerful or not in a situation therefore depends on the community of practice.
The Negotiation Of Power
The communities of practice framework has developed within a social constructionist approach to sociolinguistics. Social constructionism was adopted from sociology as a dynamic means of analyzing the relationship between aspects of language and social identity, initially by researchers interested in the relationship between language and gender. This approach is influenced by poststructuralist ideas and challenges the notion that power is held by some speakers and not by others. Attention is given to how power is constantly under negotiation by participants in an interaction and to how speakers “do power” (e.g., Holmes et al. 1999; Thornborrow 2002).
The social role of a person is a facet of a person’s identity that may be drawn on at different points in an interaction. Other aspects of their identity may be evident at other times; e.g., gender, ethnicity, or age. Identity in this view is something that speakers construct and maintain through discourse. In this type of approach power may be resisted by people in positions of less power. At other times the building of solidarity and rapport may be more evident in the speech of a more powerful person than the overt expression of power.
The discourse of people at work has been the focus of much of this research, and a range of qualitative approaches to analysis has been drawn on. This is informed by approaches such as CDA but takes on elements of other approaches to language study as well.
Unlike CDA, conversation analysis has not traditionally been concerned with issues of power. The idea that there are pre-ascribed roles is rejected, and contextual factors such as speaker status have only been seen to be relevant if there is evidence in the discourse that participants are orienting to these factors. The focus is on asymmetries that are made visible in the discourse. Context is of vital importance in this approach, but only at the level of surrounding talk. Hutchby (1996), however, argues that power can be analyzed using conversation analysis; interactional power being observable in small details such as the relationship between turns at talk.
- Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and social change. Cambridge: Polity.
- Fairclough, N. (2001). Language and power, 2nd edn. Harlow: Longman.
- French, J., & Raven, B. (1959). The bases of social power. In D. Cartwright (ed.), Studies in social power. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute of Social Research, pp. 118–149.
- Holmes, J., Stubbe, M., & Vine, B. (1999). Constructing professional identity: “Doing power” in policy units. In S. Srikant and C. Roberts (eds.), Talk, work and institutional order: Discourse in medical, mediation and management settings. Berlin and New York: Mouton, pp. 351–385.
- Hutchby, I. (1996). Power in discourse: The case of arguments on a British talk radio show. Discourse and Society, 7, 481–497.
- Ng, S-H., & Bradac, J. (1993). Power in language. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Tannen, D. (1994). Gender and discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- Tannen, D. (1995). The power of talk: Who gets heard and why. Harvard Business Review, 73(5), 138–148.
- Thornborrow, J. (2002). Power talk: Language and interaction in institutional discourse. Harlow: Longman.
- Van Dijk, T. A. (1993). Elite discourse and racism. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.