The dehumanizing effect of critical discourse analysis

In the closing paragraph of his article, van Dijk writes: "this paper has sketched a rather simplified picture of power, dominance and their relations to discourse" (1993). Unfortunately, that is exactly why critical discourse analysis should not be used, in my view, for social research.

Dualistic frameworks about power and oppression, dominance and hegemony can be applied in the formulation of a research question, for example during an ethnographic study. They might also be useful in examining social phenomena, such Paulo Freire's popular education movement. However, they ideally should only represent a portion of the researcher's work.

Van Dijk's statement that: "critical scholars should not worry about the interests of perspectives of those in power, who are best placed to take care of their own interests anyway" is frightening, because it implies that there are two classes of human beings: the powerful and the powerless. It also indicates that the former class is less worthy of study, and even of human compassion, than the latter one.

I would venture that, in reality, power dynamics are much more complicated than this, and that human beings, whether they hold more or less power, remain multi-dimensional and unclassifiable. Any researcher that splits a population into two groups, discards one group and promotes perceived interests of the other, is not only misguided, but can also create serious damage in any community.


  1. I'm so happy to see this critique, I think it's an important thing to remember; one of the difficulties I always had with reading theorists like Foucault was the abolishment of individual agency, an overemphasis of the system as if society was trapped in a machine, or operating like puppets by some superior script given from above.

    With that said, I appreciated van Dijk's honesty in describing this method. I read it be quite articulate to point out this was a very particular approach that is working at a certain scope and is based on assumptions. He says that social inequality is so complex, the best way we have come up to investigate it is by looking at these massive shifts ("focusing on the role of discourse in the (re)production and challenge of
    dominance.", pp 1).

    Regardless though, the dehumanizing effect critical discourse has might only be matched by the dehumanizing effect of the social institutions it is analyzing.

  2. Thanks Jennette, I think you made several good points - notably that it was only because van Dijk described his biases that I was able to criticize them. You may also be right in saying that it is not only the research method, but also the institutions themselves, that categorize citizens and reduce understanding of their individuality.