A Critical Question

At my interview, my supervisor asked me about my choice of methodology. After trying to squirm my way around a question I knew I couldn’t really answer, I put my hands up and admitted that I didn’t know… it’s been preying on my mind ever since.

I had a basic idea of how I would conduct my study when I went for my interview. First, I would put large amounts of text (from ‘Mumsnet’ threads) into a computer programme, which I could use to pick out patterns of interest (for those who don’t know, this is corpus linguistics). I would then examine language of interest identified by the corpus programme more closely. For this stage, I’d decided to use critical discourse analysis (CDA), mainly because of its association with language study in relation to the wider social context, and because I had found systemic functional linguistics, on which CDA is based, to be a really useful analytical framework in the past.

It became very clear in my interview, though, that I hadn’t really investigated CDA enough to be sure that it was the right tool to help me answer my research questions, so when my supervisor asked me:

“so, why critical discourse analysis?”

I was totally flummoxed. A look of terror must have passed through my eyes because she smiled encouragingly and tried to be a bit more specific (which of course, didn’t help at all):

“because you specified critical in your proposal… why is this particularly relevant to your aims?”


As it turns out, CDA is a very relevant tool in the poststructuralist approach to gender and language study. Short digression: The poststructuralist approach gained popularity as linguists became increasingly disaffected with early deficit, dominance and difference models, which I summarised in my previous blog entry. As we rolled towards the millennium, more and more feminist linguists were dismissing these approaches as reductive, stereotypical and generalistic, in their polarisation of ‘men’ and ‘women’ as opposites, with fixed patterns of language use. The poststructuralist approach, by contrast, positions identity as a fluid concept, changing according to context, and language as (one of the) means by which we position ourselves, in a given place, at a given time. I’m hoping to write more about this soon, as I think it’s going to be important. Right now I’m still getting my head around it.

Back to methods. I realise now, I think, the importance of the question ‘why critical?‘ as it has massive implications for the aims of my study. My supervisor was clearly nudging me back in this direction when I met her a couple of weeks ago and she kept saying ‘you have to really think about your aims…’ In my proposal, my aim to examine ‘how ‘Mumsnetters’ use language to interact, create a sense of community and position themselves within this community’ wasn’t really a perfect fit with the aims of critical discourse analysis.

Having read a bit more about CDA, I see that it’s about far more than ‘examining language in its social context’. A critical discourse analyst explores the relationship between language and issues of dominance, power and ideology. My aims, as they stand, don’t put me in the position to be this kind of analyst. So something needs to change… my aims (or at least the focus of my aims), or my methods. If I adjust my aims, with the intention of taking a more ‘critical’ approach, I need to be thinking more about the roles and power relations that are constructed in Mumsnet ‘discourse’. For example, I might place more emphasis on the question of ‘how users of Mumsnet position themselves within this community’, considering power relations within threads (who holds the power? How and why?), or in relation to the ‘outside’ community (how do users of Mumsnet present themselves in relation to the wider world: their children, or their partners, for example).  

If this is the direction of my questioning, then I am in a position to begin to consider an answer to the question ‘why critical?’: because I want to unearth the power relations hidden within the interaction between Mumsnet users; because I want to explore the way Mumsnet users ‘perform’ their roles in this context; because I want to know why they position themselves in these particular ways in this particular virtual space…

But do I want to be critical? Do I need to be?

I’ll get back to you.

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