Discourse in cultural-historical perspective: Critical discourse analysis, CHAT, and the study of social change

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What part does discourse play in significant social events and processes of social change? This is a very important question for social scientists in general, but it seems particularly significant for the cultural-historical tradition. Yet, in terms of seeking to address the role of language use in processes of social change, it seems that the cultural-historical tradition has somewhat lagged behind other schools of social science. Perhaps then, it might be suggested, cultural-historical researchers should be looking to learn from these other schools, and to use their tools and insights. The principal school that might come to mind here is the school of Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis (CL-CDA), originating in the work of Roger Fowler and his colleagues at the University of East Anglia in the later 1970s and represented today in particular by the well-known works of Norman Fairclough. Yet, as contributors such as Jones and Engeström have argued, close scrutiny of the CL-CDA tradition in general, and the work of Fairclough in particular, reveals serious difficulties with the idea of complementing CHAT with CDA. Perhaps, then, CHAT researchers might seek instead to build more effectively on the bases to be found within the CHAT tradition itself. This paper seeks to contribute something to this latter course. It begins with a brief discussion of some of the principal problems with CL-CDA – focusing in particular on its ‘problem of context’. The paper then highlights the difference between CDA and the cultural-historical tradition on this crucial question, before going on to provide a case study of social change in the west of Scotland. This takes the form of an account of a major, central government-led, urban policy intervention in a poverty-stricken housing estate in the town of Paisley. An attempt will be made to show how analysis of language-use, conducted along the lines of CHAT, can help us both to understand this process of social change better, and also to demonstrate, much more clearly than CDA has, the vital role that language use can play in such processes.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Transformation of Learning
Subtitle of host publicationAdvances in Cultural-Historical Activity Theory
EditorsBert Van Oers, Wim Wardekker, Ed Elbers, Rene van der Veer
Place of PublicationUnited Kingdom
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages31
ISBN (Print)9780521156981
Publication statusPublished - 2008
Externally publishedYes


  • critical discourse analysis
  • social change


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