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Dominant discourses and dis-empowerment.

edited March 2013 in Politics
Here are a couple explanations of dominant discourse:
It's an expression from the field of media criticism, and was influenced by two important theorists of communication-- Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall. A "discourse" is a particular way of talking about a subject-- it contains meanings that are understood by groups of people or by a particular culture. For example, there is a "discourse" about illegal immigrants, or a "discourse" about mental illness. The discourse contains particular ideological beliefs. A "dominant discourse" is created by those in power, and it becomes the accepted way of looking at (or speaking about) the subject, since it is repeated so much. During the war in Iraq, there was a dominant discourse about patriotism, created by the president and his administration and disseminated through the media. People who dissented from that discourse were criticized and called unpatriotic.
Dominant discourse is the spoken, written, and behavioral expectations that we all share within a cultural grouping. That makes it normative, meaning that this is based on our expectations as a social group. Because norms are often out-of-awareness, this also makes these normative expectations out-of-awareness, leading to many unstated assumptions.
Dominant discourse is this collection of expectations we take for granted. It embodies socialization by the dominant or decision-making group. Dominant discourse gives us the prevailing "accepted" rules of everyday living as practiced by our decision-makers. Dominant discourse rarely includes the perspective of the Other, the non-power holding Other.

Post modernism and critical theory are the theoretical approaches that insist upon including the perspective of the Other.
Two examples of major conflicts associated with challenges to discourse are the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. In both these cases, the dominant discourse involved discrimination against a particular group of people. Those in power during both these periods used open propaganda, as well as scare tactics, to assert and maintain dominance through the general population. A more general example of conflict related to dominant discourse is war of any type, although conflicts do not always escalate to the point of physical violence.

Even though the clearest examples of dominant discourse arguably come from associated conflict, social norms can be positive for a society on some levels. One benefit of dominant discourse is that it provides one or more points of commonality between members of a society. This can help members of the society develop a sense of normalcy, as they have some predictability in terms of what they are supposed to do and say in different situations. It also provides people with a sense of belonging, because they are able to see that others are acting or speaking in the same way.

Dominant discourse is variable, meaning that discourses on different topics do not always come from the same individual or groups. For example, a church may provide a standard for prayer or preparing a funeral, while a health organization may provide standards for patient care and interaction. This means that changes to one dominant discourse don't always directly impact other discourses. In fact, members of society may remain ignorant to some dominant discourses unless they are in some way directly associated with certain groups, such as the general public being relatively unfamiliar with the meaning of many medical and legal terms.
Here are some pitfalls that arise from dominant discourses:
May He Yawn in Good Faith? tells the story on which this analysis is based.

Martha Minow approaches the issues of how communication is affected by difference and privileging in Making All the Difference: Inclusion,Exclusion and American Law. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990. She blames some of the difficulty on our hearing each other on five unstated assumptions we make about "differences."

(1) We assume that differences are "intrinsic." That somehow Kornblum's yawn was telling about Kornblum himself, and particularly, Kornblum as an American.

(2) We assume that that "the norm need not be stated." That simply everyone knows what a yawn means, particularly when an American Ambassador yawns at a vice president of the German Parliament.

(3) We assume that "the observer can see without a perspective." That what the vice president of the German Parliament saw was what "there was" to be seen. That the infamous yawn felt to the ambassador as it looked to the vice president.

(4) We assume that "other perspectives are irrelevant." That we don't need to know the perceptions or the context in which the ambassador's yawn occurred. We don't need to hear the ambassador's story.

(5) We assume that the "status quo is natural, uncoerced, and good." That there are no other competing theories, no world tensions, no illness, no overloaded schedules, nothing but the here and now with no competing claims on our attention, our energy, our fervor. (Minow, op. cit., at pp. 50-78)

Minow argues that the fact that these assumptions go unstated means that they underlie much of our communication without our even being aware of the extent to which they interfere in our good faith hearing of one another's validity claims. We need to state our assumptions, bring them to the discourse table, so that we can identify the miscommunication that derails our efforts at community.
So, a few questions, after pondering this...

1. Can you think of a scenario in which you felt a conflict between the dominant discourse, and your actual beliefs?

2. Have you ever felt forced to submit to a dominant discourse that allowed no room for your own perspective?

3. Have you seen people consciously or unconsciously work to shut down discourses opposed to the dominant one?

4. Do you feel that it is acceptable to challenge a dominant discourse, or that upholding it is generally desirable?

5. How can post-modernism and critical theory be applied in order to create awareness of a dominant discourse?


  • Do you...want us to do your homework for you?

    1. Yes.
    2. Yes. That's part of living in society.
    3. Yes. Obvious.
    4. Depends on the situation. Again, obvious.
    5. A good stepping stone to rational thought, but simplistic, needlessly contrarian, and bound to its own 20th Century biases.

    There, done.
  • Thread done in one.
  • Do you...want us to do your homework for you?

    1. Yes.
    2. Yes. That's part of living in society.
    3. Yes. Obvious.
    4. Depends on the situation. Again, obvious.
    5. A good stepping stone to rational thought, but simplistic, needlessly contrarian, and bound to its own 20th Century biases.

    There, done.
    Well, actually I was trying to facilitate a discussion on the subject, and was hoping that people would provide examples that would spark discussion. I'm not currently enrolled in any Sociology classes. I'll answer them myself to prove that I know what I'm talking about, I suppose, since that has been called into question...

    1. Yes, in the case of religion. The majority of people where I live are Christians, and I'm actually Agnostic. Yet, people make assumptions about how I should interact that assume a Christian background and worldview. Prayer time in schools, quoting bible verses as a way of getting me to go along with something, etc.

    2. Yes, and it ties in with the first one. I can't actually refuse to bow my head in prayer when I go to eat dinner at someone's home without causing a scene, for instance. I also have to cite the Pledge of Allegiance even though I'm uncertain of my loyalties and disagree with the religious content of it.

    3. Certainly, one of the best examples is that recently, there was an attempt to pass a bill that removed critical thinking skills from the curriculum of Texas schools because it undermines parental authority. Any attempt to introduce evolution to the curriculum has been met very harshly as well.

    4. I believe that it is desirable to challenge a dominant discourse in certain situations, particularly if someone is being harmed by it. For instance, a dominant discourse that vilifies African-Americans or Hispanic people should certainly be challenged. A dominant discourse regarding something trivial like following a ritual or dressing a certain way... would be less important to challenge, in my opinion.

    5. Post-modernism and critical theory can be applied to distance yourself from the assumptions made in any given interpretation of reality, and examine them with a critical eye rather than just taking them for granted. After doing this, you can begin to see how the dominant discourse itself shaped our perception of reality, and hopefully get closer to seeing the nature of the actual, underlying reality.

    There. Now, religion was a fairly obvious example, but there are countless other things I could draw upon.
  • I'm trying to imagine who would answer 'no' to these questions. I'm picturing an American Gods-esque physical manifestation of a particular culture. A living zeitgeist that is a pure spiritual amalgam of all the dominant values of the culture from which they were birthed, without deviation.
  • edited March 2013
    Here's a question: How do you change the "dominant discourse" in a society / social group? The only two answers I can think of off the top of my head are:

    1. Marketing. Appeal to base instincts. Kind of manipulative and ends up being a war of money (see: elections).

    2. Critical Thinking Education. Takes a shit ton of time and money, and requires a retooling of most education systems. Also does nothing for the post-primary-education population.

    Maybe some kind of incentivized system? They also take time and money, and I'm not sure how effective they are.

    EDIT: Of course I should mention the Twelve Angry Men approach, though it requires mostly-rational agents and a limited group size.
    Post edited by YoshoKatana on
  • Murder everyone.
  • Murder everyone.
    Aww yeah thinking outside the box!
  • Murder everyone.
    Remind me to invite you to our next meeting.
  • Problem; Solution;
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