Civil unrest in South Africa: Insights from cognitive linguistics and critical discourse analysis

Lee, Melissa (2018-03)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2018.


ENGLISH ABSTRACT: The critical investigation of political discourse has been of interest to philosophers, rhetoricians, political scientists, and linguists for centuries. Dating back to Aristotle, thinkers have been interested in the interconnectedness of politics and discourse, and the obvious implications thereof for democratic nations (Gastil, 1992:469). In more recent times, media representations of civil disorder, including protests, have received attention from Critical Linguists such as Fairclough (1992), Fang (1994), van Dijk (1993, 2003), Wodak (2002), Chan-Malik (2011) and Bennett (2013). These linguists adopted Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) as a methodological tool, and in doing so, have highlighted how different news publications represent protest activity differently, and that these differences can be attributed to divergent ideologies regarding protest action and the social actors involved in such protests. However, while such studies have produced fascinating results, there are numerous criticisms that have been raised against CDA as an approach to textual analysis. These criticisms threaten to invalidate both the conclusions drawn from these analyses as well as the field of research itself (see, for example, Breeze, 2011:503). In response to this, theorists have revised the methodology and put forward alternative approaches to CDA, including the cognitive linguistic (CL) approach and the incorporation of experimentation. More specifically, the CL approach to CDA (CL-CDA) attempts to resolve the issue of cognitive equivalence (Hart, 2013:403). That is, it attempts to investigate whether the features identified by CDA analysts as being psychologically persuasive are really construed as such by the intended target readership. In order to determine this, CL-CDA analysis focuses on conceptual features such as metaphor, action chains, and point of view (Hart, 2013:404). With previous studies on protest action in mind, as well as the new methodological approaches to CDA, this study conducted a CL-CDA analysis of textual representations of the Fees Must Fall protests, which took place across South Africa in 2015 and 2016. 75 Online articles topicalising these protests were gathered and selected from a variety of publications whose target readerships typically differ with regards to class, socio-economic status, or race. The action chains and point of view encoded in these texts were analysed according to the CL-CDA framework. The results of this analysis highlighted the cognitive features or processes that are most prominent in South African media representations of the Fees Must Fall protests. The CL-CDA analysis revealed that the South African news publications Stellenbosch University v ideologically favoured the protesters in their coverage of the protests. In an effort to explain this deviation from typical protest discourse as outlined in the literature review, it was posited that South Africa’s current political landscape and the legacy Apartheid imprinted in the seams of South Africa’s society created a culture that is particularly intolerant of state oppression and tolerant of protests. These findings were later used to determine the content of the experimental portion of the study. In this part of the study, a closed-ended survey was designed and distributed to over 300 participants online in order to investigate the cognitive effects of various linguistic constructions: specifically, their perception of blame placement and aggression rating. The results yielded a fair number of statistically significant outcomes, some of which support the CL-CDA approach to analysis, and some of which refute it. Crucially, the results supported the ultimate assumption of CDA: that readers’ conceptualisations of events are influenced by subtle lexico-grammatical differences in texts. In doing so, this study makes a contribution to the field of Critical Linguistics and mainstream CDA by offering valuable insights into the way in which specific linguistic features are interpreted by the target audience.

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