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What Is the Relationship between Discourse and Power?

By Lily Ruha
Updated May 23, 2024
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The relationship between discourse and power rests in the ability of language to control or affect the behaviors and thoughts of others. Discourse analysis with respect to power typically focuses on the role of authorities and their abilities to guide, lead or control others through speech or conversation. Controlling the topic, interrupting others and using forceful or command-oriented language are ways that some people attempt to gain power. Examination of discourse across cultures shows varying interpretations of language usage. Understanding and mastering the nuances of discourse is important for mitigating power inequalities.

Studies on discourse and power often focus on the language and communication strategies used by people who are in leadership or authority roles. Lawyers and judges rely on distinct language and terminology to create order, question people and compel witnesses to reveal facts. A mother might rely on firm words to curb the behavior of her child. To command respect and establish power differentials, teachers often require that students address them formally. In each case, although terminology usage and tone of voice might vary, the main goal is obedience or control.

Gaining power over others through language is done in a variety of ways. The most obvious connection between discourse and power is the use of controlling or aggressive language to control behavior. Directing the course of a conversation is another way that people exercise control. By selecting the topic of conversation and steering away from personal topics, for example, a person might control the nature of the interaction. Interrupting others is considered another strategy for gaining power and is a common habit of small children who need attention or who feel powerless.

The absence of words is sometimes instrumental in achieving power. A mother who catches her child climbing the kitchen cupboards in reach of cookies might communicate through facial expressions or a simple "No!" The lack of response to a student's question might signal that the teacher finds the question inappropriate. Two people in a romantic relationship might attempt to gain power by limiting the amount of discourse on a particular topic. The connection between discourse and power, therefore, is related to the actual words, tone and amounts of communication between people.

Understanding the link between discourse and power is significant for reducing power inequalities. A potential scam victim might benefit from tuning in to the instigator's persuasive discourse. Deciphering the real meaning and sincerity of words is essential for achieving balance of power. Similarly, negative opinions about particular cultural groups sometimes result from inaccurate interpretations of communication styles. The discourse of a particular ethnic group might be considered forceful in comparison with the dominant culture when, in fact, its true intent might not be to control or disrespect others.

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Discussion Comments

By donasmrs — On Mar 25, 2014

I completely agree that we can tell a lot about two people's relationship with one another by looking at the discourse they use.

For example, if one person is talking more than the other or giving orders within the discourse, we can say that this person dominates the relationship. He or she has the most power. If two people are speaking equally and in a similar discourse, their power is equal to one another, no one is dominating the relationship or making the rules.

By SarahGen — On Mar 24, 2014

@fBoyle-- That's an interesting question. I'm not an expert on this topic but I think that it may be a little bit of both.

Someone with power may feel more free to use certain types of discourse. For example, a judge in a court can tell people to be quiet, to sit, to stand or to leave a courtroom. It's the judge's position that gives him or her the power to use this type of discourse. If someone else in a different position were to speak the same way, there would be serious backlash.

At the same time, I also feel that people who speak in a certain way demand respect and obedience, so the discourse contributes to their power.

By fBoyle — On Mar 24, 2014

Does discourse lead to power or does power allow someone to use a specific type of discourse?

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