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A communicative conception of discourse

Discourse studies, vol.4, number3, SAGE Publications, London 2002., 2002

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In this article I would like to demonstrate how the study of the language facts is relevant to two problematics : “communicational” and “representational”. This double problematic lays claim to several schools of thought : pragmatics, insofar as all speech-acts are endowed with illocutionary and perlocutionary force ; socio-ethnography, insofar as the external conditions of language production are taken into account ; psychology insofar as I consider that every speech-act is inscribed into a perspective of influence. Such a position, which I term semio-communicative, depends on several principles : “alterity” (every speaker constructs and is constituted through the addressee) ; “influence” (the speaker speaks in order to allow the addressee entry into his / her discursive world), “regulation” (by taking the other and the circumstances of communication into account the addressee wants to influence the other), “relevancy” (in order to understand each other both have to share the same representation of the world and of themselves which may be adequate and adjusted to the situation of communication). Our position thus presupposes a theory of the language subject in keeping with the constraints of the situation of communication and with the strategies that this subject employs.

The subject and his “competences”

I shall hereby defend a first hypothesis : each speech-act is the result of the combination of a situation, a discursive organisation and a certain use of forms. Evidently, the speaking subject makes these choices according to the constraints of the situation and the possibilities of discourse realisation that offer themselves to him. In order to shed light on the different ‘compentences’ that the speaking subject calls upon when setting his discourse on stage, I will begin with an example taken from media discourse. The extract is from a French literary television program entitled Apostrophes ; after having questioned one of his guests (J.F Revel) about an interview that he had given to Play Boy magazine, the presenter (B. Pivot) turns to his two other guests and asks them :

-Bernard Pivot : “And you, do you read Play boy ?”
-Jean Cau (dry) : “No !”
-Jean Dutourd (playing it cool : ‘Yes, I do sometimes, at the barber’s’

We can see that, in this program, a triangular device organises the language exchanges. The so-called talk-show, puts various participants into contact with one another and encourages verbal exchange on the subject of the books that they have written, exchange animated by the presenter who asks them questions. But this device puts these participants into relation with a present-absent third : the public. But this device puts the participants into contact with a present-absent third : the public. We can therefore hypothesise that each speaker in this situation knows that he is being watched and listened to by the third party, and that the exchange is directed more toward this third party than toward the other interlocutors, or toward this third party via the other interlocutors. Moreover, each of the participants taking turns in the conversation can find himself in the position of the third party, listening while the others talk to one another.

In such a device each participant has to satisfy a certain number of conditions : the conditions of responding to questions, the conditions of clear and simple explanation (for the sake of the public) and, if needs be, the conditions of courtesy in debate [1]. But at the same time, every participant wants to extricate himself, that is to say, he wants to individualise himself by employing strategies designed to make him credible and to seduce his interlocutors, above all the public. One can see how J. Dutourd begins. His answer may be interpreted in such a manner : “I read this magazine when the opportunity comes my way, in the waiting room or in places of recreation (certainly not in the dentist’s office), without deliberately buying it at the news agent.” Everything happens as if Dutourd is appealing to the discourse of some meta-enunciator who would say : “A recognised intellectual has to be curious about everything”, and, correlatively would hint : “In life one needs to know how to be tolerant”.

Strategically, this answer could have various effects :

a) it is an apparent response to B. Pivot who, in the present case, becomes the you-addressee to whom J. Dutourd makes clear that he avoided falling into the question’s trap : to answer ‘no’ would be to show himself as a sectarian, to answer “yes” would be to show himself as frivolous. But at the same time this answer institutes J. Cau as a third party. It construes him as the ‘secretarian’ and, in opposition to Cau, Dutourd presents himself as a tolerant person.

b) It is also aimed, perhaps more indirectly, at J.F Revel, (though one does not have the capacity to measure the degree of indirectness of an enunciation) : ‘It is perhaps not very appropriate for a man of letters to give an interview to a magazine that one flips through absentmindedly at the barber’s.’

c) Lastly, and simultaneously, the answer is delivered as a wink to the public - the television-viewer, the third party - anticipated by the device, a wink meaning : ‘See how one can get out of a trap-question ? Jokingly’ He invites the third party to be complicit with him.

One sees how these discourses interact with one another. We can therefore assert that, as in every act of communication, the discourses intermingle. But one can also see that in order to appreciate their value, one has to distinguish the levels upon which they occur.

To describe this functioning, we propose a model of three levels of sense construction. Each of these levels corresponds to one of the subject’s “competences” : from the ‘situational’ level to communicational competence, the ‘discursive’ level to discursive and semantic competence, the ‘semiolinguistic’ level to semiolinguistic competence.

The communicational competence corresponds to the “situational” level of the conditions of utilisation and interpretation of speech-acts. It represents the subject’s ability (whether he be in the place of the one who communicates or in that of the one who interprets) to recognise and to consider the particularities of the situation of communication, i.e., the identity of the exchange partners, the purpose of the exchange, the content at stake and the material circumstances that surrounding it.

The identity of the exchange partners determines “who speaks to whom”, in other words the nature of the communicating subject as well as the nature of the interpreting subject as far as their social identity as communicating beings is concerned, according to their status, their social role and their place in the communicative relation (for example the meaning of the utterance ‘I see you’re making progress’ is determined by the fact that the speaker is a father who is addressing his son). The ‘legitimacy’ of the communicating subject will be judged according to the identity of the subjects – that is to say, according to that which justifies his ‘right to speak’ – and the power relations set up between them. This identity is both social (attributed by the status) and discursive (constructed through the language act). The authority of the speaking subject depends as much upon his social identity as upon his discursive identity.

The purpose of the communication act is defined by way of the response to the (more often than not implicit) question : ‘What am I here to say ?’ and symmetrically ‘What am I here to hear ?’ The answers are extremely different, according to depending on the level of generality or particularity on which one is situated. On a certain level of generality the answers will be given in terms of communicative aims from the point of view of the communicating subject : a “prescription” aim that tends to make the Other do or (make him say, or make him not to do) something ; the aim that one can find in the legal, regulating, injunction texts etc. ; a “request” aim that wants to obtain knowledge of the other, the aim that one can find in reclamation texts, requests for information, petitions, etc. ; an “information” aim that wants to let the Other know something, such as in practical information texts, announcements, media texts etc. ; an “inducement” aim that wants to make the Other do something but without being authoritative, which obliges the subject to make believe such as in propaganda texts (political or advertising texts) ; an “educational” aim that wants to “let the Other know” something, this aim corresponds to instruction manuals, dosage of medicines, etc ; a “demonstrative” aim that wants to establish a truth (or the evidence of a truth) (Charaudeau, 2000), this aim corresponds to certain scientific texts, expert’s reports, investigative reports etc. It is precisely the variation of the aim according to the situation of communication that allows us to explain how an utterance like “The train leaves at 5 o’clock” can be interpreted as an order (“prescription”), a suggestion (“inducement”) or a statement (“information”).

The content (propos) is that which echoes the relevancy principle, together with the idea that each situation belongs to a thematic domain however general it might be. The content corresponds to the way in which “that which is spoken about” is structured or “topicalised”. For example, here, in this article, the content corresponds to the topicalisation that has been set up by the co-ordinator of the periodical. In the situation of communication of an advertisement, the content corresponds to the thematic domain of commercial promotion ; in a situation of political communication, the content corresponds to the thematic domain of “life in society”.

The material circumstances constitute what determines the situations of communication from the point of view of its materiality : the number of participants, their respective position towards each other, the medium (channel) of the exchange transmission, the place of exchange, the moment, every circumstance deemed as relevant to the constitution of messages. For example, according to the circumstances, the addressees are involved in an interlocutive (often oral) or monolocutive (often, but not always, written) exchange, the right to take one’s turn in speech is differently actualised. Indeed, the subject of the interlocution is a subject that constantly has to defend his/her right to speak, managing in the best possible way the moves of acceptation or rejection of the Other, whereas the subject of the monolocution imposes on the other his/her universe and his/her thematic organisation, owing to the fact that the latter cannot immediately respond. These are the material circumstances allowing us to distinguish the variants within the global situation of communication, variants bringing to each situation certain particularities. Thus, as for advertising, we will distinguish between : street advertising (posters, magazine adverts (flicking through the pages)), television commercials (animated adverts). Likewise, within political discourse, we will distinguish between those produced in an electoral rally, during a broadcasted declaration, a radio interview, and those published in the press. The communicational competence is that which determines the stake (‘enjeu’) of speech-acts in each situation of communication.

Discursive competence corresponds to the “discursive” level from the viewpoint of the mechanism of discourse realisation. It represents the ability of the subject to recognise and to manipulate the operating procedures of the discourse organisation that echo the constraints of the communicative frame. These constraints (not to be confused with the properly linguistic operating procedures) are of three orders : enunciative, descriptive-narrative and argumentative. The enunciative operating procedures correspond to the enunciative attitude constructed by the speaking subject, according to the identificatory and relational data of the situation of communication, but also to the image that he wants to give of himself and to the image he wants to attribute to the Other. He invents then the “I” and “You” of the enunciative act which can overlap the data or mask them (as in irony). He does it by means of modalisation categories, constructing enunciative roles (elocutionary, allocutionary and delocutionary – élocutif, allocutif, délocutif) (Charaudeau, 1991, 1995) These operating procedures set up the situation of enunciation which ought to be distinguished from the situation of communication that is part of the situational frame : when an employer speaks to his/her employee according to the status of employer and employee, the situation of communication (social identity) has to be taken into account ; when the employer speaks showing his/her authority or on the contrary his/her familiarity, it is the situation of enunciation that must be considered. The situation of enunciation is set on stage according to the norms that prevail in each social group. Thus socio-linguistic rituals (written as well as oral) appear. For there exists a social market of these rituals, according to the cultural habits of each socio-linguistic community. Consequently, the subject needs have the ability to recognise these rituals, and this competence is acquired through social apprenticeship. The descriptive-narrative procedures consist both in the capacity to denominate and to qualify the beings of the world, in an objective and / or subjective way, for the descriptive aspect ; in the capacity to describe the actions in the world from the viewpoint of the various actants involved, for the narrative aspect. The argumentative procedures consist in the capacity to organise the explicative causality chains of the events, and the evidence of what is true, false or plausible.

The semantic competence also corresponds to the “discursive” level, but from the viewpoint of investment in the matter of knowledge. It can be defined as the subject’s ability to recognise and to mobilise what cognitivists call a “mutually shared cognitive surrounding” (Sperber, 1989). The fact is, that in order to understand one has to appeal to common knowledge supposedly shared by the partners of the linguistic exchange. I shall distinguish two types of information. Knowledge information which corresponds to the more or less objective perceptions and definitions of the world : this information is constructed according to shared experiences (it is still said that ‘the sun rises and sets’) ; scientific information shaped by calculations, reasoning and experiments (we know that the earth revolves around the sun) ; belief information which corresponds to a system of values, more or less codified, which circulates in social communities, provokes judgements of its members and at the same time give these members a reason to exist from the point of view of their identity (expressed through “collective opinions” such as in dicta and proverbs (“all that glitters is not gold…”)). The required ability is much more complex here than in the previous cases, insofar as it rests principally on life experience in society, where the semantic order of discourse is expressed both explicitly and implicitly. How can it be that we understand an utterance such as “on ne mendie pas son droit, on l’obtient de haute lutte” (‘one must not beg for one’s rights, one must struggle for them”) to be “fascist” and not, as one might have thought, “revolutionary” ? Everything depends on the inferences that the interpreting subject will be led to make according to the situational data and his own position. This is why an inference theory seems to be the most appropriate to study the phenomena of implicit interdiscursivity. [2]

Discursive competence is thus composed of two types of competence : one deals with modes of organisation, of the setting-up of discourse, and the with the content, the types of information and value-systems, in relation to which the subjects define their proper positions.

Semiolinguistic competence corresponds to the level of the distribution of forms. This competence is the ability of subjects to recognise and to manipulate the form of signs, the rules of their combination in relation to the sense that they carry. Obviously, these signs cannot be recognised and manipulated but in relation to the constraints of the situational frame and those of discourse organisation. It is at this level that the text is constructed, if, by text, one means the result of a speech-act produced by a given subject in a given situation of social exchange having a particular form with limits proper to it. So, in order to construct a text, one must have the ability to adjust its construction to previously defined constraints. This setting-up is accomplished on three levels, each of them requiring a certain know-how :

  • a know-how as to textual composition : on the one hand, the composition of the text in its environment (the “paratextual” (Genette:1982), in other words the disposition of different elements external to the text (for example, the composition of pages in a magazine and their organisation into sections, columns and sub-columns) ; on the other hand, the composition internal to the text, that it is to say, its organisation into parts, its network of references and repetitions.
  • a know-how as to the grammatical construction, in other words, the utilisation of types of construction (active, passive, nominalised, impersonal [3]), logical marks (connectors), pronominalisation, anaphorisation, the modality of everything concerning the “formal apparatus of the enunciation act ” according to Benveniste’s expression (modal verbs, adjectives, diverse locutions).
  • finally, a know-how as to the appropriate use of the lexicon according to the social value that they carry. Just as there is a social market of linguistic rituals, there is also a social market of words. Being constantly used in certain types of situations, these end up by acquiring a trade price : they become endowed with a certain “power of truth” and they thereby reveal the identity of those who use them. So it can be said that words also have an “identity value” (“target, position, company image, to win the loyalty of customers” cross-refer to the communication experts group ; the same goes for certain expressions [4]).

Consequently, this is a particular competence, one that consists in the ability to recognise and use words according to their rules of combination, their identity value and their power of truth. These types of structures can be called “sociolects” : ways of speech characteristic of a social group (family, professional, regional, national or cultural).

This fourfold competence constitutes the conditions of the linguistic communication. It is formed through a to-ing and fro-ing motion between the social conditions of communication, the operating procedures of the discursive organisation, the different types of knowledge, and the systems of form, the building sites of discourse being embedded the one into the other.

This naturally leads me to hypothesise that there are types of memory that correspond correlatively to these types and levels of competence.

A memory of the situations of communications. It can be presumed that the members of a given social community have registered different mechanisms that regulate linguistic exchanges, mechanisms that constitute the whole of the psychosocial conditions of the situations of communication, the recognition of which allows the partners to understand what is at stake in the exchange. Without this communicational memory, a representation of death could not be interpreted in different ways in terms of mass media or in terms of commercial advertisement. [5] For it is not a question of death as discourse-content, but a question of the situation in which death is spoken of. At the same time, it can be said that this communicational memory groups together the subjects sharing [6] the same knowledge of the situational characteristics, thus creating among them an interpretative complicity.

Therefore, political discourse will be interpreted differently according to whether the subjects are attending a rally, a demonstration, a colloquium, a debate, a friendly conversation, etc.

Memory of discourse.. This memory registers the types of knowledge and types of beliefs proper to the community to which they belong. These discourses are established in representations, they circulate socially and constitute the poles of construction of collective identities that I shall term “discursive communities” [7].. It is upon that memory of discourse that advertising, for example, plays. A slogan such as : “Obernai, the first great beer with one less third calories” necessitates, in order to be understood, shared representations [8] of “the effect of calories”, “the value of being slim”, the fact that “those who drink beer are mostly men”. It is precisely this discursive memory that groups the subjects together in virtual communities [9] — subjects who share the same value-systems, be it moral judgement, political opinion, doctrines, ideologies, etc.

Memory of sign forms. This kind of memory registers forms and signs according to their formal aspect (be they verbal, iconic or gestual). This memory of signs has to with their organisation into a system as well with their use. Here, it is more a question of the second case, where the signs are organised in more or less routine manners of speaking, as if what matters in language is not what is said, but the way it is said. This memory acts in such a way that the subjects are joined in their shared affinity in speech-use (some would say “style”), by their “manner of speaking” ; this allows us to speak of “semiological communities” [10] [11].. Owing to this semiological memory, individuals make esthetical, ethical, pragmatic or other judgements based upon social norms that we suppose to be shared ; thus they distinguish themselves from each other [12]. The semiological community is also a virtual community of subjects who recognise one another through the “routinisation” of the forms of linguistic behaviour.

Given the “consubstantial” relationship between situation, meanings and forms, one can reasonably hypothesise that there is close relationship between these three types of memory, and beyond that, between the setting which is an structuring component of social practice and the normalisation-codification of linguistic practices. One can defend the idea that the social subject gives himself empirical genres, and that, he sets them as norms of linguistic conformity through the representations that he has of them from his training and his experience.

The subject between situational constraints and discursive strategies

My second hypothesis, related to the first is that the subject makes use of these different “competences” in a double fashion : on the one hand, as a social being he depends on the constraints that are delivered by the situation of communication, but as an individual, he/she attempts to give himself/herself existence through the use of strategies.

Constraints and discursive construction

The subject of discourse is both constrained and free, as we shall see.

The situational constraints

The situation of communication is the place where the constraints are instituted. These constraints determine what is at stake in the exchange. They come, as we have seen, from both the identity of the partners and from the place they occupy in the exchange, from the viewpoint of their aim, of their content and of the material circumstances in which the discourse is performed. By dint of linguistic exchanges, the exchange constructs itself. Indeed, in order to arrive at intercomprehension of the domains of communication (for example, the situations of a rally, of a broadcast declaration, or of an electoral program are part of the political communication domain). These domains determine, through the features of their components, the conditions of production and recognition of the communication acts. So the vast domain of social practice is structured in domains of communication that I call "global situations of communication", which are the result of the "particular" situations of communication related to them. Each situation as a whole therefore includes the general conditions common to all these particular situations, and, vice versa, each particular situation includes at the level of its components, both the general data that the global situation supplies and the features that are proper to it. For example, the global situation of political "communication" supplies the general features of the aim of "incitement", of identity of the partners (a political instance (instance) / a citizen instance (instance) / an adversary instance), of content (the “ideality” (idéalité) of the welfare). Otherwise, every particular situation (rally, tract, declaration on the radio etc.) is made up of these components, including those that come from material circumstances. So the discourses produced in each of these situations are different (one does not speak in a rally as on television) while also having something in common (defending the values, criticising those of the adversary, appearing credible). It is the same with the global situation of media communication whose general features one is constantly finding in the various particular situations of information (press, radio, television).

Any situation of communication, be it global or particular, proposes to the involved partners, a certain number of conditions that define the stake of the communicative exchange : its purpose, the identity of its participants, the domain of the content, the material circumstances. While making the hypothesis that without the recognition of these conditions there will not exist a possibility of intercomprehension, I introduce the notion of "communication" contract. All happens as if a speaker and an addressee were bound by a reciprocal recognition contract that allows them to understand each other. This contract plays then a role of constraint for the operating procedures of production and interpretation of the communication act, and at the same time it is what allows the partners of the exchange to co-construct the sense.

Considered from the point of view of discourse analysis, this notion allows us to group together the texts that take part in these situational conditions. Thus, corpora can be constructed, either around the global contract of communication (advertising text corpus, corpus of texts of media information, political text corpus), or around the particular situations (corpus of spot advertisements distinct from a corpus of posters ; corpus of political journalistic chronicles distinct from a corpus of radio chronicles, etc.). Such a typology is obviously, not the only principle of ordering of the texts. It does not allow to distinguish, inside the journalistic texts class, the differences that exist between different types of chronicles or articles, for example. Therefore, it is necessary for me to consider looking nearer at what happens at the level of the discursive construction.

The discursive construction

The discursive level is the place where, under the effect of the constraints of the situation, different and more or less codified “manners of speaking” establish themselves. This place is therefore the place where the subject makes some choices, which, without being constrained absolutely, are not completely free. It is really the question of distinguishing the situational, discursive and formal constraints.

The situational constraints are data external to the said but, as I have already mentioned, the basis of the data is communicational in determining : “why say so”, “who speaks to whom”, “about what” and “in what circumstances.” By doing so, these constraints generate the instructions that must correspond to a “how to say it.”

The discursive constraints are data internal to what is said and are dependent on the situational constraints. If the tie between the external data and the discursive construction is one of causality, it does not for all that settle a term-to-term correspondence between them. The first only determine what has to be the frame of the linguistic treatment in which they are put in order. So, one will observe that the purpose data, by the slant of their aims, determine a certain choice of descriptive, narrative, or argumentative modes [13] ; the data of the identity of the partners determine a certain choice of the mode of utterance (allocutionary, elocutionary, delocutionary (allocutif, élocutif, délocutif) ; the data of the content determine some modes of thematisation, namely, the organisation of the themes and sub-themes to be dealt with ; the material circumstance data determine certain forms, namely, the organisation of the material (verbal and/or visual) production of the communication act. The discursive constraints do not correspond to an obligation to use such or such a textual form, but to a whole of possible discursive behaviours among which the communicating subject chooses those that are susceptible to satisfy to the external data conditions. For example, the aims of "information" and of “incitement” characterising the media contract [14] determine a frame for the treatment of the discourse in which the media institution has to a) : to give an account of the event in order to transform it into news (and to turn it into an reported event) by using descriptive and narrative operating procedures, sometimes objectifying (in order to be credible), sometimes dramatising (in order to captivate) ; b) to explain the event (analysis or commentary) by using argumentative operating procedures ; c) to produce a new event by using operating procedures which encourage interaction (debates, talk-shows, interviews). The places assigned to the partners of this contract determine a frame for the treatment of utterances in which the media institution must construct for itself the image of an univolved, distant and neutral speaker. It must also construct an image of the recipient who is supposed to be involved (in the name of citizenship), to be affected (in the name of human nature) and to be making attempts to understand (in the name of good will). The subject determines a rationalisation of the thematic treatment, around the events selected according to their potential “actuality”, “proximity” and “social disorder” [15].

The formal constraints are also internal to what is said, constituting the textual configuration of it. They are repetitive use-forms that, in becoming routine, are stabilised in manners of speaking. But — and this is the original hypothesis — as these manners of speaking depend on the situation of communication ; the “routinisation” in question shapes itself into forms that echo the situational constraint requirements through discursive constraints. These play the role of mediator between the situational constraint data and the textual configuration. All components of the situation of communication condition the forms, through discursive constraints, but the material circumstance component is perhaps the one which most directly influences the forms ; that explains the reason why this component induces “material devices.” It starts with a differentiation of the forms of oral character or writing depending on whether the device puts the partners of the exchange in physical co-presence in an interlocutive situation, or in physical absence in a monolocutive situation ; what makes that the transmission channel will be in the first case phonic and in the second scriptural. Then, if one is for example in a situation of interlocution, the differentiation will concern the roles that are assigned to the different partners of the exchange, what causes the holds of speech and the enunciative attitudes not to be the same, for example, in an interview or in a debate [16]. On the other hand, if one is in a monolocutive situation, without physical co-presence of one’s partners, features of the device will cause the form of presentation of a message not to be the same depending on whether one communicates by letter, electronic mail or telegram. It is by taking into account of these circumstances that I could propose, in my work of analysis of the media information discourse, a typology first founded on the “device as materiality of the production”(Cahiers de sémiotique textuelle,1986) (what allows to say that the radio is essentially a device of contact, the television a device of spectacle and the press a device of legibility) ; then on the different operating procedures of production that are used to construct various “scenic devices” (interviews, reports, titles, etc.) (Cahiers de sémiotique textuelle, 1986). The organisation of the forms less obeys rules than norms of a more or less codified use, which are linguistically expressed in various ways. So, if an advert, owing to situational and discursive constraints, must show off the qualities of its product by using a slogan, and this slogan must be as brief as possible, that does not stop the sentences constructions in which it is expressed from being extremely variable. If, in the press, the discourse of information, by its situational and discursive constraints, must announce news by way of relatively short titles, that does not stop these titles — as is demonstrated by comparing them — from appearing as diverse sentences constructions (which are for the most part not nominalised) depending on the type of newspaper and of news.

It is at this level that the text is constructed, which endows it with some multiple properties ; as it is configured in a signifying materiality, it is characterised by general properties of oral character, of scriptural character, of mimo-gestual character, of iconic character, and their conditions of morphological, syntactic construction. As the text is produced in a contractual situation, it depends for its significance on what characterises this situation (purpose, identity, content and material circumstances) ; as its origin is a subject, this text discloses features of the situation that over-determine it and peculiar features, depending on the choices of the subject. So far, one can say about any text that it is both coded and singular. It is inscribed into a continuity that is delimited by a closure, the one that gives a text its structure, its internal coherence and the situational and discursive conditions that over-determine it in part. And at the same time this continuity remains open both because of its adherence to a situation that puts it in relation with other similar texts, and of the singularisation operated by the subject. Thus, one may say that the text is both autonomous and dependent.

This conception of the language work at three levels of constraints, brings, as it seems to me, a useful viewpoint in order to clarify somewhat the question, so often discussed, of the "genres of the discourse" : do they have to be defined and classified according to their formal recurrences or according to their conceptual devices ?

The definition by the formal recurrences always poses problems, considering the variety of texts that can be grouped in a same range. Looking at an advert, at a corpus of journalistic, scientific or political texts, one perceives that it is difficult to conclude that there exists an exclusive recurrence (because otherwise it would be impossible to make a differentiation) of such form of phrastic construction, of such use of the connectors or of the verbal tenses. This seems natural to me, if we consider that the constraints of the linguistic process result in first place from the communicational device, and that these constraints determine the others.

This is why I propose to define the genres in “situational” terms, from the constraints that characterise this level, and then enumerate its possible variants through the description of discursive and formal constraints. Thus, the contracts of the global situations of communication such as advertising, political, media or scientific contracts correspond to as many generic “genres” that I shall call “situational genres”. As for the variants of these contracts (that one will call “subcontracts” or “under-genres”), one will consider that they are embedded in the generic genre on which they depend. For example, “press titles” : these are inscribed into a global situation of media “communication” whose purpose is information that demands a discursive constraint of announcement of news ; in this particular situation, the constraint of announcement appeals to a formal constraint of titles. One also sees that it is possible to speak of genres at each of these different levels : the information genre determined by the media domain, the announcement under - genre determined by discursive constraints, and the under under-genre (sous sous-genre) of titles determined by formal constraints.

Discursive strategies

The notion of strategy is bound to that of the subject who would be its organiser, even if he/she is unaware of it. It is hardly possible to develop here a theory of the subject and of the strategies by reviewing those that prevail in the other social and human sciences. Instead, I shall go directly to what seems to constitute the conditions of a definition of this notion in the setting of the sciences of language. Four conditions determine the possibility of "linguistic strategies" :

1) It seems to me difficult to think about this notion without taking into account the complementary notion of "constraints". The subject must have a fixed frame assuring the stability and the predictability of his/her behaviour in order to be able to ask himself/herself what is the margin of manoeuvre in which he/she can move. It will be for me the "contract of communication" that will play the role of setting of constraints in relation to which the linguistic subject is determined in part, but in part only, which leaves him/her a margin of manoeuvre in which he/she will be able to use strategies.

2) Any speech-act is part of a more general social behaviour that is defined by its goal. This one represents the object of the quest toward which the subject is inclined ; obtaining this object represents a final balance state from which the subject benefits. To reach this goal, the subject must have an action competence that allows him to apply a certain number of types of behaviour, and to make some choices among those that are at his/her disposition in order to reach his/her goal. One can, perhaps, speak here of actional strategies but not of linguistic strategies

3) For this, it is necessary that an obstacle exists, an uncertainty as for the reach of the goal, an uncertainty that can be bound either to a possible counter-action of the other, to a possible superior performance of the other, or to the material obstacle existence making the reach of the goal difficult. In any case, the realisation of the goal depends on this other that is opposing him.

4) From there, can be put in place an aim to resolve the problem posed by the existence of the obstacle. The aim therefore superimposes itself upon the goal. In order to behave correctly, one must conform to the usual norms and at the same time constantly be thinking of other procedures. This aim opens up a new field of activities which, this time, is strictly linguistic : it is the question, for the speaking subject, of making some linguistic choices among a wide range of possibilities in order to influence the one on which the resolution of the problem depends. This type of activity belongs to a conceptualisation (and to a planning) which consists in calculating in advance the advantages and the drawbacks (the risks) of every choice according to the obstacles and uncertainties that might always appear.

Thus, for me, discursive strategies are defined in relation to the contract of communication. They consist for the subject first of all in an evaluation of the margin of manoeuvre of which he disposes inside the contract in order to play between, and with, the situational, discursive and formal constraints. Then to choose from among the modes of organisation of the discourse and the modes of textual construction, in relation to the types of knowledge and beliefs, the operating procedures that will correspond best to his own project of speech, his ‘influence-aim’ (‘visee d’influence’) vis a vis the addressee, and to the ‘stakes’ he gives himself. In this play between contract and strategies, one will say that the first is a matter of the decidable since the behaviours are expected there, the seconds of the un-decidable since they depend on the will, and on the knowledge to say of the subject. However, the strategies are not necessarily conscious. They can be non-conscious (this does not mean "unconscious"), meaning that it is not necessary to consider that they only result from a clear, reasoned and voluntary project of the communicating subject.


The strategies are multiple, but they can be grouped into three spaces, each of which corresponds to a type of stake. These stakes are not exclusive the one from the other, but are distinguished by the nature of their purpose. One will speak of stakes of legitimation, credibility and captation.

The stake of legitimation is based on the necessity to create or to reinforce the position of legitimacy of the speaking subject. It is about the operating procedure of setting in legitimacy, which explains the dynamic form of the word “legitimisation”.. The speaking subject may have some doubts about the way in which he is perceived by the addressee (be this last one individual or collective) as for his "right to the speech". It is necessary then to persuade his addressee that his grasp and manner of speech correspond well to the position of authority that is conferred to him either by his statute (one will speak of “institutional authority”), or by his relation to it (we can speak of “natural authority”).

Since the strategy of legitimisation consists especially in recalling or reinforcing a position of authority, it understandably comes with a “justification” discourse. If the latter appears without being asked for, one will speak of a "self-justification" discourse. In this case, the subject will rarely give it as such, since confessing the need to recall his position of legitimacy could be counterproductive while triggering off doubt in the addressee : “If he justifies himself, it is because he does not have enough authority to speak.” If the justification appears at the addressee’s request, it might consist only in recalling the institutional position of the subject, that which endows him with a certain knowledge (as expert, specialist or scientist) or a certain power (as a responsible person, able to take a decision or exercise a sanction). Use will be made of what is called in rhetoric an “argument of authority”.. Sometimes also, there exists no recourse to this genre, and the subject has to argue to explain his right to speak. In the media communication, for example, this stake of legitimisation is expressed by a discourse of "self-celebration" by the media organ (especially in television) that puts to an evidence the validity of his programs, the veracity of his information or the relevance of his commentaries.

A stake of credibility that is based on the need for the speaking subject to be believed, either in relation to the truth of the content of his discourse, or in relation to what he really thinks, in other words his sincerity. The speaking subject has to defend an image of himself (an "ethos") that leads him strategically to answer the question : “how can I be taken seriously ?” To do that, he can adopt several discursive attitudes :

a) an attitude of neutrality which leads him to erase in his discourse all trace of judgement or personal assessment. This is the attitude of the witness that speaks on the mode of the report (mode de constat), reports on what he saw, heard, tried. Obviously, it is not necessary that one can have the least suspicion on the motives that induce the witness to speak, and especially that one cannot think that he (the witness) has been charged by someone to serve his cause. Out of this case, the testimonial discourse is a speech of truth “in the raw” state that by definition cannot be doubted.

b) an attitude of distanciation which drives the subject to adopt the specialist’s cold and controlled attitude that reasons and analyses without passion, as an expert would, be it in order to explain the reasons of a fact, to comment the results of a survey or to demonstrate a thesis.

c) an attitude of commitment which brings the subject, contrary to the case of the neutrality, to opt (in a more or less conscious way) for a stand in the choice of the arguments or the choice of words [17], or by an evaluative modalisation brought to his discourse. This attitude is meant to construct the image of a speaking subject “being of conviction”.. The truth, here, is confounded with the strength of conviction of the one that speaks, and this truth is supposed to influence the addressee.

In the media communication, the stake of credibility is expressed by a discourse of authentication of the facts, mostly based on testimonies.

A stake of captation is based upon the subject’s need to be sure that the partner in the communicative exchange accepts his/her project, in other words shares his/her ideas, his opinions and/or is “impressed,” moved (Charaudeau : 2000). He then has to answer the question : “how to act so the other ‘be taken’ by what I say ?”. To do that, the subject can choose between several discursive attitudes among which :

a) a controversial attitude, that brings him to question some of the values that a third party defends and to which the addressee could adhere in order to make him change his opinion. It is here about "destroying an adversary" while not only questioning his ideas but his person, so that the public that listens to him might share this implication.

b) an attitude of dramatisation, that brings the subject to describe the facts that concern the dramas of life, told with multiple analogies, comparisons, metaphors, etc. This way of telling leans more on beliefs that on knowledge, because the question is here about making certain values or to make feel certain emotions be shared.

In the media communication this appears, for example, when the dramas and other disasters are being described, by the exposition of the reasons that, sometimes, are presented as human. This allows us to designate a responsible person, or even a guilty one, against whom indignation or one’s desire of vengeance [18] is to be directed ; at other times, these reasons are presented as non-human — that which allows us to construct a universe of events from which man is absent, in which he impotent in the face of the dark strengths that overwhelm him [19].


The fundamental question that is asked by discourse analysis is to know if one accepts as a theoretical proposition the fact that the discourse (and not necessarily its analysis) results, as D. Maingueneau says, from “the intrication of a mode of enunciation and of a determined social place”(Maingueneau : 1995). In fact, one could say, more precisely, that the “social place” is composed of something that is relevant to the “situation of communication” and something that is a matter of the “positioning” of the subject, and that these appear (in an explicit or implicit way) in an operating procedure of "enunciation".

The “situation of communication” is the place of the communicational conditioning, in other words of the set of psychosocial conditions that control the exchanges in which the acts of speech are produced. This conditioning is a matter of symbolic norms that constitute the subject matter of evaluative discourses (whether explicit or implicit) on the well-founded nature of the behaviours. It is in the setting of these situations that the subject puts an operating procedure of micro-sociological regulation in place between constraints (contract) and strategies that consist in playing between the intra-discursive, the place of the enunciation, and the extra discursive, the place of the situation. Thus the concepts of the “situation of enunciation” and of the “situation of communication” won’t be confounded.

The concept of “positioning” would not only refer to doctrines, schools, theories, etc (Maingueneau and Cossutta, 1995). It would come from this “reflexive capacity” of the “subjects producers of sense in a determined historical conjuncture” (Branca-Rosoff et al., 1995) which would be relevant not only to language but to all social behaviour by way of discursive productions that determine the value of the more or less institutionalised ways in which behaviour is managed. Thus, “discursive spaces” would be constructed, in which not only self-constituting texts and their derivatives would circulate (Maingueneau and Cossutta,1995), but also all sorts of discourses not necessarily institutionalised, having a discursive homogeneity, and defined in opposition to other concurrent discourses. It is in this discursive space that the subject constructs his positioning.

Thus, in a communicational conception of discourse, one will consider that any discourse subject intervenes in a given situation while taking into account the constraints that are imposed upon him and the margins of manoeuvre in which he can move.


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Patrick Charaudeau is Professor of Language Sciences at the University of Paris XIII. His research first dealt with Hispanic linguistics, has been concerned since 1977 with Discourse Analysis and especially the analysis of media discourse.
He has published numerous books and articles in various journals. Some of them are of general character concerning discourse analysis (Langage et discours. Eléments de sémiolinguistique, Paris, Hachette, 1983), while others deal with media discourse (Le discours d’information médiatique. La construction du miroir social,, Paris, Nathan-Ina, 1997 ; La parole confisquée. Un genre télévisuel : le talk show (in collab.), Paris, Dunod, 1997 ; La télévision et la guerre. Déformation ou construction de la réalité ? Le conflit en Bosnie (in collab.) Louvain-la-Neuve, de Boeck-Ina, 2001) He is also the author of a French grammar (Grammaire du sens et de l’expression, Paris, Hachette, 1992).

[1] See my analysis of this broadcasting in…
[2] This is what Bakhtine calls “ dialogism ” (Bakhtine :1978).
[3] This is what allows the magazines to vary their titles according to the effects they wish to produce : nominalised titles erasing the responsibility of the actants, active titles making clear the action and the actors implied, etc.
[4] For example, the expressions of so called administrative style, such as “ in so far as … ”, “ in as much as… ”, or the formulas that in the journalistic texts precede the quotations such as “according to…”, “from well informed sources…” etc.
[5] This is an allusion to the Benneton’s publicity where a T-Shirt perforated by bullets and defiled by the blood of a Bosnian was used : the image, almost trivial on TV, was transgressive as for advertisement.
[6] Even if assembled individuals do not know each other, do not touch each other, are not even together in the same moment.
[7] This notion, as it is defined here, is more restrained than Ø the one proposed by Maingueneau (1984) and by Maingueneau and Cossutta (1995). For him the “discursive community” comprises discourses produced by the different types of actors of a given institutional field, their positioning, the “style of life, norms, etc” that they share. Actually, this definition would correspond to the whole of thethree communities defined here.
[8] It is the question of “socio-discursive” representations.
[9] Since the individuals do not necessarily know each other, neither are they necessarily assembled in the same place.
[10] “ Semiological ” is taken in a restrained sense , it refers to the formal part of sign.
[11] “ semiological ” is taken in a restrained sense , it refers to the formal part of sign
[12] I imply here the notion of “ distinction ” defined and described by P. Bourdieu in La distinction. Critique sociale du jugement, éd. Minuit, Paris, 1979
[13] The descriptive mode is used to describe a state of beings of the world ; the narrative mode is used to describe Ø human actions, likewise the actions which sources are in the project of quest ; the argumentative mode is used to describe the reasoning that is itself decomposed into “explicative” when the truth has been already established and the “how” of phenomena is to be explained, nd into “demonstrative” when the question is about establishing or proving the truth (see
[14] I am resuming here the analysis demonstrated in the third part of Le Discours d’information médiatique (Nathan-Ina, Paris, 1997).
[15] For the details of this description see Le discours d’information médiatique..
[16] See my articles ‘L’interview médiatique : qui raconte sa vie ?’, Cahiers de sémiotique textuelle, 8-9, University of Paris X, 1986, and ‘Le contrat du débat médiatique’, in Télévision. Le débat culturel. “ Apostrophe ”, Paris Didier Erudition, 1992.
[17] For example : J.M. Le Pen decides to attack his adversaries by choosing the word “l’établissement” instead of “l’establishment”.
[18] One can see it in the treatment of the affairs of corruption, in which a villain, victims and a hero have to be identified, if possible.
[19] For instance, in the media information, this is the case of natural catastrophes ; but the way in which Ø television has treated the “snipers” of the war in Bosnia (the images of people who fall down in the streets under the bullets, and the pictures of the windows behind which one cannot see anything) is also characterised by this strategy.
Pour citer cet article
Patrick Charaudeau, "A communicative conception of discourse", Discourse studies, vol.4, number3, SAGE Publications, London 2002., 2002, consulté le 17 juin 2024 sur le site de Patrick Charaudeau - Livres, articles, publications.
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