Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros27Analysing collective identity in ...

Analysing collective identity in discourse: social actors and contexts

[Texte anglais original]
Veronika Koller
Traduction(s) :
Analyser une identité collective en discours : acteurs sociaux et contextes1 [fr]

Texte intégral

1. Introduction: social actors and contexts

1This chapter investigates how the two notions of social actors and contexts, both of which are central in critical discourse analysis (CDA), can be drawn on in the analysis of collective identity in discourse. The concept of social actors used here is indebted to van Leeuwen’s (1996) taxonomy of social actor representation, which is combined with a description of other linguistic features such as evaluation, process types and modality. The list of these parameters can be modified and extended but their use as additional features that reinforce social actor representation stresses the importance of social actors in any analysis of identity in discourse. In short, social actors as a discourse analytical category are seen as the textual instantiations of models of the self and others, both individual and collective.

2As for context, the model that this chapter is based on is not so much taken from van Dijk’s (2006) socio-cognitive approach to discourse but rather goes back to Fairclough’s (1995, 2003) notion of text as being embedded in the contexts of its production, distribution and reception as well as in wider social, political, economic and cultural contexts. The linguistic features of text at the micro-level are influenced by the meso-level of discourse practice, which predicts who has access to what means of producing and distributing texts and who is in a position to receive what kinds of texts. Discourse practice is therefore inherently linked to the relative power of discourse participants, as it is organized in the wider social formation and its institutions, in which text producers, distributors and receivers act in particular roles. Given the interconnections between text and contexts, any critical analysis of discourse will combine the description of linguistic features at the micro-level of text with their interpretation at the meso-level of discourse context and their explanation at the macro-level of social context. Linguistically, contexts are indexed mostly through the feature of interdiscursivity, i.e. the combination of different, historically contingent, genres and discourses within a text. Integrating this parameter into the linguistic description of a text thus provides a bridge to the further levels of analysis. In an analysis of collective identity, context is crucial, because the representation of social actors is shaped, if not determined, by discursive and social practices and formations.

3The subsequent theory section will spell out these notions in more detail, followed by a methods part that suggests generic research questions and possible parameters for data selection and analysis in a study of collective identity. The sample analysis is of a text on lesbian separatism which was published online in 1998 and will demonstrate the practice of critically analyzing social actors and contexts to find out about collective identities in discourse. The chapter closes with a few implications of the study.

2. Text and context in a discourse-historical perspective

4This section will outline the theoretical framework for the present paper by defining the central notions of text and discourse, and by showing how the discourse-historical approach in CDA can be applied to analyze collective identity.

5Starting at the micro-level, texts can be seen as semantically coherent and syntactically cohesive units of written or spoken language. That is to say, texts are instances of language use the parts of which hang together to form a meaningful entity. Such textual entities are self-contained in that they can be processed as separate units, although understanding often requires background knowledge of the contexts of their production and of other, previous texts that a text usually refers back to.

6Typically produced, distributed and received in the context of social relations of some kind between text producer and text recipient, one of the main functions of texts is to mediate these relationships, by reinforcing, questioning or subverting them. From a critical perspective, these relationships are often characterized by the unequal distribution of power, so that the analytical aim is to uncover how power relationships are mediated through texts and how texts can contribute towards fairer distribution of power between individuals and groups. According to Gramsci (1971), power can be enacted hegemonically through naturalizing ideologies as common sense rather than through sheer force. Ideologies are here understood to be cognitive structures combining beliefs, values, norms and goals. Because texts act as carriers for ideology, any hegemonic use of ideology is directly relevant to the study of language and power. We see power at play in the example analyzed below, most notably in the way that the author uses linguistic devices at the micro-level to set up the hegemonic majority as an out-group and construct its members as morally and politically reprehensible, thereby seeking to persuade the reader to adopt a different lifestyle.

7Texts can be theorized as instantiations of discourse, where discourse is understood as textually mediated social action, doing ideological work by ‘representing and constructing society’ and by ‘[reproducing] unequal relations of power’ (Wodak 1996:18). Discourse thus serves both an ideational function, by building and negotiating realities through texts, and an interpersonal function. In short, discourse constitutes society and is in turn constituted by it. The connections between the linguistic and the social aspects of discourse are accounted for in a three-dimensional framework consisting of text, discourse context and social context (Fairclough 1995:9). Starting from a specific text as an instance of social action, critical analysis of discourse allows for conclusions to be drawn regarding both the discourse and social context that determines, and is reproduced in, the text. The interrelatedness of text, context of production, distribution and reception, and wider social context is mirrored in the linguistic analysis itself, which also works on three levels. The description of linguistic features at the textual level, such as form and frequency of reference to social actors, and interdiscursivity, is followed by an analysis of discursive practice, accounting for setting, participants, genre, and text production, distribution and reception. Finally, the wider social formation determining these factors is also taken into consideration.

8Texts, while self-contained units, routinely integrate earlier and occasionally anticipate future texts. This metaphorical ‘dialogicality’ (Bakhtin 1986) means that texts are always located in a historical context, including future contexts of reception, which are typically anticipated in asynchronous communication (e.g. the author of the sample text anticipates the reader’s reaction by stating ‘You may be asking yourself, “why would I want to be a lesbian separatist?”’, line 6). The same goes for the more abstract notion of discourse, which is historical in the sense that it is always connected to context, and to other discourses (Wodak 1996:17). Crucially, ‘historical’ here is not synonymous with ‘diachronic’, meaning that a discourse-historical study need not look at texts over a period of time but will analyze them in the specific historical moment of their production, distribution and reception. The discourse historical approach within CDA (de Cillia, Reisigl & Wodak 1999; Reisigl & Wodak 2001:31-85; Wodak 2001, 2008) is problem-oriented, starting from a specific social phenomenon that is brought into being, negotiated and reinforced through discourse. What makes such a social phenomenon problematic from a critical standpoint is that it involves the unequal distribution of power between discourse participants, and its reinforcement or subversion through textually mediated action. As a problem-based approach, discourse-historical analysis is inherently interdisciplinary, drawing on an eclectic range of analytical methods, empirical data and background knowledge in an attempt to ‘transcend the purely linguistic dimension and to include ... the historical, political, sociological and/or psychological dimension in the analysis and interpretation of a specific discursive occasion’ (Reisigl & Wodak 2001:35). As a consequence, discourse-historical research includes fieldwork and ethnography to study the phenomenon or problem from the inside (Wodak 2001:89) and links textual analysis back to the contexts of discourse production, distribution and reception as well as the wider social context. The discourse-historical approach postulates four levels of context:

  • the immediate co-text for a particular linguistic feature found in the text, i.e. its embeddedness in the text as a whole;

  • the other texts and discourses that the text draws upon;

  • the conditions of text production, distribution and reception;

  • the wider socio-political formation.

9In a variation of the discourse-historical approach, intertextuality and, more centrally, interdiscursivity ─ the second level above ─ are here discussed as features of the text itself, while co-text is seen as different from context in that the latter is always external to the text.

10The following section will elaborate on the parameters of analysis in more detail to propose a model of analyzing collective identity in discourse.

3. How to analyze collective identity in discourse

11The focus of this methodological section is on social actor representation and interdiscursivity as two parameters that can be analyzed to show what collective identities are transported in texts and how that is done. Interdiscursivity in particular points towards the text’s discursive and social contexts and thus allows for an answer as to why the representation takes the linguistic form it does. Accordingly, the research questions motivating any discourse-historical study of collective identity, whether synchronic or diachronic, are as follows:

  • What relevant collective identities do authors communicate in particular texts at a particular moment in time, or over a particular time period?

  • How are those identities, or any changes in them, communicated in concrete texts?

  • Why are collective identities conceptualized and communicated in the way they are, or why have any changes taken place?

12While the first question addresses the kinds of identity that are at stake at the macro-level, the second question deals with the micro-level of texts and their linguistic description. The third question interprets and explains the findings of that description at the meso-level of discourse practice and the macro-level of social context, respectively.

13Knowledge of the texts under investigation as well as texts related to them, and of texts constructing collective identities in general, makes it possible to draw up a list of linguistic parameters that can be used as devices to represent social actors in context. This set of parameters should be handled consistently yet flexibly enough to allow for supplementary and corroborative devices that are relevant in a given text, e.g. politeness markers. When looking at out-group and possible in-group construction, the most obvious parameter is that of social actor representation, because it indicates who is part of the in-group, what degree of individuality is accounted for, and in how much detail social actors are represented. Formally, social actor representation can be effected through personal pronouns and other deictic devices. In his ‘sociosemantic inventory of how social actors can be represented’, van Leeuwen (1996:32) points out that social actors do not necessarily map onto grammatical actors; for instance, impersonalized actors can be non-human entities that are still represented as engaged in particular actions, be it as active actor or as passive goal. The following analysis will concentrate on human social actors, both groups and individuals. Agency, be it by social or grammatical actors, is not only realized in the formula ‘X did Y (to Z)’, but can also surface in prepositional phrases such as ‘women all over the world are raped and beaten by men’ (line 15 in the example). Of further importance are generic/assimilated and specific/individualized actors, i.e. actors referred to as categories of people or as individuals (van Leeuwen 1996: 46-50). Genericization in particular can be reinforced through absolute quantifiers such as ‘every’ and ‘all’.

14Social actor representation is one of the two main parameters analyzed below, with other parameters such as evaluation, process types (Halliday & Matthiessen 2004:170-5) and modality feeding into it. Another key for any discourse-historical analysis is interdiscursivity, because it shows what other discourses the author draws on and thus what social contexts she aligns herself with or distances herself from. The notion of interdiscursivity refers to a hybrid mixture of different discourses and genres in a given text and can be established through lexical traces, e.g. the use of words and phrases linked to particular discourses in the text producer’s mind. An example is the religious discourse drawn upon in the sample text (‘your route to lesbianism is to become enlightened’, 34-5). Kress (1989:20) maintains that ‘[t]here are preferred conjunctions of discourses and genres, and prohibitions on other conjunctions’ and while this is certainly the case, it should be noted that at times of great social change, texts can be remarkably hybrid, combining past with present discourses in an often iconoclastic way. Again, interdiscursivity is integrated with another linguistic parameter, namely metaphor, because it is one means of achieving interdiscursivity.

  • 1  Following the conventions of cognitive semantics, conceptual metaphors will be indicated by small (...)

15This paper employs the cognitive semantic theory of metaphor (Lakoff & Johnson 1980; Lakoff 1993; Kövecses 2002; Cameron 2003), which posits that metaphor is first and foremost a cognitive phenomenon. In essence, metaphor at the cognitive level conceptualizes one thing in terms of another, e.g. coming-out as a journey (in fact, this example is a variation of the pervasive metaphor life is a journey).1 The entity thus conceptualized is known as the target domain (e.g. coming-out), while the entity it is conceptualized as is called the source domain (e.g. journey). It should be noted that so-called mappings from the source to the target domain are only ever partial, the semantic features which are mapped being known as the ground of the metaphor. For instance, coming-out is conceived as a journey by drawing on the semantic feature of goal-oriented movement from one place to another; however, other, more specific semantic features of the journey domain, such as lost luggage or late-running trains, remain unmapped. As a cognitive phenomenon, metaphor finds its surface level reflection as metaphoric expression in language and other semiotic modes. Together, the linguistic parameters of social actors, including evaluation, process types and modality, as well as interdiscursivity together with metaphor serve to represent social actors in particular ways and in certain discursive and social contexts. In most texts, these devices will link to each other in an accumulative way, although they can on occasion also contradict each other, possibly indicating a hybrid, changing identity.

16In a full-fledged critical analysis, results from the micro-level description of text are interpreted in the context of its production, distribution and reception, which is in turn explained as influenced by the wider social context of the time. In addition to identifying relevant parameters for such an analysis, selecting the actual text(s) will be based on background knowledge, as gained from familiarity with related texts and ethnographic fieldwork, about the social and discursive formation the texts are embedded in. The text analyzed in this chapter is titled ‘Finding your inner lesbian separatist’, written by Corynn Hanson and published on the US author’s website in 1998 (see appendix). Its choice was based on extensive reading of primary texts from the respective historical period, which made it possible to identify it as central in the way it incorporates typical features of lesbian discourse at a particular moment. To keep the analysis succinct, the text is reproduced in extracts. To make sure that the extracts are representative, the whole text was analyzed for a set of parameters and extracts showing typical features were identified.

17The following analysis will proceed along the three dimensions outlined above, with a focus on linguistic description of textual features.

4. Sample analysis

18This section will first provide some background on the central topic of the text, i.e. lesbian separatism, and outline the tenets and historical development of this political programme. The analysis will then move onto discussing the conditions of text production, distribution and reception that authors of lesbian-themed texts operated under at the time the sample text was published. Finally, the main part of the analysis will address social actor representation and interdiscursivity in the text. The section will close with a summary that answers the research questions.

4. 1. Social context

19Lesbian separatism is practised to a degree whenever women seek to gain ‘a room of one’s own’ to further political causes. In the highly politicized lesbian discourse of the 1970s, separatism was seen by many as the logical extension of feminism. Considering the patriarchal conditions women continue to be subjected to and the consequent suffering inflicted on them, it seemed logical to the advocates of separatism that all women would have to be lesbians and all lesbians separatists (Lettice 1987:109). Women who maintained relations of any kind with men were seen by separatists as unable to dissociate themselves from a society structured in terms of heterosexuality and disproportionate male power. The final goal was to overthrow patriarchy and the way by which this goal would be reached was through a total withdrawal of female energy from men. Any form of co-operation with men, as proposed by socialist feminism and women bonding with gay men, or even superficial contact with men runs counter to the idea of separatism because ‘[w]hen we engage in a system ... we contribute by consensus to its underlying structure even when also challenging it’ (Hoagland 1987:25).

20However, separatism was not meant to stop at withdrawal and exclusion. The separatist movement was to go further and create a veritable female/lesbian counter-reality, re-defining such broad concepts as ethics, language, sexuality and culture (Geraldine T. 1988:4-5). This counter-society was meant to entail a counter-discourse empowering the women who participated in it. Separatism in its ideal form was meant to be woman-centred and prioritize women’s needs and concerns. This approach had one major drawback, however, in that it saw women’s lives as the ‘subject of revolution’ (Lorde & Star 1982:67), thus shifting the onus of effecting societal change onto women.

21The feminist aim to abolish patriarchy and the focus on women were taken literally by separatists, entailing concrete steps to change everyday life. Every manifestation of patriarchal discourse ─ including not only spoken and written texts but also music, paintings etc. ─ was to be removed from the life of a lesbian separatist. This seclusion led to self-reliance and the emergence of women’s housing and work co-operatives in the 1970s. While women in urban areas formed task-oriented collectives (e.g. publishing collectives), residential separatist communities were often geographically located in the countryside as contact with men could be more easily avoided there (Faderman 1991:238; Shugar 1995:57). Additionally, ‘women’s land’ seemed to promise a closer relation with nature, which was perceived as the paradigmatic female raped by male power and technology and therefore became an important topic in separatist discourse. However, the hard physical work involved and lack of skills and experience of previously urban separatists meant that most separatist country communities lasted less than ten years (Faderman 1991:239). For a certain period of time, however, separatism or at least a woman-centred life was the ideal for many women.

22Since adopting separatism represented a difficult break in many women’s lives and ‘people’s adherence to an institution is directly proportional to the severity and painfulness of the rites of initiation’ (Bourdieu 1991:123), loyalty to the movement was secured to some extent. Yet additional social control was exerted to guarantee uniformity, up to the point of separatists being regarded by dissidents as ‘social policemen’ [sic] (Doyle 1996:184). The extremism engendered by social control usually renders the community a target of criticism and ridicule to the outside world. Thus, separatist communities were accused by other lesbians of dividing the women’s movement as well as being elitist, escapist, racist and, at worst, fascist. Hostility and confrontation led to further withdrawal, the subsequent development of a quasi-religious notion of martyrdom (on the links between separatism and Puritanism see Koller 2008:118-21, 123-4) and to an even stronger bonding within the community.

23Yet over the years isolation became stifling and with the changing image of separatism from utopia to counter-productive extremism, the outward pressure proved too strong. The separatist movement found itself cornered and gradually began to turn its energy and aggression inside, i.e. against its own members. Oppressive behaviour, explained as ‘false consciousness’ by separatist theory, reared its ugly head in the form of racism or class bias (Shugar 1995:94-9). On another level, splits were effected by the debate over the question whether boy children should be allowed in separatist communities, a debate which hurt and estranged many women (Shugar 1995:101; Stein 1997:119). Ironically, this debate inverts hegemonic discourse with its higher value placed on all things male and masculine. Indeed, separatist discourse was perceived by some of its participants as being centred on males, with ‘time and energy [being] spent in endless discussions on the evils of men’ (Dixon 1988:81). Such negative prioritizing of men in the form of anti-men feeling or even violent men-hating contradicts the separatist ideal of always putting women first.

24As a result, a growing number of women in the late 1980s were of the opinion that separatism had ‘stopped being a crazy, wonderful experiment and [had become] a dogma’ (Doyle 1996:185). Separatism had started to implode, and although small communities still existed in the 1990s, their members deplored the hedonistic and apolitical nature of contemporary lesbian communities, the want of a separatist network and the overall isolation and censorship they saw themselves suffering from (Jo, Strega & Ruston 1990). Separatism may have survived into the 1990s and even beyond, but it has diminished to a marginal phenomenon. Full-time separatism as a political strategy seems to have failed.

25Nevertheless, separatism was still propagated in the 1990s. The analysis of the sample text will show how features of 1970s discourse are combined with devices more typically found in contemporaneous consumerist discourses. The fact that those later, hybrid texts on separatism were distributed through emerging electronic media points toward the changing practices of text production, distribution and reception in lesbian communities.

4. 2. Discourse context

26In the 1990s, lesbian discourse communities took two routes to textually construct and mediate their collective and individual identities: while some sought to harness commercial publishing for lesbian interests, other went the opposite way and expanded independent publishing. Ever since the 1970s, separatists had had few media outlets to disseminate their ideas, either because their ideas were perceived as too radical to find an audience or because separatists themselves preferred to keep a splendid isolation:

A few feminist presses ... had been established and did publish separatist material; for the most part, however, separatists passed copies of their works among friends and published their own journals ... even when access to mainstream publishers or the media was available, separatists often refused these routes because of their inability to control the makeup of the audience or an unwillingness to provide profits for what were perceived to be male-dominated organizations. (Shugar 1995:38)

27Oral accounts and non-commercial media continued to be the distribution channel of choice for lesbian separatists in the 1990s. Such community publishing can be seen as a move ‘away from passive consumption of meanings made and imposed by others’ (Gregory 1991:113) and towards production, from (mis)representation by others to self-representation, from invisible private talk to public recognition. Consequently, publishing was of central importance within the separatist community. Constant reflection on political topics manifested itself in the importance of writing as a politically and socially relevant process, instantiating a Foucauldian écriture de soi.

  • 2  In the late 1990s, almost all of the lesbian separatists present on the internet stated that they (...)

28The heterogeneous lesbian discourse of the 1990s (see Koller 2008:110-47) is characterized by competing models of lesbianism as a political agenda vs. a lifestyle. These discourses find their reflection in different forms of media and publishing, but also in hybrid texts that show a combination of radical political discourses with those of consumerism. Indeed, hybridity is a defining feature of the example chosen for this analysis, in which different discourses are used by one and the same author, who tries to adapt a political programme of the 1970s to the socio-political context of the 1990s. Reproduced from the homepage of its author, the text is one of the very few separatist links that can be found on the internet. While there is a vast number of lesbian links in general, it seems that separatists have not found their way into the medium. Although some initially saw a chance that ‘during the 1990’s, computer bulletin boards and the Internet will become part of [the lesbian separatist] network’ (Brown 1995) and started using the medium to spread their ideas and contact others, most separatists seem to have remained critical of the medium itself. Such a stance shows either in absence from the medium altogether or in a suspicious and defensive attitude conveyed on the internet, a sort of criticism from within. Separatists on the internet are intent on keeping their independence from ‘men with $5,000 computer systems2 who advocate child pornography as the ultimate example of free expression’ and emphasize their politics by warning their readers/visitors that should they be ‘looking for heteropatriarchal thrills, [they] might be happier if [they] just go home’ (Brown 1997). It is obvious that free access to information, the cornerstone of the internet, is anathema to lesbian separatism since restriction of access is seen as a way of deriving the dominant culture of the energy it thrives on. Since most texts on separatism are published in non-digital form (pamphlets, articles, anthologies), the present sample text represents a rare exception at the time of its writing.

29Yet it is precisely the exceptional form of the text, as well as the fact that it adapts 1970s concepts to the 1990s, which renders it particularly interesting for linguistic analysis. The analysis will show that the author combines features from three different discourses, namely the lesbian separatist/radical lesbian feminist discourse of the 1970s, religious discourse and, as a new influence, advertising discourse. Such hybridity indicates the changing identities that a younger generation of lesbians brought about in the 1990s.

4. 3. Text analysis

30The micro-level analysis will centre on social actors and interdiscursivity, with the latter relating the text to its contexts.

Social actors

31By far the most prominent social actor incorporated into the text is the reader, referred to in the second person (‘you’). She is foregrounded and directly addressed right from the start in the title’s a possessive pronoun (‘your inner lesbian separatist’). The second person pronoun is used 27 times throughout the text. Direct address is to be found in statements (‘you too can be a lesbian’, line 3) and even more so in rhetorical questions (‘[a]re you thoroughly disgusted by men?’, 31) and imperatives (‘[t]urn off the TV’, 40). The imperative ‘write’ deserves special attention, because it is repeated nine times in rapid succession (48-51). Since no mention is made of a text receiver, the focus is solely on the process of writing, thus confirming that writing can be a form of political practice and as such is particularly salient for separatists. The ‘broadened, demystified, less reverent view of publication’ (Gregory 1991:117) that one often finds in alternative publishing is reflected in the advice not to ‘try to write the way you’re “supposed” to’ (50-1). Identifying the act of writing as ‘part of discovering yourself’ (51) shows how ‘the writing in [alternative media] ... works as a therapy session’ (Sutton 1999:170).

32Another way of involving the reader in the text is anticipating and answering her questions while reading. This is done elliptically in the emphatic ‘[t]hat’s right, you too can be a lesbian’ (3) and spelled out in ‘[y]ou may be asking yourself, “why would I want to be a lesbian separatist?”’ (6). Together, rhetorical questions, imperatives and anticipation help include the reader and make her identify with the text. The reader is envisaged as female, and women as a group are indeed the second most prominent actor, being referred to eleven times throughout the extract. There is wide variation, however, ranging from indefinite plurals (‘women’) and singulars (‘a woman’, ‘each woman’) to paradigmatic women such as ‘your friend’ (17). General references (‘women ... are being raped’, 15) alternate with specific ones (‘your friend’, 17). Specific examples are supposed to be the reader’s, who is moreover included by means of the circumstantial ‘as you read this’ (15-16). By drawing together the reader, her friends and women in general, the author juxtaposes the personal and the political, indicating that individual suffering is a consequence of structural violence. This intended identification of the reader with women as a group is also reflected in the opening lines of the text; here, the generalization ‘each woman’ (2) is turned into the first person plural (‘our own’, 2), which includes the author, the reader and all other women in a collective identity.

33Lesbians as a sub-group of women are mentioned just as often, mostly in the collocation ‘lesbian separatist’ or simply ‘lesbian’. As a group, lesbians are defined by demarcation, as ‘anyone ... who isn’t white, male, Christian, rich, straight or temporarily able’ (38-9). This list embodies the covert prestige of oppression that can be observed as a value in separatist discourse in general. The only positive definitions of who or what a lesbian actually is occurs in the opening stretches of the text (‘a lesbian who, in profound enlightenment, can live independently of males’, 3-4). Notably, such positive evaluation of the propagated way of life is sketchier and less varied than the negative evaluation of mainstream society as ‘cruel’ (20), ‘sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic’ (24) and ‘sick and wrong’ (26-7). It seems that the author does not, perhaps cannot, describe a lesbian community in detail, be it in positive or negative terms, and that dominant patriarchal culture is still the point of reference. It is further noteworthy that attraction to other women is not mentioned as part of lesbian identity at all; rather, the defining moment seems to be a woman-centred life which is open to ‘each woman’ (2). This disregard for desire and the equation of lesbians with women is typical of 1970s lesbian feminist discourse (see Koller 2008:48-74).

34Given the separatist agenda of living without men, it is noteworthy that ‘men’ as a social actor group actually feature 18 times, referred to generically as ‘males’, ‘men’ or ‘a man’, in absolute terms as ‘[e]very man’ (27) and more specifically as ‘some men’ (29). Reference is therefore very similar to that for women as a group, pointing towards an understanding of either group as homogeneous, with each representative typical of the group as a whole. The higher number of references to men shows the paradoxical separatist occupation with this group of social actors. Men are identified as ‘the leaders of [society]’ (27) and throughout, the abstract actor ‘society’ is closely linked to males. Thus, society is said to have ‘made it impossible for [a woman] to imagine living without a man’ (18-19), it is referred to as ‘the patriarchal, cruel world’ (20) and said to have been ‘created by males’ (24-5). The author thus secures the basis of lesbian separatism: in order to develop a collective identity, women must leave male-defined society.

35On the whole, then, the reader is very much in the foreground, accompanied by genericized references to women and men as social actor groups. The direct involvement of the reader is an original strategy that ties in with the text’s overall persuasive purpose. The reader is shown to be engaged in a number of relational processes, which are mostly effected through rhetorical questions (e.g. ‘[a]re you sickened by the fact’, 13). Interestingly, this process type is here not so much used to construct a (group) identity but rather to describe a negatively evaluated state that propels change. Change is the central motif of the text, flagged up even in the present continuous of the title, and its starting point is dissatisfaction and repulsion. Another particularity of the text is the high number of reflexive processes, in which the reader is both actor and goal of the action. This dual role mostly maps out in material processes (‘[y]ou can ... surround yourself with your sisters’, 20-1) but also features in a verbal process (‘[y]ou may be asking yourself’, 6). This linguistic device embodies the separatist belief that women need to change their own consciousness and withdraw from the world, and suggests that the separatist agenda is not primarily about changing the world but about changing oneself.

36Next to the prominent second person, the text also includes a few instances of the first person singular pronoun, three of which constitute the only reference the author makes to herself. Set in parentheses, the pronoun occurs at a sensitive moment in the text (41-2), where it is used as a politeness device to repair a previous potential offence to the reader. This problematic moment in the text is effected by the author’s use of deontic modality to express permission (‘at most, you can watch one or two hours of TV a week’, 41). This example of deontic modality reinforces the imperatives that are prominent elsewhere in the text. Granting permission in this way represents a condescending power gesture by which the author puts herself in the place of a parent controlling a child, i.e. the reader. However, the author takes the sting out of her obvious condescension by remarking in brackets on her own TV consumption. By employing the first person singular for the first and only time throughout the text, she provides a sharp contrast to the attitude she displays elsewhere, showing that she herself is not infallible. Along with the assumed shared knowledge about the TV series, the two parenthetic sentences are aimed at creating solidarity between author and reader and modify the previous authoritarian tone. They are thus a politeness device used to do repair work in the simulated conversation between writer and reader.

37On the whole, the representation of social actors centres on the reader, who is seen as a representative of women as a group. This group is embedded in a male-defined society that has detrimental effects on women. Consequently, the reader is encouraged to leave that society an become a lesbian separatist. Figure 1 summarizes social actor representation in the text in the form of a diagram.

38Figure 1: Social actor representation in the text

39Crucially, the reader’s proposed new identity is individual rather than collective. To account for this finding it is helpful to look at interdiscursivity, which sheds light on the text’s discursive and social contexts.


40The text is noteworthy for mixing a number of discourses and genres, in particular combining lesbian feminist discourse (see Koller 2008:37-74) ─ and religious discourse as one resource that lesbian feminist writers draw on ─ with genres such as advertisements and self-help manuals. In doing so, the text illustrates that ‘[a]s historically specific organizations of language, discourses present themselves in the plural, coexisting within temporal frames, and instituting unpredictable and inadvertent convergences’ (Butler 1990/1999:184).

41One trace of lesbian feminist discourse is the generic reference to ‘women’ or ‘a woman’ in lines 7-19. At several points in the text, the author switches from the general (‘Lesbians are enlightened’, 34) to what is specific to the reader (‘therefore your route to lesbianism is to become enlightened’, 34-5). In the same vein, ‘women’ are juxtaposed with ‘you’ and ‘your friend’ (15-17), depicting the personal as an effect of the political and thereby linguistically encoding a central tenet of 1970s feminism. Other linguistic devices adapted from lesbian feminist discourse are nominalization and abstract agency (‘society has made it impossible for her’, 18-19 and ‘oppressive ideas of our dominant culture’, 44-5) as well as absolute quantifiers and declaratives (‘[e]very man is responsible for the oppression against women’, 27-8). The all-encompassing nature of the in-group also surfaces in the following statement, found on the website on which the text was published: ‘I personally believe every woman’s life can be enriched by becoming a Lesbian Separatist.’ By opening up the category ‘lesbian’ to all women, the example illustrates the observation that ‘one could be “invited into” the imagined community’ (Anderson 1983:133).

42Another feature of lesbian feminist discourse is its own interdiscursive links with religious discourse. In the present text, the central traces of religious discourse are the word forms ‘enlightenment’ and ‘enlightened’. They are sometimes intensified through attribution (‘profound enlightenment’, 3) and sometimes listed together with ‘a series of epiphanies or revelations’ (23). The latter in particular corroborates Stein’s (1997:218 n. 3) point about coming-out as epiphany and the coming-out story as a conversion narrative. Taking up traces of religious discourse in order to integrate lesbian feminist discourse makes the text at hand an example of multiple interdiscursivity.

43One way of achieving interdiscursivity, whether simple or multiple, is metaphor, and indeed we find the journey metaphor that is typically employed to conceptualize self-development and coming-out. The author realizes it when she promises that the reader ‘you will emerge into your new ... identity’ (5) and when she speaks of ‘your route to lesbianism’ (34), although she elsewhere denies that forging such an identity could be ‘a step by step process’ (22). The second central metaphor is that of sickness (e.g. ‘[a]re you sickened by the fact’, 13 and 15), which lesbian feminists are often presented as using. Thus, lesbian feminist thought is said to centre on the idea that

the self can overcome the noxious effects of socialization in a male-dominated culture [and that] there is a kind of contamination theory implicit in the structuring of lesbian-feminist relationships when it is felt that the more contact one has with men, the more one’s inner strength and resourcefulness are sapped. (Wolf 1979:170, 171)

44In the present text, the metaphor serves to intensify the negative evaluation of non-separatist existence. There is finally a spatial metaphor core is authenticity, which is realized in the attribute ‘inner’ for the collocation ‘lesbian separatist’ (1, 2-3, 53). Its elaborations include ‘[d]eep inside each woman’ (2) and the idea that a woman’s ‘true’ identity as a separatist can be ‘discovered’ (22, 31, 51, 52). The attribute ‘[i]nner’ presupposes the existence of an essential core of one’s personality that is not constructed in discursive and other interaction, but can be revealed through changing one’s consciousness. In an essentialist fashion, a particular identity is therefore presupposed as inherent and authentic, to be discovered and enacted if one is to live to the full. All three metaphors ─ journey, sickness and core ─ therefore serve to recontextualize lesbian feminist discourse.

45In stark contrast to the traces of lesbian feminist discourse, the author calls her text a ‘self-help essay’ and promises the reader a ‘few simple tips’ (4-5). Traces of the procedural genre of the do-it-yourself manual show in lines 36-51, where they are combined with features of other, hortatory genres aiming to influence behaviour and beliefs (Longacre 1974). Thus, the goal orientation of procedural genres (‘the elements described above will help you’, 52) sits alongside features of hortatory genres such as focus on the addressee, encoded as second person (‘when you read papers and magazines’, 42-3) and a number of commands and suggestions (‘[i]nvolve yourself in the arts ... [y]ou can join a choir’, 46-7). In this part, the text paradoxically conveys both authority and solidarity.

46The persuasive purpose of hortatory genres is most obviously manifested in advertisements, and indeed lines 6-21 draw heavily on this genre. Traces of this are anticipated questions by the reader, rhetorical questions, direct address, and the final offer of lesbian separatism that is presented as an alternative to a negatively evaluated patriarchal society and thus as a solution to a problem established in the text. The author seeks to gradually create attention, interest, desire and consequently action in the reader, employing ─ perhaps unconsciously ─ the AIDA formula of product promotion. In a marketing context, action would mean the consumer buying a particular product. In the present context, action means the reader embracing the idea of a certain lifestyle and working towards its realization. The author thus makes unabashed use of promotional genres, something that earlier lesbian feminists had still ridiculed and rejected (see Koller 2008:70-1). In the late 1990s, however, we see a politically oriented lifestyle being advertised on the internet without a hint of irony. The two discourses of lesbian feminism on the one hand and the advertisement and self-help manual genres on the other are juxtaposed in the beginning, where ‘a dedications [sic]’ on part of the reader is coordinated with ‘[a] few simple tips’ from the author (4). Given the strictly anti-consumerist, collectivist stance displayed in lesbian feminist discourse, mixing it with advertising genres targeted at the individual consumer seems bold to say the least.

47To sum up, we can now answer the question as to what relevant collective identities authors communicate in particular texts at a particular moment in time. The model of collective identity conveyed in the sample text is one of lesbian identity as defined along political lines, and the category is expanded to potentially include all women. Crucially, however, the in-group is under-defined and less differentiated than the out-group. Looking at how that model is communicated in the concrete text, we see that one group of social actors are women, of which the reader is a part. This is contrasted with men as constituting society. The latter is evaluated negatively, and in greater detail than women, or lesbians, as a group. Moreover, the identity as a lesbian separatist that the reader, and by inference all women, should adopt is only very tentatively linked to any collective identity (‘you can surround yourself with your sisters’, 20-1). Furthermore, the author mixes lesbian feminist discourse with promotional and self-help genres, leading to a conceptual clash in the text, which inadvertently transforms lesbian discourse and the model of collective identity that it transports. Indeed, the whole text is strikingly heterogeneous, combining various discursive resources in order to convey models of collective identity.

48This leads us to the question as to why collective identity is conceptualized and communicated in the way it is. The text at hand is an excellent example of how notions of collective identity and particular ideologies are recontetxulized in different contexts. As an advocate of lesbian separatism ─ a movement which had its heyday in the 1970s ─, the author tries to adapt her beliefs and claims to the 1990s by choosing a modern medium of distribution (the internet) and by borrowing heavily from consumerist discourse. By ‘selling’ ideologically invested claims to the reader, she reverses Bakhtin’s statement that ‘[a]ny consumer good can ... be made an ideological sign’ (1929/1973:10). Contradiction in texts, as witnessed in the example, can be brought about by several reasons: firstly, the narrative structure of the present text constitutes a progression from establishing the problem (women suffering under patriarchal conditions), to constructing a certain reader reaction as logical (‘If you don’t like this society, ... then you can’t like the males who are the leaders of it’, 26-7), to suggesting a solution and instructing the reader how to realize it. This basic structure requires features from different genres and discourses, which leads to hybridity. Secondly, the author may wish to target more readers than she could by staying within the confines of a particular discourse or genre. Given the political beliefs at the heart of lesbian separatism and separatists’ aim to spread them, this is likely to be another reason for the marked interdiscursivity in the text. Finally, hybridity and contradiction in texts can reflect social change. This reason seems most prominent, as the author takes a concept from 1970s discourse and transplants it into the context of the 1990s, in which consumerism and individualism had already largely taken over as societal values. The fact that the text was published on the internet is only the outward manifestation of this new context. The reasons for the text’s heterogeneity are therefore economic and ideological, with a commodification of lifestyles in late capitalism leading to surge of promotional genres working in tandem with individualism becoming a positive way of conceptualizing one’s self. However, the text’s inherent contradictions show that lesbian feminism is incompatible with consumer capitalism.

5. Implications

49The two main implications of this study are that collective identities do not develop in a linear fashion, and that negative out-group construction need not be matched by positive in-group construction. As for the former, the analysis showed that a text can be remarkably hybrid, especially in times of social change, combing conflicting and even incompatible discourses and genres. Authors can position themselves and their readers in contradictory positions by combining features from various historically contingent discourses. In doing so, they may seek to preserve a particular collective identity but in actual fact transform it. As for in- and out-group construction, much of the literature in CDA (e.g. van Dijk 2001) shows that in-groups are constructed as positive, while out-groups are represented as almost uniformly negative. The present analysis calls the universality of those findings into question, suggesting instead that through social actor representation, authors can construct out-groups in more detail than the in-group. Further, negative evaluation of the out-group need not be matched by equally strong positive evaluation of the in-group. This finding may be partly explained by the fact that the author of the sample text was writing from a marginalized and relatively powerless position and was trying to represent the hegemonic majority as negative. Further research will have to ascertain whether this is a common pattern in other, comparable discourses at other historical moments as well.

50The study has further corroborated that texts are historically linked and that both discourse and historical contexts impact on the selection of linguistic features. A discourse analytical focus on text and context shows how historical narratives are produced, distributed and received and thereby offers a complementary contribution to historical, sociological and psychological studies of collective identity. Where the latter address the questions what identities are at stake and why they emerge, critical discourse analysis, while also dealing with those questions, goes beyond them and provides an answer as to how such identities are communicated.

Haut de page


Anderson, B.R. O’Gorman (1983) Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, London: Verso.

Bakhtin, M. (1929) Marxism and the Philosophy of Language; trans. L. Matejka and I.R. Tutnik (1973), New York: Seminar Press.

Bakhtin, M. (1986) Speech Genres and Other Late Essays; trans. V.W. McGee, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Bourdieu, P. (1991) Language and Symbolic Power; trans. G. Raymond and M. Adamson, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Brown, B. (1995)‘The art of the impossible: some thoughts on lesbian separatist political strategy’, Off Our Backs, December: xx.

Brown, B. (1997) ‘Welcome, cranky dykes. Others beware’. Available: <> (accessed 22 June 1998).

Butler, J. (1990/1999) Gender Trouble, 2nd edn, New York: Routledge.

Cameron, L. (2003) Metaphor in Educational Discourse, London: Continuum.

De Cillia, R., Reisigl, M. and Wodak, R. (1999) ‘The discursive construction of national identities’, Discourse & Society, 10(2): 149-73.

Dixon, J. (1988) ‘Separatism: a look back at anger’, in B. Cant and S. Hemmings (eds) Radical Records: thirty years of lesbian and gay history, London: Routledge.

Doyle, G. (1996) ‘No man’s land: lesbian separatism revisited’, in N. Godwin, B. Hollows and S. Nye (eds) Assaults on Convention: essays on lesbian transgressors, London: Cassell, pp. 178-97.

Faderman, L. (1991) Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: a history of lesbian life in twentieth-century America, New York: Penguin.

Fairclough, N. (1995) Critical Discourse Analysis, London: Longman.

Fairclough, N. (2003) Analysing Discourse: textual analysis for social research, London: Routledge.

Geraldine T. (1988) ‘Practising separatism’, Lesbian Ethics, 3(2): 3-5.

Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks, trans. J. Matthews, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Gregory, G. (1991) ‘Community publishing as self-education’, in D. Barton and R. Ivanič (eds) Writing in the Community, London: Sage, pp. 109-42.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Matthiessen, C.M.I.M. (2004) Introduction to Functional Grammar, 3rd edn. London: Arnold.

Hoagland, S.L. (1987) ‘Lesbian separatism: an empowering reality’, Gossip, 6: 24-36.

Jo, B., Strega, L. and Ruston (1990) Dykes Loving Dykes: dyke separatist politics for lesbians only, Oakland: published by the authors.

Köveceses, Z. (2002) Metaphor: a practical introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Koller, V. (2008) Lesbian Discourses: images of a community, New York: Routledge.

Kress, G. (1989) Linguistic Processes in Sociocultural Practice, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, G. (1993) ‘The contemporary theory of metaphor’, in A. Ortony (ed.) Metaphor and Thought, 2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 202-51.

Lakoff, G. and Johnson, M. (1980) Metaphors We Live By, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lettice (1987) ‘Separatism’, Gossip, 6: 107-10.

Longacre, R.E. (1974) ‘Narrative versus other discourse genres’, in R.M. Brend (ed.) Advances in Tagmemics, Amsterdam: North-Holland.

Lorde, A. and Star, S.L. (1982) ‘Interview with Audre Lorde’, in R.R. Linden, D.R. Pagano, D.E.H. Russell and S.L. Star (eds) Against Sadomasochism: a radical feminist analysis, East Palo Alto: Frog in the Well Press, pp. 66-71.

Reisigl, M. and Wodak, R. (2001) Discourse and Discrimination, London: Routledge.

Shugar, D.R. (1995) Separatism and Women’s Community, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Stein, A. (1997) Sex and Sensibility: stories of a lesbian generation, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sutton, L. (1999) ‘All media are created equal: do-it-yourself identity in alternative publishing’, in M. Bucholtz, A.C. Liang and L. Sutton (eds) Reinventing Identities: the gendered self in discourse, New York: Oxford University Press, pp. 163-80.

Van Dijk, T. (2001) ‘Multidisciplinary CDA: a plea for diversity’, in R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis, London: Sage, pp. 95-120.

Van Dijk, T. (2006) ‘Discourse, context and cognition’, Discourse Studies 8(1): 159-77.

Van Leeuwen, T. (1996) ‘The representation of social actors’, in C.R. Caldas-Coulthard and M. Coulthard (eds) Text and Practices: readings in critical discourse analysis. London: Routledge, pp. 32-70.

Wodak, R. (1996) Disorders of Discourse, Harlow: Longman.

Wodak, R. (2001) ‘The discourse-historical approach’, in R. Wodak and M. Meyer (eds) Methods of Critical Discourse Analysis. London: Sage, pp. 83-94.

Wodak, R. (2008) ‘Discourse studies: important concepts and terms’, in R. Wodak and M. Krzyżanowski (eds) Qualitative Discourse Analysis in the Social Sciences, Basingstoke: Palgrave, pp. 1-29.

Wolf, D.G. (1979) The Lesbian Community, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Haut de page


 ‘Finding your inner lesbian separatist’ (Hanson 1998) (extracts)

Finding Your Inner Lesbian Separatist

Deep inside each woman is a little voice crying out. It is our own, inner lesbian separatist. That’s right, you too can be a lesbian who, in profound enlightenment, can live independently of males. With a dedications [sic] and the few simple tips provided in this self-help essay, you will emerge into your new, enlightened, dyke identity.

You may be asking yourself, ‘why would I want to be a lesbian separatist?’ perhaps you’ve notice [sic] that women make less money than men, to this very day, even when a woman is compared to a man in the same job with the same amount of education. Or perhaps you have become aware that every few minutes, a woman is sexually assaulted. Perhaps you’ve noticed that nine out of ten people who suffer from debilitating eating disorders are female. You may be tired by now of the portrayal of women as helpless creatures, always mutilating and torturing themselves to look good for men. Or you may be tired of seeing real women do those things. Are you sickened by the fact that women get breast enlargements to look good for men despite the risks involved? Are you sickened knowing that women all over the world are being raped and beaten by men as you read this? Are you tired of the rude stares or comments about your looks from complete strangers? Are you horrified by the fact that your friend is in a physically and emotionally abusive relationship with a man but won’t get out of it because society has made it impossible for her to imagine living without a man? Then you can benefit from being a lesbian separatist. You can take yourself out of the patriarchal, cruel world and surround yourself with your sisters.

This is not a step by step process. Your lesbian separatist identity is discovered through enlightenment and a series of epiphanies or revelations. It starts with you being sick and tired of the sexist, racist, classist, and homophobic society you live in; a society created by males, with laws made by males, a government and education system run by white males. Starting to get the picture? If you don’t like this society, if you think it’s sick and wrong, then you can’t like the males who are the leaders of it... . Every man is responsible for the oppression against women. And how many of them do you see fessing up? Sure some men may say ‘I think it’s awful that women are oppressed,’ but what do they do about it? ...

Are you thoroughly disgusted by men? Good, now, to discover your lesbian separatist you must educate yourself. Evidence of enlightenment leading to lesbianism abounds in our history... . It has been found in contemporary studies that lesbians tend to complete a higher level of education. Lesbians are enlightened, therefore your route to lesbianism is to become enlightened... .

Read books ─ lots of books ─ on judaism, buddhimsm [sic], taoism. Books on thje [sic] history of Native Americans, Blacks in America and the women’s movements. Books by lesbians, natives, Chicanos and anyone else who isn’t white, male, Christian, rich, straight or temporarily able.

Turn off the TV. TV is a major source of sexist, homophobic, and oppressive propaganda. At most you can watch one or two hours of TV a week (I still watch x-files and Startrek a couple of times a month. I guess I’m addicted). Also, when you read papers and magazines ─ don’t believe everything you read. Be critical. Try to pick out untruths or stereotypes. Analyze articles and pictures: do they reflect the oppressive ideas of our dominant culture? ...

Involve yourself in the arts, whatever arts you can afford. A pen and paper is all you need to draw. You can join a choir, learn to paint, crate [sic] fimo beads, or anything. Art is a part of enlightenment. And write. Write poetry or prose. Write a diary or journal. Write anything, write about yourself and the world. Write about the pizza you had for lunch. Write about the meaning of life. Don’t try to write the way you’re ‘supposed’ to, just write. That’s part of discovering yourself... .

All of the elements described above will help you to discover yourself and your world. Ultimately, chances are that you will find your inner lesbian separatist.

Haut de page


1  Following the conventions of cognitive semantics, conceptual metaphors will be indicated by small capitals.

2  In the late 1990s, almost all of the lesbian separatists present on the internet stated that they used old computers and included assistance on old-fashioned systems on their homepages.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Veronika Koller, « Analysing collective identity in discourse: social actors and contexts »Semen [En ligne], 27 | 2009, mis en ligne le 13 décembre 2010, consulté le 04 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

Haut de page


Veronika Koller

Lancaster University (UK)

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Tous droits réservés

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de Franche-comté
  • Logo ELLIADD - Édition, Langages, Littératures, Informatique, Arts, Didactiques, Discours
  • OpenEdition Journals
Search OpenEdition Search

You will be redirected to OpenEdition Search