Agency in Discourse Analysis

According to Leslie (1993), an agent is an entity with an internal source of energy through which it exerts force. Agents act in pursuit of goals and respond to the environment, and they can possess cognitive properties such as beliefs. In linguistic analyses, agency is often explored by examining how it is emphasized, manipulated, or concealed through the choices that language users make regarding the use of active and passive voice or the nominalization of verbs. Investigation of these choices is referred to as transitivity analysis, and this has become a central aspect of critical approaches to discourse analysis on the grounds that these types of linguistic choices reveal the attitude and ideology of the language user.

Researchers focusing on transitivity analysis and related approaches often highlight the way in which language invariably highlights a particular construal of situations and events. For example, Fowler et al. (1979) claim that “all perception involves theory or ideology and there are no raw, uninterpreted, theory-free facts” (p. 95). Applied to discourse about religious experience, this would imply that whenever language is used, and specifically patterns related to transitivity or its concealment, the speaker has no choice but to reveal a specific interpretation of reality.

A number of key studies have provided evidence for these claims, including Clark’s (1992) analysis of transitivity patterns in The Sun newspaper’s reports of crimes involving sexual violence. She argues from her analysis of the reports that through the manipulation of transitivity, the writers tended to explicitly attribute blame and responsibility to the attacker if the victim was married, but not so often in cases where the victim was unmarried. For example, Clark (1992, p. 213) discusses two reports:

  • 1. Fiend rapes woman in a Big Mac bar
  • 2. Girl 7 murdered while mum drank at the pub

Little Nicola Spencer was strangled in her bedsit home - while her Mum was out drinking and playing pool in local pubs.

In Example 1, the attacker is construed as the active agent, and Clark notes that later in the article the woman is identified as married. However, in Example 2, “murdered” and “strangled” are both in the passive form, concealing the role of the attacker, while the mother, who is identified as divorced in the next line, is construed as an active agent (in terms of “drinking and playing pool in local pubs”). Example 2 therefore has the effect of shifting blame and responsibility for the violence on to the only identifiable agent: the mother.

Hart (2014) provides another example which compares reporting an event from two media sources with competing ideological perspectives. His focus is on a particular clash between miners and the police during the 1984-1985 miners’ strike in the United Kingdom and the reporting of this incident in The Sun (a supporter of the government and critic of the strikes) and The Morning Star (a supporter of the strikes):

  • 3. Picketing miners caused a bloody riot with a mass attack on police yesterday (The Sun)
  • 4. Police provoke violent clashes as 7,000 miners tried to stop lorries ferrying coke from the Orgreave plant to the steel works (The Morning Star)

In Example 3, the miners are construed as agents of violence and the police as victims of the violence. By contrast, The Morning State report of the same incident construes the police as the agents provoking violence, while the miners are only construed as agents in terms of an act that is not explicitly connected to violence (attempting to stop lorries).

These examples all relate to an attempt to use language as a means of social power and control. The field of critical discourse analysis has long recognized a relationship between agency and social power and control, although it is recognized as an ongoing struggle between individual agents that (often unconsciously) reflect and reinforce existing social power structures and the ability of those same agents to develop and forge their own sets of relations within those structures (Fairclough, 2003).

In addition to grammatical constructions, agency can also be implied in word choice. If something is construed as an agent rather than as just an object, it is imbued with the potential to have purposeful goals, intentions, and commitments, and this can change how it is perceived. For example, Morris et al. (2007) analyzed the etfect that agency metaphors (e.g.,“the NASDAQ fought its way upward”) and object metaphors (e.g.,“stocks drifted higher”) had on people reading reports of stock market price fluctuations. They found that participants were significantly more likely to think that an increase in prices would continue when agent metaphors were used. In their discussion of why this is the case, they postulate that object metaphors suggest dependency on external forces for their movement, whereas agent metaphors, which are based on action schemas, “trace movements to enduring internal properties” (Morris et al., 2007, p. 176).

In addition, metaphorical agency often increases the dramatic effect, power, and intensity of a statement. Goatly (2007), for example, examined headlines from the Guardian Unlimited and notes how they are often worded in ways that sensationalize and intensify the content being reported (p. 80). Headlines like “Job loss figures deliver blow to Bush” elicit a construal involving a personified agent physically attacking the president. The attribution of combative agency to a set of numbers has the effect of capturing attention in a way that, for example, “Bush disappointed with job loss figures” never would.

In religious discourse, language that invokes agency has the power to manipulate the construal of a situation. This suggests a key cyclical relationship between committed belief and language. On the one hand, language expresses the intensity of ideas and beliefs; but on the other hand, certain types of language have the power to influence and further consolidate or intensify the way the world is perceived. Religious discourse is especially associated with manipulations of transitivity, implicit agency, and the related power and control.

Agency is particularly relevant to religious discourse due to the pervasive interaction of divine agency, the agency of the believer, and agency related to key forces perceived as impinging on believers and nonbelievers.These range from situations in which the believer is seen as acted upon by powerful external forces to situations involving internal mental processes. As an illustration of the latter, consider the way realizations are described in these testimonials taken from Kapleau’s (2000) classic introduction to Zen Buddhism:

On the third day I was struck with peculiar force by this remark of the roshi: “Mu is nothing but Mu!” It was a simple statement that I had often heard from him, but now it hit me like lightning.

(p. 274)

“I’ve got it! There is no universe apart from me”—this repeatedly flashed into my mind.

(p. 275)

About seven in the evening I suddenly heard these words explode over my head: “Thirty minutes to dokusan! Make up your mind to come to Self- realization! This is your last chance!”

(p. 277)

In these excerpts, it is clear that agency, in addition to being used to talk about the actions of a divine force affecting a believer, can also be used to talk about the psychological forces associated with Buddhist enlightenment.The power, intensity, and concrete nature of the metaphorical language is compelling, with words such as “struck”, “lightning”, and “explode” evoking associations with visceral, physical forces. The meditator does not perceive his development as the formation of a casual opinion about Buddhism, but as a graphic, life-changing struggle to experience ultimate reality, despite the fact that no divine being is mentioned.

In addition, the meditator describes his subjective experience from the viewpoint of a passive entity who is being acted upon by external psychic forces. Within the Zen Buddhist context, this inversion of agency may be preferred, as it stresses the appropriate strategy of the meditator who does not strive for particular experiences but simply adopts a passive stance toward events occurring within the field of awareness. This attitude is exemplified by the famous words of the third Zen (Chinese Chan) patriarch SengTs’an, who begins his treatise on Faith in Mind with the words:

The Supreme Way is not difficult If only you do not pick and choose.

Neither love nor hate,

And you will clearly understand.

(Yen, 2006, p. 1)

This understanding of the meditator’s appropriate attitude involves a paradox. The meditator should not have any intentions or goal-centered responses to the objects appearing in consciousness—in other words, the meditator should not identify with agency. This is conveyed linguistically by construing agency as an external force.

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