Power Talk: Language and Interaction in Institutional Discourse

Published 14 Feb 2017

Table of content


As Edward Bulwer-Lytton puts it, “The pen is mightier than the sword”. Words can transform ourselves, empower our minds, caress and comfort our feelings, excite and thrill our spirit, enlighten our soul or warm and kindle the flame of our hearts. They can also slap our face, punch us in the stomach, rattle our nerves, kill our desire, or destroy our self-confidence. Of course, this is metaphorical, but these metaphors capture in words our physical reactions to what is said, and that is the power of language. It can emotionally move and affect us as powerfully as physical actions. Unfortunately, however, we have yet to recognize and legitimize this great power in the way we should, and we are left to deal with language in whatever way we have learned and adopted.

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Joanna Thornborrow challenges the received notion that power is necessarily held by some speakers and not by others. Through the detailed analysis of communication and interaction within a range of institutional settings, she examines power as an emerging, negotiated phenomenon between participants with different status and goals.

What is institutional discourse?

Institutional discourse is made up of the assumptions, concerns, and vocabularies of members of socially organized settings, and the ways in which they interact.

It is proposed that the frequent use of and-prefaced questions in institutional discourse may be attributed to three factors: (1) structural organization, which is predominantly characterized by Question and Answer sequences with no alternation of the roles between those interacting; (2) the professional questioner’s prior knowledge of the answers, which seems maximal in courtroom settings; and (3) the primary recipients of the answers, that is, a third party other than the questioner not directly participating in the interaction (e.g. the jury).

Until students have chances to learn the power of personal expression through writing in the narrative or story mode, it is risky to teach them writing solely in terms of institutional discourse. The objectives of institutional prose, or professional writing, are not determined by the writer, and often require an “objective” style that eliminates human agency and appears free of moral consequence. Institutions condition people how to feel about realities that the institutions themselves characterize and define. Much of this conditioning is done through writing unnatural tone, approaches, and constructions of subjectivity. Although students need training in these rules of writing hierarchical discourse, they must also recognize that institutional discourse often requires the writer to create managed feelings conflicting to his or her interests. Institutional prose should be taught as a social and vocational function, whose goals are determined by institutions and not by the writers. However, teachers should first encourage students to find their own voices, discovering the social and historical context of their worlds through the narrative mode of thought.

What is power in language?

Power talk teaches us how to use language in an institution appropriately. People communicate most easily with others who share their language, discourse and understanding. In institutions, this means we risk talking to ourselves, rather than to the people with whom or for whom we claim to be working. We become receptive to ideas presented in a certain way, with a certain style, format or discourse – and we react negatively to ideas presented without the same refinements. This can also become a critical power issue within institutions, between management and staff.

As an integral part of any grassroots process, we should be looking at our own practices with institutions – examining how we communicate and how that communication is liked to our own practice of power. The starting point for any individual, whether coordinator, trainer or facilitator, should be critically to analyze their own communication practices and consider the links between these practices and their own power. By understanding there issues in our own lives, we are more able to understand how they affect others.

The exchange of information should not be geared toward hostility and conquest. Thoughts aren’t supposed to conquer feelings, feelings are not the enemies of thoughts. By using the power of language to inform so that we will be understood and known, rather than to establish superiority or dominance, intimacy becomes the goal of the exchange. To give the power of language its rightful place we should teach the power of articulate speech that captures the intensity of our feelings, without using them as weapons, and we should not tolerate the abuse of this power that violates us and our system.

Discourse analysis using given extract

Discourse analysis is defined as (1) concerned with language use beyond the boundaries of a sentence/utterance, (2) concerned with the interrelationships between language and society and (3) as concerned with the interactive or dialogic properties of everyday communication.

Roughly speaking, it refers to attempts to study the organization of language above the sentence or above the clause, and therefore to study larger linguistic units, such as conversational exchanges or written texts. It follows that discourse analysis is also concerned with language use in social contexts, and in particular with interaction or dialogue between speakers.

Discourse analysis does not presuppose a bias towards the study of either spoken or written language. In fact, the monolithic character of the categories of speech and writing is has been widely challenged, especially as the gaze of analysts turns to multi-media texts and practices on the Internet. Similarly, one must ultimately object to the reduction of the discursive to the so-called “outer layer” of language use, although such a reduction reveals quite a lot about how particular versions of the discursive have been both enabled and bracketed by forms of hierarchical reasoning which are specific to the history of linguistics as a discipline

Discourse analysis is a hybrid field of enquiry. Its “lender disciplines” are to be found within various corners of the human and social sciences, with complex historical affiliations and a lot of cross-fertilization taking place. However, this complexity and mutual influencing should not be mistaken for “compatibility” between the various traditions. Nor is compatibility necessarily a desirable aim, as much is to be gained from the exploration of problematical and critical edges and from making the most of theoretical tensions. Traditions and crossover phenomena are best understood historically – both in mutually supportive and antagonistic terms and as subject to developments internal to specific “disciplines”.


Chapters one and two of the book discusses Power, talk and institutional discourse: some key concepts and Perspectives on power: approaches to the critical analysis of language and interaction. Joanna Thornborrow, examines key concepts by introducing new perspectives on the relationship between social structures of power and interaction. She argues that if a clearer understanding of the relationship between language, discourse and social institutions is to be obtained, the linguistic processes in the negotiation of social roles and identities must be examined more closely rather than just focus on and emphasize the ideological issues. She emphasized the power one can acquire through learning effective use of language in an appropriate setting.


  • Thornborrow, Joanna (2002). Power Talk: Language and Interaction in Institutional Discourse. Harlow: Longman.
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