Speaking about speeches: interviews with women politicians about linguistic practices in UK parliamentary debates

Conference paper

Shaw, S. 2011. Speaking about speeches: interviews with women politicians about linguistic practices in UK parliamentary debates. The 12th International Pragmatics Conference (IPRA). Manchester University 03 - 08 Jul 2011
TypeConference paper
TitleSpeaking about speeches: interviews with women politicians about linguistic practices in UK parliamentary debates
AuthorsShaw, S.

This paper aims to explore the construction of women politicians’ gendered identities in relation to their ‘frontstage’ (Goffman 1957) linguistic performance in debates through the discourse of ‘backstage’ ethnographic interviews. Data is drawn from forty-five semi-structured ethnographic interviews that took place as part of a wider research project in the ‘new’ devolved institutions of the UK between January and June 2010. The central research question of this paper asks: How do women MPs represent their linguistic performances in debates, and how salient is gender to that representation?
Unlike politicians’ performance in the ‘frontstage’ of political debate, interviews with MPs from the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the Northern Ireland Assembly represent a ‘semi-public’ genre in which narratives of personal experience and other informal and interpersonal modes are common. Politicians taking part in ethnographic interviews are therefore still constrained by their institutional roles, and membership of different ‘Communities of Practice’, but nevertheless display linguistic features associated with less formal conversational genres. The backstage can be thought of as ‘the place where the impression fostered by the performance is knowingly contradicted as a matter of course’ (Goffman 1957: 112), and where facts and other informal actions suppressed in the ‘frontstage’ may appear (Wodak 2009: 10). These interviews therefore provide an opportunity to identify discursive and metadiscursive institutional norms and suggest ways in which individuals position themselves in relation to those norms. The informal, interpersonal style of the ethnographic interview allows the opportunity for personal narrative and anecdote which can be viewed as ‘particularly revealing indices of identity because they offer a sort of ‘window’ on to how individuals evaluate past experience and position themselves in their world’ (Wodak 2009: 99).
A range of discourse analytic techniques associated with Ethnography (Hymes 1972) and critical discourse analysis (Fairclough 1995; Wodak 2001) are used in order to assess the ways in which gender is represented as salient by interviewees in relation to their public performances. Language is viewed as a social practice and gender is seen as a variable and contested concept, being both a flexible category in which speakers’ gender identities are constructed in their ‘performance’ in interaction (Bulter 1990), and a category which is partly fixed by the institutional arrangements based on stereotypical notions of male and female linguistic behaviour.
Previous research has suggested that the gendered division between private and public is being reproduced within the public sphere and that women’s public rhetoric is more likely than men’s to be fractured by competing, often contradictory, norms and expectations (Walsh 2001). As part of a larger ethnographic research project aimed at identifying gendered linguistic practices in ‘new’, rather than traditional, parliaments (such as the House of Commons), this paper seeks to further an understanding of those norms and expectations.

Research GroupEnglish Language and Literature
ConferenceThe 12th International Pragmatics Conference (IPRA)
Publication process dates
Deposited30 Jan 2013
Completed05 Jul 2011
Output statusPublished
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