"The whole movement of life is learning" (Krishnamurti). "To be an act of knowing, then, the adult literacy process must engage the learners in the constant problematizing of their existential situations" (Freire). "Once you learn to read, you will be forever free" (Douglass). "I can learn anything I have the desire to learn" (White, S.G.).

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Critical Discourse Analysis: Myths are "Real" if Enough People Believe Them

This week I have been reflecting on our class discussion about the importance of reading with as well as against the text.  In my Human Resource Development class, we are reading a text by Marvin Weisbord called Productive Workplaces.  In the first chapter Weisbord discusses myths in the workplace, and one particular statement that he made really stuck with me:  "Myths are real, and they shape your behavior."  In other words, regardless of whether or not something is true, the belief that it is true profoundly affects the society and culture that adheres to it.

Last week our class critically analyzed the Virginia Racial Integrity Act of 1924, and all of us were horrified at the basic assumptions this document was making about so-called "racial purity."  Just think of how many lives were affected by this because of the "myths" that shaped that society!  I could not fathom why anyone would think that these practices were acceptable, so I decided to do a little research via Wikipedia.  During the time that the law was established in Virginia, there was a popular concept, supposedly with scientific roots (ha!), called eugenics.  Eugenics is essentially a social philosophy that promotes improvement of human genetic traits through a reduced reproduction of people with "less desirable" or "undesirable traits."  In the 1920's, it was considered an academic discipline at many colleges and universities and even received funding for research.  This was not just happening in the United States, but spreading all over the world!  Because it was such a commonly accepted idea, it permeated many societies and became a part of their belief system (Source:  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eugenics)

This is exactly why critical discourse analysis is so important!  Through it, we seek to understand the genealogy of the truth regime that is represented.  We read to understand their viewpoint and then we question their assumptions and motives.  Who knows how many basic assumptions we have in our society that we take as "common sense" but might actually be myths.  It is frustrating and stressful sometimes to read in this way, but I think it is worth it.


  1. This is a great post, Rachel! I love the Weisbord reference. I had a similar aha experience getting my undergrad as a history major when I suddenly realized that every book we were reading was just someone's opinion. It was being presented as "fact" or "history" but the very next book could contradict what we had already learned. We didn't call it "reading against the text" then but we did discuss framing of incidents. How one historian might position a situation that took place 50-100 years ago in a certain light that we are horrified to read about today, such as slavery or WWII. It makes me wonder how current events will be re-shaped by historians in 100 years. Thank you for your post!

    1. Jen, there might be a third way out of the dilemma of writing history: it is not a single Truth, but it doesn't have to be rampant relativity either! For example, one technique is for historians to write parallel accounts, being transparent about both countervailing narratives. This allows the reader to judge the veracity based on the situated truth (little t) of each narrative. In a teeny tiny way, this is what we are trying to do when we interview multiple stakeholders, to juxtapose multiple, situated truths!

  2. The idea of myths are pretty interesting to me, as I know from working in a university setting for so many years, there are tons of myths about the world. I hail from a very heavily unionized state, and so when I moved here and got a job in a university, I asked who I could contact about joining the staff union. They gasped, horrified, like I'd invoked Lord Voldemort. Don't say the word UNION, they told me! You'll be fired!

    I just sort of let it drop, and then years later, I was on a staff advisory council, and we received an anonymous note about plummeting staff morale, suggesting that one path forward may be investigate collective organization. As background, this was a very public council, and we publicly published our minutes, published our responses to this kind of letter, and other findings. This letter caused such an uproar within our ranks, one woman actually started WEEPING about how terrible unions and collective bargaining were for employees (? 40 hour work week? Weekends? workplace safety regulations? all were fought for by union organizers)... and the council agreed to censor the letter and never published it or responded. I argued against hiding the letter and against our lack of public response, but I was the only vote on that side of the argument. That's one kind of mythology that exists in the workplace in the US, particularly throughout "right to work" states.

    The "New Capitalism" articles really resounded with me, for this exact reason. Creating a mythology about how work works doesn't mean that's the only way it can be.

  3. I am glad you connected the genealogy to common sense, Rachel. And Caitlin's vivid anecdote reminds us just how potent common sense is in terms of "discursively" limiting what it is we are allowed to talk, read, even think about!

  4. Hi Rachel,
    Your title, to me, is so telling of who we are as a culture. Jen and Caitlin contextualized the myths in our environment in such a superb way. I say this because it takes great effort to identify a myth in our own culture (or I at least think it's not an easy task). I've interacted with people from different backgrounds all my life and have considered their myths as being part of who they were as a culture. Did I question their myths? Of course. Did I question them about their myths? Rarely. But when I did, I would get answers that seemed 'canned' and I would not probe further. (i.e. Myth: Saudi women are not allowed to drive a car. A: It's part of our culture. OR It will affect our reproductive organs. Myth: A Korean widow should not remarry. A: It is not culturally okay.)
    To me, the discourse of those myths are loud and clear, but why is it so hard for our own cultures' myths to be heard loud and clear? And when we do hear them, and they are questioned, why does our society vehemently oppose to even question them? I think it is the discomfort of change. As Weisbord (2012) puts it in the book referenced by Rachel, "old and new paradigms are in conflict and unless a whole system could be switched over, innovation [is bound] to be swallowed up. Old norms [are sometimes] so deeply entrenched that they cannot be changed incrementally. That's one reason pilot projects don't spread" (p. 193). I beg to differ on the last point. I do believe that questioning myths and acting on what I am learning in this course (CDA, geneaology, reading with and against the text, etc) can have an impact that can assist in incremental change.


Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts on this post. Diverse opinions are welcomed.