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Guide to Linguistic Theories, Research and Concepts | Representation and Power

Beth Kemp | Monday January 30, 2012

Categories: Hot Entries, Linguistics Theory & Study, Linguistic Theory, Using Theory, Representation & Power, An Introduction to Representation & Power


Image source: Wendell Piez from ‘The sign according to structuralism’

This topic is concerned with how language stands for things in the real world and how language is able to affect our impressions of things in the real world.  There is therefore some overlap here with concepts such as language and thought and some power issues in language (NB: theories relating to the effect of power/status on interaction will be found in the guide to discourse, speech and pragmatics).  This whole topic is highly conceptual, requiring considerable engagement with theory.  Although some of this theory is not explicitly tested at A Level, it is often taught in order to enable students to effectively deal with the topic.

Studying representation requires engagement with two main issues:

  • What is the relationship between words and the things they stand for?

A-Level specifications tend not to dwell on this concept in terms of semiotics, but it is helpful for students to recognise that there are few, if any, logical and ‘natural’ connections between words and the ideas or things they represent (with the possible exception of onomatopoeic words).

  • Does it matter which words we choose to describe or label something?

This is ultimately the concept which lies beneath the Political Correctness movement and all concerns about sexist, racist and homophobic language (for example).  It has also been explored in connection with loaded questions and eyewitness testimony.

Key Theories and Concepts for Representation


This is a huge and complex area which may not need to be explicitly covered for A Level, but which does underpin this topic.  Semiotics is often defined as ‘the study of signs’, which includes visual signs, images, words, body language and other paralinguistic ways of conveying meaning.  Probably the most useful aspect of semiotics for this topic of linguistic study is the idea of the arbitrary and loose relation between the...

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