Wednesday, 31 August 2016

Agency and victimhood in newspaper representations of those opposing same-sex marriage

Results of our latest study!

We've just submitted a manuscript to Discourse and Society journal, which contains our findings from our most recent Discourses of Marriage project. 
We've used corpus linguistics to work through newspaper articles from September 2011 (when the British government first announced that they would be holding a public consultation on same-sex marriage) to April 2013 (when the first ceremonies took place) - we had 2599 articles from the most popular newspapers in the UK as our data set, totalling 1,327,817 words!

In our analysis, we have identified the most ideologically salient keywords in our data, and then used discourse analysis to explain the impact of how these words were used in the context of some of the newspaper articles. These keywords included, for example: adjectives used to describe the proposals, such as 'controversial'; verbs used to talk about the government's behaviour, such as 'force'; and adjectives used to talk about the opponents of same-sex marriage, such as 'ordinary'. 

We quickly found that there were two significant themes in the newspaper data. Firstly, marriage was treated as a delicate but essential institution which could be damaged by 'dangerous' changes to the law (i.e. the extension of marriage to same-sex couples). Secondly, those opposing same-sex marriage were often represented - or represented themselves - as victims. We found the former theme to be entirely consistent with our previous analysis of radio debates on the same subject (van der Bom et al. 2015), and so focused in this paper on the theme of 'victimhood'.

In brief, what we've discovered is that opponents to same-sex marriage were represented as victims whose moral values, traditions, and civil liberties were being threatened by a ‘politically correct’ minority. This was achieved in various ways, but included the explicit foregrounding of 'ordinary people' as both those not part of the political elite and, more subtly, as those not in same-sex relationships. The notion of victimhood was particularly underlined in discussions of specific types of 'ordinary people'; this included parents, those with religious beliefs, and teachers who would potentially be 'forced' to teach children about (extraordinary) same-sex marriage. 

 The government, along with gay rights campaigners, are positioned in our corpus as having agency and pushing ordinary people - who have no agency - into something that is potentially dangerous and which goes against their free will. Furthermore, in the latter parts of our data set, when the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill had been drafted and was being debated, this apparent victimhood was heightened through the use of language which positioned the Bill itself as 'hijacking' and 'grotesquely subverting' the institution of marriage. The Bill, in addition to  the government, is therefore represented as agentive in comparison to its opponents (the victims). 

In sum, then, we have found a clear 'David and Goliath' message within the newspaper data. Importantly, by representing the opponents of equal marriage as fending off a large and unyielding adversary, it becomes possible for this opposition to be constructed as motivated not by homophobia but by the rather more admirable desire to protect tradition, civil liberties, and ‘religious freedoms’. Opponents can thus avoid any accusations of being bigoted or prejudiced and, we argue, communicate homophobic ideals in a much more implicit way.

The members of the Discourses of Marriage Research Group that worked on this article are:

Georgina Turner (@intweed)
Sara Mills (@sara4mills)
Isabelle van der Bom (@isabellevdbom)
Laura Coffey-Glover (@drlauracoffey)
Laura. L. Paterson (@langueonline)
Lucy Jones (@jones_lucy)

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