An ethnographic and linguistic investigation into the construction of an individual’s ‘unpopularity’ on the debating floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly

Shaw, Sylvia (2010) An ethnographic and linguistic investigation into the construction of an individual’s ‘unpopularity’ on the debating floor of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In: Political speech – Il parlato politico, 10-12 Nov 2010, University Roma Tre, Rome, Italy. . [Conference or Workshop Item]


This paper presents some preliminary findings from a funded research project entitled ‘Gender and linguistic participation in the devolved parliaments of the UK’ by focusing on a sub-set of observations, interviews and transcripts of debates from the Northern Ireland Assembly. An analysis of this data allows an exploration of politicians’ attitudes towards the Minister for Education and an appraisal of her linguistic style in the debating chamber.

The research project aims to further an understanding of the factors affecting the political representation of women in the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales by examining the linguistic cultural norms and practices in debates, and to establish the extent to which these are gendered. It has been claimed that the devolved parliaments of the UK, now ten years old, offer women greater opportunities to participate than older, more traditional parliaments. Previous sociolinguistic research on House of Commons debates has found that although women participate equally with men in terms of the formal or ‘legal’ debate rules, they do not participate equally in terms of illegal debate discourse (by contributing ‘out of turn’, for example) (Shaw 2000, 2006). The reasons for this are likely to be complex, and related in part to the ‘visibility’ of women in a traditionally male-dominated forum (Puwar 2004) and the nature of traditional parliaments as a ‘linguistic habitus’ (Bourdieu 1991) in which ‘silence or hyper-controlled language’ is imposed on some people, while others are allowed the ‘liberties of a language that is securely established’ (1991: 82). Traditional parliaments can therefore be viewed as a ‘gendered space’ (Ochs 1992) in which the setting and the communicative tasks together become an index of a gendered style.

The project aims to describe the ‘new’ devolved assemblies in relation to these different aspects of participation using a detailed ethnographic and linguistic analysis. Gender is viewed 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. Drawing on ‘anti-essentialist’ theoretical frameworks I view language as a social practice in which gender is a dynamic category that is also a site of struggle and (re)positioning. It also assumes that gender identities are constructed through language use; that other social relations and categories (apart from gender) are significant; and that gender is culturally constituted and context-dependent (Litosseliti 2006).
An original combination of research methods is used in order to assess linguistic participation within the assemblies. Firstly, the ethnographic description of each assembly is based upon the tradition of the ‘Ethnography of Speaking’ Hymes (1972). This method of ‘Linguistic Ethnography’ holds that the contexts for communication should be investigated rather than assumed and that the detailed analysis of linguistic data is essential to understanding its significance (Rampton 2007: 585). This informal knowledge about ‘what can be said when, where, by whom, to whom, in what manner and in what particular social circumstances’ (Saville-Troike 1982: 8) has been overlooked in political accounts of institutions because mainstream comparative research in this area tends to focus on formal rules (Helmke and Levitsky 2004). This ethnographic approach, using the notion of the Community of Practice (Eckert and McConnell-Ginet’s 1992) rather than that of a ‘speech community’, is combined with Conversation Analysis (CA). CA aims to ‘uncover the tacit reasoning procedures and sociolinguistic competencies underlying the production and interpretation of talk in organised sequences of interaction’ (Hutchby and Woofit 1998:14). In particular this research uses the model of turn-taking proposed by Sacks et al (1974) in order to identify the model of interaction in each assembly. Gaining the floor has been viewed by analysts as an ‘economy’ in which, depending on the context, ‘turns are valued, sought or avoided’ (Sacks et al.1974:201). This notion of a ‘competitive economy’ seems particularly apt for the highly regulated debate floor where turns are sought for professional and political gain. This method has been successfully used to identify a model of turn-taking in relation to the participation of MPs in debates in the House of Commons (Shaw 2000) and provides a useful framework for comparisons across the assemblies.

The paper will focus on a case study of a set of ethnographic observations made between November 2009 and June 2010 in the Northern Ireland Assembly. This allows a detailed case study of the ways in which one particular woman politician (the Minister for Education) is perceived by interviewees to be the most unpopular speaker in the debating chamber. I will use interview data from politicians, and from the Minister herself to identify the dimensions this unpopularity. While it is clear that the Minister is unpopular with some politicians because of her policies on education and because of party and sectarian allegiances, others believe that it is her confrontational style in debates and the fact that she is a woman that account for this. In criticising the Minister’s behaviour in debates interviewees describe confrontational non-verbal gestures such as ‘wagging her finger’ in the debating chamber and the Minister herself describes her stance as ‘planting both feet firmly on the floor’ when speaking in debates. In an analysis of videos of the Minister speaking in debates I will attempt to establish the extent to which the Minister’s performative ‘style’ in debates is of particular significance in constructing her ‘unpopular’ identity. In doing so I will also question the theoretical and methodological difficulties in ascribing the Minister’s perceived unpopularity to individual aspects of her identity, such as gender.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Research Areas: A. > School of Media and Performing Arts > Media > English Language and Literature
Item ID: 7451
Depositing User: Sylvia Shaw
Date Deposited: 06 Apr 2011 10:36
Last Modified: 09 Nov 2022 19:44

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