Author Archives: _ctaylor_

About _ctaylor_

Corpus linguist & discourse analyst, particularly interested in the representation of migrants and migration. I am also intrigued by the ways in which we, as researchers, influence the direction and outcomes of our research and the extent to which we are aware of / willing to acknowledge this partiality. And this is where I come from in my work on absence, through my work on migration discourse I realised how deafening and damaging silence can be, and from a methodological viewpoint, the neglect of absence means we miss half the story we want to capture. I lecture in English Language & Linguistics at the University of Sussex but all views/opinions here are posted in a personal capacity Most of my papers are available from my academia account:

CfP: Conspicuous by Absence: Exploring silence and absence in discourse

Contributions are invited for an edited collection dedicated to absence and silence in discourse. Although it is acknowledged that absences contribute to the meaning of what is present, discourse analysis has frequently focussed on what is said and, to date, the systematic analysis of what is unsaid and silenced, rare or absent in linguistic data, has received relatively little attention. In part, this is due to the methodological challenges of identifying, accessing and investigating absences. More conceptualisation is also required on how we can interpret absences in discourse as meaningful. These are the issues that we intend to tackle in this innovative volume. The aim is to bring together researchers who have been investigating absence and silence and to present a range of proposals as to how we can identify and analyse what is absent (and yet structuring of the discourse). In so doing, the volume aims to promote the empirical study of absence and silence in discourse and to give them a more central position in discourse analysis.

We invite contributions from a range of perspectives, which discuss and demonstrate ways of analysing silence and absence empirically. We particularly welcome proposals which go beyond the identification of an absence to include reflection of how to systematically identify that kind of absence/silence, and how absence can actually be analysed as part of the interpretation of a discourse.

Topics might include, but are not limited to:

  • absence/silence as the result of suppression to support a dominant discourse, as a result of hegemony and the absence of alternatives
  • absence/silence as the result of the development of discourses; what becomes absent in a process of development from a more heterogeneous discourse into hegemonic narratives or what gets left out of successive drafts/different versions of texts and/or as the result of addressee orientation
  • absence/silence regarding participants in events; voices that are heard or absent, make themselves heard or are silenced, participants that strategically claim they have been silenced
  • absence/silence as the result of (the process of) translation; which texts get selected for translation, which aspects of discourse determined, culture specific or time bound meaning get ‘lost in translation’
  • absence/silence in metaphors; how does metaphorical conceptualisation contribute to the foregrounding and backgrounding of aspects of the phenomenon in question
  • absence/silence in multimodal texts; what is reinforced or silenced in the interplay between different modes of communication
  • metadiscourse about absence/silence; how are silences identified and evaluated by discourse participants, what is it that makes silence meaningful to them.

We invite abstract proposals of up to 300 words (excluding references) to be submitted to the editors Melani Schröter ( and Charlotte Taylor ( by 30 April 2016. If accepted, we will ask for first drafts of chapters (up to 9000 words) to be submitted by 1st October 2016 with view to publication with an international publisher (expressions of interest already in place) in 2017.


Absence of naming choices?

In this blog post, I wanted to address the issue of absence of naming choices, and in many ways this post is a both a follow up and a precursor for the recent piece I wrote for the Conversation on the naming choices which are available for describing people who move (or are moved) from one place to another. As a linguist, something which I find interesting is the way that people explain why they use certain choices. In some cases, they are overt about choosing names which reflect a particular evaluation, as is the case in the recent al Jazeera decision not to use migrant when refugee is appropriate. And, as is equally the case in the offensive and hate-filled alternatives to migrant which were offered below the line on that article.

In other cases, people claim neutrality for the word that they use, as happens in the ‘but it’s the dictionary meaning’ explanations, which fail to take into account how dictionaries change as usage and evaluative meanings change.

And in other cases, people explain the choice of term as simply being the common sense one, using the ‘we call them x because they are x’ explanation. For instance, in an article responding to the debate raised by the al Jazeera decision, a Guardian article ran with the headline We deride them as ‘migrants’. Why not call them people? and, as might be expected, it received below-the-line responses along the lines of ‘They get called ‘migrants’ because they are migrants’.

So, if this logic holds, we should expect similar patterns of naming across similar events, after all, the argument goes, it’s not a value judgement. To investigate this quite quickly, I downloaded all the articles which referred to ship, ships, boat, boats from all the UK national newspapers published over two date ranges:

1) April 19-20 2015, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over 700 people (c.50 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

2) January 14-15 2012, the period in which a ship capsized in the Mediterranean killing over30 people (c.80 articles relating to this disaster after duplicates were removed)

Where these two incidents differ is in the purpose and nationality of the people on board: in the 2015 event, many of those on board were reportedly escaping from Syria or African countries. In the 2012 event, those on board the Costa Concordia cruise ship were tourists, mostly from (western) Europe.

The comparison of how the people on board the two ships were named allows us to test whether there are any alternative naming choices. Or, whether the ‘we call them migrants because they are migrants’ explanation holds up logically, thus meaning that those on board the 2012 ship were also labelled with reference to their purpose as holidaymakers and tourists.

I started by just focussing on the headlines, which are particularly important because they provide a frame for reading and interpreting news articles, and the figure below summarises what I found.


As the figure shows, people on the 2012 vessel were mainly described in terms of their role on board (passengers, crew), while those in 2015 were described in terms of their reason for the journey (migrants). Conversely, those on the 2012 ship were rarely described as tourists and those on the 2015 ship were rarely referred to as passengers. Those on the 2012 boat were more likely to be referred to as people, and less likely to be referred to by numbers (e.g. more than 900 feared dead).

In terms of identifying possible absences from the 2015 reporting, we can see that there were terms other than migrants available in this context: people and passengers. And this is where the ‘we call them x because they are x’ argument falls down. Because obviously people belong to many potential classifications at the same time. Both groups on both ships were simultaneously passengers and people and potentially survivors and victims, and both could be counted and named as just numbers.

Choosing to privilege one classification over another is part of the speaker’s evaluation and point of the story. By talking about migrants, the story that is told is one of migrants, people who are unlike ‘us’. And by talking about people, the story that is told is one of people, people just like ‘us’.

Absence in the news: African feminism

As well as theorising absence/silence and looking at different approaches, one thing that we want to do in this blog is look at how absence and silence become topics in themselves. Following on from The Apparent King and Queen of Silence in Politics, in this post I wanted to return to an article that caught my eye in September:

African feminists

In the article, Salami asks

So why does the western feminist movement hardly look at African feminism for clues? Why does it only pay such little attention to the realisation of a once utopian fantasy of female majority leadership in Rwanda – where, since 2008, women have held over half the parliamentary seats? Feminists everywhere have spent decades campaigning for equality in political leadership, yet its achievement in Rwanda has been met with a loud silence.

There was plenty of discussion about why this might be the case in the comments below the line and it is an important question that has been posed elsewhere, but what also interested me was whether there was any way we could measure this kind of absence. That is not to devalue the salience of the perceived absence, but it constitutes an opportunity to think about methodological exploration.

Two absences are identified in the article: first, that the achievements of feminism in Rwanda have not been recognised and discussed; second that the role of African feminists in creating a more equal society have been ignored in western accounts. Any attempt to investigate these issues in a blog post is bound to be limited in scope but can perhaps indicate directions for a more thoughtful analysis and so I will look at the first absence.

One approach was to start with an open question and look at what regions or nationalities were mentioned with reference to feminism. As the article had  appeared in the Guardian, I started there. The 20 geographical identities that occurred most frequently in articles which contained mentions of feminist/feminism from the last 12 months were: England, French, India, African, Western, France, Russian, European, Italy, Africa, Afghanistan, Irish, Britain’s, Egypt, States, German, Russia, Wales, Germany, Ireland. The prominent position of African and Africa challenges the assumption of silence, but of course at this stage we are missing information about how Africa is being discussed in relation to feminism: are the most frequent countries sources for inspiration or concern? To answer this we would need to go into the collocates and concordances.

Another approach that I considered was to take the two other countries that were mentioned in the article, Iceland and Australia, and as a quick test of visibility, to compare the frequency of mentions on feminist websites. The results were quite mixed, Australia tended to get more mentions that the others but the ranking of Rwanda and Iceland varied widely according to the website. With more data we would be able to get a firmer picture but the tool is still too blunt and, as above, cannot account for how the status of women is being discussed.

So then I looked at the first 20 mentions for each country within two of the websites and identified whether they were talking about women as victims or poor role models (classified as negative below), or if they were talking about positive role models and changes that could benefit women. This is what I found:

feminist chart

The situation for women in Iceland was consistently discussed in positive terms, where there was an evaluation, while positive descriptions relating to Rwanda were less frequent. The positive mentions for Rwanda related to representation in parliament; the negative mentions referred mainly to women as victims of rape, in particular during the conflict, and female genital mutilation. In the Australia data, which contained a mixture of evaluations too, the positive and negative evaluations related to similar issues: in particular advances in availability of birth control medication and legislation limiting access to abortion. This level of detail could allow for a quantitative analysis that would be a more productive avenue and also lead towards understanding western feminist attitudes to Rwanda.

Subsequent explorations which get into the discourse analysis could look more specifically at how female leaders from these three countries are represented, and in addressing the second absence identified in the original article it would be revealing to explore who is credited with female leadership success in each context.

Those interested in representations of feminism in the media might be interested in ‘On the f-word: A corpus-based analysis of the media representation of feminism in British and German press discourse, 1990–2009’

How do you analyse the thing you have identified as absent?

This weekend I was at the 5th International Language in the Media Conference in London, which was a great opportunity to catch up with friends and meet some new researchers too. I was talking about absence (of course!) and got some really good ideas for my project, which I will talk about more some other time.  But, basically, I have been looking at how we can investigate what is absent in discourses, and, what discourses are absent in discussion of migrants and migration in the press. I have been working on four main ways into the data:

  1. Corpus linguistic starting points
  2. (Critical) discourse analytic starting points
  3. Meta-linguistic markers as a starting point
  4. Use of external data as a starting point

And I thought I would start with the last in the list; the use of external data. In this category, I am thinking of non-linguistic data which does not come from the corpus, so the example I gave on Saturday was population statistics.

My idea was this: If we compare the rankings of ‘foreign-born residents in the UK’ with the rankings of mentions of nationalities in newspaper articles that also mention migration, can we start to identify which groups are under-represented? And can this tell us anything about the way migration is represented in the UK?

It is currently a very rough measure which needs refining, but it looks worth working on as a point of entry into the data. Most nationalities in the list occurred within 10 ranking places on each scale, for instance, people from Poland were ranked in second place in terms of population in the UK and 11th in terms of mentions in the newspapers. I then focussed on those that were ranked more than 10 places lower on the newspaper mentions list, than in the population list, as a way of identifying who perhaps was less visible. This is what came up:

  • 11-20 rankings lower: Ghana, Jamaica, Kenya, Lithuania, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nigeria, Portugal, Slovakia, South Africa
  • 21-30 rankings lower: Bangladesh, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe
  • 31+ ranking lower: Philippines, Hong Kong

But having found that these nationalities appear to be under-represented, as a discourse analyst, the problem is interpreting the data because the full answer won’t be/can’t be in the corpus, of course.

In a previous study of the Italian context, I found it useful to return to the population statistics and look at what employment roles dominated for particular nationalities and saw a strong correlation between domestic labour and low visibility. But this is only partial too, because as newspaper consumers we know that assimilation of different nationalities into one broader category, e.g. east European, is a common feature of the discourse, in part, because the nationality may not be known (by text producers or implied readers), in part, because it is a rhetorical device for creating threat.

And so, to return the heading: how do you analyse the thing that you have identified as being absent?