Integrating Relevance Theory and Critical Realism for the analysis of manipulation

01 Jun 2024
Room D1

Integrating Relevance Theory and Critical Realism for the analysis of manipulation

Despite the difficulty of ascertaining the manipulative intent of text producers, early pragmatic and discourse approaches (e.g. de Saussure, 2005) only focused on text producers to explore the mechanisms behind alleged manipulative texts. Recently, however, scholars have suggested a focus shift from the intention of the text producers to the effects on the text receivers (e.g. Maillat and Oswald, 2009; Oswald, 2014) and others have attempted to pursue this line of enquiry empirically (e.g. Castaldi, 2022). This paper follows this ‘addressee-oriented’ view of investigating manipulation and argues that aspects from Relevance Theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1995) can be drawn upon in order to explore manipulation and ideology formation.

The paper begins by proposing a more nuanced understanding of RT’s contextual effect and, by integrating a Critical Realist epistemology, argues that manipulation can occur at three different levels of representation and interpretation of ‘reality’: the real, the basic social reality and the constructed discursive reality. After introducing and explaining the ontology of these three levels of reality, these are mapped out against a more nuanced taxonomy of contextual effect, which is derived by differentiating between evidential effects and ideological effects. The former pertains to the domain of ‘knowledge’, while the latter to the domain of ‘opinions’.

In the second part, examples from an on-going project on the representation of Ukrainian Displaced People on UK television are used to exemplify the methodological framework proposed. Evidence is provided to show how “a set of constraints limiting the processes of contextual selection” (Maillat and Oswald, 2009, p. 361) can be applied at all the three levels of reality introduced in the first part of the paper and to show how these rely on cultural constructs that, from the perspective of a British audience, create proximity with the Ukrainian Displace People and distance with Russia.



Castaldi, J. (2022) Cognition and ideological effects in the interaction between viewers and BBC travel documentaries: Combining multimodal critical discourse analysis and audience research.                       Canterbury Christ Church University. Doctoral Dissertation.

De Saussure, L. (2005) Manipulation and cognitive pragmatics: Preliminary hypotheses. In de            Saussure, L. and Schulz, P. (eds.), Manipulation and Ideologies in the Twentieth Century:                        Discourse, Language, Mind. Amsterdam-Philadelphia: John Benjamins, pp. 113-146.

Maillat, D. and Oswald, S. (2009) Defining manipulative discourse: The pragmatics of cognitive illusions. International Review of Pragmatics, 1(2), pp. 348-370.

Oswald, S. (2014) It is easy to miss something you are not looking for: A pragmatic account of covert communicative influence for (critical) discourse analysis. In Hart, C. and Cap, P. (eds.), Contemporary Critical Discourse Studies. London and New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, pp. 97-120.

Sperber, D. and Wilson, D. (1995) Relevance: Communication and Cognition (2nd Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.