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GOLTC Method Guide

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)

Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)


Publication Type



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Kendrick, H. and De-Poli, C. (2024) Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). GOLTC Methods Guide series, 2. Global Observatory of Long-Term Care, Care Policy & Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science.

Authors & affiliations

Hannah Kendrick and Chiara De-Poli
Care Policy and Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science


Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is a broad approach to social scientific research that involves close analysis of texts and language use, with the aim of investigating hidden power relations and ideologies embedded in discourse. There are many different types of discourse analysis, but this guide relates to the CDA approach developed by Fairclough (1992; 1999; 2001; 2003; 2008).

When to use it

Critical Discourse Analysis is normally used within qualitative research projects exploring and critiquing the role of language use within political and social reproduction or change. CDA is most commonly used on secondary data sources, such as policy documents, but can also be used on primary data sources of language use, such as interview transcripts.


What is discourse?  

Discourses are ways of constructing and representing different versions of the world through language use. When people draw on discourses through spoken words or written text, they are drawing on a pool of pre-existing resources. This means discourse is both shaped by and shapes social practice. For example, during a patient/clinician interaction both may draw on a medical discourse which infers both ‘patient’ and ‘doctor’ identities that creates interactions that are hierarchical and deferential in nature. These interactions are both simultaneously shaped by, and serve to perpetuate, the medical discourse.

For Fairclough, discursive practice is just one element of social practice, which works in dialectical relationship with wider social structures and non-discursive elements of social practice (materiality, agency, social relations, psychological processes, technology). Discourses can be ‘operationalised’ into material form or through new identities or ways of interacting.

Fairclough advocates combining textual analysis with other ethnographic methods, such as observation, to capture ‘non-discursive’ phenomena and how it relates to discourse. He also says that CDA can be combined with broader social theoretical perspectives. Textual analysis should be just one element of social science research projects. Please see Kendrick and Mackenzie (2023) for an example of combining CDA textual analysis with other ethnographic methods and governmentality theory.

Why is CDA critical? 

Discourses are not neutral, but function ideologically when they contribute to creation and reproduction of unequal power relations between social groups. The purpose of CDA is to try to shed light and expose often hidden discourses that contribute to unequal power relations. CDA is emancipatory in that it takes the side of oppressed groups.

CDA will normally seek to make both a normative and explanatory critique. Explanatory critique is directed at the discourses and structures that perpetuate unequal power relations and normative critique is directed at the harmful effects of those discourses.

Example (in long-term care)

CDA is not widely used within LTC research yet, but below are some examples:

  • Hood (2016) use CDA to analyse how social workers talk about complex cases
  • Joergensen and Praestegaard (2017) conduct a critical discourse analysis of Danish mental healthcare policy
  • El-Bialy et al (2021) use CDA to analyse public perceptions of the role and function of long-term care in the context of a changing Canadian health care system.

Benefits of using CDA

  • Those receiving social care, mental health and disability services often form part of marginalised communities. CDA can help to critically analyse the way that policy and practice reproduces these inequalities and/or normalises and reinforces negative stereotypes
  • It can be used to study interactions between social care practitioners and people that use services to determine the extent to which communications are empowering and enabling, or paternalistic and hierarchical
  • It can be used in policy analysis and evaluation to expose and critique underlying assumptions and problematisations within health and social care policy development and implementation, as well as the impacts when these discourses are operationalised
  • It can be an effective tool for critically examining the dominant discourses underpinning the social care profession, practice, and policy and how these are shaped by the political and structural context (Leotti et al, 2022)


  • CDA could be seen as a paternalistic way of doing research, inferring ‘epistemic privilege’, in which researchers are able to discern deeply hidden ideological messaging within texts that only those trained in CDA can see
  • CDA’s critical orientation and lack of objectivity might not be favoured by research funders
  • Challenges in using the approach for both participants and researchers where they do not share the same first language.

For more on CDA

What are the different types of discourse analysis? 

Discourse analysis is a very broad school with CDA just one method amongst many. Approaches to discourse analysis include the following:

  • Foucauldian inspired discourse analysis (Hall, 1997; Bacchi, 2009)
  • Discursive Psychology (Potter and Wetherell, 1987)
  • Post-structuralist Discourse Theory (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985; Glynos and Howarth, 2007)
  • Conversation analysis (Sacks et al, 1974)

Within CDA there are also different approaches:

  • Discourse Historical Approach – (Wodak, 2001)
  • Socio cognitive discourse studies (Van Dijk, 2017)
  • Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 1992; 1999; 2001; 2003; 2008)

For a useful comparison of different types of discourse analysis, the book ‘Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method’ by Marianne Jorgensen and Louise Phillips (2002) provides very clear explanation of CDA, Post-structuralist Discourse Theory, & Discursive Psychology.

The best way of learning about how to do textual analysis using linguistic and semantic techniques advocated by Fairclough, is through reading published examples and practising using text extracts. Fairclough’s (1992) book Language and Power provides his clearest guidance for analysing texts. The journal Critical Discourse Studies is a publication dedicated to discourse analysis and provides examples from a range of discourse approaches and empirical contexts.

A useful summary outlining imitations of CDA is the article by Breeze, R. (2011) ‘Critical Discourse Analysis and its critics’, Pragmatics, 21(4), pp. 493-525.


Bacchi, C. (2009) Analysing policy. Melbourne: Pearson Higher Education AU

Breeze, R. (2011) Critical Discourse Analysis and its critics, Pragmatics, 21(4), pp. 493-525.

Chouliaraki, L. and Fairclough, N. (1999) Discourse in late modernity: Rethinking critical discourse analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

El-Bialy R, Funk L, Thompson G, et al. (2022) Imperfect Solutions to the Neoliberal Problem of Public Aging: A Critical Discourse Analysis of Public Narratives of Long-Term Residential Care. Canadian Journal on Aging / La Revue canadienne du vieillissement. 41(1):121-134.

Fairclough, N. (2001) Language and Power. Essex: Addison Wesley Longman.

Fairclough, N. (1992) Discourse and social change. Cambridge: Polity press.

Fairclough, N. (2003) Analysing discourse: Textual analysis for social research. London: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2008) ‘A dialectical-relation approach to critical discourse in social research’, in Woadak, R. and Meyer, M. (eds.) Methods in Critical Discourse Analysis. 2nd edn. London: Sage, pp. 162-186.

Glynos, J. and Howarth, D. (2007) Logics of critical explanation in social and political theory. London: Routledge.

Hall, S. (1997) ‘The work of representation’ in S. Hall (ed) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. London: Sage.

Hood, R. (2016). How professionals talk about complex cases: A critical discourse analysis. Child and Family Social Work, 21(2).

Jorgensen, M and Phillips, L (2002) Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. London: Sage.

Joergensen, K., & Praestegaard, J. (2018). Patient participation as discursive practice—A critical discourse analysis of Danish mental healthcare. Nursing Inquiry, 25(2).

Kendrick, H., & Mackenzie, E. (2023). Austerity and the shaping of the ‘waste watching’ health professional: A governmentality perspective on integrated care policy. SSM – Qualitative Research in Health, 3.

Laclau E. & Mouffe C. (1985 [2001]). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy: Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. London: Verso.

Leotti, S, Sugrue E, and Winges-Yanez (2022) Unpacking the worlds in our words: Critical discourse analysis and social work inquiry. Qualitative Social Work, 21(2), pp. 261-276

Potter, J. and Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour. London: Sage

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language50(4), 696–735.

Van Dijk, T.A., 2017. Socio-cognitive discourse studies. In The Routledge handbook of critical discourse studies (pp. 26-43). Routledge.

Wodak, R. (2001) ‘The discourse-historical approach’, in Wodak, R. and Meyer, M. (eds.) Methods of critical discourse analysis.  London: Sage, pp. 63-94.

Suggested Citation

Kendrick, H. and De-Poli, C. (2024) Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). GOLTC Methods Guide series, 2. Global Observatory of Long-Term Care, Care Policy & Evaluation Centre, London School of Economics and Political Science.