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Can you see a social issue? (Re)Looking at everyday texts

I am an immigrant. I am a South African of Indian descent, a gay man in an inter-racial relationship, and a lecturer in applied language and literacy education (specifically critical literacies) at a prominent university in Scotland. It is important to take note of these identity categories throughout this blog post because they represent the positions from which I speak, read and write the world. They enable and disenable certain ways of engaging with the world and should contribute to my discussion on how power is encoded into everyday texts (Janks, 2010).

The specific relations of power I cover in this post relate to coloniality and, briefly, its intersections with gender, heteronormativity, and the environment. In this way, I draw on Maldonado-Torres’ (2007, 243) notion of the coloniality of being:

…coloniality survives colonialism. It is maintained alive in books, in the criteria for academic performance, in cultural patterns, in common sense, in the self image of peoples, in aspirations of self, and so many other aspects of our modern experience. In a way, as modern subjects we breath coloniality all the time and everyday

Here, Maldonado-Torres highlights how the everyday text and experience is informed by relations of power, specifically related to coloniality. Scotland, as a modern western and increasingly globalised context, seems to sit between colonialism and postcolonialism: as an instrument and beneficiary of the British colonial empire, and as a context subsumed by English and Englishness as a most valued cultural commodity. Now, more than ever, it seems necessary 1) to see how power works through everyday language and texts in order to interrogate them and reimagine a more socially just future, and 2) to consider how diversity and difference can be viewed and used as a resource for sustainable futures.

In my discussion here, I hope to explore three main ideas: One, how texts (in the broadest sense) are intrinsically related to issues of power in socio-cultural context. Two, how an analysis of texts might reveal the social issues and dominant ideologies of a place and time, and three, how critical literacy might enable the (re)reading and (re)writing of texts in ways that confront and challenge problematic relations of power. I begin with a brief discussion on texts and their relationship with power before exploring an example of an everyday text. Finally, I discuss two examples from my own practice as a researcher and lecturer in critical literacies (on a PGDE English programme) that serve to illustrate possibilities for personal and classroom practice.

Broadening definitions of texts

Texts, according to researchers in the fields of applied and critical linguistics, include representations across multimodal modes and media. That is, language (or the linguistic mode) is but one mode for communication. Others include the visual mode, the aural mode, the gestural or kinaesthetic mode, and the spatial mode (Kress, 2015). Each mode comes with its own affordances and meaning potentials, suggesting that some modes are more apt for communicating certain meanings. Consider, for example, how images in the media can provide readers with an accessible, snap-shot of major world news events, but are open to a broader range of interpretations. On the other hand, written articles can provide readers with more detail and specific information about those same events without necessarily conveying mood. Assembled together, media texts have become more and more multimodal: images are used to attract the reader’s eye and words are used to anchor the possible meanings into a so-called ‘objective’ report of events, or images position readers by showing them specific selections of events while the words build on this picture. The capacity to read multimodal texts, then, becomes more and more necessary.

Over and above this, texts are never neutral. Drawing on Halliday’s (1985) Systemic Functional Grammar, critical linguistics understand that all texts are ensembles of a range of possible meaning choices. Going back to the general example above, such an understanding of text design raises questions about: Why are particular images selected for news articles? What lies beyond the frame of the image? Who has been interviewed and how have their words been used in the article? Whose voices and perspectives have been included/excluded in the reporting of an event? These critical questions, and more, might allow readers to think beyond the text as a truth claim and rather as a constructed version of reality that serves some and the expense of others.

In this way, how power works through texts and language, across modes, can be unravelled and reimagined. But, this is also not as simple as it might sound. If texts are never neutral, then neither are those who construct texts, nor those who read texts. The identity categories of text designers and readers influence what social issues can be spotted in texts. For example, it might be easier for a person who identifies as gender non-conforming or queer to see the ways in which cisgender identities are privileged in everyday spaces and how this contributes to maintaining transphobia or the objectification of women. In contrast, having the security of citizenship in a nation state might make it difficult to see how government documents, advertising, and even school curriculums sometimes exclude and/or misrepresent refugee identities.

Visit the Doulton Fountain

To illustrate this, consider the following critical (multimodal) discourse analysis (Machin & Mayr, 2012; Fairclough, 2001) of an artifact in Glasgow: My partner and I moved to Glasgow, Scotland, in January 2018. One of the many sites we saw was Glasgow Green city park, home to the People’s Palace and the Doulton Fountain. Glasgow Green was a meeting and trading site for the old merchants whose businesses, at the time, thrived from colonial practices of domination, slavery, indentured labour, and resource mining. Today, it is a tourist site and park, with the People’s Palace Museum acting as a hub of information about Glasgow’s ‘working-class history’. Just outside the museum sits the Doulton Fountain (designed by Arthur Edward Pearce), the world’s largest terracotta fountain. The fountain, originally constructed for Queen Victoria’s jubilee in 1887, and put on display at the 1888 International Exhibition for colonial innovation and empire at Kelvingrove, sits 46 feet high and 70 feet across (visit ). A simple plaque at one side of the fountain has its name inscribed.

Figure 1: Doulton Fountain, Glasgow

The fountain is made up of four main tiers (see Figure 1). At the top stands a life-sized effigy of Queen Victoria, for whom the fountain was commissioned. Reigning during the height of the British colonial empire, the fountain pays homage to the monarch by placing her at the top of what can be understood as a hierarchy of power. It is impossible to meet her gaze given that the fountain can only be viewed from ground level. The queen is also represented in full imperial attire and there is no space next to her for another to occupy. She is the sole representation of empire and power.

Below this stands four male military figures which seem to represent the military forces of the kingdoms of Britain. Such representations of military might and war is common is common in the United Kingdom and stitches the theme of war through the fabric of everyday spaces. While this monument stands out in this discussion, innumerable plaques and memorial sites throughout the country occupy the everyday, lived spaces of the UK.

Below these figures are four large sculptures, each depicting a major colony of Britain during the 19th century: India, Australia, South Africa, and Canada. Positioned just above the basin of the fountain, this tier represents the lower-most position in the hierarchy. Each colony is represented by two human figures (one male and one female in the normative sex and gender binary), resources (for example, mineral resources for South Africa and agricultural resources for Australia). In three of the four inserts, the female figures sit while the male figures tower over them on one side. The resources (flora, fauna and mineral) surround the figures, conveying a sense of prosperity, wealth, and possession. Furthermore, the figures are seemingly of British descent (except for India, where it is less obvious) and therefore do not represent the indigenous people of South Africa, India, Australia and Canada. There is an echo of Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews, an oil painting depicting land and its owners (see Figure 2). Such images serve to represent some people as “proud landowners” (Berger, 1972 108) and possessors of things. The fountain, then, is a declaration of ownership, celebrating the ‘haves’ and making invisible the ‘have-nots’.

Figure 2: Gainsborough’s Mr and Mrs Andrews (taken from Berger, 1972, 106)

The Doulton Fountain, as one example, is an interesting artifact not only because it symbolises colonial and imperial power but because its imperial symbolism persists quietly. Visiting the fountain, one will notice how tourists photograph it, how people saunter around and relax on benches surrounding the monument, and how everyday conversations take place while people walk their dogs or sit for a meal at the museum café. There are no notices, blurbs or information signs explaining the fountain and its role in contemporary Scottish society, and whether or not Scotland has managed to move beyond colonial discourses. Online, historically ‘objective’ descriptions and narratives can be found without a trace of interrogation about how the fountain, as one of many historical texts to be found across the city and country, position Scotland and Scottish people not as a player in the global (cultural and political) economy, but as a brush-stroke in the persistent image of British imperialism.

Going unnoticed

There is no doubt that the fountain pays tribute to the height of imperial power., but it is when power goes unnoticed that it becomes more dangerous. Herein lies the question: in a post-empire, increasingly diverse and globalised Scotland, what roles are envisioned for Scottish identity, culture, and languages? And, what capacity for reading and re-reading, writing and re-writing, identity is enabled through the Scottish education system? Reading with the text, the fountain can be understood as a representation of its time. The features of the text, the artifact, draw on a pattern of imperial representations of colonial power which was intrinsically tied to dominion over colonial states. Reading against the text, it becomes possible to see how such representations in a contemporary, superdiverse, globalised context (in this case Glasgow) leave out the range of Scottish identities that inhabit the surrounding city, the range of immigrant and refugee identities that interact with representations of Scotland’s colonial history, or the ways in which Scottish society is (attempting to) imagine a more socially just future. Whether issues of race, gender, coloniality, environment, or others stand out when one views this fountain, it is important that those social issues do stand out and not go unnoticed.

Speaking back

There are many possibilities for speaking back to power: from the (re)design of texts that represent more socially just positions, to educational practice that allow teachers and learners to interrogate texts in ways that reveal how power and ideology gets encoded into everyday practices and spaces. As a lecturer and course designer on the PGDE English programme in a prominent Scottish university, I am interested in how critical literacies might enable student teachers, teachers and learners to deconstruct secondary English curriculum and pedagogy so that it might be reconstructed in more equitable ways that see diversity, difference and plurality as resources. Following Luke (2004, 264), I am wary of English language and literacy education that is not conscious of power:

…we risk becoming a profession involved in the systematic production and distribution of particular brands of linguistic capital, without an ongoing critical appraisal of the force and consequences of our actions

Here, I will look at two examples of speaking back to the position offered by the Doulton Fountain.

Example One: (Re)Design

According to researchers such as Cope & Kalantzis (2000), Janks (2010) and Vasquez, Janks & Comber (2019), text design is a means to construct the world. By drawing on Freirean perspectives of education as emancipatory, researchers such as the above-named understand design that is conscious of the social effects of texts to either challenge or maintain problematic norms. Furthermore, texts are understood as being instantiations of ideology (or value systems). Taking both a Freirean and Hallidayan understanding of language and textual design, it becomes possible to see that text designers can choose what and how to represent the world by making selections from the range of resources offered by available ways of communicating: from word selection that takes into account the effects of particular connotations, to how bodies are arranged in images and artifacts as objects rather than people.

Consider by submission for the John Byrne Award:

Figure 3: Can you see a social issue (John Byrne Award submission)

Using a poster genre, the text seeks to re-present the fountain as more than just an everyday item. That is, the genre allows me to put the fountain up for display. In doing so, I attempt to transform the fountain from a commonplace object that has become part of the Glasgow Green architecture into an object for analysis. This is reinforced by the question ‘Can you see a social issue?’ Firstly, the typeface and colour are meant to resemble the local slogan ‘People make Glasgow’. Whether successful or not, the intertextual reference is meant to bring into question both the people that supposedly constitute Glasgow and Glasgow which has been constructed as a place for ‘the people’. Secondly, asking a closed, rhetorical question suggests that there is only one acceptable answer: yes. If one cannot see a social issue in the text (the fountain), then this raises concerns about a lack of criticality in the reader. If one does see a social issue, which social issue stands out and which social issue(s) never surface? What would this suggest about the readers of this text and the social issues that matter to them?

But, a text’s intended meaning is not always taken up nor does not always have the desired social effect. In what ways does this poster design assume that issues related to coloniality are prioritised by its readership? What assumptions have I made about what constitutes a ‘social issue’? And, how accessible are my intentions to a broad range of readers? Perhaps a further redesign might be in order.

Despite this, it is through the design of this text that I was able to read about colonialism, research colonial representation, and consider how coloniality intersects with gender, sex, environment, and other identity categories. In many ways, seeing the social issue and using my capacity to speak back through textual design might not have enabled a broader social transformation, but it certainly enabled a personal transformation in understanding, practices of seeing, and the continued development of a critical consciousness. Although seemingly small, such a transformation has also enabled me to think about classroom practice and teacher education.

Example Two: Doing critical multimodal discourse analysis in teacher education, for secondary literacy education

In my role as a lecturer on a PGDE English programme, I am interested in developing with student teachers their understanding and practice of critical literacies. Critical literacy is an orientation to teaching and learning language that understands language as a function of ideology and power. That is, it uses seminal theorists like Freire, Halliday, Foucault, and wa Thiong’o to deconstruct texts (in the broadest sense) in order to reveal their constructedness as versions of reality. In order to do this, critical literacy teachers ask critical questions of the texts that they work with: Who is included/excluded? Who is advantaged/disadvantaged? Whose perspective does this text represent? Whose interests are served by the text? (Janks et al., 2013). These critical questions are then used to inform acts of transformation: from the redesign of problematic texts into more socially just versions, to the design of texts that represent alternative or normatively marginalised perspectives, to developing projects that create awareness of particular social issues or engage in changing broader communities. Vivienne Vasquez and Barbara Comber are excellent examples of critical literacy work that works with transformation both in and out of the classroom space.

In Scotland, I have therefore used the Doulton Fountain as a means to engage English student teachers with critical (multimodal) discourse analysis and everyday texts (Machin & Mayr, 2012; Fairclough, 2001). The following series of activities have been used to scaffold students into deconstructing how the fountain works as a communicative device. That is, how the fountain is not just a neutral object, but a manifestation of particular ideologies that position race/ethnicity, culture, nation state and citizenry, gender, sexuality, and the environment in particular ways:

Critical Discourse Analysis for Secondary Classrooms

Any analysis of texts in and out of the classroom should move across three main skills: Description, Interpretation and Explanation. This follows from Norman Fairclough’s (2001) model for Critical Discourse Analysis (see Figure 1 below). While this is an academic field of study, for secondary English teachers it becomes important to consider ways of doing critical discourse analysis as part of the literacy project in schools. That is, how can teaching and learning in the English (language) classroom engage young people with the function, form and power of language to develop their own capacity to read and construct the world around them.

(Figure 1: adapted from Fairclough, 2001)

The following series of activities have been developed to help you consider methods for moving across the three boxes of Fairclough’s (2001) model. That is, by the end of this series of activities, you should have a foundational understanding of what it means to do critical discourse analysis. Thereafter, you can reflect on ways to apply the activity (and its principles) to the secondary English (language) classroom, especially in relation to reading/writing.

ACTIVITY 1a - Observing texts

Seeing is a positioned practice (Berger, 1972; Sturken & Cartwright, 2001; Govender, in press) and is often underestimated. Arguably, it is a vital first step toward any critical engagement.

In small groups/pairs, find the famous Doulton fountain situated in Glasgow Green. Use the following list of actions to help you observe the fountain in detail:

ACTIVITY 1b – Texts appear in space and time

Explore the spaces around the fountain as well as how those spaces are used. Choose any of the following tasks to complete on your own or with a partner:

• Write a short creative piece (poem or prose) describing how people/animals/objects move about the fountain, or how they interact with it.

• Eavesdrop on a conversation. Try to recreate the conversation in a short, written dialogue.

• Start a conversation with someone. Try to recreate the conversation in a short, written dialogue.

• Write an extended metaphor inspired by the fountain and the activity (lack thereof) around it.

• Select one of the figures sculpted in the fountain. Write a short, imaginative piece wherein you place the figure(s) into a situation. You may choose to imagine where they are from and how they came to pose for the sculpture or place them in a more contemporary context to explore how they would react.

ACTIVITY 2 – Doing some research

Intertextuality is intrinsic to making meaning (Fairclough, 2000; Lim, 2018) and so is the research needed to make links between texts (Janks, 2010 and 2013). But, questions still need to be asked about what information is available, what does it include and exclude, and how does it position the ways in which meaning can be made.

For this activity, distribute each of the attached sources on the Doulton Fountain to different members of your group:

For each source, consider the following questions during reading:

1. What is the function of the text? That is, can you name the genre?

2. What is the main point that the text is trying to convey? Can you pinpoint the main idea in the text?

3. Why would the author foreground this idea/these ideas?

Share your findings with your group members:

1. Are there any common patterns in what information is foregrounded across the texts provided?

2. What gaps in the available information do you think there are, if any?

Look for the plaque on or near the Doulton Fountain that provides the public with information about the fountain itself. Compare this with the online information you have been provided.

Activity 3 – Applying a critical framework

The ‘critical’ in critical literacy means unpacking how power (and social issues) are instantiated in texts with the intention to redesign those power relations:

1. Can you name the social issue instantiated in the Doulton Fountain?

2. Re-look at the fountain itself, what features start to stand out now? How is this related to the function of the fountain (text)?

3. How does the form, shape, colour, size, etc. contribute to how the social issue is represented?

4. What is the significance of the fountain being situated in Glasgow, in Scotland, in the United Kingdom?

5. Do your notes on the interactions people have with/around the fountain suggest anything about the visibility of the social issue you have named?

6. Where else in the city do you think this social issue might appear? How? Are there places, texts, that come to mind?

Reconstruct the information plaque from a critical perspective using some of your responses to the questions in activities 2 and 3.

> How can the fountain be re-represented in a way that makes the social issue that it stands for more visible? > How might your text enable readers/viewers to think more critically about the fountain?

Critical discourse analysis is a method of enquiry, usually used in qualitative research on language use, that allows the analyst to explore how texts are related to processes of production (writing/designing) and reception (reading/viewing), as well as the conditions of production and reception (socio-cultural context) (Fairclough, 2001). Fairclough’s model, as used in the materials above, outlines that moving from description to interpretation to explanation enables a text analyst to see how the grammar of a text contributes toward the whole meaning of a text, the intended meaning by the text designer, the possible meanings that readers/viewers can make, as well as the ideologies that shape meanings.

For example, it is possible to see how the choice to place an effigy of Queen Victoria on the uppermost tier of the Doulton fountain (description) was taken by a designer who wanted to celebrate the British empire at the height of colonial achievement. The queen at the time was, as all monarchs are, symbols of imperial power and the empire at large. In English language studies this is referred to as ‘synecdoche’, where the part represents the whole. However, contemporary readers of the fountain approach the text with their own identities, cultures, and value systems that influence the possible meanings they can make. This means that it is possible to read the fountain either as the designer intended, or in an alternative way. The connotations attached to Queen Victoria by monarchists will differ greatly from readers whose history and lineage were affected negatively by colonialism and empire (interpretation). The shifting ideologies of contemporary society (including liberalism, democracy, globalisation, and so on) affect what meanings might be possible when reading a text. Working from a colonial, colonised or decolonial perspective will, in many ways, determine how one reads the fountain (explanation), and therefore whether or not one can choose to be (or not be) positioned by it.

The activities above, then, work to make this process of reading as a socio-cultural practice explicit. If we, as reader/viewers, can describe, interpret and explain how texts represent particular versions of the world, it becomes possible to make better decisions about whether or not we want to take up the intended meanings of texts or resist them. And, furthermore, make decisions about how to take action. The ‘steps’ (evident as sub-headings in the materials) can be understood as a way of doing critical literacy in secondary schools by encouraging learners to read for comprehension and critical social awareness by moving beyond the text.

Seeing is a social practice (Sturken & Cartwright, 2001). It is informed by our beliefs, identities, our privileges and insecurities, as well as the dominant ideologies of our contexts. In a turn toward critical literacy (where language and meaning are intrinsically connected to power), seeing the social issues that are already present in the texts (the world) around us is the first step. Without first seeing, one cannot necessarily act in more equitable and socially just ways.

Social issues tied to colonialism, race, ethnicity, gender and sexual diversity, migration, linguistic difference, class, and so on, often go unnoticed. This is because they have been naturalised or commonly thought of as ‘just the way things are’. Or, they are defended as the natural order, or a history that cannot be changed, or necessary for modern progress. But, critical literacy allows us to make these familiar things unfamiliar and to reveal their constructedness. Once an understanding of texts as constructed is developed, it becomes possible to deconstruct and reconstruct them in more socially just ways (Janks et al., 2013).

In this post, I have tried to cover much in a relatively small space. My aim, however, was to touch on the ways in which everyday texts can be interrogated and the power of redesign. While the two examples that I have discussed will continue to be developed, they represent the moves that education can make in order to become more critical, more inclusive, more reaffirming, more sustainable, more culturally responsive, and ever more vital in nurturing a citizenry committed to

…rehumanizing the world, to breaking hierarchies of difference that dehumanize subjects and communities and that destroy nature, and to the production of counter-discourses, counter-knowledges, counter-creative acts, and counter-practices that seek to dismantle coloniality and open up other forms of being in the world (Maldonado-Torres, 2016, 10).


Berger, J. (1972). Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin.

Cope, B. & Kalantzis, M. (2000). Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning & the Design of Social Futures. London & New York: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2000). Multiliteracies & Language: Orders of Discourse & Intertextuality. In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (eds.) Multiliteracies: Literacy Learning & the Design of Social Futures. London & New York: Routledge.

Fairclough, N. (2001). Language & Power. London: Longman.

Govender, N. N. (in press). Critical Transmodal Pedagogies: Getting Student Teachers to Play with Genre Conventions. Multimodal Communication.

Halliday, M. A. K. (1985). An Introduction to Functional Grammar. London, New York, Melbourne & Auckland: Edward Arnold.

Janks, H. (2010). Literacy & Power. Routledge: London & New York.

Janks, H., Dixon, K., Ferreira, A., Granville, S. & Newfield, D. (2013). Doing Critical Literacy: Texts & Activities for Students & Teachers. London & New York: Routledge.

Kress, G. (2015). Semiotic Work: Applied Linguistics & a Social Semiotic Account of Multimodality. AILA Review, 28, 49-71.

Lim, F. V. (2018). Developing A Systemic Functional Approach to Teach Multimodal Literacy. Functional Linguistics, 5(13), 1-17.

Luke, A. (2004). The Trouble with English. Research in the Teaching of English, 39(1), 85-95.

Machin, D. & Mayr, A. (2012). How to do Critical Discourse Analysis: A Multimodal Introduction. London: Sage.

Maldonado-Torres, M. (2016). Outline of Ten Theses on Coloniality: Decoloniality. Foundation Frantz Fanon retrieved from

Maldonado-Torres, M. (2007). On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2), 240-270.

Sturken, M. & Cartwright, L. (2001). Practices of Looking. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Vasquez, V. M., Janks, H. & Comber, B. (2019). Critical Literacy as a Way of Being & Doing. Language Arts, 96(3), 300-311.



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