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South African racial discourse: a social psychological study

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posted on 11.05.2018 by Susan J. Lea
This study examines South African racial discourse within what may be described as a 'critical social science' framework. Despite South Africa's long racist history, research which provides a thorough understanding of racism is limited. Consequently, this study aimed to explore the ideological nature of young 'white' South Africans' commonsense understandings of 'race' and racism through a discursive and rhetorical analysis. Twenty-five young, 'white' South Africans were interviewed on a wide range of topics relating to the category of 'race' and the phenomenon of racism. Interviews were loosely structured and lasted between two and four and a half hours. The analysis was oriented to identifying the key discourses participants used in the construction of their accounts, as well as the linguistic devices and rhetorical strategies employed in negotiating the "dialectic of prejudice" (Billig et al., 1988: 100). Three principal discourses were identified: the discourse of biologism, the discourse of cognitivism, and the discourse of constructivism. However, not all participants drew equally upon all three of these discourses. The declared political affiliation of the speaker (Nationalist, Liberal or Left-wing) was related to the selection of discourses and the nature of the linguistic resources and rhetorical devices used in the production of accounts. For example, Nationalist speakers tended to construct accounts in terms of the discourses of biologism and cognitivism, but not in terms of the discourse of constructivism. These findings are discussed in the light of contemporary research on the "the language of racism" (Wetherell and Potter, 1992), and their theoretical and pragmatic implications are considered.


Institute for Research Development. Overseas Scholarship Foundation. University of Cape Town (South Africa).



  • Social Sciences


  • Communication, Media, Social and Policy Studies


© Susan Jane Lea

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This work is made available according to the conditions of the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) licence. Full details of this licence are available at:

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy at Loughborough University.




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