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Discourse and PracticeNew Tools for Critical Analysis$

Theo van Leeuwen

Print publication date: 2008

Print ISBN-13: 9780195323306

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: May 2008

DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195323306.001.0001

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Space in Discourse

Space in Discourse

(p.88) 5 Space in Discourse
Discourse and Practice

Theo Van Leeuwen (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Arguing that our understandings of space are always constructed in relation to, and on the basis of, the spatial framings of social practices, hence also on the way bodies are positioned in space, this chapter describes the semiotic resources of English and visual communication for representing space. Focusing both on spatial positions and spatial transitions, the chapter introduces discursive resources for describing as well as interpreting spatial arrangements. By demonstrating the important role of moral evaluation in the representation of space, the chapter opens up spatial representation as an important issue for critical discourse analysis

Keywords:   critical discourse analysis, visual communication, space, spatial positions, spatial transitions, spatial arrangements, interpreting spatial arrangements

In this chapter, I describe how the spaces in which social practices are acted out can be, and are, represented in English discourse and also in visual images. Both my linguistic and visual examples draw on the “first day at school” corpus.

1. Introduction

Most approaches to space and language continue to be inspired by the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, who saw space as one of the basic a priori—and universal— principles of human cognition. Here, I explore a different point of view, the point of view that our understandings of space derive from and can be linked directly to social action, to the way in which we use space in acting out social practices. A look at the history of maps can illustrate this point. Figure 5.1 shows how early maps explicitly represented space as a setting for complex actions and included spatial information only insofar as it was relevant to these actions.

In the early days of modern science, maps played a key role in practices of seafaring, trade, and colonialism and still included pictorial elements, for instance, pictures of ships. But gradually, action was left out and space came to be represented as an objective order, existing separately from, and prior to, human action. Kay O'Halloran (2005) has described how the same process took place in the development of mathematical drawings. For the sixteenth‐century scientist Tartaglia, geometry, the science of space, was fully engaged with the social actions it sought to understand and improve (figure 5.2). Geometry was depicted in its social context. Less than a century later, it would abstract away from the social actions which, of course, it continued to serve (figure 5.3).


Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.1. Early map. Cotton Augustus I.ii, 39. Permission granted by British Library.

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.2. Tartaglia's drawing of hitting a target (1546). Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester.


Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.3. Circles and lines (Descartes, 1628). Reproduced by courtesy of the University Librarian and Director, John Rylands University Library, University of Manchester.

Foucault's influential book Discipline and Punish (1979) explored the use of space for enforcing and maintaining power relations. “Whenever one is dealing with a multiplicity of individuals on whom a task or a particular form of behavior must be imposed,” he wrote in his discussion of Bentham's Panopticon, “the panoptic schema may be used…. It is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form” (1979: 205). Today, the principle of the Panopticon continues to be an important management tool. Eley and Marmot (1995: 76), in a book subtitled “What Every Manager Needs to Know about Offices,” write that good teamwork is “encouraged in locations where lines of sight and access routes on the office floor link many workplaces,” and the German management consultant Boje (1971: 64) writes that open offices create “a new type of office user,” who “speaks more softly, is more considerate, dresses correctly and carefully and conducts arguments at a calmer pitch.” Clearly, a critical analysis of power should not ignore the fundamental role of space in enacting social practices: “The material environment predisposes us in very specific, important and lasting ways in our doings and sayings” (Iedema, 2000: 65). Here, however, my focus is on the construction of space in discourse. I am assuming that discourses about space provide normative understandings of space and of its use in controlling social practices. To be able to study this, we need to understand the “grammar of space,” the resources we have for representing space in discourse.

2. Locating Action

Space, in this chapter, includes both the natural or constructed layout of spatial settings and the fixtures in those settings, such as trees, or furniture, or pictures on the (p.91) walls. But it does not include “props,” objects that are used to perform some part of the social practice. The “charts and pictures” in 5.1, for instance, are part of the setting, but the “audiovisual aids” in 5.2 are not, as they are used as resources (see chapter 1) for enacting the social practice.

  1. 5.1 Charts and pictures adorn the walls.

  2. 5.2 Audiovisual aids such as televisions and tape recorders are frequently used.

Many representations of space and spatial arrangements are directly linked to actions. This involves both the positions taken during a particular stage of the social practice and the transitions between such stages.

Positions provide an explicit representation of the spatial arrangement for a social practice or a stage thereof. This may range from body positions, such as standing or sitting, to indications of a location, such as “in school” or “at home.” Transitions, similarly, provide an explicit representation of the transition from the space of one social practice or part thereof to that of the next. They may be as minimal as a change of posture, e.g., standing up or sitting down, or involve a larger or smaller change of location.

Positions are linguistically realized either by circumstances of location (rest), that is, by locative phrases with prepositions indicating a static location, such as “in” and “at,” or by what we could call “position processes,” such as “sitting on,” “flanked by,” etc.:

  1. 5.3 Each activity is carried out at a special table.

  2. 5.4 The teacher is backed by a shining collage of gold and silver foil and flanked by bookshelves.

  3. 5.5 Assembly is usually held in the school hall.

Visually, positions are realized by what, in film language, is called an “establishing shot,” a picture that shows the whole of a location, insofar as it is relevant to the action, and thereby allows subsequent detail shots to be “placed” in the whole by the viewer. The concept can also be applied to still pictures, as in figure 5.4.

Transitions are linguistically realized by circumstances of location (motion), that is, by phrases with prepositions that realize motion to or from a location, such as “toward,” “to,” “from,” or by what we might call “motion + location” processes, such as “enter,” “gather around,” etc.:

  1. 5.6 They entered the classroom.

  2. 5.7 The children gather around their teacher.

  3. 5.8 The teacher removed him to a place beside her desk.

Visually, transitions are realized by movement from one position to another. In film, this is typically accompanied by the camera panning or tracking along with the movement, but still pictures can depict movement too (figure 5.5).

Both “positions” and “transitions” (and also the “descriptions” I will discuss in section 4) can be further located by being given a setting. The setting relates a located action to an adjoining location, or to the whole of which it forms a part. Linguistically, this is realized by double circumstances of location (e.g., “on a chair” (p.92)

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.4. Visual position (Ladybird, 1977: 49). Illustration from Talkabout Starting School by Margaret West and Ethel Wingfield © Ladybird Books, Ltd., 1977. Reproduced by kind permission of Ladybird Books, Ltd.

and “in the middle of the room” in example 5.9) or by spatial anchoring processes such as “adjoin,” “be nearby,” etc.:
  1. 5.9 Mrs. Thompson seats herself on a chair in the middle of the room.

  2. 5.10 She was fast asleep on the floor by the doll's house.

  3. 5.11 The toilets are a long way from the classroom, in a separate block.

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.5. Visual transition (Ladybird, 1977: 4). Illustration from Talkabout Starting School by Margaret West and Ethel Wingfield © Ladybird Books, Ltd., 1977. Reproduced by kind permission of Ladybird Books, Ltd.

Visually, settings are realized by the presence of foreground and background. Figure 5.4 is an example, as it shows both the spatial arrangement with the teacher on a chair and the children on the floor, and the classroom setting. Figure 5.6 only shows the spatial arrangement and leaves out the setting.

So far, the discursive construction of social space may seem a straightforward matter of indicating where and in what kind of spatial arrangements things happen. But it is not necessarily as simple as that.

The floor plan in figure 5.7 is taken from a study of the transition from home to school (Cleave et al., 1982) which combines ethnographic description with precepts and best practice examples for teachers. It shows an actual class and is recommended, in the accompanying text, because it contains elements with which children will be familiar from nursery school, which, it is said, will help them to settle in more easily.

I drew the floor plan in figure 5.8 on the basis of the following passage from a children's book (Morgan, 1985: 28): (p.94)

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.6. Position without setting (Ladybird, 1977, front cover). Illustration from Talkabout Starting School by Margaret West and Ethel Wingfield © Ladybird Books, Ltd., 1977. Reproduced by kind permission of Ladybird Books, Ltd.

5.12 The classroom had big windows, set high in the wall. Through one of them Mary Kate could see the top of a tree and a patch of sky and through the other she could see the church tower. All round the walls were paintings and drawings and big coloured diagrams and pictures. In one corner was a doll's house and a cot with a doll in it and in another was a table piled with books. There was a stove with a huge fireguard round it and, most wonderful of all, there was a little playhouse, with windows and a door and real curtains.

Although I tried to draw only what was in the text, this was not entirely possible. The text does not indicate the shape of the classroom, for instance, yet I needed to draw (p.95)

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.7. Reception class room in a primary school (Cleave et al., 1982: 53).

corners to place the doll's house in a corner. I also wanted to bring out the similarities between the two floor plans. But the drawing will illustrate my point: the description in the story is selective. It includes what the child already knows from home or nursery school (maybe with the exception of the “table piled with books”) and leaves out the new and unfamiliar, especially the fact that the room is arranged for a whole class of children. Yet figure 5.7 also leaves things out—the “paintings and… big coloured diagrams and pictures,” for instance. It shows only the horizontal dimension of space, the dimension of action and functionality, and not the vertical dimension, the symbolic dimension. In the linguistic description, these two are intertwined.

In short, the discursive construction of social space is not necessarily informed only by a concern to indicate where things are located, not just a matter of adding some “reality indices” (Barthes, 1977) to provide a sense of setting and atmosphere. (p.96)

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.8. Mary Kate's classroom (after Morgan, 1985).

It is informed also by the functions and meanings of space. When we read that “each activity is carried out at a special table,” we do not learn much about location. What we do learn is that different activities are to be kept quite separate and that activities take place at tables, not on the floor, that a certain discipline is imposed on playing which does not exist at home, and that this discipline is largely imposed by the spatial arrangement of the classroom.

Again, when we learn that the teacher is “backed by a shining collage of gold and silver foil” and “flanked by bookshelves,” the point is not so much to tell us exactly where the teacher is, but to emphasize her authority, to endow her with the symbolic attributes of royalty (gold and silver) and learning (books).

3. Arranging and Interpreting Space

In an account of English classrooms in inner‐city London high schools, Kress et al. (2005) describe how teachers use space to establish particular relations with their (p.97) students and to control what should and what should not happen in class. Different teachers, they show, do this in different ways. Some classrooms used a traditional “transmission” approach, with individual student tables lined up in rows. In another class, which they describe as “participatory/authoritarian,” tables were put together to create teams of four to five students facing each other, realizing a participatory “teamwork” approach that differs from the traditional “transmission” approach. But the “participatory” was mixed with the “authoritarian”: the students' tables were angled to allow the teacher total visual control from the front of the classroom. This placed strong constraints on the students' posture, at least if they wanted to see the teacher and follow the lesson, so much so that the traditional “transmission” approach would in fact have allowed more postural freedom. The researchers also describe spatial arrangements at the level of body positioning. In one “mixed ability” class, student tables were again put together to form teams of four or five students, but this time according to ability. When the teacher approached a table with “high ability” students, she did not sit down but casually leaned on the table, coming quite close to the students. When she approached a table with “low ability” students, she sat down, which created more distance.

Clearly, if space is functionalized and hierarchized for the purposes of an institutional order, spatial arrangements such as the positioning of tables becomes a particularly important and powerful “preparatory practice” (see chapter 1). In discourse, such activities of arranging space are realized by material processes of architecture, interior decoration, furniture arrangement, body positioning, etc. (“hang,” “put,” “organize,” “set up,” “situate,” “position,” “seat,” etc.) or, visually, by showing such actions:

  1. 5.13 Organize space within the base so that children have corners for privacy and quiet.

  2. 5.14 A friendly and very efficient teacher had set up activities for every child.

  3. 5.15 Someone had put flowers on the teacher's desk.

Interpreting space—normatively and authoritatively assigning functions and meanings to spaces and spatial arrangements—is another important form of social control. Assigning meanings is realized by “signification” processes, such as “convey,” “signal,” etc., or by verbal processes which project signification processes. Assigning functions is realized by purpose constructions (see chapter 6) or by visual processes of “showing” and “demonstrating”:

  1. 5.16 She [the teacher] shows her a peg on which to hang her coat.

  2. 5.17 “There is a drawer to put your things in,” she [the teacher] said.

  3. 5.18 The environment may be intended by adults to convey a specific message.

  4. 5.19 The mysteries of the dark alcove in the corner and that something called “The Hall” were revealed [by the teacher].

Not all space interpretations nominate who (in the above examples, mostly the teacher) assigns meanings and functions to spaces and spatial arrangements. At times, the meanings and functions are represented as inherent in the spatial environment, so that the environment itself facilitates or controls actions or signifies symbolic meanings. (p.98) Such deagentialized space interpretations are realized by processes which have space itself as the actor. They are examples of the category of “spatialization,” which I introduced in chapter 3, the case in which a space is substituted for a social actor:

  1. 5.20 An uninterrupted expanse of floor gave Ian ample opportunity for riding round and round in his favourite pedal car.

  2. 5.21 The environment signals friendliness and welcome.

This quote from Iedema (2000: 65), which I used in the beginning of this chapter, is another example:

  1. 5.22 The material environment predisposes us in very specific, important and lasting ways in our doings and sayings.

4. Description and Legitimation

Like the examples discussed in section 2, descriptive clauses can also link spatial arrangements and locations to actions, for instance, by coding a space or a spatial fixture or arrangement as carrier or token in a relational clause or as existent in an existential clause, or by coding spatial functions or meanings as attributes or values in relational clauses. In example 5.23, an action is realized as a premodifier in a nominal group, and in 5.24 by substituting a tool for the action in which it is used. Visual descriptions may be realized by pictures focusing on specific parts of spatial settings, or by what Kress and Van Leeuwen (2007) call “symbolic processes,” pictures in which an object symbolizes an attribute of a depicted person and in which that object is represented in a visually conspicuous way, for instance, by placing it in the foreground, or by being held in a way that is clearly not related to the normal function of the object. Figure 5.9 is such a descriptive visual.

  1. 5.23 These are the reception classes, one on each side of the corridor.

  2. 5.24 Carpeted areas are for floor toys.

Other descriptions do not link to actions in this way and seem to provide description for its own sake, perhaps to add a sense of realism. Yet analysis of such descriptions often shows that they do not just describe the concrete material environment but also hint at less concrete motives. In “first day” texts, for instance, child safety and child‐friendliness are often emphasized, betraying a concern to put school in a favorable light, to legitimize school. Here is an example of safety:

  1. 5.25 There was a stove with a huge fireguard round it.

And here are some examples of child‐friendliness where, again, the point is not to locate exactly where “everything” is but to indicate child‐friendly and attractive (or, in the case of critical descriptions, child‐unfriendly and unattractive) attributes of the environment and the fixtures in it: (p.99)

Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.9. Visual description (Ladybird, 1977: 7). Illustration from Talkabout Starting School by Margaret West and Ethel Wingfield © Ladybird Books, Ltd., 1977. Reproduced by kind permission of Ladybird Books, Ltd.

  1. 5.26 Everything is just the right height for Mary Kate.

  2. 5.27 It was light with rows of desks and pictures on the walls.

  3. 5.28 All around the walls were paintings and drawings and big coloured diagrams and pictures.

This can also be done visually. It is, for example, perfectly possible to show the “lightness” indicated in example 5.27, or to use descriptive details, such as pictures (p.100)
Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.10. Moral evaluation (Leete‐Hodge, nd: 36).

on the wall, to convey values, as in figure 5.10, where the picture of the sheep and the lamb perhaps indicates a sense of maternal care.

The inventory in example 5.29 mentions only those spaces that also exist in nursery schools, stressing the familiar and avoiding the new and potentially threatening aspects of the environment:

  1. 5.29 A reception class contains at least some of the basic elements of the nursery education described above, such as a home corner or a wendy house, a book corner, a carpeted area for floor toys, and, less commonly, trays for sand and water.

(p.101) Many other descriptions stress authority and hierarchy:
  1. 5.30 Behind the teacher was a huge blackboard.

In short, descriptions select spaces and spatial elements not only to link them to specific actions and to stress their functionality, or to “interpret space,” but also to stress hierarchy and to provide what in chapter 6 I will call “moral evaluation”: the use of value‐laden adjectives, such as “healthy,” “light,” “airy,” “natural,” etc., to trigger moral concepts that can legitimize the practices whose spaces and spatial arrangements are described. The signifiers of such moral evaluations are often relatively marginal to the represented social practices: “decorative” objects, such as pictures on the wall, or nonfunctional qualities of the space, such as “light” and “airy.” But the textual salience of these apparently peripheral objects and qualities clearly points at their symbolic importance and their role in getting children (and parents) not just to accept schooling as a fact of life, but also to like it and identify with it. The specific values expressed here, e.g., child‐friendliness and a modicum of connection with earlier “preschool” indulgence, are specific to the social institution with which I am concerned here, compulsory education. But elsewhere, description will play the same three general roles of signifying functionality, hierarchy, and moral value, even though the signifiers and the legitimating discourses they invoke will be different.

Visual signifiers can of course fulfill the same functions, as seen, for example, in figure 5.10.

5. Subjective and Objective Space

In chapter 4, I discussed the difference between subjective and objective representations of time. A similar distinction can be made in the case of the representation of space. Subjective space representations link the space construction to an actor either by means of “relative” circumstances (“to her left,” “on his right,” “above him,” etc.) or by projecting spatial descriptions through perception clauses. There can of course be variants, such as in example 5.33, where the two elements are disjoined and where the second clause is in itself objective, but subjectivized by the (behavioral) perception clause which precedes it:

  1. 5.31 A long corridor stretched out before them.

  2. 5.32 Through one of them Mary Kate could see the top of a tree and through the other she could see the church tower.

  3. 5.33 Mark looked around the room. It was light with rows of desks and pictures on the wall.

The subjective experience of space can also be realized visually, through “point of view” pictures.

6. Word and Image

Table 5.1 presents a social practice analysis of excerpts from three texts. All three deal with the same “first day” episode, the telling or reading of a story by the teacher.


Space in Discourse

FIGURE 5.11. Story telling episode (Taylor, 1988: pp. 36–37). Illustration from Starting School by Geraldine Taylor © Ladybird Books, Ltd., 1988. Reproduced by kind permission of Ladybird Books, Ltd.

The first box analyzes the text of example 5.34, the second the text of figure 5.4, and the third the text of figure 5.11. The descriptions of the visuals are italicized.

  1. 5.34 In the afternoon Miss Laurie read a story to the class, but Mary Kate didn't hear much of it. She was fast asleep on the floor by the doll's house.

Table 5.1 brings out which elements are communicated only visually, which only verbally, and which both visually and verbally. Clearly, in the picture books, only the actions and (some of) the actors are represented verbally. Actors, locations, spatial arrangements, and material resources are all visualized, and so present the concrete elements of the practice in more detail than words alone could have done. In figure 5.11, even the time is visualized. Yet, structurally, the verbal and visual space representations are quite similar. There is a foreground with a teacher on a chair and children on the floor, and a background signifying a setting (a corner with a window, pictures, and drawers; a plant, books, and pictures; a doll's house).

Table 5.2, finally, summarizes the distinctions I have made in this chapter, italicizing those that can be realized both verbally and visually. The only category that (p.103)

TABLE 5.1. Three Versions of Storytelling Episode (Social Practice Analysis)







reads story

in the afternoon




on the floor by the doll's house


tells the story reads story

teacher; on chair; children around teacher on floor; corner with window, picture, and drawers in background






tells story

teacher on chair; children in front of teacher on floor; plant, books, and pictures in background


book, glove puppet



listen to story/ listen to story



holds puppet/are able to tell story

glove puppet

Note. Descriptions of the visuals are italicized.

Space in Discourse

TABLE 5.2. Space Network

(p.104) needs words and cannot be realized in both ways is “interpreting space.” But this should not be taken as suggesting that images are inferior to words in the range of functions they can fulfill. Clearly, they can present more detail and, as my discussion of figures 5.5 and 5.6 showed, they can indicate the relative position of objects in space much more economically and in much greater detail than is possible with words.