Contentiousness in science: The discourse of critique in two sociology journals

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In the study of scientific discourse, most of the linguistic literature emphasizes politeness strategies, claiming that the scientific role demands maintaining objectivity and, therefore, mitigating criticism of other scientists (e.g., Myers 1989; Hyland 1998). However, this literature is based on studies of research reports. Adversative discourse, highlighted by Tannen (1998, 2002), has received much less attention. This paper focuses on an institutionalized genre for expressing criticism. The corpus consists of 30 'comments' from the two major sociological journals. In general, the findings show that, although non-contentious or polite options are available for giving criticism, the critics often chose a more confrontational alternative. For one, criticism is often directly leveled at the target (termed Judgment) rather than restricted to his/her work. Specifically, most texts cast at least one aspersion about the target's honesty, propriety, competence, or ability to perceive. Secondly, Judgments are unhedged and, in fact, are often intensified. Lastly, sometimes discourse strategies are employed that force the reader to concur in the criticism. These practices, which leave no room for negotiating, are inconsistent with both politeness theory and the commitment to open inquiry in science. The genre of'comment' apparently allows expression of the intrapersonal needs of scientists in their role as academics. There, personal goals might dictate disregarding politeness strategies, as well as adopting an adversarial rather than collegial stance to fellow scientists.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)723-744
Number of pages22
Issue number6
StatePublished - 2005


  • Academic conflict
  • Hedging
  • Politeness theory.
  • scientific discourse


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