Óscar García Agustín, Sociology of Discourse. From institutions to social change. Amsterdam & Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins, 2015.
Óscar García Agustín inspired by the demand for change that has been promoted by various social movements the latest years, addresses the question «How to provide continuity and stability to social struggles?». The answer that he gives is the development of a Sociology of Discourse, based on the relations between discourses and the process of institutionalization. Social change is promoted through the creation of a new discourse which challenges the established order and allows also alternative articulations. Hence, new and alternative discourses will produce new social meanings and articulate new political and social subjectivities while institutionalization will transform these new discourses into the change of the existing institutions or the creation of new ones, achieving this way the consolidation of the social change.
One of the main aims of García Agustín is to combine the discursive approach with a sociological perspective. His theoretical foundations, on his approach to the concept of discourse, are the Critical Discourse Analysis, which is capable of explaining the relations between discourse and social change and the discourse theory of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, especially regarding the notion of articulation. In the introduction of the book, he explicitly characterizes his theoretical framework as a «complex sociological approach to discourse» (p. 5). This combination is the novelty that the author wants to introduce to the field of discourse studies. He understands discourse as «a constitutive part of the process of institutionalization» (p. 5) and he believes that discourse «must be understood in relation to the theory of institutionalization» (p. 6). Various theories consider discourse as a social practice. García Agustínis based on these theories and offers us a specific application of this idea, linking discourse with the process of institutionalization and highlighting its role in the process of social change.
The book consists of four theoretical chapters, each one of them focusing on a different concept· social change, discourse, communication, institutions and a fifth chapter in which the author applies his approach in a specific case (the Spanish Platform for People Affected by Mortgages — PAH) in order to prove its potential.
In the first chapter of the book, García Agustín attempts to define the concept of social change. His approach fits in the tradition of the conflict paradigm. Perceiving society as conflict, he understands social change as result of social struggles. As social movements try to change society by producing alternative discourses, a certain degree of institutionalization is necessary in order for these discourses to achieve social acceptance and recognition. Despite his main focus in this chapter is the concept of social change, he deals also with the key elements of the book, namely the discourse and the institutionalization, as social change requires both of these elements. From the beginning, he clarifies that «the concept of institutions is not necessarily reduced to physical institutions and must instead be seen in a broader sense» (p. 19). Before the new institutions, new meanings must be produced. Therefore, discourses are constitutive part of the process of the institutionalization. Consequently, social change is not a mere institutional change, but a result f the dual movement between new discourses and institutionalization, between openness and stabilization.
In the second chapter of the book, he analyzes in depth the concept of discourse. The main pillars of his approach to discourse are clearly the two theories already mentioned above· Critical Discourse Analysis and the theory of Laclau and Mouffe. García Agustín understands discourse as a social practice and for its conceptualization he focuses on three dimensions: collectivization, articulation and performativity. By collectivization he refers to the creation of a collective subject, a process that requires discursive practices. The process of institutionalization depends on a collective subject and not just on the individual level. Understanding identities as constructions, he highlights the need to construct a new collective identity through discursive means. The concept of articulation, developed by Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe, allows the constitution of identities and claims that challenge existing hegemonic formations. This concept fosters the idea that social identities is not fixed but constructions, as already mentioned above. Finally, performativity accounts for the idea of language being action. Language «reproduces already instituted social relations but can also modify or change those relations and create different ones» (p. 74). These three dimensions demonstrate the possibility of discourse to open up new processes of institutionalization that question the existing social order.
In chapter 3, the focus moves to the communication. Agustin Garcia argues convincingly that institutionalization cannot be fully explained unless we take into consideration the communicative dimension. This is a crucial point as social movements tend to overlook this dimension. The author identifies three discursive levels: a) the official discourse, which is the discourse of government and other authorities and aims to reproduce the social consensus, b) the public discourse where the confrontation of discourses takes place and it is the field for the social change and c) the hidden discourse which creates safe spaces of resistance that do not challenge directly the establishment. When elements of the hidden discourse invade in the public discourse, a potential of change is triggered. The process of institutionalization begins when the hidden discourse became visible.
In the fourth chapter, the author focuses on the creation of institutions. His main point is that to understand this process we have to take into account both the rational and the symbolic aspects. The rational aspect, namely the collective acceptance that something is an institution, is insufficient. Symbolic aspects such as social meaning and imaginary are absolutely essential. In order to explain the importance of the symbolic dimension, he drew in the theory of social imaginary of Castoriadis, arguing that «there is no struggle for creating new institutions that does not imply a struggle for changing social imaginaries» (p. 128).
Finally, in the last chapter of the book he attempts to apply his framework to the case of PAH in Spain. The aim of this chapter is to analyze the process of institutionalization upon a concrete example that will prove the strength and the validity of his approach. PAH developed, according to Garcia, «a process of institutionalization of the right to housing, opposed to the social order reproduced by existing institutions and dominant discourses» (p. 198). To analyze PAH as a process of institutionalization, the author presents a model in which four different aspects were synthesized: the type of discourse, the collectivization of identity, the relation between actors and the demands and imaginaries at stake in this process of institutionalization. PAH constituted through discursive articulations a new collective identity that includes people affected by mortgages and an alternative discourse regarding housing needs. The movement tried to achieve a legislative change via the existing political institutions and, trying to do that, it created new institutions as dation-in-payment, that were rejected by the government. As their efforts to reach a consensus with the established political order failed, the members of PAH tried to create a new social imaginary that contrasts the rights of citizens to the economic interests of the banks. The stopping of evictions by PAH activists made this conflict more and more visible and played a major role in the promotion of this new social imaginary. Moreover, the new way of protesting that the PAH put forward, the esrache, during which politicians of the establishment were pointed out as guilty, fosters the process of institutionalization of democracy in which citizens are active political subjects. Finally, the defiance of authorities is necessary in order to promote a change in the current situation. This defiance was expressed by PAH under the practice of social work, the appropriation of empty residences that belongs to banks, which shows how empty housing blocs could acquire a social function for evicted families. What this application of the theory showed is that institutionalization can produce new institutions, which are being promoted by social movements as aims or demands, but the establishment of new institutions or the change of the existing ones is still a matter of theoretical belief or hypothesis. So, new researches based on more empirical cases are needed.
Overall, the book is quite complex and demanding. It certainly requires a very good knowledge of the fields of discourse studies, linguistics and sociology. Because of that, it gives the sense that it is intended for an eminently academic audience, despite the fact that it would be very useful for activists and social movements. The large number of theories presented in disproportionately few pages make the content of the book -in the current structure- difficult accessible. In my opinion, the author should include another chapter where he would present the whole theory in a synthetic and concise way. In the current form of the book, the theory must be extracted from each chapter and the synthesis is left to the reader. Concluding, Oscar Agustin Garcia describes in a very successful way a model for social change based on the relation of discourse and institutionalization. His book offers more arguments in favour of the centrality of discourse in the social and political level and at the same time he tries to combine discourse with his concept of institutionalization, resulting in a qualitatively different model, that of Sociology of discourse. Finally, what makes the book even more interesting is the fact that it is written during -and not after- a period in which social movements are struggling for social change in various places all over the world. We have here an example of a theory being produced from the practice of the social movements and of a theory that tries to offers a feedback to the social movements that continue to erupt across the world.
*This is a draft unpublished version.