From self-highlightedness to self-effacement: a genre-based study of the socio-pragmatic function of criticism in medical discourse.

  • Françoise Salager-Meyer Universidad de Los Andes


Research has shown that critically attacking others' work in contemporary science is a very sensitive issue and that the linguistic strategies used to convey academic conflict are not only discipline-specific, but also epoch- and language/culturebound. Little is known, however, on the influence of genre on the linguistic realization of professional disagreement. In order to determine whether and in what way the communicative/situational function of different genres, the level of knowledge claim characteristic of each genre and the rank/status power relations that exist between authors and their audience have a bearing on the way medical researchers express their dissension, we 'transversally' analyzed the linguistic expressions used to convey disagreement in the four main genres of health communication, viz., research articles (RP), review articles (RV), editorials (ED) and case reports (CR). Towards that end, we randomly selected 50 articles (ED, RP, RV and CR) recently published in mainstream English-written medical periodicals. Critical speech acts were recorded in each article and qualitatively analyzed as to their tone (outright vs. veiled), itself reflected in the discursive choices made to criticize cited sources. The results of the present study show that editorialists (who are considered by the scientific community as critical expert knowledge-holders) express their criticisms in a direct, authoritarian, highly personal and frequently ironic, condescending and/or sarcastic tone. Authors of RV (who play the role of critical expert knowledge-holders and builders) also tend to voice their disagreement in a categorical and assured way but without emotionally involving themselves. By contrast, RP writers, who adopt the role of rather self-effaced knowledge-builders, convey their critical comments in an apparently humble and unimposing tone. Finally, the situational context of CR impose upon their authors (who are mostly narrators-reporters) a very low-key profile which, in turn, explains the scarcity of criticism in that particular genre. A 'polemical cline' -- from blunt criticism (ED and RV) to hardly any dissension at all (CR) through 'politically correct' critical comments (RP)-- was then clearly put to the fore. That cline can be accounted for by the social role and/or the position of authority assumed by the researchers in each genre and their responsibility as knowledge-holders, builders and/or decision-orientators.