How are Language Constructions Constitutive? Strategic Uses of Conventional Discourses about Immigration

Document Type



Anthropology (Pitzer)

Publication Date



Concession, Co-optation, Discourse analysis, Immigration, Metaphor theory, Political rhetoric


Metaphor theorists often state that metaphors are constitutive of thought and action. This article asks how language constructions are constitutive of policy, using the example of immigration policies in the United States. First, the claims of some metaphor analysts are scrutinised. Then a different approach is proposed, one that focuses on formulaic, oft-repeated schemas, or conventional discourses. Conventional discourses are not the same as Foucauldian discursive frameworks. Instead, they are stock rhetorical-interpretive frameworks. For policymakers they serve as mental shortcuts and political identity signals. Political speeches are constructed from multiple conventional discourses; 18 conventional discourses about immigration were drawn upon in just one Congressional debate. Their variety and numbers indicate the possibilities for differing policy emphases. Such constructions, including the formulaic metaphors that are typical of a particular conventional discourse, are constitutive in only a limited sense; they are suggestive without being determinative. Skilful politicians can creatively combine conventional discourses with rhetorical strategies of concession, springboarding, and co-optation to align with multiple constituencies, including ones on opposing sides of an issue. These points are illustrated with the example of U.S. Congressional debate about HR 4437, the Border Protection, Antiterrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005.


Please note that the definitive publisher-authenticated version of this article is available online at:

Rights Information

© 2013 Palgrave Macmillan