Fighting to Construct Social Reality: a Sociolinguistic Analysis of American Parliamentary Debate

Lelia Glass and Colin Etnire
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American parliamentary debate may seem like a formal, controlled forum where arguments are given centre stage.   However, such academic argumentation only provides a backbone for a much richer, subtler sort of competition: to win the power to construct social reality.

Social reality is the way that different voices, narratives, individuals and groups are construed, accepted, or silenced.  In the context of debate, social reality is how the judges and audiences construe the debaters, the case, the arguments and the competition.  A successful team will lead their audience to see them as authoritative, calm and intelligent.  They write the narrative of the case in a way that favours their side; cast their arguments as tight and organised; frame their opponents as muddled.  The successful team will even lead the audience to interpret itself as sympathetic to their side and to construe the event as a victory for their team. Therefore, a team does not just win by floating an airtight argument. They win by recruiting the audience to accept their narrative of reality.

In this paper, we catalogue the dimensions of social reality that debaters try to shape, and we pinpoint the linguistic strategies that they use to do so. We aim to use current research in linguistics to explicate what good debaters already know implicitly: that debate is a semiotic wrestling match, and the pure arguments are just the mat. We explain what social meaning is and how it manifests in every aspect of parliamentary debate.

We hope that this discussion offers debaters a new perspective on their art. Currently, the performative aspect of debate is viewed with suspicion, perhaps because it appears nebulous and emotional in a field that values concreteness and reason, or because it seems like a cosmetic distortion of the real goal, the ‘flow’ of one argument to another.  But here, we show that the construction of social reality influences debate just as much as pure argumentation, and requires just as much skill and subtlety. We hope to illuminate this facet of debate not only  so that individual debaters can use it, but also so that the whole community can decide whether to embrace it or resist it as part of the art.

Furthermore, we hope that our analysis will shed light on the construction of social reality more generally. We feel that debate provides a controlled environment to investigate this phenomenon. In normal life, people have all sorts of social goals, which they pursue with very different assumptions and from very different positions of power. But in debate, everyone has the same goal: to win. Debaters all begin with the same resources: each one has seven minutes to address an attentive room. And they are cast in similar positions of power: they are all about the same age, highly educated, and participating in a competition that aspires to be fair (although, as we discuss later, even this regulated playing field is far from level, as reputation and appearance influence how they are perceived).Therefore, perhaps a broader audience might be interested in debate as a controlled case study of the ways that people use language to construct social reality.

This research draws on Colin’s career as a debater and judge and Lelia’s analysis of videos on Our observations are impressionistic and incomplete; we have no quantitative data, and we do not address the wide range of debating styles that can be effective.  We hope, however, that at the most theoretical level, this analysis will illuminate at least some aspects of debate in a new way.

The analysis is structured as follows. Section 1 draws on sociolinguistic literature to define social reality and discuss how it interacts with language and power. Section 2 explores how debaters use language to attempt to shape the social reality of the debate.  Within this, Subsection 2.1 explores how debaters use language to construct their own identities. Subsection 2.2 looks at how they style their arguments as organised and compelling. Subsection 2.3 explores the ways they construct the narrative of the case. Subsection 2.4 looks at how they characterize their opponents and their opponents’ arguments. Subsection 2.5 zooms out to look at how they recruit the audience and judge into a particular role, positioning them as sympathetic to the debaters’ case; and Subsection 2.6 remarks on how debaters even try to customise the debating event as it unfolds and influence the norms of debate as an institution. Section 3 is the conclusion.



1. Social reality, social meaning, and how they come about

In this section, we introduce the notions of social reality and social meaning as they have been studied by social theorists and sociolinguists (e.g. Bourdieu 1977, Goffman 1959, Goffman 1981, Silverstein:2003, Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 1992a, Bucholtz  & Hall 2005,  Eckert 2008).  We then explain how these concepts interlock with language and power.

1.1 Social reality

Social reality consists of the groupings, divisions, assumptions and hierarchies that underpin our daily practices.   For example, perhaps a group of kids sees more prestige in qualifying for a travel soccer team rather than playing for a community team.  Perhaps the travel team kids have enough power to make this distinction salient for the whole grade at school. Then those kids may use their prestigious team affiliation to establish themselves as the popular ones, granting them insider information, social access to one another, and attention at their school.

1.2 Power

Social reality interlocks with power. Power is part of social reality, but it is also the ability to shape social reality in a way that reciprocally maintains one’s power. Ultimately, the most powerful people live in a social reality that serves their interests and shares their assumptions. Even if the unpopular kids don’t personally like the popular kids, they recognize that those kids are well-liked in their school; the unpopular kids inhabit a social reality that conflicts with their own opinions. But the popular kids have privilege of inhabiting a social reality where their own high opinion of themselves is the norm.

Transposing this idea to a more theoretical level, as Eckert & McConnell-Ginet (1992a) put it, social dominance ‘is sustained by privileging…a particular perspective…, obscuring its status as one among many perspectives, and naturalizing it as neutral or ‘unmarked’’ (483).  People in power ‘can judge other positions while supposing their own to be invulnerable to less privileged assessment’ (483).

Clearly, then, debaters want power over social reality. Within the community of people in that room for that hour, debaters want to shape the background assumptions about the case, the status hierarchy among the competitors, even the norms of debating. They win the debate when they have aligned this community’s social reality with their perspective.

1.3 Social meaning

Social reality emerges from a mosaic of social meaning. Social meaning consists of the symbols, styles and actions that people use to create social reality — to reflect affiliation, to highlight opposition, to establish or subvert authority. For example, someone might wear a running watch to signify affiliation with the track team, slouch into class late to challenge the teacher’s authority, or use slang to create an unpretentious persona. Social meaning is therefore ‘co-constructed by participants, emergent from particular social interactions’’ (Ahearn 2001: 111). And these social meanings aggregate to form social reality.

1.4 Language as a way to negotiate social reality

If one wants power over social reality, one must control the construction of social meaning. Since one realm of social meaning is, of course, language, language is therefore an essential source of power. As Bourdieu puts it, people speak ‘not only to be understood but also to be believed, obeyed, respected, distinguished’ (Bourdieu 1977: 648): to increase their power.

According to many sociolinguists today, language and power form a feedback loop. On the one hand (as Bourdieu 1977 observed), language can be used to negotiate social reality and increase one’s power. On the other hand, to speak and to be listened to, one needs power.  For example, a teacher who says ‘please take out your textbooks’, is heeded because he has authority, but his words also reinforce his authority by reminding people that he is in a position to issue orders.

1.5 Ideas for analysing social meaning

We have now explained how social meaning (including language) aggregates to form social reality. We have also looked at how power arises from social reality, but also shapes it through many means, including language.

All of these concepts revolve around the idea of social meaning, so if we want to understand how they emerge, we should begin with this most fundamental component.  Therefore, next we highlight some ideas that researchers use to understand how people construct social meaning. These are indexicality, performance, and recruitment.  Once these abstractions have been introduced, we explain how they are used in debate.


Indexicality and the indexical field

The first idea for understanding social meaning is called indexicality (Silverstein 2003, Eckert 2008). Indexicality is the idea that a given symbol can point to a cloud of potential meanings known as the indexical field. And an indexical field is the affiliations, connotations, and associations that cluster around a particular symbol. These ideas are best illustrated with examples: a nose ring might index feminine, Indian, bohemian, tough, but it comes across as merely feminine and boho within the context of a particular person’s style.

Building on the notion of indexicality, researchers also invoke a concept known as bricolage (Levi 1968, Bourdieu 1984, Hebdige 1979). Bricolage means constructing a body of meaning from a set of pre-given parts by recombining them in a new way. For example, imagine a man wearing a Ralph Lauren logo with a pair of Air Jordans. This combination might overlay the indexical fields of golf, privilege, leisure class and basketball, African American, tough, trendy, athletic, expensive.  The effect might be to style this individual as wealthy enough to dress like a WASP but also tough, modern and street-wise.


Next is the idea of performing one’s identity. This idea became popular within the field of gender studies, when Butler 2004 famously destabilized our notion of gender from a fixed, binary category to an active verb. Previously, people might have interpreted the behaviour of  women (for example) in order to shed light on what women are inherently like. But in Butler’s framework, how women behave is what it means to be a woman. On her view, the attributes that we associate with a gender ‘constitute the identity that they are said to express or reveal’’’ (Butler 2004: 115).

In social reality more generally, this idea of performing identity captures a powerful way that one situates oneself in society (Goffman 1959,  Goffman 1981, Hymes 1975,  Bucholtz & Hall 2005). As sociolinguists Bucholtz and Hall put it, ‘Identity is the social positioning of the self and other’ (586).  It is ‘a discursive construct that emerges in interaction’ (587). On this view, then, one creates one’s identity every day in the activities one engages in: working, relaxing, and of course, speaking.



The final idea, from Silverstein 2003, is recruitment.  This notion complements performance because it focuses not on how an individual creates her own identity, but how she characterises her audience.  Recruitment is best illustrated in how a text addresses a reader, but the idea easily transposes easily to speech. The claim is that a text has an actual reader  – you, right now – but also implies and characterises the sort of person who is intended to read that text. In so doing, the text ‘recruits’ the reader into assuming, for the moment, the perspective and identity of this constructed reader. For example, when Lelia reads Vogue, she knows she personally cannot spend four thousand dollars on a leather jacket, but part of the magazine’s aspirational charm is that it addresses her as if she were the type of person to buy such things. In the same way, a speaker can try to recruit her audience to try on a particular identity.

Now that these tools have introduced, we show how they are used to create social reality in parliamentary debate.


2  Debate strategies for constructing social meaning

Here, we explain how debaters use language to shape many facets of their narrative.

2.1 The self

Most obviously, debaters shape their own identity.

They perform several overlapping roles in their narrative of social reality. At the most basic level, they perform the role of the best advocate for a particular case. Everyone knows that debaters are arguing for assigned positions in a constructed context, and yet debaters enact this fiction with conviction. Debaters often close a speech with We are proud to oppose, as if they are personally committed to that position. They pace, curse and become agitated on behalf of their case. But this role is only one layer in the swath of identities that debaters perform.

Debaters also enact more subtle identities. They try to establish themselves as authorities on the facts and arguments of a case. It is almost a cliché to say I wrote my thesis on this, explicitly claiming authority on the topic. But there are many more subtle ways that debaters construct their epistemic authority. American debaters use pronunciation and vocabulary to highlight their education and thus legitimize their authority. They use high-level vocabulary to seem well-read. They adjectivise philosophers’ names (Hegelian) to index familiarity with this prestigious field. They style themselves as educated and worldly by citing facts from history and current events.

But sometimes they also take up the opposite strategy. A debater might style herself as the voice of reason that comes to clarify a messy case. In this role she might speak slowly and use simple words (What’s really going on here is…) in order to characterise herself as a calm, pedagogical authority figure.  In the same vein, debaters use colloquial diction (so there’s this dude; that’s just straight-up what happens), suggesting that they are particularly familiar with the facts and styling themselves as unpretentious and straight-talking.

Next, we turn to how debaters build on this authority to establish themselves as good debaters. First, they establish themselves in the debating community. Even before a debater begins to speak, the judges/audience already has an idea of who he is based on his reputation, university’s name, clothing and demeanour. Successful debaters try to use as many of these factors as possible to create a promising first impression.

And once they begin to speak, they have many more tools at their disposal for performing their narrative of social reality. At the beginning of a round, it is common for American debaters to thank the audience, organizers and fellow debaters.  This brief speech not only encourages the audience/judges to feel warmly toward them, but also provides an opportunity for the debater to remind people who they’re affiliated with (a well-known team, for example) and how well they know the community.  During these thank-you speeches, debaters use their voice and body language to suggest that they are speaking casually and personally. They do not pace, open their arms or take up as much space as they do during the round. Instead they stand still and speak more quietly and casually. During a round, they say we to speak on behalf of their team; but in the thank-you speech, they  use  I if they refer to themselves at all. These tactics suggest that they are representing their real-life personality even more than during the round. But just like their persona during the round, this identity can be seen as a performance, in the role of a confident, established debater.

Then once the round begins, debaters use a bricolage of registers and styles to suggest that they embody the gold standard of debating, but also that they are nonchalant and entitled to this identity. To craft this complex persona, on the one hand they use stock formal phrases — ladies and gentlemen; Mr./Madam Speaker; our side of the house. Such scripted language characterizes debate as a ritual occasion and casts the debaters as the vestry of that ritual. On the other hand, when debaters use colloquial diction and expletives (That’s fucked up), they show that they are sufficiently comfortable in their status that they feel entitled to play with the norms of this ritual occasion. They use humour not only to win over the audience, but to create a sanguine persona.

Debaters also establish their identity in how they interact with their opponents.  They may treat the opponent’s argument as a cliché – of course they bring up famous Rawlesian veil of ignorance….. – to characterise themselves are experienced debaters who see through their opponents’ tired tricks. To questions from the opposition, debaters may respond scornfully, as if the opponent’s question is barely worth their time; or affably, as if they’re secure enough to enjoy themselves; but they always strive to appear in control of the situation. Similarly, when they allow the opponent to pick a side (in an op-choice round, where one team presents a case and allows the other to choose a position), they react to the opponent’s choice quickly and with pleasure – Great!  So we argue that…- to suggest that they, as excellent debaters, are prepared to defend any position at a moment’s notice.

2.2 One’s arguments

Independent of an argument’s content, how it is packaged and presented help determine how the argument shapes the debate’s social reality. Therefore, debaters use language to style their arguments as organised, sophisticated and compelling.

To cast their arguments as organised, debaters use we to suggest that the paired team is presenting a unified case. They explicitly refer to their arguments as substantive or independent points and allude to, e.g., our first subpoint…, labels that brand the arguments as strong and organised. Prefacing an argument with ‘What’s really going on here is’or ‘But when you really get into the nitty-gritty…’, likewise, frames that perspective as a particularly lucid one. Finally, by speaking with energy and emotion, they act as if they truly believe their arguments in order to encourage others to do so as well.

2.3 The narrative of the case

Next, debaters need to convince the house to believe their interpretation of the proposition.  Since American mechanisms are only about a paragraph long, debaters have room to flesh out the narrative, give voice to the characters and even make claims about what could counterfactually have happened within this embedded fiction (The general could have resigned; he didn’t have to implement immoral orders).

This endeavour uses the notion of performance in a new way. Not only do debaters perform their own identities, but they perform the narrative that they want to legitimise.To accomplish this, debaters heroise the characters they defend, demonise the ones they oppose, and even shape the background assumptions in the narrative – for example, about what motivates the characters or what alternatives they faced. An especially powerful strategy is to convince others to share these presuppositions without ever making them explicit. For example, if a debater says ‘She shouldn’t have become a drug dealer if she has a moral problem with drugs’, he presupposes that this character had other alternative careers, although for a given poor person, that might not really be true. If everyone in the room accepts this presupposition, the debater succeeds in shaping this aspect of how the house collectively interprets the narrative.

In constructing the narrative of a case, debaters also use language in a more prototypically performative way, impersonating their story like actors. They sometimes adopt the pitch and vocabulary of a character in the case: ‘and then the homeowners are gonna be like, ‘but we live here! Why are you destroying our community?’. In this way, debaters literally give voice to the narrative that they want to legitimize.

2.4 The opponents and their arguments

Just as debaters construct a narrative about the case, they also try to characterise their opponents in an unflattering light.

In the logical content of their speech, debaters may try to dismantle the opponents’ arguments on philosophical grounds. But debaters also undermine the opposition in the realm of social meaning. They act like they’ve heard the opposition’s line before. They might cast an argument as too self-evidently absurd to address explicitly. Using notes as a prop to suggest an objective record, a debater might pretend to repeat an opponent’s argument while actually spinning it in a new way.  It is common for American debaters (but, we are told, rarer elsewhere) to impersonate the opponent’s viewpoint (‘And Sara gets up here and she tries to tell you, ‘You don’t have a right to your property!’) using an affected voice to portray the opponent’s view as absurd.  They also reinterpret opponents’ arguments in explicit terms: ‘The first thing he said that makes any sense is…’.  In all of these ways, debaters try to sabotage their opponent’s attempt to construct an alternate social reality.

Debaters also use meta-debate (debating about the debate) to derail their opposition. Even if the opposition’s arguments are logically sound, a given team can try to subvert these arguments by rendering them irrelevant. Therefore, debaters try to reshape and defuse the opposition’s case. They say, ‘What the opposition has to show is…’ and then fill in the version of the case that fits their narrative.

Debaters do not only reshape the opposing arguments, but they also cast their opponents as poor debaters. They might address them in a condescending tone, question their facts, or cite their arguments with scorn – in other words, treating them as if they were incompetent in order to make it seem true. If their opponents are famous and seem polished, a team might try to demystify them, mocking them and questioning them to cast them as vulnerable.

2.5 The audience

Debaters also recruit the audience and judges into their narrative (in the sense of Silverstein 2003). In reality, many different parties are listening to the debaters, each containing many individuals with their own opinions about what is happening. But in the social reality that debaters want to construct, all listeners embody the role of educated, serious person who sees this team as the clear winner.

As one strategy for audience recruitment, debaters use particular linguistic forms of address. It is common for debaters to address the house as ‘Ladies and gentlemen’, styling listeners as honoured guests at a formal event and encouraging them to take the occasion seriously. Debaters also refer to their own team using the word we, which in English might or might not include the hearer. When they say ‘We think that…’, they leave open the possibility that this statement applies to the audience as a whole.  Further, debaters refer to their teammates and their opponents all by first name.  This address is informal, suggesting that a debater is familiar with the community. It is also the form one uses to refer to a third party, so that debaters don’t talk to each other directly, but rather talk about one another to the house. This system of address reflects that the debaters’ true addressees are the judges and the audience. The point is not for debaters to convince one another that their arguments are right, but to convince the judges that they should win.

2.6 The debate itself

Finally, debaters attempt to shape the social reality of the debate as it unfolds. They do this not only by constructing all of the characters, as we discussed above, but also by attempting to narrate the debate itself as a victory for their team. In the broadest sense, they even try to shape the standard of good debating.

First we look at how debaters try to shape the particular round. They sometimes make statements not to describe reality, but to try to shape it.  When a debater says ‘This case is really about the purpose of punishment’, she tries to tie this concrete case to a larger moral debate where her side is the correct one. When she says of her opposition ‘They don’t really have a case’ or ‘That’s where they lose the debate’, she is not saying something that is independently true, but something she wants to make true.

This notion of speaking to make truth has been explored by the philosopher J. L. Austin (Austin 1962). Austin pointed out that you can only use language in this way if you have power. f a king says I hereby name this boat the H. M. S. Pinafore!, then something will happen: the boat’s name will change. But if a drunk peasant carouses up to the boat and shouts the same declaration, people will laugh at him and the boat will not get a new name. With power behind it, language can literally dictate social reality. Thus debaters hope that they have garnered enough power to call the debate as it unfolds.

Finally, we turn to how debaters negotiate the very standards of debating. Since debate is not judged on a rubric, the competition is really about which team best instantiates some collective notion of good debating on a particular occasion. The standard is dynamic, emergent, and constantly negotiated. Therefore, a team’s narrative of social reality will try to pin down this moving target. Styling themselves as good debaters, they try to shape this standard by simply embodying it. Further, they try to establish their opponents as bad debaters – which is not just a claim about their opponents, but an attempt to define good debating with a counterexample. For example, Colin once quoted an opponent’s argument back to the audience – ‘I think the quote was ‘fucked up’’ – with a sarcastic comment (‘very eloquent’) in order to suggest that this use of profanity was imprecise and inappropriate. In aggregation, individual comments like these shape the norm of good debating for the whole community.


3 Conclusion

We have illustrated that parliamentary debates are lost and won not just by the most lucid arguments, but by the most persuasive actors in our collective narrative of social reality.  We have identified the ways that debaters wield social meaning as they actively shape themselves, their opponents and the event as a whole.

Our claim is not a normative one. We think both argumentation and social manipulation are worthwhile arenas to compete in. Rather, in identifying the social side of debate, we hope that the debating community will become slightly less suspicious of this aspect of itself, and perhaps even come to respect it.


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