A Discursive Analysis of EastEnders

John Wheatley

University of Luton (United Kingdom)


Over the past 20 years, as critical attention has focused on television, quite long after having begun seriously examining film, considerable attention has been devoted to the soap opera. Work has been done on the demography of its audience (perceived in the USA as being largely female), but it is less clear that this is the case in the United Kingdom. "Soaps" appear to be as popular with male and female Luton students. The World Cup has surprised advertisers in the UK by attracting as much female viewership as male. I suggest, similarly, that the soap opera is increasingly of interest, in the United Kingdom, to the male viewer.

Recent research has sought to explain the function soaps play in people's lives and its appeal to viewers (Ang 1982). The open-endedness of the narrative has been explained and taken for granted (Allen 1992, Brown 1994), and soaps have been scrutinised from feminist perspectives (e.g. Altman 1989, Byars 1987, Petro 1986). Fiske has been very influential (see Fiske 1987 and 1992) in recognising the importance of soap opera to popular culture, as text which is open to or which viewers open up to multiple interpretations. While this paper recognises the importance of reader- centered approaches, I am building a text-centered analytical method that should prove quite compatible with what are now mainstream approaches that focus on viewer uses of soap opera (Ang 1982).

Language-based approaches

Little work, however, appears to have been done on the language itself, on the discursive structure of a soap episode. What studies there are tend to focus on topical structure (Sutherland, J & Siniawsky, S. 1982, Fine, M. 1981), or on a broader range of stylistic issues (Butler, J 1986).

This is a failing, one which I hope to begin to redress through this paper's discursive approach to soap opera dialogue. It is taken as fundamental here that commentary on a text can only follow, and be a consequence, of textual analysis - otherwise one falls into meaningless generalisations or the simple offering of opinion.

The analysis will draw on the work on Anna Brita Stenstr”m (1994) and, rather loosely, although quite importantly, on the early analytical work done by Sinclair and Coulthard (1975) at the University of Birmingham. Some use is also made of later systemic work on conversation by Eggins and Slade (1997), especially in recognising the key features of evaluation in spoken text. These works provide the backbone of the analytical methodology; the functional descriptions of each dialogue "line" in an episode.

Rather than attempting any kind of exhaustive linguistic analysis of conversation - as is suggested by Eggins and Slade, the analysis here seeks to recognise the key features that occur in each scene of one episode of the popular UK soap opera EastEnders. It is recognised that there are insufficient data for conclusions to be drawn on the nature of soaps in general, but it is hoped that adequate evidence can be obtained for a preliminary survey.

Texts will thus be viewed from a discourse analyst's perspective with a view to recognising typical discursive patterns. Stenström, Sinclair & Coulthard, Burton are fundamental to the way the analysis is carried out. The aim is to find a system of patterning in soap opera dialogue, to reveal communicative features of soap through linguistic analysis, not features of language through the use of soap opera dialogue merely as sample text.


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AS/SA Nº 6/7, Article 4 : Page 1 / 13

© 1999, AS/SA

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