Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

, Volume 5, Issue 1, pp 39–40

Introduction to J.R. Martin’s “Negotiating Values: Narrative and Exposition”


DOI: 10.1007/s11673-008-9079-4

Cite this article as:
Jordens, C.F.C. Bioethical Inquiry (2008) 5: 39. doi:10.1007/s11673-008-9079-4

Two major hazards lie alongside the “linguistic turn” in the Twentieth Century. One is a tendency to analyse everything as if it were discourse, and the other is a tendency to talk endlessly about discourse without ever analysing it. The first tendency traps us inside of text: language loses any connection with the wider world, and we veer into postmodernism’s hall of mirrors. The second tendency locks us out of text: power displaces meaning as the primary effect of language, and we career into the post-structuralist hall of horrors where discourses endlessly subjugate bodies. Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) [1] has managed to absorb the linguistic advances of the Twentieth Century without getting sidetracked into circuses or abattoirs, so it can help us to negotiate a precarious bend in the history of ideas.

SFL provides both a theory of language and a toolkit for analysing language. Martin’s key work, English Text [2], is one of the drawers in the SFL toolkit. It’s a compendium of methods for analysing discourse, and it sets out what Martin has become best known for: his theory of genre, or text type [3], which is now integral to the primary school curriculum in Australia. His recent work has focussed on evaluative meaning [4]. This is much more accessible to non-linguists than English Text, and it pushes into an interdisciplinary zone shared by philosophy and the social sciences – that is, the study of values.

In the following article [5], Martin turns his attention to two ways of meaning that are central to the development of bioethics: exposition and narrative. As we can see from his example Text #2, expository discourse entails defining, interpreting and using logic to make valid inferences –processes associated with reason and philosophy. Because bioethics emerged during the Twentieth Century as “applied” philosophy, expository discourse is the unmarked, taken-for-granted means of communicating within our scholarly community. More recently there has been a “turn to narrative” which has opened up the field in important ways. Martin characterises the latter as a “horizontal” discourse – one which makes lateral connections among different things of equal value, rather than generating hierarchies and policing boundaries (of a discipline, for example).

Martin’s point is not that we should opt for either exposition or narrative, but that we should understand the difference between these two ways of meaning, and the extra work that one enables in combination with the other. This is what he means by “complementarity”. Discourse analysis is a set of methods for arriving at this understanding empirically, that is, by sampling texts, differentiating them accurately, grasping their purpose and analysing how they achieve it. Stories are a means of bonding by sharing the feelings of others without going through exactly the same experiences as they have. When we are positioned to make moral or ethical judgments, it makes a difference whether this occurs on the common ground created by bonding, and herein lies the purpose of stories within expository texts. Moral argumentation is qualitatively different if it enables us to bond with others as well as win us over to another opinion with reasons and evidence. Complementarity can be achieved not only by combining different genres, but also by combining abstraction with experience in the medium of metaphor, or by combining image with language in multimodal texts.

This article offers a unique glimpse of what ethics looks like to a leading discourse analyst. While Martin explores the complementarity of narrative and exposition in the South African reconciliation process, we can and should take the opportunity to reflect on the significance of this complementarity for the development of bioethics.

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in MedicineUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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