Policy Sciences

, Volume 28, Issue 2, pp 165–184

Ambiguity in policy discourse: Congressional talk about immigration

  • Phyllis Pease Chock


Talk about immigration legislation in Congress between 1975 and 1986 drew upon competing interpretive frameworks to define ambiguous policy areas. The problem for both legislators and witnesses, as it is for all social actors, was that social realities are not objectively constituted, but socially constructed and tendentious. This essay is a cultural analysis of the language practices of legislators and other participants in the discussions, through which they created understandings of immigration. Congressional talk about immigration invoked the natural history language of ‘population.’ Despite an explicitly stated intention to avoid racist, nativist or jingoistic talk, which was largely achieved, this population talk, drawing on the ambiguous properties of language, allowed such prohibited concepts to be expressed. Particular understandings of race, gender, and class were reproduced, and not avoided or dismantled, by use of the natural history framework. It enabled speakers to displace fears and ambiguities onto objects of their talk, groups which were variously identified as ‘the problem.’ Data come from transcripts of hearings and speeches in Congress and from publications of the US Select Commission on Immigration and Refugee Policy.


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  • Phyllis Pease Chock
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyCatholic University of AmericaWashington, DCUSA

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