Containers and conceptual blends in immigration discourse: Description and explanation in a cognitive Critical Discourse Analysis

Christopher Hart (University of East Anglia)

Following van Dijk's characterization of ideology as shared social cognitions, where social cognition is defined as 'the system of mental representations and processes of group members' (van Dijk 1995: 18), we may conjecture that conventionalised conceptual metaphors are, in social and political contexts, precisely ideologies.

A central tenet in Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) is the dialectical relationship between elite discourse and public representation. This paper will investigate anti-immigration ideologies as a function of metaphorical structure, where for CDA, then, metaphor in elite discourse is both constructed by and constitutive of conventionalised ( entrenched ) conceptual projections. Party political manifestos and keynote speeches during the UK 2005 General Election campaign will provide a corpus of data.

With a focus on instances of discourse (as opposed to discourse in the Foucauldian sense), analysis will be carried out not with the Lakoffian account standard in Critical Metaphor Analysis, but with conceptual blending theory (Fauconnier and Turner 2002), a more appropriate model representative of cognitive operations performed during discourse processing. In conceptual blending theory, since inferences are generated in the blended space ( elaboration ), metaphors in (elite) discourse are significant linguistic structures of ideological consequence.

The state-as-container metaphor will be identified as the most prominent in immigration discourse. Consider by way of example the following reproduced verbatim from the official website of the UK Independence Party (

The trouble is the UK is already full up. The average population density of England is twice that of Germany, four times that of the France, and twelve times that of the United States. We are bursting at the seams. [my emphasis]

The state-as-container metaphor is realised in a variety of linguistic expressions, as will be illustrated in this paper. Common across each case, though, is the container schema in the generic space. Going beyond description, this paper will offer cognitive explanation as to the potency of the state-as-container metaphor in immigration discourse. As a function of the inherent 'logic' of the container schema, the state-as-container metaphor signals group boundaries denoting 'insiders' and 'outsiders'. Here, incorporating ideas from Evolutionary Psychology, it will be postulated that realisations of the state-as-container metaphor in elite discourse are so affective because they connect with an innate 'fear of outsiders' module, thus enacting or reproducing anti-immigration ideologies. At this point, it must be made clear that this is not a reductionist argument; the human mind is not determinately indisposed to immigration. The human mind may be predisposed to conceptualise human groups metaphorically in terms of containers. However, where the boundary element of the container schema is situated, for example, in the case of the nation-state, is a product of discourse and culture, and thus a critical discourse analysis is relevant.


Fauconnier, G. and M. Turner (2002). The Way we Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind's Hidden Complexities. New York: Basic Books.

Van Dijk, T. (1995). Discourse analysis as ideology analysis. In C. Schaffner and A.L. Wenden, Language and Peace. Aldershot: Harwood Academic Publishers. pp. 17-36.