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The linguistic representation of agentivity in fashion controversies and its connection to argumentative strategies



Pierre E. J. D.



Recent developments in the fashion industry provide linguistic studies with new opportunities. A new research field opens and linguistics could prove to be an efficient tool to identify the discursive strategies in this new field and to enrich the theoretical understanding of the use of argumentative strategies. Over the past decades, the fashion industry landscape has been undergoing major transformations as a direct result of the growing importance of sustainable development and the gradual incorporation of sustainability into governmental policy and corporate strategy (de Brito et al. 2008: 534), constraining the clothing industry to recast its practices to comply with sustainability requirements and norms. Such a makeover takes place within a sensitive environment as it involves a plurality of actors with conflicting views and interests. Sustainable development tackles problems and asks for social and environmental responsibility and consciousness. But, the expected sustainable strategies have to integrate the industrial interests of economic growth. As a consequence, this climate involving numerous actors with different interests and often competing goals fosters the development of public controversies.

A central issue within this context is the question of the responsibility of the actors. De Cock and Greco report that “ actors have different views on who is the main cause of the environmental and human rights problems linked to fashion production as well as who holds the key to solving these problems” (De Cock and Greco 2021:58). The authors found argumentative misalignments in the discourse of the different actors not only in the definition of sustainability within the garment industry but also in the attribution of agentivity, that is, the agent “responsible for the problems related to current fashion production as well as to the potential solution to the ecological and human rights issues” (2021: 65).

Given what has been said, we postulate that the linguistic representation of agentivity, where the agent is understood as the actor, instigator, or initiator (Siewierska 2008: 7) of the action realized in a verbal clause, is paramount for a better understanding of discursive dynamics and practices in controversial public debates surrounding the garment industry. More specifically, our study argues that the different linguistic representations of the agent, including the absence of explicit agent, reflect different argumentative strategies in negotiating the relationship problem/solution in sustainable fashion controversies.

Overall objectives and specific aims

The study shows how the expression of agentivity reflects different argumentative strategies in sustainable fashion controversies. To achieve this goal, the following steps will be taken, which integrate linguistic and argumentation analysis:

1) Detection of whether an agent is explicitly mentioned.

? in case of explicit agent: analysis of the type of agent (e.g. animate or inanimate)

? in case of absence of explicit agent: detection of agent-defocusing mechanisms

2) Assessment of the impact of the type of verb (e.g. material or mental) in agent and agentless clauses.

3) The data from 1) and 2) will be synthesised and further analysed to establish whether a correlation exists between the linguistic representation of the agent and argumentative strategies (see Methods).

These steps will be replicated in French and Spanish to contrast the data and evaluate the role played by the language in grammatical and argumentative choices.

Additional information

Start date
End date
24 Months
Funding sources
Swiss National Science Foundation / Transitional Measures / SNSF Swiss Postdoctoral Fellowships