Picking fights with politicians: Categories, partitioning and the achievement of antagonism

Jack B. Joyce and Linda Walz


In 2016 the UK held a divisive referendum on its membership of the European Union. In the aftermath, difference and division were rife in politics and in everyday life. This article explores how such difference and division play out in and through interaction through examining a citizen ‘picking a fight’ with a politician over how Brexit has been handled. Drawing on membership categorisation analysis we show how antagonism is interactionally accomplished. The analysis focuses on three categorial strategies which interlocutors use to achieve antagonism: establishing omnirelevant devices, categories and their predicates; explicitly challenging category membership; and partitioning a population. Beyond offering insights into moments of social life that are not easily captured, the findings contribute to an empirical conceptualisation of antagonism and illustrate how membership categorisation analysis can shed light on its interactional achievement.

Publication history
Table of contents

Politicians regularly face hostility during their careers, which can range from targeted malice on social media to in-person verbal attacks on their policies or character, or even physical assaults. These attempts to provoke politicians to anger or to possibly saying something detrimental to their career are not an uncommon phenomenon, yet they are generally ephemeral. This paper studies one such instance of a citizen provoking a politician in a public space. The aim of the analysis is to show that antagonism is an interactional achievement that is accomplished through a range of linguistic categorisation practices which manufacture difference both on a turn-by-turn basis and on a larger structural level.

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