Bull’s Typology of Equivocation (part 2)

Jessica Bott continues her series on ‘equivocation’:

When a politician is equivocating there are multiple ways they can avoid answering a question. Often a politician will have a preferred way to equivocate and avoid using some of Bull’s categories. In the Battle for Number 10 and The ITV Leader’s Debates there were three categories which were not used by the politicians, these were state or imply the question has already been answered, apologises, and literalism. However, Bull 2003 has given examples of these from Thatcher and Kinnock’s interviews.


(See part 1 for earlier categories.)

10. States or implies that the question has already been answered – this category is when a politician says, or implies they have already answered the question.

NK - … as far as secondary picketing is concerned in pursuit of a trade dispute in connection with that trade dispute the same kind of right that workers enjoyed for seventy years in this country is a right that should be enjoyed in order to be able to do that and the reason why it was awarded
JP – That means you do approve of secondary picketing being restored or not?
NK – well I think I made that pretty clear

11. Apologises – this is where a politician will apologise in some way.

DD – Isn’t one of the difficulties for the Tories that your way of governing and talking about government gets up the noses of a lot of voters?
MT – Well I’m sorry if it does it’s not intended to I’m very sorry if it does

12. Literalism – this category is where the literal aspect of a question, which was not intended to be taken literally, is answered by the politician rather than the actual purpose of the question.

SL – So are you suggesting in fact that rooming houses in Brixton and Downing Street are not so far apart after all?
JM – Well they’re about four miles as the crow flies

A new category

Since Bull originally devised the typology of equivocation there have been many changes in the political landscape, including various general elections, Brexit and most recently Theresa May becoming prime minster. When analysing some of May’s interviews Bull found that she had a distinct style of equivocation that was not covered in his typology.

This category is gives non-specific response to a specific question. This is where a politician, in this case May, gives an answer to a question which seem relevant to the substance of the question but they don’t provide the specific information that the question requests. The example below is from an interview between Theresa May and Andrew Marr.

AM – In your view, should we have access to the single European Market.
TM – Well what I want to see is the best possible deal for the United Kingdom in trade in goods and services.

To read more about Bull’s Typology in general read Peter Bull’s (2003) The Microanalysis of Political Communication: Claptrap and Ambiguity. To read Bull’s take on Theresa May’s interview style see his article here.

Blog by Jessica Bott, Coventry University. For other blogs by Jessica in this series on ‘equivocation’ see:

Featured image Mask3 by George Boyce CC BY 2.0

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