Researcher profile: Coco Norén

In-depth text analysis in the european parliament

Coco Norén, Professor of French, became the new Dean of the Faculty of Languages in the summer. She is also currently attracting attention with a research project on debate in the European Parliament, and has just completed her task of proposing new goals and strategies to Uppsala University Management.

When French became Coco Norén’s subject, perhaps it was a chance event; but there was nothing random about languages becoming her field. This is true although, according to Norén herself, what prompted her application for admission to research training more than 20 years ago was happenstance. But let us start at the beginning. Coco Norén has been working in the Faculty of Languages for more than 25 years, first as an undergraduate and PhD student, and then in due course as a researcher, teacher and professor with various commitments. She grew up in Stockholm, where both her parents were teachers, and jocularly describes herself as the result of her parents’ private educational project.

‘My mother taught languages and my father social science. They both had France as their dream country, but without knowing more than a few tourist phrases. They put me in an international French-speaking elementary school, where I was subjected to some fairly tough drilling. After upper secondary school I began reading literature in Uppsala, as part of the degree in cultural studies, but after a few years I realised that sentence construction was more fun to analyse than literary texts. So that was how it went,’ she says.

The ‘happenstance’ that culminated in a successful research career came at the end of her undergraduate education in the form of a Frenchman, François.

‘I fell madly in love, and applied for research training so that I could accompany him back to Paris. There, he dumped me after six months; but I stayed on for two years before a PhD studentship in Uppsala tempted me back home again.’

After being a Pro Futura Fellow and taking up a research position at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities, Norén became a Professor of French in 2011. She is currently working on a research project about debate in the European Parliament. Her application for ERC funding for the project ‘People, positioning and politics: a semantic interactional theory’ has just been submitted, and she is awaiting the preliminary decision, in October, that her application has proceeded to the next level.

‘I go through the MEPs’ speeches to see how they refer to various stakeholders and how the importance of small argumentative markers — words like adverbs and conjunctions — contribute to the overall rhetoric of the debate. It’s not politics I’m studying; what I look at is more how it’s packaged linguistically,’ she says.

In linguistic research, the interesting aspect is often the method, Coco Norén thinks. She carries out textual analysis to study the intrinsic meaning of the language and how nuanced diction helps to get a message across. She tries to explain how textual analysis makes it possible to carry out detailed, in-depth analysis of language.

‘I usually say that the first stage of the process is no harder than following a pancake recipe. You take a word and look into how it’s used, and what it conveys in various contexts. Then the tricky part starts: analysing whatever it is in the meaning of the word that doesn’t change, and what comes out only in certain contexts. And how what a word means is bound up with the meanings of all the other words around it.’

Her overarching aim in this research is to devise a theoretical model for how different opinions are construed in a discourse. It is clear that she is passionate about her subject, although she does not see herself as the classic professor type who spends all her waking hours on research.

‘It’s fascinating that people can be so sloppy with language while, at the same time, a great fuss is made about a tiny decimal error. Linguistics is one of the most important subjects there is, and I see it as part of my mission to bring linguistics to the uninitiated,’ she says with a chuckle.

By dividing her time between research, teaching and university-wide projects, she hopes to benefit Uppsala University in relation to other universities. And her commitments alongside the research are and have been numerous. She has served two terms as chair of the Academic Senate, is vice chair of the ‘Goals and Strategies’ project and, since 1 July, has held the title of Dean of the Faculty of Languages.

‘I need to challenge myself sometimes, so as not to get stuck in my comfort zone. I’m just as keen on organisational activities as on research and teaching and I think, relatively speaking, I can get more done for the University jointly with others than I can achieve by myself in my own room.’

Josefin Svensson

Facts – Coco Norén

Latest news: newly appointed Dean of the Faculty of Languages; vice chair of the working group in charge of Uppsala University’s work to define new goals and strategies; research project on debate in the European Parliament, ‘People, positioning and politics: a semantic interactional theory’.
Leisure activities: works out at the gym every other day (‘to compensate for the fact that I’m extremely fond of eating and drinking’).
Last book read: ‘I don’t remember the title, but it was a French feel-good novel, for the sake of the language.’
What makes me happy: ‘the handsomest professor at the Rudbeck Laboratory’.
Family: Marcus, aged 18; Maria, 13; Mikael, 10; and part-time cohabitant Bo.

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