Sunday, December 1, 2013

Yes, but is it discourse?

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective

There is no short answer to the question What is discourse? Monographs have been written about it, countless collective volumes, journals, special journal editions and conferences dedicated to it. The handful of quotes below only reflect the understanding of discourse adopted in this project.
Examples of discourse-related journals: Discourse and Society, Critical Discourse Studies, the Journal of Language and Politics, Discourse and Communication, Visual Semiotics, CADAAD (Critical Approaches to Discourse Analysis across Disciplines - online journal).
[See this post for more introductory information and this post for more on discourse and social reality]

1. There are three basic understandings of discourse: 
(1) anything beyond the sentence, 
(2) language use, 
(3) a broader range of social practice that includes nonlinguistic and nonspecific instances of language (Schiffrin, Tannen & Hamilton 2008). 

2. Four main approaches to discourse (classification in Taylor 2001: 7)
(1) focusing on the variation and imperfection of language as a system. 
[corresponds to 1.(1) above] 
Example reading: Abraham, Givon & Thompson (eds.) 1995; Aijmer & Stenstrom (eds.) 2004; Bernini & Schwartz (eds.) 2006; Miller & Weinert 1998. 
(2) focusing on the activity of language use, rather than the language itself. 
[corresponds to 1.(2) above] 
For example conversation analysis (CA) - Atkinson & Drew 1979, Heritage 1984.
(3) looking for patterns in the language associated with a particular topic or activity.
[at the intersection of 1.(2) and 1.(3)?]
For example institutional/workplace discourse analysis - Drew & Heritage 1992, Koester 2006.
(4) looking for patterns within much larger contexts of society and culture. 
[corresponds to 1.(3) above] 
For example Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA), see below.

In my view, the most important keyword above is the word patterns. I see discourse analysis as the study of patterns in language use - and as it is a critical approach, I focus on investigating where and how these patterns originate, develop and change. 
Patterns in language use are shared by the society. One of the most important features of discourse is that it is part of social reality, a social practice. A consequence of this understanding is that with discourse we actually do something (practice = activity).
This was originally an idea of John Austin, the author of the influential work How to Do Things with Words (1962) and precursor of the speech act theory later developed by Searle (1969). I dare say that Austin also set the scene for what we know as critical discourse analysis today, because this framework depends on the idea that people do things with what they say, that speech can create social realities, not only represent them. Austin initiated research of performative speech acts, which has inspired e.g. Bulter's performativity theory (1990) and Gelber's "speaking-back" theory (2002).

Fairclough writes: “language is an irreducible part of social life, dialectically connected with other elements of social life, so that social analysis and research always has to take account of language (…) This is not a matter of reducing social life to language, saying that everything is discourse – it isn’t. Rather, it’s one analytical strategy amongst many” (2003: 2). 

“Discourse has been theorised as a form of social practice (Fairclough 1992) and “the sort of language used to construct some aspect of reality from a particular perspective, for example the liberal discourse of politics” (Chouliaraki and Fairclough 1999:63)” (…) A ‘discourse’ is perhaps seen most simply as a recognisable way of seeing the world” (Sunderland & Litosselliti 2002: 9). 

“Describing discourse as social practice implies a dialectical relationship between a particular discursive event and the situation(s), institution(s) and social structure(s) which frame it: the discursive event is shaped by them, but it also shapes them. That is, discourse is socially constitutive as well as socially conditioned – it constitutes situations, objects of knowledge, and the social identities of and relationships between people and groups of people. It is constitutive both in the sense that it helps to sustain and reproduce the social status quo, and in the sense that it contributes to transforming it. Since discourse is so socially consequential, it gives rise to important issues of power. Discursive practices may have major ideological effects – that is, they can help produce and reproduce unequal power relations between (for instance) social classes, women and men, and ethnic/ cultural majorities and minorities through the ways in which they represent things and position people“ (Wodak 2002: 7-8, quoting Fairclough & Wodak 1997: 258). 

In this project, discourse is understood as a social practice and a specific way of seeing and representing the world. But it is also a historical process (“accumulated existence of discourse”, Foucault 1989: 25): 
“Michel Foucault's (1972) view of discourses as historically contingent cultural systems of knowledge, belief, and power does not require close attention to the details of linguistic form. Discourse analysis within a Foucauldian framework tends to consider instead how language invokes the knowledge systems of particular institutions, such as medical or penal discourse. This post-structuralist definition of discourse is inadequate for many discourse analysts, although some believe that Foucauldian "discourses" (culturally and historically specific ways of organizing knowledge) can and should be incorporated into the analysis of linguistic "discourse" (contextually specific ways of using language)” (Bucholtz 2003: 45). 

“Discourse is the socially meaningful activity – most typically talk, but non-verbal actions as well – in which ideas are constructed over time. When we speak of a discourse, we refer to a particular history of talk about a particular idea or set of ideas. Thus when we talk about a discourse of gender, or varied discourses of gender, we refer to the working of a particular set of ideas about gender in some segment or segments of society” (Eckert & McConnell-Ginet 2003: 42). 

The following checklist for recognizing discourses (Parker 1992) works also as a summary of the points made so far: 
 1. a discourse is realized in texts 
2. a discourse is about objects 
3. discourses contain subjects 
4. a discourse is a coherent system of meanings 
5. a discourse refers to other discourses 
6. a discourse reflects on its own way of speaking 
7. a discourse is historically located 
8. discourses support institutions 
9. discourses reproduce power relations 
10. discourses have ideological effects. 

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