What is discourse?
The term “discourse” is defined in a number of different ways.
Discourse analysts examine spoken, signed and written language, and may focus on any aspect of linguistic behavior, from the study of particular patterns of pronunciation, through word choice, sentence structure and semantic representation, to the pragmatic analysis of how we organize speech encounters.
A wide array of linguistic “texts” is explored in the study of discourse. These might consist of a conversation or a letter; a speech, a memo or a report; a broadcast, a newspaper article or an interview; a lesson, a consultation or a confrontational encounter; an advertisement, a flyer or a piece of gossip.
Discourse analysts are as concerned to examine the way in which meaning is constructed throughout the text, as with the way this is achieved at any one point in the text.
Intersexuality is important too: that is to say, how language is used not only throughout a single text, but also across a set of different but related texts. Texts have histories, and so discourses created at different times stand as reference points for each other.
Approaches to discourse analysis
The following represent only a selection of approaches to discourse analysis.
1. Speech Act Theory
Language is more than just sounds, words and sentences. When we speak (or write), not only do we say something, but we also do something, and not merely in the trivial sense that speaking and writing involve physical actions or movements. In using language we intend to convey particular meanings, and our utterances have a certain force that has consequential effects on our addressee(s). These ideas lie at the heart of speech act theory, an approach to the explanation of language pioneered by the philosophers Austin and Searle in the 1960s.
2. The Ethnography of Communication
The importance of avoiding social and cultural bias in studying the language customs and conventions are used in different contexts. Those who take an ethnographic approach to language and discourse focus on the cultural values and social roles that operate in particular communities. They are particularly concerned not to impose their own cultural presuppositions on other societies, and may use intricate methods of participant observation to study the language habits and customs of different cultures.
3. The study of conversation
The philosophical work of Paul Grice is often invoked in discussing conversation and indirectness. Grice argued that conversation does not consist of a succession of disconnected remarks, but rather is a cooperative endeavor in which conversationalists mutually acknowledge the direction and purpose of speech exchanges.
In accepting the cooperative principle, we seek to make our conversational contributions appropriately truthful, informative, and relevant and clear.
Because of the essentially cooperative nature of conversation, if one or more of these maxims appears to be flouted or broken, we nevertheless still endeavor to interpret some meaning from what is said: we will try to infer the conversational implicate of the speaker’s utterance.
As well as engaging with culturally constructed conventions in how we say something, we also have to manage carefully the sequential structure of our speech exchanges. Conversation is orderly, and so an utterance is interpreted by reference to its turn within a sequence.
Patterns of turn-talking and topic management, along with many other aspects of the structuring and sequencing of social interaction, are studied in the approach of conversation analysis. Conversation analysis aims to study how conversational behavior relates to the creation of social roles, social relationships and a sense of social order.
4. Critical Discourse Analysis
Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) also seeks to examine language as a form of cultural and social practice, and is an approach which allows the description and interpretation of social life as it is represented in talk and texts. CDA focuses particularly on the relationship between power and discourse, studying the way in which “social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context”.