Within linguistics, discourse is often described as “language-in-use” or “socially situated text and talk”, i.e., analysts ask how written, oral and visual texts are used in specific contexts to make meanings, as opposed to analysing language-as-an-abstract-system.
Beyond written texts and multi-modal texts (TV, advertising, internet, etc.), discourse analysts also consider the sexuality of talk, cities, bodies, buildings and music. Some analyses flow over many books and historical archives, whereas others do fine-grained analysis of a small number of texts.
A selection of approaches to discourse analysis:
- Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)
- Sociocognitive Discourse Studies
- Political Discourse Analysis
- Discursive Psychology
- Conversational Analysis
- Laclau and Mouffe’s Discourse Theory
According to Eamon Fulcher, discourse analysis is a qualitative method that has been adopted and developed by social constructionists. Although discourse analysis can and is used by a handful of cognitive psychologists, it is based on a view that is largely anti-scientific, though not anti-research.
Some basic assumptions of the approach:
• Psychologists cannot be objective when studying human behaviour. In the scientific approach there is the belief that knowledge can be gained by objectivity (without bias or preconceptions). However, this belief has been disputed – people, including researchers, cannot be objective. A researcher is very likely to hold some position (expectation, bias, belief, or set of cultural values) when they are conducting their research.
• Reality is socially constructed. In the scientific approach it is assumed that it is possible to categorise reality, and that ideas or constructs that psychologists use, such as personality and intelligence, are naturally occurring things or categories. However, this ignores the fact that language shapes the categories and constructs we use. Since language is a social and cultural thing, our sense of reality is socially and culturally constructed.
• People are the products of social interaction. In the scientific approach it is assumed that many of the constructs used are ‘inner essences’. That is to say that personality, anxiety, drives, and so on, exist somewhere within. However, it may be the case that many of these so-called essences are actually the products of social interaction.
Discourse analysis is a way of understanding social interactions. The researcher acknowledges their own bias and position on the issue, known as reflexivity. The research begins with a research question (and not a hypothesis in the formal sense) that is aimed at a theoretical position. A conversation or piece of text is transcribed and then deconstructed. This involves attempting to identify features in the text, such as discourses. A discourse is a particular theme in the text, especially those that relate to identities, for example such as a statement that reiterates a view or claim that men find weddings dull, and so on. Topics that have been studied include men’s friendships, family conversations of the royal family, an interview with Princess Diana, media constructions of racism, gender categories in discourse, lesbian motherhood, conversations about marriage, men’s talk about fatherhood, and so on.