How to... use discourse analysis

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Article Sections

  1. What is discourse analysis?
  2. Applications of DA
  3. What can DA contribute to research?
  4. References

By Margaret Adolphus

What is discourse analysis?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines discourse analysis as:

"Linguistics, a method of analysing the structure of texts or utterances longer than one sentence, taking into account both their linguistic content and their sociolinguistic context; analysis performed using this method."

There is a problem, however, not with the wording of this definition, but with the concept itself, which implies that language can have a fixed meaning as the very ethos of discourse analysis is that language and discourse (in the sense of a speech communication) is not a fixed, immutable reality, but one that is moulded by a social context, and can in turn build up a picture of the world which is unique to the author of the discourse.

Discourse analysis as a research technique involves the analysis of language with the above framework in mind, and has become increasingly popular in recent years in the social and management sciences.

More definitions of discourse analysis

According to Snape and Spencer (2003, p. 200), discourse analysis originates from the discipline of sociology and is about:

"Examining the way knowledge is produced within different discourses and the performances, linguistic styles and rhetorical devices used in particular accounts."

According to Jankowicz (2005, p.229), discourse analysis is of particular relevance when listening to people's own narratives of a situation – the biographical approach.

"Discourse analysis ... [focuses] on the way in which your respondents draw on differing interpretive repertoires depending on their interpretation of the context in which your interview takes place. The technique focuses on the way in which language is used in given settings, and in a discourse analysis, your task is to identify the context; the various interpretive repertoires; and attempt a matching of one to the other, to arrive at an understanding of the function, from the point of view of your respondent, of the different stories being told."

In a guest editorial from the Journal of Organizational Change Management which looked at the contribution of discourse analysis to an understanding of organizational change, Grant et al. (2005) quote Fairclough and Wodak (1997, p. 277):

"Discourse is not produced without context and cannot be understood without taking context into consideration ... Discourses are always connected to other discourses which were produced earlier, as well as those which are produced synchronically and subsequently."

In other words, language does not have a fixed, objective meaning, but is coloured by a whole range of situational factors: the author's belief system, the surrounding political, economic and social context, any professional community to which the person belongs – which will have its own jargon (as in medical or legal) – as well as the immediate situation in which the words were uttered.

Herasymovych and Nørreklit (2006) provide a case study of ideological assumptions of Ukrainian managers, in which they use discourse analysis to reveal how attitudes change as a result of the transformation from communism to market liberalism.

The authors found several discourses of:

  • anti communism ("From Soviet times, there is a common psychology: the best job is the one with the higher salary and doing nothing");
  • the influence of religion, which is very strong in the Ukraine. Thus although the managers wanted to distance themselves from religion, they still used a discourse of pastoral authority – the image of the good shepherd – to describe their management style;
  • liberalism, of a certain kind: motivation of the individual to succeed, but based not on desire to do one's best, but fear of the consequences of failure.

Where does discourse analysis fit?

Discourse analysis is an analytic technique rather than a theory, and its popularity has arisen from the growing interest, starting late in the last century, in qualitative research and ways of analysing the data it produces. There are a number of similar methods, for example,

  • content analysis, which analyses content according to key variables,
  • narrative analysis, which looks at the patterns people find in their lives and situations, and
  • conversational analysis, which looks at the structure of dialogue (for more information, see How to ... analyse qualitative data: some specific techniques).

Discourse analysis has multiple disciplinary origins – sociology, socio-psychology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy, communications studies, and literature (Grant et al., 2005). It thus brings a multidisciplinary perspective.

Its regard for context sets it slightly apart from ethnographic methods, which, according to Lee and Roth (2006) tend to approach participants' talk and actions at face value. Participant observation often involves the researcher having a relatively "invisible" role, as an observer. In the collection of data for discourse analysis, however, the researcher has a more active role and may "co-construct" the interview process.

It can also be contrasted with behaviourist and cognitivist approaches: discourse is not just a product of a person's cognitive and mental state. Thinking makes use of concepts, and concepts are by definition in the public domain, influenced by a broad range of social and intellectual factors. discourse analysis is also influenced by social constructionism: people and their doings are not "natural observable facts", but are constantly shaped by the society around them.

Some prominent thinkers in discourse analysis

Many writers have contributed to the field of discourse analysis, but two of the most prominent are Norman Fairclough and Michel Foucauld.

Norman Fairclough is the father of critical discourse analysis. He comes to discourse analysis from a linguistics and language perspective; he is emeritus professor in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Lancaster, UK.

Fairclough sees discourse as:

"a social practice which constructs social identities, social relations and the knowledge and meaning systems of the social world ... [which] both reflects and produces the ideas and assumptions relating to the ways in which personal identities, social relations, and knowledge systems are constituted through social practice" (Nielson and Nørreklit, 2009; p. 204).

In other words, critical discourse analysis sees the language of discourse as a kind of two-way mirror: it both reflects and contributes to the social world, its knowledge systems and its social relationships.

There are two dimensions to critical discourse analysis: the "communicative event", or the specific incident of language use, and that which Fairclough terms "discourse order", which is the "discourse practices" or the way language is used within a particular social institution (for example, the particular vocabulary used within an organization) or domain area (for example, linguistics, sociology, or medicine).

Critical discourse analysis uses three levels of analysis (Nielson and Nørreklit, 2009; p. 205):

  1. The text of the communicative event itself, with reference to its vocabulary, its use of metaphor and rhetorical forms, its grammar and the relationship between sentences, the types of argument used.
  2. The discourse practice – i.e. how the particular communicative event changes or copies existing practice within that particular discourse.
  3. The wider social practice of which the communicative event forms part.

Critical discourse analysis combines an "internal" study of language with "external" study of its context – how the text is affected by social practices and relations (Cheng, 2009). The term "intertextuality" is often used – which means the need for one text to be read in the light of its allusions to and differences from the content or structure of other texts. Critical discourse analysis can often be used to reveal power relationships, and how certain groups can be marginalized.

Nielson and Nørreklit (2009) apply critical discourse analysis to the field of management coaching, which they depict diagrammatically in Figure 1 as follows:

Image: Figure 1. Model of critical discourse analysis as applied to management coaching.

Figure 1. Model of critical discourse analysis as applied to management coaching

The approach of Michel Foucauld, the French philosopher, sociologist and historian, is more abstract and less linguistically based than that of Fairclough. Although he acknowledged the role of language in the creation and formation of knowledge, he was not concerned with the analysis of spoken and written language and texts. He was more interested in the rules that determine which statements are accepted as meaningful, and the links between power and knowledge: expert knowledge in a particular domain can act as a system of control, and knowledge is institutionally contingent (Haider and Bawden, 2007).