A discourse analysis manifesto

I do discourse analysis (DA). Except such a statement is almost meaningless as there is quite a number of various schools and traditions. Moreover, the word ‘discourse’ is used in just about every discipline in humanities and the social science. To be honest, I sometimes wonder whether the success of ‘discourse’ will mean that also theoretical physicists will be studying discourse in not too distant a future. So I thought that I would make it somewhat clear what I think about discourse analysis and what it means for me. I want to stress, this is very much a personal view, something that ‘came out’ of me. It’s not an article, it’s a statement of faith. I also wanted to verbalise what I think, resisting the temptation to consult books of others, as well as my own.

When asked, I locate myself in the critical tradition of discourse analysis. Yet, I prefer saying that my research is part critical discourse studies (CDS), rather than critical discourse analysis (CDA). This is probably because I quite miss critical linguistics (works of such linguists as e.g. Fowler, Hodge or Kress). As I see it, they were interested in how (social) reality is constructed in the text. Moreover, they focused very much on the linguistic side of it (the lexico-grammatical form), very tangible evidence.

But critical linguistics gave way to what we now know as CDA (e.g. Fairclough, van Dijk, Wodak). The dimension of power was added right to the centre of the equation. To be sure, it’s a very important dimension, yet, I sometimes find it more nebulous than is good for me and the analysis. In other words, I quite often want to bracket off the issue of power, as it becomes invisible (as Foucault suggested), hard to pin down. And even if it is possible to ascribe it to ‘the powerful’, it does not exclude the possibility of its full espousal by ‘the powerless’. This is why I miss critical linguistics.

Borrowing from critically oriented discourse studies, I think of discourse as a social practice. Language users speak (or write) not as individuals, but as members of various social groups, organisations, cultures etc., having at their disposal a number of discourses. They engage in acts of communication as social actors who to a considerable extent speak ‘as one speaks’. But such an approach also implies that discourse is also a form of situated social knowledge (I borrow it from Kress and van Leeuwen), through which the world is understood and made sense of.

For me discourse analysis is firmly anchored in the analysis of the linguistic form. I very much like Halliday’s idea that the linguistic is social. I find quite a lot of discourse analysis, especially that coming from Foucauldian tradition, quite superficial and impressionistic. The linguistic form allows firm evidential grounding, as it is ‘objective’ and allows us to set apart the stages of analysis and interpretation. And it is predominantly through the focus on the linguistic form that I want to see how experience (but also other extralinguistic realities) is constructed in a particular social context.

When I say that reality is socially constructed, I mean that it is invoked through exchanges of meaning. What is referred to as (objective) reality, is available to social actors as socially negotiated meanings. I also assume that language use is associated with a ‘structure of faith’ (Menz), often referred to as ideology, which is understood as shared structures of belief and value and their representations in text (often multiple and contradictory). Discourse analysis is capable of revealing these sets of assumptions and values carried by a linguistic and discursive choice. It is through discourse then that for example psychology and psychopathology are constituted together with the objects of their interests. Understanding its discursive mechanisms is in my view an important task for psychology, both as a source of theoretical self-reflection, as well as a way of better understanding the object of its research and practical activities.

To do discourse analysis for me means to uncover all that is hidden in what is said/written. Why do I think it is important? Well, if Bauman is right that it is not the world which is the material of the narrative; rather, it is the narrative from which the world is abstracted, then this kind of discourse analysis reveals the nature of the (social) world.