What Is Discourse Analysis Used For?

It is difficult to specify discourse analysis as a method in the traditional sense, instead discourse analysis is often described as a methodology or as a theoretical perspective rather than a method (Phillips and Hardy 2002:3), a methodology that according to Billig (1985) falls into the postmodern tradition. Discourse analysis has the capability to transcend academic and disciplinary borders as well as methodological traditions through the examination of rhetoric (Billig, 1996) and conversation analysis. (Silverman, 1997) A huge amount of debate surrounds the question to how discourse analysis should be defined as it varies according to the different analytical interests, schools of thought and the understandings of ‘’discourse’’ found both within and across disciplines. (Paltridge, 2006)
According to Johnstone (2002) discourse analysis reaffirms a relativist ontology, where the epistemological foundations are socially constructed, hence discourse analysts regard reality as socially constructed rather than as objective, where the structure of discourse analysis is rooted in language and discourse (Burr, 1995). According to Foucault (1972:36) discourse simply refers to a ‘’set of statements or practices that systematically constructs the object of which it speaks.’’ This is further asserted when examining the debate within discourse analysis that reality is dependent upon context and not an independent ‘truth’. (Fairclough, 1995) Wetherall et al (2001) goes one step further with this explanation by proclaiming that language is a precondition on which thought can be developed and the framework that language provides enables us to bring objects into existence, this is further exerted by Parker (1993) where language and discourse are described as preformative by nature, they construct reality and not just represent it. This stance is best understood when examining the work of Willig (2001), according to her the world is seen as a ‘’negotiable and shifting place which cannot be understood except through language’’ (p.103). Discourse analysis differs to positivism as it does not try to uncover the ‘true nature’ of actions but rather to understand the processes that led to the point where objects are ‘talked into being’ (Willig, 2001)

Morgan (2010) emphasises that discourse analysis is a philosophy, ‘’a way of being’’ (p.1), rather than just a methodology, its strength lies in being able to situate itself along the diverse spectrum of epistemological positions, be it realist or relativist. A number of different traditions exist within discourse analysis, the way the researcher situates themselves within this tradition varies according to their own epistemological positioning and to what research questions are asked and what they are meant to examine. In the literature conducted traditions of discourse analysis include: conversation analysis, discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis and Foucauldian research. (Morgan, 2010 and Wetherell et al, 2001)
The strength of discourse analysis lies in its ability to take into account the role of historical and socio-political aspects of the research produced (Hepburn, 1999). According to Parker (1993) discourse analysis gives particular consideration to the ways in which language norms are able to ‘’encourage authors to describe research in neat, objective, detached and sterile fashion, ignoring inevitably messy or subjective aspects’’ (p.284); regarding this point Willig argues that ‘’since language is constructive and functional, no one reading can be said to be ‘right’ or ‘valid’’(2001:103). Furthermore the argument evolves that research which involves human participants can have moral implications, since the researcher gains the upper-hand in imposing their values upon the study. (Morgan, 2010) Raskin (2001) criticises discourse analysis for encouraging an anarchical relativism, this is underlined by Dixon et al. (2000) arguing that if no interpretation can be viewed as valid or right then discourse analysis especially within texts and language becomes no more than an academic exercise, however others argue that researchers are still able to find discourses that are viewed as ‘better’ than others even if none of them can be more ‘real’ than the other. (Harper, 2004) Another interesting critic to discourse analysis is its assumption that the world can be changed if we write about it in a different manner, such an assumption leads discourse analysis to reject an existence of a world without language (Willig, 2001), according to Wetherell et al. (2001) this relativist position makes a discourse analysis study difficult to maintain. This has led to a problem which analyst have coined as the ‘So what?’ factor (Allen et al., 2001), which refers to the constraint of using discourse analysis framework for practical purposes such as policy making (Morgan, 2010). Nevertheless, Parker (1999) offers a solution to the problem of discourse analysis’s relativism. He argues that even though symptoms are seen as real, the problem of relativism only arises when labels that posses an epistemological position, obtain an ontological status which then can be used to justify an unjust status-quo. So deriving from this argument it is clear that one of the strengths of discourse analysis as a social constructivist methodology lies in its ability to include socio-political and moral factors into a given research agenda. (Parker, 1999)
Discourse analysis is criticised by Berman et al. (1993) for its ‘’ ‘difficulty of ‘getting to grips’ with it due to the lack of prescription regarding how it should be done’’ (p. 162), however according to others an awareness should be present in using discourse analysis as just another research tool for fear that ‘’it has the potential to be used as a value-free technology’’ (ibid.) As a result, discourse analysis risks loosing its critical and political position by becoming one of the numerous scientific research tools (Bucholtz, 2001). Willig (2001) suggests that to prevent this happening to discourse analysis, researchers are encouraged to take a more critical stance in their analysis of the study to ensure that the assumptions put forward are transparent; therefore the argument unfolds itself that an advantage of discourse analysis methodology lies within its awareness that social context and the role played by the researcher will undoubtedly effect the outcome of the study. (Parker, 1999) However, using discourse analysis to explain social change can become problematic if the researcher adopts some form of manipulation (Willig, 2001). To clarify, an expert or policy maker would use their position in the field to implement discourses that would shape people’s lives is principally challenging as this can be viewed as another form of oppression, however according to Rose (1989) this problem can be side stepped if discourse analysis is viewed as a tool to be used collectively rather than for the purposes of manipulation, be it social or political.
Another common critique of discourse analysis is found with the researchers’ strategic/political choice on which texts to analyse, it is argued that they already have some form of underlying assumption that encourage a set of interpretations of that text (Cheek, 2000), if we continue along this line of critique it is possible for discourse analysts to provide different ambiguous interpretations and falling into the trap of creating a whole new ideology (Fairclough, 1999). Since discourse analysis challenges dominant ideologies , presenting only one form of interpretation may lead to the formation of a ‘new’ ideology. Even with such criticisms, discourse analysis provides scrupulous and regular ways of combating social problems and preparing solutions for political change (Mather, 2000). Discourse analysis is also viewed positively as it highlights the voice given to respondents, thus giving equal status to both researchers and the respondents (i.e. those being studied) (Burr, 2003), this results in the research being viewed as a dialogue rather than the researcher commanding a superior influence upon the object in question. Sherrard (1991) disagrees with this analysis as she explains that the researcher often fails to position their role in the research process especially when interacting with the interviewees, insisting that ‘’discourse analysts typically fail to examine explicitly their role in the production of the discourse they are analysing’’ (p. 181).
Discourse analysis has also been criticised by Abrams et al (1990) when considering its political dimensions, they assert that there is a hidden postulation that researchers within the discourse analysis field are the most qualified amongst researchers in examining, identifying and helping disempowered social groups, therefore risking their accounts as becoming the subjective ‘truth’ (Burr, 2003). Thus some argue that the relationship between the researcher and participant is falsely ‘democratized’ when judging reflexivity, since in the end it’s the analysts interpretation and writing up of the research which will be viewed as carrying more weight. Burr (1995) highlights another important criticism to discourse analysis in the way in which ‘’ the identification of discourses has a tendency to become little more than the labelling of everyday common-sense categories’’ (p.174) As a result from this viewpoint discourse analysts are often blamed for reproducing the same structures which they are trying to challenge in the first place when identifying a discourse (Burr, 1995, p.182). A number of other critics, assert that discourse analysis over accentuates the analysis of texts and disregards other forms of discourse that are visible other ways than words, according to Willig (2001) this becomes problematic as discourse analysis fails to provide a framework on how to analyse ‘’ private manifestations of discourse such as thought and self-awareness’’ (p. 101), meaning that discourse analysts give more validity to the role of language and texts than to subjectivity or mental state.
Once we are able to comprehend the strengths and weaknesses of discourse analysis and how discourses work, it becomes impossible not to be aware of them or ignore their importance as they are present in all facets of human life –political, social, economic, cultural-. Even though there are a number of limitations to as what discourse analysis is able to offer, it is hard to argue that discourse remains a crucial element of power relations and that discourse analysis is a very useful ‘tool’ for reflective analysis, by its nature of providing a deep analysis of the current discourses present in our lives. The main strength found for discourse analysis is its usage as it can be used for teaching, researching and learning the contexts in which we live, it gives us the platform to be able to look at the things that are familiar in our world and to ask those questions that will enable a critical understanding of such a context; it helps us build upon our ability for reflexivity, as well as collective efforts with others in the participation for progressive change.
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Allen, D., and Hardin, P. K. (2001). ‘Discourse analysis and the epidemiology of meaning.’ Nursing Philosophy, 2:163–176
Billig, M. (1985) ‘Prejudice, categorization and particularization: from a perceptual to a rhetorical approach, European Journal of Social Psychology, 15, pp.79-103.
Billig, M. (1996) Arguing and Thinking, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Bucholtz, M. (2001) ‘Reflexivity and Critique in Discourse Analysis’, Critique of Anthropology 21(1): 157–75.
Burman, E. and Parker, I. (eds) (1993) Discourse Analytic Research: Repertoires and Readings of Texts in Action. London: Routledge
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Raskin, J. D. (2001) ‘’On relativism in constructivist psychology’’, Journal of Constructivist Psychology, 14, 285-313.
Rose, N. (1989) Individualising psychology, in: J. Shotter & K. Gergen (eds.), Texts of identity (London: Sage) pp. 119-132.
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