Discourse Research Paper

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I. Introduction

II. History of the Concept

III. Discourse and Language

IV. Discourse and Society

V. Discourse Analysis

I. Introduction

As a common term in English, discourse means any extended verbal communication, such as Jesus’s discourse with the people (John 6: 22–71) or, “The Disinherited Knight then addressed his discourse to Baldwin” (Scott, Ivanhoe). Discourse is lengthy but targeted speech between individuals or between an individual and a group. As a theoretical term, discourse gained in importance during the twentieth century, both in the relatively new discipline of linguistics and in the newer discipline of communication study, taking on two distinct meanings. First, it refers to stretches of communication beyond the small units that are examined with the traditional methods of linguistic analysis. Second, discourse directs attention to the social origins and consequences of communications.

II. History of the Concept

Discourse has a Latin root in discurrere, which itself is related to currere (“to run”). French derives the terms discourir and cours from these roots; English similarly derives “discursive,” “excursion,” “current,” and “courier.” The core meaning is movement of one sort or another, or running around. This idea is embodied in current uses of “discourse” to refer to communication as social interchange, and was also reflected in older occurrences of the term. Famously, Descartes’s Discourse on method (1637) is envisaged as a journey round the philosophical issues with which he was concerned.

After the Renaissance, “discourse” was employed in philosophy to suggest a laying out of and meditation on theoretical matters. This usage echoes the idea of rhetoric as the moving back and forth between intellectual positions in order to communicate effectively. From the classical period onwards, rhetoric had been established, on the one hand, as a practical means of identifying and studying longer forms of human communication than individual signs – for example, exordium, narratio, argumentatio, refutatio, peroratio (MacCabe 1979). On the other hand, these forms of communication lent themselves to persuasive or strategic uses. In envisaging movements between each of these forms or stages of communication, and between study and practice, rhetoric served to develop categories of discourse for scholarly as well as other social communication.

III. Discourse and Language

In his Cours de linguistique generale (Course in general linguistics 1916; translated into English in 1959 and 1983), Saussure projected “a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life” (1983, 15). Despite his focus on the linguistic sign as such and the system by which specific utterances are underwritten (langue), he articulated a need to open up linguistics for analyses beyond individual signs and sentences. Following work by the Danish linguist, Louis Hjelmslev, Saussure’s Cours became applied outside linguistics and outside the domain of spoken discourse. Hjelmslev’s resolute systematization of approaches to the different levels of language, its elements and rules, made Saussure’s framework even more amenable to other structuralist thinkers such as Claude Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. Both of these theorists sought to explicate the components and possible combinations of language, further applying these as general categories to various other media and modalities of communication. While such work did not focus explicitly on a conception of discourse, it delineated an approach to the social uses and implications of signs as rulegoverned, discursive sequences.

In the American structuralist tradition of the 1930s, Zellig Harris also explored rules beyond the sentence by developing the concept of transformation. Whereas this notion has been developed in various ways, within the theory of discourse it was elaborated especially in the area of sociolinguistics. For example, through extensive ethnographic work, Dell Hymes found that speech acts and other communicative events followed certain well-defined parameters within a given cultural context: discursive and social patterns were precisely aligned. The capacity to communicate, then, is not simply a matter of being able to produce an infinite number of syntactically correct sentences. Rather, communication depends on what current research would call a discourse – a frame of reference including practical knowledge of when one can speak, to whom, with what purpose, and in what circumstances.

Other sociolinguists such as William Labov and John J. Gumperz worked to cement the understanding of language as part of the social world, with reference to a similar, nascent notion of discourse. One of the most influential subfields of sociolinguistics, conversation analysis, concerned itself with turn-taking in discursive interaction and the protocols governing this, often highlighting the seemingly marginal aspects of linguistic communication such as interjections, intonations, pauses, and overlaps that inevitably feature in everyday talk. Next, conversation analysis would focus on these features as formal representations bearing witness to the social roles of the participants in a given interaction. The implication is that discourse – communication bearing a close relation to speakers’ and hearers’ roles – should be understood as an encompassing system of social interaction that constitutes any particular group of speakers in terms of a periphery and a core, and which comprises both their verbal and nonverbal communication.

IV. Discourse and Society

The first meaning of discourse – units of communication larger than sentences – tends to imply the second meaning – communication as embedded in society – which requires more than a descriptive account of language. Austin’s (1962) notion of speech acts has been one of the key influences on theories of discourse in this respect. While demonstrating that certain statements, in certain circumstances, have a performative function rather than a descriptive (constative) one (e.g., naming a ship, pronouncing a verdict), Austin went on to suggest that all statements tend to be performative – even if they might be portrayed otherwise. This insight underlies contemporary discourse studies: discourse has a rhetorical purpose, constituting speakers and hearers as ingroups or outgroups, while simultaneously delimiting those social fields to which reference can legitimately be made.

As a rhetorical form and a social practice, the concept of discourse further relates to two other conceptions of communication beyond the sentence level. Text is a theoretically neutral concept that refers to a string of verbal or nonverbal signs – written paragraphs, paintings, films, dance performances, gestures, etc. An analysis might determine that such texts are part of a larger rhetorical form, or that they enter into discursive practices with ideological implications. Genre denotes a group of texts that share particular features, and which have been shaped for specific audiences and purposes. As such, genres, in addition to being discourses in themselves, may frame specific social discourses – drama, debate, journalism, advertising, etc.

As social discourses, texts and genres ultimately entail the exercise of power. While implicit in earlier understandings of discourse, power was defined as its key constituent following the works of Michel Foucault. Today, it provides a reference point for the social understanding of discourse, the second meaning above. Foucault (1980) suggested that a particular manifestation of communication leads to an embodiment of power in discourse. Because the state cannot be omnipotent, power is often exercised (in an apparently nonstate fashion) through discourses. Although discourses open up possibilities for what may be said or thought, their very organization also delimits what can in fact be said or thought in a particular social sphere. Such discourses include those addressing the body, education, gender, public health, etc. Moreover, each discourse, according to Foucault, is maintained by specific technologies facilitating, not least, the surveillance of individual subjects.

This understanding of discourse, further, implies a constructionist position. A discourse not only delimits what can be communicated about an object, but produces the very objects of knowledge. A social constructionist position on discourse is traceable at least to Volosinov’s work of the 1920s (Volosinov 1973), emphasizing that verbal communication is more a matter of what people want to get out of a situation than of information exchange. Discourse encompasses goal-orientated acts of representation, effectively creating what is being represented. Because theories of discourse consider discursive representations so powerful in constituting the social world, the concept of discourse has sometimes replaced that of ideology.

V. Discourse Analysis

While building on earlier work on language and society, discourse analysis proceeds from a Foucauldian perspective on power as circumscribing discourse, and on discourse as constructing social reality. In empirical studies, discourse analysis sheds further light on how discourse is constituted in practice. Conversation analysis focused on turn-taking between people but, ultimately, surveyed the workings of power as discourse organizes membership roles for some while excluding others. Communication between humans is not merely a matter of attempting to reflect the world; rather, it is a form of social action.

Discourse analysis, despite variations, is committed to the general idea that meaning and social roles are produced in interaction. This is true, for example, of frame analysis, conversation analysis, and critical discourse analysis. One variant, discursive psychology, seeks to demonstrate that people’s very existence is constructed through their communications. Discursive psychology examines the detailed workings of discourse, especially how people use discourse to do things, constructing the social world for themselves and others. Such studies uncover, for example, the many disregarded stakes and interests that people pursue in everyday communication (see, e.g., Potter 1996; Edwards 1997; Edwards and Potter 2005).

Much discourse analysis has been predicated on verbal communication, but is increasingly conducted with reference also to nonverbal signs. The multimodal communications of electronic media serve as one reminder that texts and genres are frequently part of a broader discourse, emanating from an industry, an artistic practice, a historical epoch, or a mode or reception. Also in interpersonal communication, analysis has shown that the discourses pertaining to, for instance, occupational practices are constituted as much by nonverbal as by verbal communication (see, e.g., Goodwin 1994 on court proceedings and archaeological digs; see also Sidnell & Stivers 2005). Discourse is also operative in the myriad nonverbal communications that make up everyday life – the regularities of gesture, kinesics, and proxemics that people employ implicitly while enacting social roles for themselves and others.

See also:


  1. Austin, J. L. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  2. Coupland, N., & Jaworski, A. (eds.) (2006). The discourse reader, 2nd edn. London: Routledge.
  3. Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (2005). Discursive psychology, mental states, and descriptions. In H. te Molder & J. Potter (eds.), Conversation and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 241–259.
  4. Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and cognition. London: Sage.
  5. Fairclough, N. (1995). Media discourse. London: Arnold.
  6. Foucault, M. (1980). Truth and power. In C. Gordon (ed.), Power/Knowledge: Selected interviews and other writings, 1972–1977. New York: Harvester, pp. 109–133.
  7. Goodwin, C. (1994). Professional vision. American Anthropologist, 96(3), 606–633.
  8. MacCabe, C. (1979). On discourse. Economy and Society, 8(4), 270–307.
  9. Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric, and social construction. London and New Delhi: Sage.
  10. Saussure, F. de (1983). Course in general linguistics (trans. R. Harris). London: Duckworth. (Original work published 1916).
  11. Scollon, R. (2001). Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. London: Routledge.
  12. Sidnell, J., & Stivers, T. (2005). Multimodal interaction. [Special issue]. Semiotica, 156, 1–4.
  13. Van Dijk, T. A. (ed.) (1997). Discourse studies: A multidisciplinary introduction. London: Sage.
  14. Volosinov, V. N. (1973). Marxism and the philosophy of language (trans. L. Matejka & I. R. Titunik). New York: Seminar Press.

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