Discourse Research Paper

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A sentence is a systematic arrangement of words. A discourse is a systematic arrangement of sentences. The domain of discourse includes various genres—such as narrative, epic, journalistic, or poetic—and thematic fields, from the actuarial to the zoological. It includes register— high and low, technical and vernacular, polite, allegorical and literal, and so on—and modes, from the written to the oral, and from monological to conversational. It also includes the dimension of style, as well as diverse functional orders, including referential, heuristic, imperative, and connotative.

So encompassing a category might seem to be of dubious analytical rigor. But perhaps precisely because it is such a hodgepodge, discourse confronts the analyst not merely with the formal dimensions of language, but also with the diverse conditions of its production and use. It serves as a sociocultural tool kit, whose astonishing multiplicity of instruments can be deployed to characterize the world, from one context to another, and to realize a great variety of other ends. An analytical engagement with discourse has come to define sociolinguistics (see Goffman 1981; Romaine 2000; Trudgill 1974), the ethnography of communication (Gumperz and Hymes 1986; SavilleTroike 1982) and more specialized pursuits such as ethnopoetics (Sammons and Sherzer 2000) and metapragmatics (Lucy 1993). The chief philosophical predecessors of this engagement were Ludwig Wittgenstein’s treatment of “language games” in his Philosophical Investigations (1953) and John Austin’s treatment of speech acts, or “performatives,” such as promising or pronouncing a couple to be wed in How to Do Things with Words (1962).

Since the later 1960s, however, the analysis of discourse has ceased to be the province of linguists and linguistic anthropologists alone. It has instead emerged as one of the leading preoccupations of social thought, and of cultural studies more broadly (see Howarth 2000; Mills 2004). That it has done so is closely related to the increasing contemporary saliency of two other topics that are often regarded as hallmarks of the post-structuralist turn in social and cultural critique. One of these centers on the variable historicity of the many collective systems in which human beings take part, or of which they are a part (Attridge, Bennington, and Young 1987). The other centers on the ways in which, and the extent to which, such systems are implicated in the reproduction of economic and political domination. Well before the post-structuralist turn, however, the Marxist political theorist Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937) set an influential, if partial, precedent in conceiving of the trajectory of the dynamics of language, history, and power as unfolding in the contest between the prevailing or “hegemonic” ideologies of a ruling class and the counterhegemonic ideologies of the class destined to succeed them. Several decades later, the structuralist Marxist Louis Althusser (1918–1990) supplemented Gramsci’s schema with the still-current postulate that bourgeois ideology is, at base, a discursive apparatus through which persons of authority “interpellate” and, in so doing, subject other persons to authority (Althusser 1971, p. 170–178).

At once post-structuralist and post-Marxist, Michel Foucault’s (1926–1984) oeuvre is the source of the conception of discourse most widespread today. For Foucault, discourse is always contestable, always “tactically polyvalent,” though by no means is it always the tactical weapon of one or another economically defined class. Discourse bears authority by definition. Its domain is not equivalent to that of opinion in general. Nor does its authority necessarily rest on the hegemony of the material interests that it may serve. The proper measure of discursive authority is, for Foucault, the always somewhat conventional measure of what constitutes knowledge. Knowledge is not, per se, a kind of power. Discourse approached without reference to the material practices it serves and informs can yield no more than a purely speculative analysis of domination. Just so, Foucault’s research into the establishment of the mental asylum, the prison, and sexology reveals that those discourses of life, labor, and language that, since the early nineteenth century, have been recognized as “human sciences” have provided the rationale for the imposition of entirely material apparatuses of anthropological classification, compartmentalization, and confinement. Yet Foucault’s diagnosis of such discourses of “subjectivation” affords no hope of radical liberation (Foucault 1998, pp. 459–460). As Althusser seems also to have believed, human beings have nothing else to be but discursively articulated and discursively “interpellated” subjects. They might still strive to render the terms of their subjectivation more accommodating and less absolute.


  1. Althusser, Louis. 1971. Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays. Trans. Ben Brewster. London: New Left Books.
  2. Attridge, Derek, Geoff Bennington, and Robert Young, eds. 1987. Post-structuralism and the Question of History. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things with Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  4. Foucault, Michel. 1965. Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Pantheon.
  5. Foucault, Michel. 1970. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Trans. Alan Sheridan. London: Tavistock.
  6. Foucault, Michel. 1972. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Trans. A. M. Sheridan Smith. London: Tavistock.
  7. Foucault, Michel. 1977. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon.
  8. Foucault, Michel. 1978. An Introduction. Vol. 1 of The History of Sexuality. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.
  9. Foucault, Michel. 1985. The Use of Pleasure. Vol. 2 of The History of Sexuality. Translated by Robert Hurley. New York: Pantheon.
  10. Foucault, Michel. 1998. Foucalt. In Essential Works of Michel Foucault, Volume 2: Aesthetics, Method, and Epistemology, pp. 459–63. New York: The New Press.
  11. Goffman, Erving. 1981. Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  12. Gramsci, Antonio. 1971. Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci. Ed., trans. Quentin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. New York: International Publishers. (Orig. pub. 1929–1935).
  13. Gumperz, John J., and Dell Hymes, eds. 1986. Directions in Sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of Communication. New York: Blackwell.
  14. Howarth, David. 2000. Discourse. Philadelphia: Open University Press.
  15. Lucy, John A., ed. 1993. Reflexive Language: Reported Speech and Metapragmatics. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  16. Mills, Sara. 1997. Discourse. London: Routledge.
  17. Romaine, Suzanne. 2000. Language in Society: An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  18. Sammons, Kay, and Joel Sherzer, eds. 2000. Translating Native Latin American Verbal Art: Ethnopoetics and the Ethnography of Speaking. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute Press.
  19. Saville-Troike, Muriel. 1982. The Ethnography of Communication: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell.
  20. Trudgill, Peter. 1974. Sociolinguistics: An Introduction. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
  21. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. 1953. Philosophical Investigations. Translated by G. E. M. Anscombe. London: Basil Blackwell and Mott.

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