Discourse analysis

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Discourse analysis (DA), or discourse studies, is a general term for a number of approaches to analyze written, vocal, or sign language use, or any significant semiotic event.

The objects of discourse analysis (discourse, writing, conversation, communicative event) are variously defined in terms of coherent sequences of sentences, propositions, speech, or turns-at-talk. Contrary to much of traditional linguistics, discourse analysts not only study language use 'beyond the sentence boundary' but also prefer to analyze 'naturally occurring' language use, not invented examples.[1] Text linguistics is a closely related field. The essential difference between discourse analysis and text linguistics is that discourse analysis aims at revealing socio-psychological characteristics of a person/persons rather than text structure.[2]

Discourse analysis has been taken up in a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, including linguistics, education, sociology, anthropology, social work, cognitive psychology, social psychology, area studies, cultural studies, international relations, human geography, communication studies, biblical studies, and translation studies, each of which is subject to its own assumptions, dimensions of analysis, and methodologies.

Topics of interest[edit]

Topics of discourse analysis include:[3]

Political discourse[edit]

Political discourse analysis is a field of discourse analysis which focuses on discourse in political forums (such as debates, speeches, and hearings) as the phenomenon of interest. Policy analysis requires discourse analysis to be effective from the post-positivist perspective.

Political discourse is the informal exchange of reasoned views as to which of several alternative courses of action should be taken to solve a societal problem.[4]

An example of an analysis of political discourse is Roffee's 2016 examination into speech acts surrounding the justification of the legislative processes concerning the Australian federal government's intervening in the Northern Territory Aboriginal communities. The intervention was a hasty reaction to a social problem. Through this analysis, Roffee established that there was in fact an unwillingness to respond on behalf of the government, and the intervention was, in fact, no more than another attempt to control the Indigenous population. However, due to the political rhetoric used, this was largely unidentified.[5]


Although the ancient Greeks (among others) had much to say on discourse, some scholars[which?] consider Austria-born Leo Spitzer's Stilstudien [Style Studies] of 1928 the earliest example of discourse analysis (DA). It was translated into French by Michel Foucault.

However, the term first came into general use following the publication of a series of papers by Zellig Harris from 1952 reporting on work from which he developed transformational grammar in the late 1930s. Formal equivalence relations among the sentences of a coherent discourse are made explicit by using sentence transformations to put the text in a canonical form. Words and sentences with equivalent information then appear in the same column of an array. This work progressed over the next four decades (see references) into a science of sublanguage analysis (Kittredge & Lehrberger 1982), culminating in a demonstration of the informational structures in texts of a sublanguage of science, that of immunology, (Harris et al. 1989) and a fully articulated theory of linguistic informational content (Harris 1991). During this time, however, most linguists ignored such developments in favor of a succession of elaborate theories of sentence-level syntax and semantics.[6]

In January 1953, a linguist working for the American Bible Society, James A. Lauriault/Loriot, needed to find answers to some fundamental errors in translating Quechua, in the Cuzco area of Peru. Following Harris's 1952 publications, he worked over the meaning and placement of each word in a collection of Quechua legends with a native speaker of Quechua and was able to formulate discourse rules that transcended the simple sentence structure. He then applied the process to Shipibo, another language of Eastern Peru. He taught the theory at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in Norman, Oklahoma, in the summers of 1956 and 1957 and entered the University of Pennsylvania to study with Harris in the interim year. He tried to publish a paper Shipibo Paragraph Structure, but it was delayed until 1970 (Loriot & Hollenbach 1970).[citation needed] In the meantime, Dr. Kenneth Lee Pike, a professor at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, taught the theory, and one of his students, Robert E. Longacre developed it in his writings.

Harris's methodology disclosing the correlation of form with meaning was developed into a system for the computer-aided analysis of natural language by a team led by Naomi Sager at NYU, which has been applied to a number of sublanguage domains, most notably to medical informatics. The software for the Medical Language Processor is publicly available on SourceForge.

In the late 1960s and 1970s, and without reference to this prior work, a variety of other approaches to a new cross-discipline of DA began to develop in most of the humanities and social sciences concurrently with, and related to, other disciplines, such as semiotics, psycholinguistics, sociolinguistics, and pragmatics. Many of these approaches, especially those influenced by the social sciences, favor a more dynamic study of oral talk-in-interaction. An example is "conversational analysis", which was influenced by the Sociologist Harold Garfinkel, the founder of Ethnomethodology.

In Europe, Michel Foucault became one of the key theorists of the subject, especially of discourse, and wrote The Archaeology of Knowledge. In this context, the term 'discourse' no longer refers to formal linguistic aspects, but to institutionalized patterns of knowledge that become manifest in disciplinary structures and operate by the connection of knowledge and power. Since the 1970s, Foucault´s works have had an increasing impact especially on discourse analysis in the social sciences. Thus, in modern European social sciences, one can find a wide range of different approaches working with Foucault´s definition of discourse and his theoretical concepts. Apart from the original context in France, there is, at least since 2005, a broad discussion on socio-scientific discourse analysis in Germany. Here, for example, the sociologist Reiner Keller developed his widely recognized 'Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse (SKAD)'.[7] Following the sociology of knowledge by Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, Keller argues, that our sense of reality in everyday life and thus the meaning of every objects, actions and events are the product of a permanent, routinized interaction. In this context, SKAD has been developed as a scientific perspective that is able to understand the processes of 'The Social Construction of Reality' on all levels of social life by combining Michel Foucault's theories of discourse and power with the theory of knowledge by Berger/Luckmann. Whereas the latter primarily focus on the constitution and stabilisation of knowledge on the level of interaction, Foucault's perspective concentrates on institutional contexts of the production and integration of knowledge, where the subject mainly appears to be determined by knowledge and power. Therefore, the 'Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse' can also be seen as an approach to deal with the vividly discussed micro-macro problem in sociology.


The following are some of the specific theoretical perspectives and analytical approaches used in linguistic discourse analysis:

Although these approaches emphasize different aspects of language use, they all view language as social interaction, and are concerned with the social contexts in which discourse is embedded.

Often a distinction is made between 'local' structures of discourse (such as relations among sentences, propositions, and turns) and 'global' structures, such as overall topics and the schematic organization of discourses and conversations. For instance, many types of discourse begin with some kind of global 'summary', in titles, headlines, leads, abstracts, and so on.

A problem for the discourse analyst is to decide when a particular feature is relevant to the specification is required. A question many linguist ask is: "Are there general principles which will determine the relevance or nature of the specification?"

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Discourse Analysis—What Speakers Do in Conversation | Linguistic Society of America". www.linguisticsociety.org. Retrieved 2016-02-20. 
  2. ^ Yatsko V.A. Integrational discourse analysis conception
  3. ^ VAN DIJK, TEUN. Critical Discourse Analysis. pp. 352–371. 
  4. ^ Johnson, David w. Johnson, Roger T. “Civil Political Discourse in a Democracy: The Contribution Of Psychology”. May 2000. www.co-operation.org/pages/contro-pol.html.
  5. ^ "Roffee JA (2016) Rhetoric, Aboriginal Australians and the Northern Territory intervention: A socio‐legal investigation into pre‐legislative argumentation. International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy 5(1):131‐147". 
  6. ^ John Corcoran, then a colleague of Harris in Linguistics at University of Pennsylvania, summarized and critically examined the development of Harris’s thought on discourse through 1969 in lectures attended by Harris’ colleagues and students in Philadelphia and Cambridge. Corcoran, John, 1972. "Harris on the Structures of Language", in Transformationelle Analyse, ed. Senta Plötz, Athenäum Verlag, Frankfurt, 275–292.
  7. ^ Keller, Reiner (2011): The Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse (SKAD), in: Human Studies 34 (1), 43-65.
  8. ^ James, Carl (1993-06-01). "What is applied linguistics?". International Journal of Applied Linguistics. 3 (1): 17–32. doi:10.1111/j.1473-4192.1993.tb00041.x. ISSN 1473-4192. 
  9. ^ Barbey, Aron K.; Colom, Roberto; Grafman, Jordan. "Neural mechanisms of discourse comprehension: a human lesion study". Brain. 137 (1): 277–287. doi:10.1093/brain/awt312. 
  10. ^ Yates, Diana. "Researchers Map Brain Areas Vital to Understanding Language". University of Illinois News Bureau. University of Illinois. 

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