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Discourse (from Latin: discursus, lit. 'running to and from') generally denotes written and spoken communications, though its usage differs between various disciplines and approaches. For instance, in semantics and discourse analysis, it is a conceptual generalization of conversation within each modality and context of communication. Moreover, in regard to semantics, discourse is understood as the totality of codified language (i.e., vocabulary) used in a given field of intellectual enquiry and of social practice, such as legal discourse, medical discourse, religious discourse, etc.
In the work of philosopher Michel Foucault, and that of the social theoreticians Foucault inspired, discourse describes "an entity of sequences, of signs, in that they are" statements (French: énoncés) in conversation. As discourse, a statement is not a unit of semiotic signs, but an abstract construct that allows such signs to assign meaning, thus conveying specific, repeatable communications to, between, and among objects, subjects, and statements. As such, a discourse is composed of semiotic sequences (relations among signs that communicate meaning) between and among objects, subjects, and statements. In simple terms, Foucault's analysis of a discourse examines and determines the connections among language, as well as structure and agency. Foucault applied what he called "discursive formation" (French: formation discursive), a term that conceptually describes the regular communications (written and spoken) that produce such discourses (e.g. informal conversations), in his analyses of large bodies of knowledge, such as political economy and natural history.
Definitions across disciplines
Various understandings of discourse can be seen as being in perpetual conflict with each other in time. Hence, in the course of intellectual enquiry, discourse among researchers features questions of, and answers to, "What is ...?" and "What is not...?," conducted according to the meanings (i.e., denotation and connotation) of the concepts (statements) used in the given field of enquiry, such as anthropology, ethnography, sociology, cultural studies, and literary theory, as well as the philosophies of science and feminism.
Semantics and Discourse Analysis
In semantics, and the more-general discourse analysis, discourse is a conceptual generalization of conversation within each modality and context of communication. In this sense, the term is studied in corpus linguistics, the study of language expressed in corpora (samples) of "real world" text.
The study of semantics particularizes discourse as meaning the totality of codified language (i.e., vocabulary) used in a given field of intellectual enquiry and of social practice, such as legal discourse, medical discourse, religious discourse, etc. In this sense, along with that of Foucault's in the previous section, the analysis of a discourse examines and determines the connections among language and structure and agency.
Moreover, because a discourse is a body of text meant to communicate specific data, information, and knowledge, there exist internal relations in the content of a given discourse, as well as external relations among discourses. As such, a discourse does not exist per se (in itself), but is related to other discourses, by way of inter-discursive practices.
Social Sciences and Humanities
In the general humanities and social sciences, discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language. Discourse is a social boundary that defines what statements can be said about a topic. Many definitions of discourse are largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault. In sociology, discourse is defined as "any practice (found in a wide range of forms) by which individuals imbue reality with meaning."
Political science sees discourse as closely linked to politics and policy making. Likewise, different theories among various disciplines understand discourse as linked to power and state, insofar as the control of discourses is understood as a hold on reality itself (e.g. if a state controls the media, they control the "truth"). In essence, discourse is inescapable, since any use of language will have an affect on individual perspectives. In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions, and, perhaps, even the style needed to communicate. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements, describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists."
In psychology, discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and meta-genres that constrain and enable them—language talking about language. This is exemplified in the APA's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which tells of the terms that have to be used in speaking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of professionals in psychology and psychiatry.
Modern theorists were focused on achieving progress and believed in the existence of natural and social laws which could be used universally to develop knowledge and thus a better understanding of society. Such theorists would be preoccupied with obtaining the "truth" and "reality," seeking to develop theories which contained certainty and predictability. Modernist theorists therefore viewed discourse as being relative to talking or way of talking and understood discourse to be functional. Discourse and language transformations are ascribed to progress or the need to develop new or more "accurate" words to describe new discoveries, understandings, or areas of interest. In modern times, language and discourse are dissociated from power and ideology and instead conceptualized as "natural" products of common sense usage or progress. Modernism further gave rise to the liberal discourses of rights, equality, freedom, and justice; however, this rhetoric masked substantive inequality and failed to account for differences, according to Regnier.
Structuralism (Saussure & Lacan)
Structuralist theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, argue that all human actions and social formations are related to language and can be understood as systems of related elements. This means that the "…individual elements of a system only have significance when considered in relation to the structure as a whole, and that structures are to be understood as self-contained, self-regulated, and self-transforming entities." :17 In other words, it is the structure itself that determines the significance, meaning and function of the individual elements of a system. Structuralism has made an important contribution to our understanding of language and social systems. Saussure's theory of language highlights the decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life more generally.
Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged postmodern theory. Postmodern theorists rejected modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society. Rather, postmodernist theorists were interested in examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and common experiences.
In contrast to modern theory, postmodern theory is more fluid, allowing for individual differences as it rejects the notion of social laws. Such theorists shifted away from truth-seeking, and instead sought answers for how truths are produced and sustained. Postmodernists contended that truth and knowledge is plural, contextual, and historically-produced through discourses. Postmodern researchers therefore embarked on analyzing discourses such as texts, language, policies, and practices.
French social theorist Michel Foucault developed a notion of discourse in his early work, namely in the Archaeology of Knowledge (1969; French: L'archéologie du savoir). Iara Lessa (2006) summarizes Foucault's definition of discourse as "systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak." Foucault traces the role of discourses in wider social processes of legitimating and power, emphasizing the construction of current truths, how they are maintained, and what power relations they carry with them. He would later theorize discourse as a medium through which power relations produce speaking subjects.
Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and, thus, every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power. Even further, he would state that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth. Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse, therefore, is controlled by: objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak. Coining the phrase power-knowledge, Foucault (1980) would argue that knowledge is both the creator of power and the creation of power. An object becomes a "node within a network." In the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network: a book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather "is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences." The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, overarching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.
One of the key discourses that Foucault identified as part of his critique of power-knowledge was that of neoliberalism, which he related very closely to his conceptualization of governmentality in his lectures on biopolitics. This trajectory of Foucault's thinking has been taken up widely within Human Geography.
- Critical discourse analysis
- Difference (philosophy)
- Discipline and Punish
- Discourse community
- Discourse Studies
- Foucauldian discourse analysis
- Interpersonal communication
- Postcolonial literature
- The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity, a 1985 book by Jürgen Habermas, regarded as an important contribution to Frankfurt School critical theory
- Public speaking
- Tradition In political and religious discourse
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- Regnier, 2005
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- DiscourseNet, an international association for discourse studies.
- Beyond open access: open discourse, the next great equalizer, Retrovirology 2006, 3:55
- Discourse (Lun) in the Chinese tradition