The definitions of discourse

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The definitions of discourse

Discourse (L. discursus, «running to and from») means either «written or
spoken communication or HYPERLINK
«» \o «Debate» debate » or «a formal
discussion or debate.» HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-0» \o «» [1]
The term is often used in HYPERLINK
«» \o «Semantics» semantics and
«Discourse analysis» discourse analysis .

In semantics, discourses are linguistic units composed of several
sentences; in other words, conversations, arguments, or speeches. In
discourse analysis, which came to prominence in the late 1960s, the word
«discourse» is often used as shorthand for «discursive formation»
meaning large heterogeneous discursive entities.

According to HYPERLINK «»
\o «Michel Foucault» Michel Foucault , discourse has a special meaning.
It is «an entity of sequences of signs in that they are enouncements
(enonces)» (Foucault 1969: 141). An enouncement (often translated as
«statement») is not a unity of signs, but an abstract matter that
enables signs to assign specific repeatable relations to objects,
subjects and other enouncements (Ibid: 140). Thus, a discourse
constitute sequences of such relations to objects, subjects and other
enouncements. A discursive formation is defined as the regularities that
produces such discourses. Foucault used the concept discursive formation
in relation to his analysis of large bodies of knowledge, such as
political economy and natural history.(Foucault: 1970)

Studies of discourse have been carried out within a variety of
traditions that investigate the relations between language, HYPERLINK
«» \o «Structure and
agency» structure and agency , including feminist studies,
anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory and the
history of ideas. Within these fields, the notion of «discourse» is
itself subject to discourse, that is, debated on the basis of
specialized knowledge. Discourse can be observed in the use of spoken,
written and signed language and multimodal/multimedia forms of
«Communication» communication , and is not found only in
«non-fictional» or verbal materials.

 The prevailing sense of «discourse» is defined by the OED as «A spoken
or written treatment of a subject, in which it is handled or discussed
at length; a dissertation, treatise, homily, sermon, or the like.» While
previous, archaic definitions of discourse have been «process or
succession of time, events, actions, etc.» or «the act of
understanding,» discourse is most simply understood today as a sort of
unit of language organized around a particular subject matter and
meaning. This can be contrasted to other ways in which language has been
broken down into much smaller units of analysis, such as into individual
words or sentences in studies of semantics and syntax. Furthermore, as
opposed to the linguistic conception of language as a generally stable,
unified, abstract symbolic system, discourse denotes real manifestations
of language—actual speech or writing.

In addition, the idea of discourse often signifies a particular
awareness of social influences on the use of language. It is therefore
important to distinguish between discourse and the Saussurean concept of
the parole as a real manifestation of language (Saussure, 11-17).
Saussure’s distinction between langue and parole is such: langue is a
linguistic system or code which is prior to the actual use of language
and which is stable, homogenous and equally accessible to all members of
a linguistic community. Parole is what is actually spoken or written,
and varies according to individual choice. Thus while discourse is also
what is actually spoken or written, it differs from parole in that it is
used to denote manifestations of language that are determined by social
influences from society as a whole, rather than by individual agency.

Because the form that discourse takes cannot be solely the product of
individual choice, the word entails a meaningful ambiguity between
generality and specificity (Fairclough, 24). Discourse can refer either
to what is conventionally said or written in a general context, or to
what is said or written on a particular occasion of that context. One
example of discourse in our culture is one that posits that being cold
and wet can cause a person to develop a cold—a belief which doctors
reject as unscientific. Yet if I specifically were to say, «I have a
cold because I got caught in the rain last night,» this would be also be
an example of discourse. My words would reflect my own particularity by
stating the fact that I, as an individual, had been caught in the rain
last night—yet at the same time my words are determined by a social
commonplace. The ambiguity exists between generality and specificity
because the idea of discourse implies that the specific is also always

Yet while discourse most often denotes an instance of language, it is
also important to note that in other frameworks, discourse is not
necessarily a linguistic phenomenon; it can also be conceptualized as
inhabiting a variety of other forms, such as visual and spatial
(Fairclough, 22). For example, in his analysis of the development of the
modern penal system Foucault cites the medical and juridical discourse
about the necessity of rehabilitating criminals—but he also cites the
actual structure of prisons, designed to maximize surveillance, as
contributing to the discourse of this conceptualization of criminality
(Foucault, 1975, 233-9).

The idea of discourse thus emphasizes that language is a social and
communal practice, never external to or prior to society (as some
conceptualizations of linguistics, such as Saussure’s, may seem to
assume). In semiotics, one way to conceptualize discourse, then, is to
see it as a reflection of its particular context in a particular part of
society. According to linguist Michael Halliday, discourse is «a unit of
language larger than a sentence and which is firmly rooted in a specific
context. There are many different types of discourse under this heading,
such as academic discourse, legal discourse, media discourse, etc. Each
discourse type possesses its own characteristic linguistic features»
(Martin and Ringham, 51). This definition of discourse emphasizes the
way in which social context—who is speaking, who is listening, and when
and where the instance of language occurs—determines the nature of
enunciations. It is clear how legal discourse and media discourse, will
demonstrate fundamentally different conventions of style, wording, and
other «linguistic features.»

A more complex understanding of discourse emphasizes that formal
conventions of the mode of expression are not the only aspect of
language that is determined by the social. Underlying beliefs and
worldviews, specific to the social context, are seen to be mediated by
discourse. According to the Dictionary of Semiotics, discourse, «in
strictly semiotic terms,» does not refer to the literal or «narrative»
level of language but to the interaction between «the figurative
dimension, relating to the representation of the natural world» and «the
thematic dimension, relating to the abstract values actualized in an
utterance» (Martin and Ringham, 51). As evident in the previous example
of the discourse that states that coldness and wetness can cause a cold,
discourse entails underlying assumptions about the nature of the world
and of particular social values and beliefs.

In contemporary continental philosophy, this understanding of discourse
as the covert embodiment of social values is taken on a more critical,
political level—discourse is seen by some philosophers as a means of
the legitimization of social and political practices. The Italian
Marxist Antonio Gramsci wrote about ideology as «a conception of the
world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity
and in all manifestations of individual and collective life» (Gramsci,
330). For him, discourse mediates ideological justifications of the
status quo that come to be accepted as «common sense.» Similarly,
anthropologist Pierre Bourdieu wrote that the ultimate objective of a
discourse is the «recognition of legitimacy through the misrecognition
of arbitrariness» (Bourdieu, 163). Through the proliferation of
discourse, beliefs and ideas that are actually socially and historically
specific are legitimized by their seemingly universal and natural
appearance. An example of this sort of discourse might be advertising
discourse in capitalist society. Advertisements may portray luxury
products as naturalized needs; this discourse thereby reinforces a
consumption-driven culture.

Using a similar theory of discourse as ideology, Louis Althusser sees
discourse as naturalizing «subject-positions,» or social roles.
Althusser writes, «Like all obviousnesses, including those that make a
word ‘name a thing’ or ‘have a meaning’… the ‘obviousness’ that you
and I are subjects… is an ideological effect, the elementary
ideological effect» (Althusser, 171-2). If subject positions are an
ideological effect, then individuals are given social identities that
are established by discourse, a discourse that at the same time
naturalizes such subject positions and conceals this very process.

The discursive production of the subject has been theorized in other
ways that do not utilize the concept of ideology. For Foucault,
discourse is a medium through which power and norms function. Foucault
describes how, in modernity, scientific discourses such as the «human
sciences» which claim to reveal human nature actually establish norms
and prescribe optimum modes of conduct. These discourses also establish
ways of identifying, understanding, and managing «deviant» subjects. By
describing and categorizing individuals in detail, these discourses
exert an unprecedented amount of power over the individual’s comportment
and relationship to herself (Foucault, 1978, 92-114 and 1999, 39). For
example, in The History of Sexuality, Foucault describes how
psychological discourses actually produced a new understanding of
personhood by creating the concept of sexuality as a fundamental marker
of identity. Whereas previously, non-heterosexual acts were simply seen
as against nature, under the new discourse they became psychologically
deviant, indicating of a whole array of other psychological
disturbances. The idea of the homosexual, the invert, and the
sadomasochist developed, thereby constituting a new experience of the
individual as a sexual being and, through its most minute descriptions
of the meanings of sexuality, a tighter control over the subjective
experiences of individuals.

While borrowing the Foucauldean concepts of power and the norm, Judith
Butler takes a slightly different stance on the way in which discourse
produces the subject. Butler is particularly interested in the
embodiment of gender—a process that she calls performativity. Butler
claims that gender identity is actually an ongoing process of «citing»
gender norms that permeate society, mediated by a heteronormative
discourse that describes masculinity and femininity as stable, natural,
and mutually exclusive. In fact, a gender identity only seems to
naturally emanate from the subject, while what is actually occurring is
an ongoing reiteration and performance of gendered comportment that
never fully achieves the gender ideal. If one fails even to approximate
gender norms, one fails to be socially recognized as fully human. For
Butler, discourse actually demarcates the necessary conditions for the
embodiment of personhood (Butler, 171-180).

Understood as a medium, then, discourse functions as a powerful tool
through which linguistic conventions social and political beliefs and
practices, ideologies, subject positions, and norms can all be mediated.
Yet as we have seen, discourse does not simply serve as a connecting
link between a stable, exterior society and the individual. All of these
social values emanate from individuals who enunciate a discourse that is
at the same not completely their own, a discourse which in turn implants
and reinforces the notions it contains. Discourse always consists of
both input and output, and is always at once an extension of our culture
and of ourselves

The Social Scientific Conception of Discourse

In the HYPERLINK «» \o
«Social sciences» social sciences (following the work of HYPERLINK
«» \o «Michel Foucault»
Michel Foucault ), a discourse is considered to be an HYPERLINK
«» \o «Institution»
institutionalized way of thinking that can be manifested through
language, a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific
topic, or, as Judith Butler puts it, «the limits of acceptable
speech»—or possible HYPERLINK «» \o
«Truth» truth . Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things;
it is not possible to escape discourse. For example, two notably
distinct discourses can be used about various HYPERLINK
«» \o «Guerrilla» guerrilla
movements describing them either as » HYPERLINK
«» \o «Freedom fighters»
freedom fighters » or » HYPERLINK
«» \o «Terrorists» terrorists .»
In other words, the chosen discourse delivers the vocabulary,
expressions and perhaps also the HYPERLINK
«» \o «Style» style needed to
communicate. Discourse is closely linked to different theories of
«Power (communication)» power and HYPERLINK
«» \o «Sovereign state»
state , at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining
reality itself. It also helped some of the worlds greatest thinkers
express their thoughts and ideas into what we now call public orality.

This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French
philosopher Michel Foucault (see below)


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. HYPERLINK
«» \l
«cite_note-Larrain.2C_1994-1» \o «» [2] Modernist theorists were
preoccupied with obtaining the truth and reality and sought to develop
theories which contained certainty and predictability. HYPERLINK
«» \l
«cite_note-Best_.26_Kellner.2C_1991-2» \o «» [3] Modernist theorists
therefore viewed discourse as a being relative to talking or way of
talking and understood discourse to be functional. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4] 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. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4] In modern times, language and discourse are dissociated from
power and ideology and instead conceptualized as “natural” products of
common sense usage or progress. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4] HYPERLINK «» \o
«Modernism» Modernism further gave rise to the liberal discourses of
rights, equality, freedom and justice however this rhetoric masked the
substantive inequality and failed to account for differences. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-4» \o «» [5]


«Structuralism» Structuralist theorists, such as HYPERLINK
«» \o «Ferdinand de
Saussure» Ferdinand de Saussure and HYPERLINK
«» \o «Jacques Lacan» Jacques
Lacan , argue that all human actions and social formations are related
to HYPERLINK «» \o «Language»
language and can be understood as systems of related elements.
«cite_note-Howarth.2C_2000-5» \o «» [6] 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.” HYPERLINK «» \l
«cite_note-6» \o «» [7] 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. HYPERLINK
«» \o «Course
in General Linguistics» Saussure’s theory of language highlights the
decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life
more generally. HYPERLINK «» \l
«cite_note-Howarth.2C_2000-5» \o «» [6]


Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged
«Postmodernism» postmodern theory. HYPERLINK
«» \l
«cite_note-Larrain.2C_1994-1» \o «» [2] Postmodern theorists rejected
modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained
all aspects of society. HYPERLINK
«» \l
«cite_note-Best_.26_Kellner.2C_1991-2» \o «» [3] Rather, postmodernist
theorists were interested in examining the variety of experience of
individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and
common experiences. HYPERLINK «»
\l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3» \o «» [4]

In contrast to modern theory, postmodern theory is more fluid and allows
for individual differences as it rejected the notion of social laws.
Postmodern 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. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4]

French social theorist HYPERLINK
«» \o «Michel Foucault»
Michel Foucault developed an entirely original notion of discourse in
his early work, especially the HYPERLINK
«» \o «Archaeology
of knowledge» Archaeology of knowledge (1972). In Discursive Struggles
Within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood, HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-7» \o «» [8]
Iara Lessa 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.» He 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.” Foucault later theorized that discourse is a medium
through which power relations produce speaking subjects. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4] Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are
inter-related and therefore every human relationship is a struggle and
negotiation of power. Foucault further stated that power is always
present and can both produce and constrain the truth. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-Strega.2C_2005-3»
\o «» [4] 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. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-8» \o «» [9]
Coining the phrases HYPERLINK
«» \o «Power-knowledge»
power-knowledge Foucault (1980) stated knowledge was both the creator
of power and creation of power.


Feminists have explored the complex relationships that exist among
power, ideology, language and discourse. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-9» \o «» [10]
HYPERLINK «» \o «Feminist
theory» Feminist theory talks about «doing gender» and/or » HYPERLINK
«» \o «Gender
performativity» performing gender .» HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-10» \o «» [11]
It is suggested that gender is a property, not of persons themselves but
of the behaviours to which members of a society ascribe a gendering
meaning. “Being a man/woman involves appropriating gendered behaviours
and making them part of the self that an individual presents to others.
Repeated over time, these behaviours may be internalized as «me»—that
is, gender does not feel like a performance or an accomplishment to the
actor, it just feels like her or his «natural» way of behaving.»
HYPERLINK «» \l «cite_note-11» \o
«» [12] Feminist theorists have attempted to recover the subject and
«subjectivity.» Chris Weedon, one of the best known scholars working in
the feminist poststructuralist tradition, has sought to integrate
individual experience and social power in a theory of subjectivity.
HYPERLINK «» \l «cite_note-12» \o
«» [13] Weedon defines subjectivity as «the conscious and unconscious
thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself, and her
ways of understanding her relation to the world. HYPERLINK
«» \l «cite_note-13» \o «» [14]
HYPERLINK «» \o «Judith
Butler» Judith Butler , also another well known post structuralist
feminist scholar, explains that the performativity of gender offers an
important contribution to the conceptual understanding of processes of
subversion. She argues that subversion occurs through the enactment of
an identity that is repeated in directions that go back and forth which
then results in the displacement of the original goals of dominant forms
of power.


S. Best & D. Kellner (1997). The postmodern turn. The Guilford Press. 

M. Foucault (1969). L’Archeologie du savoir. Paris: Editions Gallimard. 

M. Foucault (1970). The order of things. Pantheon. 

M. Foucault (1972). Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon. 

M. Foucault (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon. 

M. Foucault (1980). «Two Lectures,» in Colin Gordon, ed.,
Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews. New York: Pantheon. 

M. Foucault (2003). Society Must Be Defended. New York: Picador. 

D. Howarth (2000). Discourse. Philadelphia, Pa.: Open University Press. 

J. Larrain (1994). Ideology and cultural identity: Modernity and the
third world presence. Cambridge: Polity Press. 

I. Lessa (2006). «Discoursive struggles within social welfare: Restaging
teen motherhood». British Journal of Social Work 36: 283–298.

A. McHoul & W. Grace (1993). A Foucault primer: Discourse, power, and
the subject. Melborne: Melborne University Press. 

J. Motion & S. Leitch (2007). «A toolbox for public relations: The
oeuvre of Michel Foucault». Public Relations Review 33 (3): 263–268.

R. Mullaly (1997). Structural social work: Ideology, theory, and
practice (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 

B. Norton (1997). «Language, identity, and the ownership of English».
TESOL Quarterly 31 (3): 409–429. doi:10.2307/3587831. 

Research as resistance: Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive
approaches.(2005). In Brown L. A., Strega S. (Eds.), Toronto: Canadian
Scholars’ Press.

S. Strega (2005). The view from the poststructural margins: Epistemology
and methodology reconsidered. In L. Brown, & S. Strega (Eds.), Research
as resistance (pp. 199-235). Toronto: Canadian Scholars’ Press.

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