An Introduction to the Field
Studying political communication can be difficult, particularly since such studies cut across various different disciplines and many different schools of thought. One of the fundamental questions you’ll probably face is this: how do the things that people say and do affect society at large, and how does society in turn influence people? There are many theories on how these processes work, ranging from rational choice approaches to arguments influenced by Marxism. In this post, I will introduce you to one influential approach, called discourse theory.
What this theory is about, and what a discourse actually is, is not always easy to understand: sociologists and political thinkers have developed whole systems of philosophy around this term, often in conflict with one another, and researchers deploy a multitude of tools to analyse discourse. This post is meant to help you if you are new to the field and want to get your bearings. I will introduce several definitions of discourse, and will discuss how they relate to various theoretical concepts. In the process, you will meet the key founder of this approach, Michel Foucault, as well as important researchers who work in the field. You will also get a better grip on the sometimes “jargony” key terms, like genealogy or multimodality. And of course I will also share my own views on discourse theory with you. If you are simply looking for a quick overview of the topic, then this video introduction may be useful to you.
Definitions: Discourse is…
“the use of language” (Chilton 2004: 16)
“anything written or said or communicated using signs” (Fillingham 1993: 100)
“the flow of knowledge through time” (Jäger 2004: 129; translation FS)
“talk and texts as parts of social practice” (Potter 1996: 105)
“social cognitions, socially specific ways of knowing social practices” (van Leeuwen 2008: 6)
What is discourse?
In everyday language, the word discourse usually means conversation or discussion. However, to scholars, discourse is far more than this. Discourse can encompass all forms of communication.
More importantly, it suggests that the truths that we live by are not simply “out there”, to quote the X-Files, but that we create those truths through our interactions. This is a controversial thing to assume, particularly if you are a scientific realist who is interested in exploring the natural world and finding facts through scientific tools. Discourse theory is therefore often associated with a postmodernism and its skepticism of the natural sciences.
Personally, I do not think that discourse theory is anti-scientific, and in fact think that there are many parallels to cognitive science, but that is a discussion for another post.
In the side-box, you can see how some of the leading experts explain discourse. Take a look at these different definitions. You may have already noticed a few elements in these quotes that are at odds with one another, and I’ll come back to some of the controversies in the field in a moment. Let’s first see what ideas discourse theorists generally share.
What different discourse theories have in common
In general, discourse theory is concerned with human expressions, often in the form of language. It highlights how such expressions are linked to human knowledge. A shared argument is that the things people say or write draw from a pool of generally accepted knowledge in a society, while at the same time feeding back into society to shape or reinforce such knowledge. What a society therefore holds to be true changes over time, depending on the ideas that members of a society exchange, and on the way in which such exchange happens. Another common concern is how specific people, or groups of people, are able to shape these “flows of knowledge”.
Certain persons may be in a particularly strong position to define what is true, while others may be excluded from the discussion. For instance, think about the different status that health advice might have when it comes from an experienced, male medical doctor compared to when it comes from your grandmother. Even though you may not know the doctor very well, your view of his social status, of his training, and of his gender all shape how you make sense of his advice. In other words, discourse theory is concerned with questions of power, and often with questions of institutional hierarchies. In discourse theory, such hierarchies lead to domination and resistance, for example when different people try to assert who should speak with authority on issues of health policy.
The father of discourse theory: Michel Foucault
Many of the commonalities I have listed above go back to the most famous discourse theorist: the French philosopher and sociologist Michel Foucault (1926-1984). Foucault, to put it simply, was convinced that the world we live in is structured by knowledge, or in other words: certain people and social groups create and formulate ideas about our world, which under certain conditions turn into unquestioned truths and start to seem normal.
The aim of Foucault’s research was to analyze such “regimes of truth” (Potter 2005: 86) and their history, for instance the development, demise and re-occurrence of statements on subjects like mental health (Foucault 1988/1965), crime and its punishment (1995/1977), or sexuality (1990/1978). Foucault originally attempted to map the rules that govern how statements emerge, as well as how knowledge is historically ordered (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982: 102-103). Foucault applied this approach, which he himself referred to as an archaeology of knowledge ( Foucault 2005/1989), to such fields as the history of medicine, of psychology, and of the social sciences (Foucault 2005/1970). He questioned how objective the truths these disciplines produce actually are. Foucault attempted to uncover mechanisms, such as classification strategies or theory building, which he believed created the objects of our social world (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982: 61). In other words, Foucault was examining the structures of knowledge. This is why his early work is often referred to as structuralist.
In his later work, Foucault became more post-structuralist (Dreyfus & Rabinow 1982: 118-119 & 199): He started exploring the question of agency. He shifted his emphasis from the objects of social interaction to the subjects. Foucault’s works on disciplinary and confessional technologies (Foucault 1995/1977 & 1990/1978) is an example of this, and one of his famous cases is the panopticon: a prison in which the prisoners discipline themselves because they constantly feel watched. In these later genealogical works, Foucault explicitly questioned how discourse influences people’s mentality and prompts them to govern themselves in certain ways – a process he called governmentality. Throughout his work, Foucault showed how specific opinions came to be formed and preserved as what is today commonly called the hegemonic discourse, that is as the dominant viewpoint(s) throughout society, kept stable by political power dynamics (MacDonald 2003: 32).
Some controversies in discourse theory
Despite many common concerns, researchers of discourse have very different views on what exactly discourse is, how precisely it works, and what its impact might be. Also, their work may at times draw from other approaches that analyze textual sources, such as literary theory, theories of history, or different branches of linguistics, while at other times combining detailed language analyses with broad political concerns in ways that are at odds with these disciplines. If you are planning to conduct discourse analyses, then you should be aware of the controversies and their implications. They could have a profound impact on how you set up your own research project.
Is discourse primarily language?
In a discourse analysis, you will have to decide how important you think the written and spoken word is. While most discourse analysts admit that discourse can play out in various forms of communication, their focus is overwhelmingly on language. This is particularly true for scholars who work in the Anglo-Saxon tradition of critical discourse analysis (or: CDA). CDA is a branch in the field that draws heavily from socio-linguistics, and which primarily produces what Greg Philo has called “text only” analyses (2007: 185). Important scholars in this discipline are Lilie Chouliaraki (Chouliaraki & Fairclough 1999), Teun van Dijk (1993), Norman Fairclough (1995), Siegfried Jäger (2004), and Jürgen Link (2013). Another text-based approach is called political discourse analysis, and has been championed by Paul Chilton (2004). If you are interested in the linguistic aspects of discourse, then these approaches will likely be very useful.
Other scholars emphasize that text is not the only mode in which humans communicate (MacDonald 2003), and that sounds and visuals, or even tastes and smells should also fall under the term discourse. Such multimodal discourse approaches (Kress & van Leeuwen 2001) examine things like pictures, movies, games, food, physical artifacts, statues, buildings, and public spaces – always with an emphasis on what the contents of these media types and the ways people use them reveal about social truths. Very often, these approaches link to semiotics, which is the study of how different signs stand for specific objects. If you are interested in sociological work or broader communication practices, then such social semiotics might be a way forward.
What exactly does discourse “construct”?
Discourse theorists disagree on which parts of our world are real. In other words, they take different ontological stances. Extreme constructivists argue that all human knowledge and experience is socially constructed, and that there is no reality beyond discourse (Potter 1997). Critical realists, on the other hand, argue that there is a physical reality that “talks back” as we engage with it (Sperber 1996), but that this reality is represented through discourse (Kress & van Leeuwen 2001). Yet others are interested mainly in the socio-economic realities that discourse shapes: In line with Marxist critical theories, such scholars argue that there are different kinds of knowledge, and that we should distinguish between “beliefs, values, ideologies” (in other words types of false knowledge), and “knowledge properly so called” (what one might call true knowledge; Fairclough 1995: 44). In this view, discourse analysts have a moral obligation to emancipate people by revealing systemic ideological shackles that reflect class affiliations.
Who is the agent in discourse theory?
A closely related question in discourse theory is where power is located. Are certain identifiable groups manipulating discourse, for instance a capitalist class, a patriarchy, a specific religious group, or an ethnic majority? If so, are members of such groups acting consciously or subconsciously when they shape discourse in the favor of their group? Or is discourse its own agent, like post-Marxist theorists argue? In such a case, power is not something that certain people use to dominate others, but is a mesh of relations and hierarchies that has its own logic, and that no one is consciously steering (Howard 2000, Laclau and Mouffe 2001).
Where does discursive construction happen?
Another matter of controversy is what exactly discourse constructs and how. Does discourse shape only objects (the knowledge of the things people speak about), or does it shape subjects as well (the people who are interacting with the objects)? One stance is that our thoughts and actions are linguistically determined, and that we cannot think (and act) outside of the things we can express. In this line of thought, language has the power to programme how people behave.
Others look towards social practices and argue that discursive truths influence the habits of people through social pressures, for instance by establishing norms and values of what is normal or appropriate (Link 2013). Such assumptions then spread through the way people interact, and ultimately inform the logic of institutions (such as prisons, or enterprises, or systems of international relations). Finally, discourse can be seen to have a cognitive dimension (Chilton 2004, Sperber 1996). In such an interpretation, discourse is the expressions of human thought, and consequently has its roots in the interaction between our minds and our physical and social environments. The key to discourse is then the cognitive experience with the world through flawed sensory organs, and the way human beings share these experiences through discourse.
What to make of all this
As you can see, there are many different positions in discourse theory, and I can only urge you to explore this fascinating literature yourself to find your own answers to the various controversies. My own view is this:
For me, discourse refers to communication practices, which systematically construct our knowledge of reality. Discourse plays out in various modes, and across all media. Language is one part in this process, but not necessarily the most important one. Non-verbal and visual communication are crucial aspects of discourse. I personally think that discourse does not programme human thought, like strong versions of linguistic determinism have argued (the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy offers an excellent introduction to such arguments, and if you want to read a scathing critique, take a look at Pinker 1994: 46-48). Instead, I find it useful to understand discourse as a representation of human thought. It has a cognitive foundation, and is consequently open to (but also limited by) the kinds of psychological manipulations that cognitive scientists explore.
This may already give you an idea of my thoughts on what discourse is not. Social practices, for instance, may include communication elements, and may produce discursive statements, but they are not in and of themselves discourse. A specific action may be meant to communicate something, for instance a gesture or some other performance, and this means that the action produces discourse. However, a social interaction like a decision-making process is not itself discourse. Neither are political institutions or the physical objects in our surrounding. So how then do social processes, institutional mechanisms, and the objects we engage with relate to discourse?
In this regard, I find Foucault’s argument very useful that discourse affects social relations through the very real, often physical effects it has on our environment (Foucault 1995/1977). For instance: the way people think about a political issue like crime is a continuous negotiation process on what the “correct” view on this issue should be. This negotiation happens through discourse, and it can be manipulated and dominated by very real actors and interests groups. The general consensus that such negotiations produce then creates demands for a certain kind of legal system. It informs new laws, creates acceptance for certain kinds of punishment, and prompts governments to create places where such punishment takes place. All of this requires certain professions, such as judges, lawyers, police officers, and prison guards, and creates specific social relations.
I would therefore argue that discourse “crystallizes” into institutions, and prompts societies to create and shape the physical world they inhabit in specific ways rather than others. Discourse plays a crucial role in how human communities structure their polities and their economies. A single discourse analysis will not reveal how all of these processes work. But discourse theory highlights some of the mechanisms that are at work. In other words: discourse theory helps us think about the connection between communication and politics and the world we live in, and asks us to slowly and systematically put together the puzzle pieces that make up social relations.
If these theoretical discussions have sparked your interest, take a look at my post on how to set up a discourse analysis, at the ten work-steps that I recommend for analyzing written and spoken texts for political discourse, and at my advice on working with foreign scripts like Chinese, Japanese, and Korean.
Chilton, Paul (2004). Analyzing Political Discourse – Theory and Practice. London: Arnold.
Chouliaraki, Lilie & Fairclough, Norman (1999). Discourse in Late Modernity – Rethinking Critical Discourse Analysis. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Dreyfus, Hubert L. & Rabinow, Paul (1982). Michel Foucault – Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics. Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Fairclough, Norman (1995). Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Fillingham, Lydia A. (2005). Foucault for Beginners. Danbury CT: For Beginners.
Foucault, Michel (1988/1965). Madness and Civilization – A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, Michel (1990/1978). History of Sexuality – An Introduction (Volume 1). New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, Michel (1995/1977). Discipline & Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Vintage Books.
Foucault, Michel (1997). The Politics of Truth, LA: Semiotext(e).
Foucault, Michel (2005a/1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 5th ed., London: Routledge.
Foucault, Michel (2005b/1989). Archaeology of Knowledge. 4th ed., London: Routledge.
Howarth, David (2000). Discourse, Buckingham & Philadelphia: Open University Press.
Jäger, Siegfried (2004). Kritische Diskursanalyse. Eine Einführung. (Discourse Analysis. An Introduction). 4th ed., Münster: UNRAST-Verlag.
Kress, Gunther & Van Leeuwen, Theo (2001). Multimodal Discourse – The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication. London: Arnold.
Laclau, Ernesto & Mouffe, Chantal (2001). Hegemony and Socialist Strategy – Towards a Radical Democratic Politics. 2nd ed., London & New York: Verso.
Link, Jürgen (2013). Normale Krisen? Normalismus und die Krise der Gegenwart (Normal Crises? Normalcy and the Crisis of our Present Age). Konstanz: Konstanz University Press.
MacDonald, Myra (2003). Exploring Media Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Philo, Greg (2007). “Can Discourse Analysis Successfully Explain the Content of Media and Journalistic Practice”. Journalism Studies 8/2: 175-196.
Pinker, Steven (1994). The Language Instinct – How the Mind Creates Language. New York et al.: Harper Perennial.
Potter Jonathan (2005). Representing Reality – Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction. London: SAGE.
Sperber, Dan (1996). Explaining Culture – A Naturalistic Approach. Oxford & Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Van Dijk, Teun A. (1993). “Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis”. Discourse & Society 4/2: 249-283.
Van Leeuwen, Theo (2005). Introducing Social Semiotics. Abingdon & New York: Routledge.
Van Leeuwen, Theo (2008). Discourse and Practice – New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis. Oxford: Oxford University Press.