A toolbox for analysing political texts
Discourse analysis is a useful tool for studying the political meanings that inform written and spoken text. In other posts, I have provided a quick video introduction to the topic, and have discussed the ideas behind discourse theory, the main questions that students and researchers will likely ask as they set up their discourse analysis project, and the things that are worth keeping in mind when working with East Asian language sources. In this post, I offer a handy set of tools for doing a text-based, qualitative discourse analysis. The idea of a discourse toolbox comes from Siegfried Jäger, but I have expanded his approach based on my own experience and the works of other discourse analysts such as Paul Chilton (2004) and Norman Fairclough (1994).
You can go through the whole list of work-steps and tick each item off in turn, which is a good way to practice these methods. However, if you are conducting a specific research project, I would recommend adapting this toolbox to your own needs and tailoring it to fit your concerns. At the end of this post, you will also find a few comments on the limitations of this toolbox plus a list of literature that you can turn to if you want to learn more.
Getting technical: discourse analysis in ten steps
So you have formulated a research question, have collected source material, and are now ready to roll up your sleeves and dig into your sources. But how do you make sure that you have covered all your bases and that you will later be able to make a good case for yourself and your work? Here are ten work steps that will help you conduct a systematic and professional discourse analysis.
1) Establish the context
Before you start chiselling away at your source material, jot down where the material comes from and how it fits into the big picture. You should ask yourself what the social and historical context is in which each of your sources was produced. Write down what language your source is written in, what country and place it is from, who wrote it (and when), and who published it (and when). Also try to have a record of when and how you got your hands on your sources, and to explain where others might find copies. Finally, find out whether your sources are responses to any major event, whether they tie into broader debates, and how they were received at the time of publication.
2) Explore the production process
You have already recorded who wrote and published your sources, but you still need to do a more thorough background check. Try to find additional information on the producer of your source material, as well as their institutional and personal background. For example, if you are analysing news articles, take a look at the kind of newspaper that the articles are from (Jäger 2004: 175): Who are the author and the editorial staff, what is the general political position of the paper, and what is its affiliation with other organizations? Are any of the people who are involved in the production process known for their journalistic style or their political views? Is there any information on the production expenditures and general finances of the paper? Do you know who the general target audience of the paper is? In many cases, media outlets themselves provide some of this information online, for instance in the “about” sections of their websites. In other cases, you will find such information in the secondary academic literature. Don’t hesitate to write the editors an email or call them up: personal interviews can be a great way to explore production backgrounds.
Once you have established the institutional background, take notes on the medium and the genre you are working with. Some scholars go as far to argue that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1964/2001), or in other words that the medium in which information is presented is the crucial element that shapes meaning. While I am skeptical of such extreme technological determinism, I do agree that the medium matters: reading an article online is not the same as reading it in a printed newspaper, or in a hardcover collection of essays. Make sure to identify the different media types in which your source appeared, and to also be clear about the version that you yourself are analysing.
For instance, the layout of a newspaper article and its position on the page will be different in a print edition than in an online edition. The latter will also offer comments, links, multi-media content, etc. All of these factors frame the meaning of the actual text and should be considered in an analysis. This may also mean that you should think about the technical quality and readability of your source, for instance by looking at paper quality (or resolution for online sources), type set, etc. You should also take notes on the length of your source (number of pages and/or words) and any additional features of the medium that might contribute to or shape meaning (such as images).
Finally, ask yourself what genre your source belongs to. Are you analysing an editorial comment, and op-ed, a reader’s letter, a commentary, a news item, a report, an interview, or something else? Establishing this background information will later help you assess what genre-specific mechanism your source deploys (or ignores) to get its message across.
3) Prepare your material for analysis
In order to analyse the actual text, it is wise to prepare it in a way that will allow you to work with the source, home in on specific details, and make precise references later. If you are working with a hard copy I would recommend making a number of additional copies of your source material, so that you can write on these versions and mark important features. If you haven’t already, try to digitize your source or get a digital copy. Then add references that others can use to follow your work later: add numbers for lines, headers, paragraphs, figures, or any other features that will help you keep your bearings.
4) Code your material
When you code data, it means that you are assigning attributes to specific units of analysis, such as paragraphs, sentences, or individual words. Think of how many of us tag online information like pictures, links, or articles. Coding is simply an academic version of this tagging process.
For instance, you might be analysing a presidential speech to see what globalization discourse it draws from. It makes sense to mark all statements in the speech that deal with globalization and its related themes (or discourse strands). Before you start with this process, you need to come up with your coding categories. The first step is to outline a few such categories theoretically: based on the kind of question you are asking, and your knowledge of the subject matter, you will already have a few key themes in mind that you expect to find, for instance “trade”, “migration”, “transportation”, “communication”, and so on. A thorough review of the secondary literature on your topic will likely offer inspiration. Write down your first considerations, and also write down topics that you think might be related to these key themes. These are your starting categories.
You then go over the text to see if it contains any of these themes. Take notes on the ones that are not included, since you may have to delete these categories later. Other categories might be too broad, so try breaking them down into sub-categories. Also, the text may include interesting themes that you did not expect to find, so jot down any such additional discourse strands. At the end of this first review, revise your list of coding categories to reflect your findings. If you are working with several documents, repeat the process for each of them, until you have your final list of coding categories. This is what Mayring (2002: 120) calls evolutionary coding, since your categories evolve from theoretical considerations into a full-fledged operational list based on empirical data.
How the actual coding process works will depend on the tools you use. You can code paper-based sources by highlighting text sections in different colours, or by jotting down specific symbols. If you are working with a computer, you can similarly highlight text sections in a word processor. In either case, the risk is that you will not be able to represent multiple categories adequately, for instance when a statement ties into three or four discourse strands at once. You could mark individual words, but this might not be ideal if you want to see how the discourse works within the larger sentence structure, and how discourse strands overlap.
A real alternative is using other types of software. If you have access to professional research programmes like NVivo, then the software already has built-in coding mechanisms that you can customize and use. There is also open-source software available, for instance the Mac programme TAMS, but I have not tested their functionality. However, even if you only have regular office tools at your disposal, such as Microsoft’s Office or a Mac equivalent, there are at least two ways in which you can code material.
The first is to copy your text into an Excel table. Place the text in one column and use the next column to add the coding categories. You’ll of course have to decide where the line-breaks should be. A sensible approach is to place each sentence of your original text on a new line, but you could also choose smaller units of text.
Another tool that provides coding assistance is Microsoft OneNote 2010, or the Mac equivalent Growly Notes. In OneNote, you can right click anywhere in the text and select “tag” to assign a category to any sentence. You can also customize your tags, create new ones, and easily search and monitor your coding categories and activities. The downside is that you can only tag full sentences, not single words or phrases, but depending on your intentions, this may not be a crucial drawback.
5) Examine the structure of the text
Now that you have prepared your materials and have coded the discourse strands, it is time to look at the structural features of the texts. Are there sections that overwhelmingly deal with one discourse? Are there ways in which different discourse strands overlap in the text? See if you can identify how the argument is structured: does the text go through several issues one by one? Does it first make a counter-factual case, only to then refute that case and make the main argument? You should at this point also consider how the headers and other layout features guide the argument, and what role the introduction and conclusion play in the overall scheme of things.
6) Collect and examine discursive statements
Once you have a good idea of the macro-features of your text, you can zoom in on the individual statements, or discourse fragments. A good way to do this is to collect all statements with a specific code, and to examine what they have to say on the respective discourse strand. This collection of statements will allow you to map out what “truths” the text establishes on each major topic.
7) Identify cultural references
You have already established what the context of your source material is. Now think about how the context informs the argument. Does your material contain references to other sources, or imply knowledge of another subject matter? What meaning does the text attribute to such other sources? Exploring these questions will help you figure out what function intertextuality serves in light of the overall argument.
8) Identify linguistic and rhetorical mechanisms
The next step in your analysis is likely going to be the most laborious, but also the most enlightening when it comes to exploring how a discourse works in detail. You will need to identify how the various statements function at the level of language. In order to do this, you may have to use additional copies of your text for each work-step, or you may need to create separate coding categories for your digital files. Here are some of the things you should be on the lookout for:
- Word groups: does the text deploy words that have a common contextual background? For instance, the vocabulary may be drawn directly from military language, or business language, or highly colloquial youth language. Take a closer look at nouns, verbs, and adjectives in your text and see if you find any common features. Such regularities can shed light on the sort of logic that the text implies. For example, talking about a natural disaster in the language of war creates a very different reasoning than talking about the same event in religious terms.
- Grammar features: check who or what the subjects and objects in the various statements are. Are there any regularities, for instance frequently used pronouns like “we” and “they”? If so, can you identify who the protagonists and antagonists are? A look at adjectives and adverbs might tell you more about judgements that the text passes on these groups. Also, take a closer look at the main and auxiliary verbs that the text uses, and check what tense they appear in. Particularly interesting are active versus passive phrases – does the text delete actors from its arguments by using passive phrases? A statement like “we are under economic pressure” is very different from “X puts us under economic pressure”… particularly if “X” is self-inflicted. Passive phrases and impersonal chains of nouns are a common way to obscure relationships behind the text and shirk responsibility. Make such strategies visible through your analysis.
- Rhetorical and literary figures: see if you can identify and mark any of the following five elements in your text: allegories, metaphors, similes, idioms, and proverbs. Take a look at how they are deployed in the service of the overall argument. Inviting the reader to entertain certain associations, for instance in the form of an allegory, helps construct certain kinds of categories and relations, which in turn shape the argument. For instance, if I use a simile that equates the state with a parent, and the citizens with children, then I am not only significantly simplifying what is actually a very complex relationship, I am also conjuring up categories and relationships that legitimize certain kinds of politics, for instance strict government intervention in the social sphere. Once you have checked for the five elements listed above, follow up by examining additional rhetorical figures to see how these frame the meaning of specific statements. Things to look for include parallelisms, hyperboles, tri-colons, synecdoches, rhetorical questions, and anaphora, to name only the most common.
- Direct and indirect speech: does the text include quotes? If so, are they paraphrased or are they cited as direct speech? In either case, you should track down the original phrases to see what their context was, and what function they now play in your source material.
- Modalities: see if the text includes any statements on what “should” or “could” be. Such phrases may create a sense of urgency, serve as a call to action, or imply hypothetical scenarios.
- Evidentialities: lastly, are there any phrases in the text that suggest factuality? Sample phrases might include “of course”, “obviously”, or “as everyone knows”. A related question then is what kinds of “facts” the text actually presents in support of its argument. Does the text report factuality, actively demonstrate it, or merely suggested it as self-evident? One of the strongest features of discourse is how it “naturalizes” certain statements as “common sense” or “fact”, even if the statements are actually controversial (and in discourse theory, all statements are controversial). Be on the look-out for such discursive moves.
9) Interpret the data
You now have all the elements of your analysis together, but the most important question still remains: what does it all mean? In your interpretation, you need to tie all of your results together in order to explain that the discourse is about, and how it works. This means combing your knowledge of structural features and individual statements, and then placing those findings into the broader context that you established at the beginning. Throughout this process, keep the following questions in mind: who created the material you are analysing? What is their position on the topic you examined? How do their arguments draw from and in turn contribute to commonly accepted knowledge of the topic at the time and in the place that this argument was made? And maybe most importantly: who might benefit from the discourse that your sources construct?
10) Present your findings
Once you have the answer to your original question, it is time to get your results across to your target audience. If you have conducted a good analysis, then you now have a huge amount of notes from which you can build your presentation, paper, or thesis. Make sure to stress the relevance, and to move through your analysis based on the issues that you want to present. Always ask yourself: what is interesting about my findings, and why should anyone care? A talk or a paper that simply lists one discourse feature after another is tedious to follow, so try to focus on making a compelling case. You can then add evidence from your work as needed, for instance by adding original and translated examples to illustrate your point. For some academic papers, particularly graduation theses, you may want to compile the full account of your data analysis in an appendix or some other separate file so that your assessors can check your work.
Mind the limitations:
Discourse analysis offers a powerful toolbox for analysing political communication, but it also has its pitfalls. Aside from being very work-intensive, the idea that you only need to follow a certain number of steps to get your results can be misleading. A methodology is always only as good as your question. If your question does not lend itself to this sort of analysis, or if many of the steps I list above do not apply to you, then come up with an approach that suits your project. Don’t be a methodologist: someone who jumps at a set of methods and applies them to everything in a blind fit of activism. Always remain critical of your own work.
This means being mindful of the shortcomings in your approach, so that you do not end up making claims that your material does not support. A common mistake is to claim that a discourse analysis shows what people think or believe (or worse: what entire societies think or believe). Discourse analysis is a form of content analysis. It is not a tool to analyse the impact of media on audience members. No amount of discourse analysis can provide adequate evidence on what goes on in people’s heads.
What we can learn from a discourse analysis is how specific actors construct an argument, and how this argument fits into wider social practices. More importantly, we can demonstrate with confidence what kind of statements actors try to establish as self-evident and true. We can show with precision what rhetorical methods they picked to communicate those truths in ways they thought would be effective, plausible, or even natural. And we can reveal how their statements and the frameworks of meaning they draw from proliferate through communication practices.
Chilton, Paul (2004). Analyzing Political Discourse – Theory and Practice. London: Arnold.
Fairclough, Norman (1995). Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.
Jäger, Siegfried (2004). Kritische Diskursanalyse. Eine Einführung. (Discourse Analysis. An Introduction). 4th ed., Münster: UNRAST-Verlag.
Mayring, Philipp (2002). Einführung in die Qualitative Sozialforschung – Eine Anleitung zu qualitativem Denken (Introduction to Qualitative Social Science Research – Instruction Manual to Qualitative Thinking). 5th ed., Basel: Beltz Verlag.
McLuhan, Marshall (1964/2001). Understanding Media. New York: Routledge Classics.