Discourse is more than casual conversation or a verbal exchange of ideas; it represents an extended and formal expression of thought on a particular subject. The many modern approaches to discourse study are most often based in the humanities, particularly within linguistics, communication studies, literature and philosophy, as well as in humanity-based scientific disciplines such as anthropology, sociology and neuroscience. Each discipline has its own definition and interpretation of discourse within its subject’s context. Many disciplines — such as linguistics — have multiple, and often conflicting, theories. The most effective approaches to discourse study, therefore, are from within the context of a specific discipline.
In 17th century Renaissance Europe, discourse was viewed as a learned discussion — whether written or spoken — on an important subject, particularly one that had political, religious, literary or philosophical implications. The emphasis in the different approaches to discourse at the time was on topical content. In fact, the term “discourse” was basically synonymous with “dissertation” or “treatise.” To study discourse, one examined the arguments and ideas presented within the speech or tract. Far from being archaic, this approach to the study of discourse is alive and well in many disciplines, particularly literature, philosophy and political studies.
Early linguists declared discourse simply to be a stretch of language that was longer than a sentence, but many modern linguists use discourse analysis to systematically study the forms and functions of discourse. Within those stretches of language are, according to the discourse analyst, identifiable governing regularities or patterns as distinct as fingerprints. Approaches to discourse analysis can include a variety of linguistic behaviors, such as sentence structure, word choice and patterns of pronunciation, or such things as speech encounters and semantic linking strategies. Linguistics also has evolved into a larger and more diverse discipline; interactional sociolinguistics — which, among other things, seeks to understand multicultural contextualizing — is just one of the branches that studies approaches to discourse.
Within the realm of the social sciences, discourse usually is considered a social practice that is distinguishable by its intention. Furthermore, discourse is not just something spoken or written, it also supposes both a speaker and listener who are, in a sense, objects. In this sense, not only does discourse have an object, it also is directed to or at another object. The form that discourse takes can be almost anything spoken or written, including poetry and prose. Discourse might include a political speech, a poem, an essay or even a graveside eulogy.
One of the prevailing approaches to discourse analysis, developed in the 1960s, is speech act theory. At its core, speech act theory postulates that when a writer or speaker engages in discourse, he or she does something beyond just using words to convey meaning. This “doing something” isn’t as simplistic as putting pen to paper or making vocalizations and gestures.
Speech act theory concerns the creation of an action-reaction dynamic between the speaker/writer and the listener/reader. For example, it is presumed that effective spoken discourse has a measurable force that will have a consequential effect on the listener. Sentences, under the speech act theory, do more than say things — they do things.