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What Is Discourse Analysis?

By Karize Uy
Updated May 23, 2024
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Discourse analysis is a method of studying and analyzing a text, be it in written or spoken form. This method does not really analyze a text when it comes to its structure and syntax, but the meaning behind these sentences; hence, the approach is often described as going “beyond the sentence.” Not only is discourse analysis a useful method in the field of linguistics, but is also applied in other areas such as social studies, psychology, and anthropology.

As the word “discourse” suggests, the method of discourse analysis focuses on any text that can provoke any kind of discourse, a response of any sort. In this way, it broadens the range of topics and subjects an analyst can use, such as in medical journals, newspaper articles, and even a president’s speech or a casual conversation. Take, for example, the medical journal: as the writer conveys his message through the book, the reader, in turn, responds by either understanding the words or ignoring it. In this way, discourse analysis looks further than the text by discovering what response, or discourse, the written word can incite and why.

It may also look at the structure and pattern of a text, but only in order to examine why such patterns are chosen by the speaker. Such as in a politician’s speech, an analyst can focus on why politically-correct terms such as “economically-disadvantaged” replace the word “poor.” Even the little nuances such as how long a pause is in between sentences can convey a meaning or illicit a response. In this way, an analysis such as this also takes into consideration the context of the text and the environment where it was placed.

The aim and the end result of a discourse analysis may not always be to give specific answers to a problem. By exploring a subject, it gives a newer and wider perspective on the issue and exposes the little implications that are hidden behind the words. It then leaves the readers to decide on how to respond to the analysis and ultimately make their own discourse. In a nutshell, discourse analysis does not answer, but interprets.

The method of discourse analysis has been used as far back as the 1950s. It has become useful in studying language as a tool for social interaction. One prominent French theorist, Michel Foucault, even used the method to determine how people use a discourse to attain “power.”

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Discussion Comments
By MrMoody — On Jul 18, 2011

@David09 - I don’t know, when it comes to critical discourse analysis of that kind, I am somewhat in agreement with your teacher myself, although probably not to the extreme lengths you described.

The fact is, you can’t really know the author’s intention, because intention is something that’s in the author’s mind. Why did he write the way he did? Why did he use those words and not others?

Whatever your answers to these questions, you will be making an interpretation of some sort or another, and all interpretations are subjective.

We can take the basic plot of a story at face value, I believe, but when it comes to themes, symbols and deeper layers of meaning, we’re on more shaky ground. I don’t think you can be dogmatic with these things.

By David09 — On Jul 17, 2011

@allenJo - I think discourse analysis is valid, but only to a certain point.

In college I took English literature courses. In reading fiction, I personally believe that the text means what it says. I also happen to believe that the author’s intentions are usually clearly inferred from the text, unless he is deliberately trying to be clever.

However, in my literature classes the professor and other students got into all sorts of narrative analysis where they were reading things into the text that the author never meant, in my opinion.

I found it difficult to believe that a 19th century author was really writing about feminist issues and alternative ideologies – none of which was clearly written in the text.

I protested to my teachers about this, but they claimed that it was impossible to know the author’s real intention. So the literature work became a blank canvas onto which we could write whatever we wanted.

By allenJo — On Jul 16, 2011

@NathanG - You mentioned a good point about vetting. Presidential speeches do go through a long, tortured content analysis from what I understand.

The President’s cabinet pores over and studies every word, because each phrase carries potential political implications. One wrong word, a phrase out of turn, or a bumbled attempt at humor – and the whole speech, and the President’s aims with it, can fall flat on its face.

By NathanG — On Jul 15, 2011

I think we’ve all become experts at discourse analysis, in our own eyes. One discourse analysis example is the Presidential State of the Union speech.

After the speech the airways are flooded with media analysts and pundits parsing out the words of the speech to read between the lines. They’re basically trying to translate the real intentions of the President’s remarks.

I don’t know if this is because presidential speeches are hard to understand – they are, after all, thoroughly vetted – or because the media has a cynical view that politicians don’t really mean what they say.

At any rate, I find the parsing and splicing to be somewhat counterproductive. I believe that most Americans can get the gist of a politician’s real intentions, not so much by words, but by actions. Everything else is immaterial.

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