Understanding the Use of Language Through Discourse Analysis

Observing how various means of discourse create context

A painting of the tower of babel
Tower of Babel, 1595, by Marten van Valkenborch. De Agostini / M. Carrieri

Discourse analysis, also called discourse studies, was developed during the 1970s as an academic field. Discourse analysis is a broad term for the study of the ways in which language is used between people, both in written texts and spoken contexts.

Discourse Analysis Defined

Whereas other areas of language study might focus on individual parts of language—such as words and phrases (grammar) or the pieces that make up words (linguistics)—discourse analysis looks at a running conversation involving a speaker and listener (or a writer's text and its reader).

In discourse analysis, the context of a conversation is taken into account as well as what's being said. This context may encompass a social and cultural framework, including the location of a speaker at the time of the discourse, as well as nonverbal cues such as body language, and, in the case of textual communication, it may also include images and symbols. "[It's] the study of real language use, by real speakers in real situations," explains Teun A. van Dijk, a noted author and scholar in the field.

Key Takeaways: Discourse Analysis

  • Discourse analysis looks at conversations in their social context.
  • Discourse analysis melds linguistics and sociology by taking into account the social and cultural context that language is used.
  • It can be used by businesses, academic researchers, or the government—any person or organization that wants to better understand an aspect of communication.

What Discourse Analysis Does

Misunderstanding relayed information can lead to problems—big or small. Being able to distinguish subtle subtext in order to differentiate between factual reporting and fake news, editorials, or propaganda is crucial to interpreting true meaning and intent. This is the reason that having well-developed skills in the critical analysis of discourse—to be able to "read between the lines" of verbal and/or written communication—is of utmost importance.

Since the establishment of the field, discourse analysis has evolved to include a wide range of topics, from the public versus private use of language to official versus colloquial rhetoric, and from oratory to written and multimedia discourses. The field of study has further branched out to be paired with the fields of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, thus meshing linguistics with sociology.

"We're also 'asking not just about the rhetoric of politics, but also about the rhetoric of history and the rhetoric of popular culture; not just about the rhetoric of the public sphere but about rhetoric on the street, in the hair salon, or online; not just about the rhetoricity of formal argument but also about the rhetoricity of personal identity."—from "Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Studies" by Christopher Eisenhart and Barbara Johnstone

Academic Applications of Discourse Analysis

There are many avenues we can study through the lens of discourse analysis including discourse during a political debate, discourse in advertising, television programming/media, interviewing, and storytelling. By looking at the context of language use, not simply the words, we can understand nuanced layers of meaning that are added by the social or institutional aspects at work, such as gender, power imbalance, conflicts, cultural background, and racism.

As a result, discourse analysis can be used to study inequality in society, such as institutional racism, inherent bias in media, and sexism. We can also use it to examine and interpret discussions regarding religious symbols located in public places.

Real-World Applications of Discourse Analysis

Apart from scholarly applications, discourse analysis has some very pragmatic uses as well. Specialists in the field are tasked with helping world leaders understand the true meaning behind communications from their peers. In the field of medicine, it's used to help physicians find ways to ensure they're better understood by people with limited language skills, as well as guiding them in dealings when giving patients a challenging diagnosis.

For example, in one study, transcripts of conversations between doctors and patients were analyzed to determine where misunderstandings had occurred. In another, women were interviewed about their feelings regarding a diagnosis of cancer. How did it affect their relationships? What was the role of their social support network? How did "positive thinking" come into play?

How Discourse Analysis Differs from Grammar Analysis

Unlike grammar analysis, which focuses on the structure of sentences, discourse analysis focuses on the broad and general use of language within and between particular groups of people. Another important distinction is that while grammarians typically construct the examples they analyze, the analysis of discourse relies on actual writings and speech of the group being studied to determine popular usage.

In terms of textual analysis, grammarians may examine texts in isolation for elements such as the art of persuasion or word choice (diction), but only discourse analysis takes into account the social and cultural context of a given text.

In terms of verbal expression, discourse analysis takes in the colloquial, cultural, and living use of language—including each and every "um," "er," and "you know," as well as slips of the tongue, and awkward pauses. Grammar analysis, on the other hand, relies entirely on sentence structure, word usage, and stylistic choices. This does, of course, often include a cultural ingredient but it's missing the human element of spoken discourse.

Sources

  • Van Dijk, Teun A. "Handbook of Discourse Analysis Vol. 4: Discourse Analysis in Society." Academic Press. December 1997.
  • Eisenhart, Christopher; Johnstone, Barbara. "Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Studies." Rhetoric in Detail: Discourse Analyses of Rhetorical Talk and Text, pp. 3—21. Amsterdam/Philadelphia. 2008