Discourse Analysis

Observing the Use of Language

Language discourse study
"In the end, discourse analysis is one way to engage in a very important human task. The task is this: to think more deeply about the meanings we give people's words so as to make ourselves better, more humane people and the world a better, more humane place" (J. P. Gee, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis, 2005). blackred / Getty Images

Discourse analysis is a broad term for the study of the ways in which language is used in texts and contexts, or texts' surrounding and defining discourse. Also called discourse studies, discourse analysis was developed in the 1970s as a field of study.

As Abrams and Harpham describe in "A Glossary of Literary Terms," this field is concerned with "the use of language in a running discourse, continued over a number of sentences, and involving the interaction of speaker (or writer) and auditor (or reader) in a specific situational context, and within a framework of social and cultural conventions."

Discourse analysis has been described as an interdisciplinary study of discourse within linguistics, though it has also been adopted (and adapted) by researchers in numerous other fields in the social sciences. Theoretical perspectives and approaches used in discourse analysis include the following: applied linguistics, conversation analysis, pragmatics, rhetoric, stylistics, and text linguistics, among many others. 

Grammar and Discourse Analysis

Unlike grammar analysis, which focuses on the singular sentence, discourse analysis focuses instead on the broad and general use of language within and between particular individual groups of people. Also, grammarians typically construct the examples they analyze while analysis of discourse relies on the writings of many others to determine popular usage.

G. Brown and G. Yule observe in "Discourse Analysis" that the titular field rarely relies on a single sentence for its observations, instead gathering what's known as "performance data," or the subtleties found in audio recordings and handwritten texts, which may contain "features such as hesitations, slips, and non-standard forms which a linguist like Chomsky believed should not have to be accounted for in the grammar of a language."

Simply put, this means that discourse analysis observes the colloquial, cultural and indeed human use of a language while grammar analysis relies entirely on sentence structure, word usage, and stylistic choices on the sentence level, which can oftentimes include culture but not the human element of spoken discourse.

Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Studies

Over the years, especially since the establishment of the field of study, discourse analysis has evolved along with rhetorical studies to include a much wider range of topics, from public to private usage, official to colloquial rhetoric, and from oratory to written and multimedia discourses.

That means, according to Christopher Eisenhart and Barbara Johnstone's "Discourse Analysis and Rhetorical Studies," that when we speak of discourse analysis, 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."

Essentially, Susan Peck MacDonald defines discourse studies as "the interconnected fields of rhetoric and composition and applied linguistics," meaning that not only does written grammar and rhetorical studies come into play, but also spoken dialects and colloquialisms — the cultures of specific languages and their use.