Discourse Analysis

Observing the Human Use of Language Through Discourse Analysis

Language discourse study

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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. Whereas other areas of language study might look at 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).

It is "the study of real language use, by real speakers in real situations," wrote Teun A. van Dijk in the "Handbook of Discourse Analysis, Vol. 4."

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.

The context of the conversation is taken into account as well as what is said. It can include where they're speaking and involves a social and cultural framework as well as nonverbal cues, such as body language, and, in the case of textual communication, images and symbols.

Discourse analysis is also called discourse studies and was developed in the 1970s as an academic field.

What Does Discourse Analysis Do?

Misunderstanding relayed information can lead to problems, big or small. Being able to understand subtle subtext—to be able to "read between the lines"—or distinguish between factual reporting and fake news, editorials, or propaganda all rely on being able to interpret communication. So critical analysis of what someone is saying or writing is of utmost importance in this day and age. To go a step further, to take analyzing discourse to the level of a field of study, is to make it more formal, to mesh linguistics and sociology. It can even be aided by the fields of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy.

Since the establishment of the field, discourse analysis has evolved to include a wide range of topics, from public to private language use, 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."

Looking at the context of language use, not just the words, can incorporate the layers of meaning added by the social or institutional aspects at work, of things like gender, power imbalance, conflicts, cultural background, and racism. Avenues can be studied, such as discourse in political debate, advertising, television programming/media, interviewing, and storytelling.

Applications of Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis can be used to study inequality in society, such as institutional racism, bias in media, and sexism. It can examine discussions around religious symbols located in public places. Researchers in the field can aid the U.S. government by picking apart speeches by world leaders, such as Syria's leader Bashar Al-Assad and North Korea's Kim Jong Un. It can also be used by businesses to quantify hot topics in social media discussions, among other business applications.

In the field of medicine, communication research has examined, for example, how physicians can make sure they're understood by people with limited English skills or how cancer patients cope with their diagnosis. In the former study, transcriptions of conversations between doctors and patients were analyzed to find out where misunderstandings occurred. In the latter, women were interviewed about their feelings on first diagnosis, how it affected their relationships, what was the role of their social support network, and how "positive thinking" came into play.

How Discourse Analysis Is Different

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 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.

Simply put, discourse analysis observes the colloquial, cultural, and indeed, human use of a language, including all the "um"s, "uh"s, slips of the tongue, and awkward pauses, 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.

In other types of textual analysis, researchers may look at texts in isolation, examine the art of persuasion evident in the texts, or discuss other aspects of them, but only discourse analysis looks at them taking into account their social and cultural context.