What Is Discourse?

A Sociological Definition

Word cloud from Republican presidential debate, 2011.

Discourse refers to how we think and communicate about people, things, the social organization of society, and the relationships among and between all three. Discourse typically emerges out of social institutions like media and politics (among others), and by virtue of giving structure and order to language and thought, it structures and orders our lives, relationships with others, and society. It thus shapes what we are able to think and know any point in time. In this sense, sociologists frame discourse as a productive force because it shapes our thoughts, ideas, beliefs, values, identities, interactions with others, and our behavior. In doing so it produces much of what occurs within us and within society.

Sociologists see discourse as embedded in and emerging out of relations of power, because those in control of institutions—like media, politics, law, medicine, and education—control its formation. As such, discourse, power, and knowledge are intimately connected, and work together to create hierarchies. Some discourses come to dominate the mainstream (dominant discourses), and are considered truthful, normal, and right, while others are marginalized and stigmatized, and considered wrong, extreme, and even dangerous.

Extended Definition

Let’s take a closer look at the relationships between institutions and discourse. (French social theorist Michel Foucault wrote prolifically about institutions, power, and discourse. I draw on his theories in this discussion). Institutions organize knowledge-producing communities and shape the production of discourse and knowledge, all of which is framed and prodded along by ideology. If we define ideology simply as one’s worldview, which reflects one’s socio-economic position in society, then it follows that ideology influences the formation of institutions, and the kinds of discourses that institutions create and distribute. If ideology is worldview, discourse is how we organize and express that worldview in thought and language. Ideology thus shapes discourse, and, once discourse is infused throughout society, it in turn influences the reproduction of ideology.

Take, for example, the relationship between mainstream media (an institution) and the anti-immigrant discourse that pervades U.S. society. The word cloud at the top of this post shows the words that dominated a 2011 Republican presidential debate hosted by Fox News. In discussions of immigration reform, the most frequently spoken word was “illegal,” followed by “immigrants,” “country,” “border,” “illegals,” and “citizens.”

Taken together, these words are part of a discourse that reflects a nationalist ideology (borders, citizens) that frames the U.S. as under attack by a foreign (immigrants) criminal threat (illegal, illegals). Within this anti-immigrant discourse, “illegals” and “immigrants” are juxtaposed against “citizens,” each working to define the other through their opposition. These words reflect and reproduce very particular values, ideas, and beliefs about immigrants and U.S. citizens—ideas about rights, resources, and belonging.

The Power of Discourse

The power of discourse lies in its ability to provide legitimacy for certain kinds of knowledge while undermining others; and, in its ability to create subject positions, and, to turn people into objects that that can be controlled. In this case, the dominant discourse on immigration that comes out of institutions like law enforcement and the legal system is given legitimacy and superiority by their roots in the state. Mainstream media typically adopt the dominant state-sanctioned discourse and showcases it by giving airtime and print space to authority figures from those institutions. 

The dominant discourse on immigration, which is anti-immigrant in nature, and endowed with authority and legitimacy, creates subject positions like “citizen”—people with rights in need of protection—and objects like “illegals”—things that pose a threat to citizens. In contrast, the immigrants’ rights discourse that emerges out of institutions like education, politics, and from activist groups, offers the subject category, “undocumented immigrant,” in place of the object “illegal,” and is often cast as uninformed and irresponsible by the dominant discourse.

Taking the case of racially charged events in Ferguson, MO and Baltimore, MD that played out from 2014 through 2015, we can also see Foucault’s articulation of the discursive “concept” at play. Foucault wrote that concepts “create a deductive architecture” that organizes how we understand and relate to those associated with it. Concepts like “looting” and “rioting” have been used in mainstream media coverage of the uprising that followed the police killings of Michael Brown and Freddie Gray. When we hear words like this, concepts charged full of meaning, we deduce things about the people involved--that they are lawless, crazed, dangerous, and violent. They are criminal objects in need of control.

A discourse of criminality, when used to discuss protestors, or those struggling to survive the aftermath of a disaster, like Hurricane Katrina in 2004, structures beliefs about right and wrong, and in doing so, sanctions certain kinds of behavior. When "criminals" are "looting," shooting them on site is framed as justified. In contrast, when a concept like “uprising” is used in the contexts of Ferguson or Baltimore, or "survival" in the context of New Orleans, we deduce very different things about those involved and are more likely to see them as human subjects, rather than dangerous objects.

Because discourse has so much meaning and deeply powerful implications in society, it is often the site of conflict and struggle. When people wish to make social change, how we talk about people and their place in society cannot be left out of the process.