Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis denotes the scientific investigation of written, spoken or sign language within the context of semantic and semiotic studies and humanities. Discourse analysis looks at communication to distinguish coherent units of meaning, such as sentences or gestures. Some aspects of the study are rooted in linguistics and psychology but discourse analysis tools may also be included in the disciplines of cybernetics, mathematics and philosophy. Particular topics of investigation in discourse analysis include identifying the organizational levels of communication, distinguishing meaning from its context and shedding light on the cognition process.

In an article published in the compilation Discourse Analysis and Applications: Studies in Adult Clinical Populations researcher Judith Duchan compares the different approaches to discourse analysis typical of different scientific disciplines. She examines recent traditions in discourse analysis in fields as diverse as anthropology, computer sciences, psychology and linguistics. Duchan advocates the claim that in all those different fields discourse analysis leads to a "paradigm shift," in which old established truths may be examined in a new light. Duchan explains that while original discourse analysis falls "within the philosophy and methodology of a linguistic structuralist tradition," it is often other fields that lead to key breakthroughs on the subject, such as the "developments in "schema theory," in psychology and computer science. According to Duchan "schemas," can explain common semantic structure phenomena, such as the "fable," structure of stories. This emergent characteristic of a "grammar of stories" is a result of this common structure, and is just one recurrent systemic feature that can be explained through discourse analysis.

The scholar uses several analogies to relate different topics of discourse analysis, such as the "creative translation of thought into language," and "discourse as interpreted text." Any verbal or non-verbal communication involves simplification of meaning, which is "only suggestive of the original," and understood by others by providing a "third dimension to a two-dimensional surface," - the nature of discourse. Duchan notes that some discourse analysis scholars ascribe their studies on a "closed text view," focusing only on text and language, while other take an "open text view," analyzing also the inherent processes of cognition and interpretation.

Duchan cites literature on the subject to outline several particular questions of interest in contemporary discourse analysis. One of these questions is to what extent authors such as writers or playwrights tailor the structuring of their discourse for their intended audience, for example by using indicators of importance such as "really," or "by the way." Another question is how the discourse is sculpted to express power relationships between author and audience or between the subjects examined in the discourse itself. Other studies quoted by Duncan focus on the interactive aspects of discourse. For instance, the behavior of the audience may change the perception and subsequently the discourse structuring of a speaker. Likewise, some of the functions of discourse according to the cited research relate to interactive purposes, from simple "repairing of conversational breakdowns," to much more intricate and deliberate ends such as "delivering bad news during clinical interactions," or "courtroom testimony."

Discourse analysis is particularly relevant for education theory and practice. In an article on the topic researchers Laetitia Zeeman, Marie Poggenpoelq, CPH Myburgh and N Van der Linde classify discourse analysis as a "postmodern approach." Zeeman et al. support the view that discourse analysis should be "situated in its broader paradigmatic context namely: poststructuralism and social constructionism." That is, it relates to "the structure of language and how meaning is generated," and also "how people interact with one another to construct modify and maintain what their society holds to be true.? One important distinction that Zeeman et al. make is that "discourse analysis is not a descriptive and explanatory practice that aims at truth claims," but a "form of reflexive research." It is also much more focused on the "relational" qualities of the objects of discourse. In this way it represents a "social critique," rather than a tool for acquiring "mechanistic" understanding of objects. Zeeman et al. purport it to also be a "productive process or a process that brings change." They characterize the basic question of discourse analysis as "what does the text do." This is precisely the focus of educational research that deals with crafting of not just suitable but also functional discourse. Zeeman et al. conclude that the discourse analysis approach is exceptionally valuable in the field of education because "it challenges current dominant ways of understanding or viewing the objects of study," and encourages "alternative reflections that could lead to change."

Discourse Analysis: Selected full-text books and articles

The Power of Discourse: An Introduction to Discourse Analysis By Moira Chimombo; Robert L. Roseberry Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Handbook of Discourse Processes By Arthur C. Graesser; Morton Ann Gernsbacher; Susan R. Goldman Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2003
Modes of Discourse: The Local Structure of Texts By Carlota S. Smith Cambridge University Press, 2003
Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis By Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard; Malcolm Coulthard Routledge, 1996
Discourse in Educational and Social Research By Maggie Maclure Open University Press, 2003
An Introduction to Critical Discourse Analysis in Education By Rebecca Rogers Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004
Media Discourse: Representation and Interaction By Mary Talbot Edinburgh University Press, 2007
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