Resources for Discourse Analysis in Composition Studies

Article excerpt


The field of composition studies takes as its object of study written language--its production, interpretation, and acquisition in context. Research in the field ranges from classical rhetorical analyses to ethnographies of writing in the contemporary workplace, with a special interest in the teaching of writing in college. Although written language as an object of study would seem to position the field of composition studies closely to the field of linguistics, which takes as its object of study the structure and function of language in general, the relationships between the two fields have been varied, at best (Barton and Stygall, "Introduction"). One methodological bridge between the two fields, however, is discourse analysis, because this method holds the potential to contribute significantly to the research agendas of both fields. In this review essay, I first describe some new resources for discourse analysis in the field of linguistics. I then consider the possibilities of discourse analysis in composi tion studies in more detail, briefly discussing the history of discourse analysis research in the field and then describing several important and promising areas of discourse analysis research in the field of composition studies. I argue in support of an increased role for discourse analysis in the field of composition studies, based upon its methodological potential to contribute uniquely to our knowledge about the production, interpretation, and acquisition of written language.

Discourse Analysis in Linguistics

The object of study in discourse analysis, as it developed in the field of linguistics, is the structure and function of language in use (Brown and Yule); discourse analysis pays particular attention to the ways that language in context is organized at and above the level of the sentence. Work in discourse analysis in linguistics concentrates primarily upon oral language, with a focus on face-to-face conversation as the prototypical situation of language in use, although recently more attention has been paid to language in institutional settings such as classrooms, courtrooms, and clinics. Discourse analysis can investigate features of language that are small and specific--for example, whether speakers or writers preface their sentences with markers like oh and well (Schiffrin), or whether they organize sentences according to the pattern of given information followed by new information (Chafe, Discourse). Discourse analysis also can investigate aspects of language that are complex and abstract--for example, h ow speakers and writers Orient their language in institutional settings (Drew and Heritage), or how socio-cultural worldviews affect the production and interpretation of language (Duranti and Goodwin).

One of the key concepts of discourse analysis in linguistics is the understanding of conventions of language use. Many years ago, Jerry Morgan defined conventions of language use as "govern[ing] the use of sentences, with their literal meaning, for certain purposes. [...] Conventions of usage are a matter of culture (manners, religion, law)" (261, 269). Morgan goes on to note that conventions of use involve contextual occasions and purposes (269), giving rise to the "purpose-meaning connections between the occasion of usage and the expression used" (271). At the time Morgan was writing, conventions of use were assumed to be simple and straightforward: Morgan's example is the utterance Can you pass the salt?, with its literal meaning of ability and its conventional meaning of a request. But as research in discourse analysis developed over the past twenty-five years, conventions have come to be seen as complex and abstract connections between the repeated use of a linguistic feature and its function or interpre tation in a text or context. Conventions range from small and specific linguistic features (e.g., the conventional use of supportive back channels like um-hmm by female speakers) to longer stretches of text (e. …