Discourse analysis

What is a discourse?

Key terms:

  • Discourse
  • Articulating

A discourse is a way of speaking or writing about something – a way of articulating something so that it means something more specific. Whenever we talk about something we are using a discourse.

Most words can have many different meanings. But when a word is used in a specific discourse, it is tied to one specific meaning. So you can also say that a discourse is a way of fixing the meaning of an ambiguous term so that it becomes unambiguous. A way of showing why a word should be understood the way you want it to be understood. A way of using power, through language.

Often we may not be aware that we are reproducing someone else’s discourse. But once we have the ability to notice different discourses, we can deliberately choose whose worldviews we want to support when we speak or write. We can choose to support a discourse, or we can choose to challenge it. Understanding discourses can empower us.

Be careful if you google
Discourse analysis can mean many different things. This text is based on the thoughts of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. In this text, discourse analysis means analysing “how something is articulated”. But you can find many pages where it means other things. Foucault’s discourse analysis is something different. Faircloughs critical discourse analysis is also something different. And discourse analysis can also mean ‘analysing conversations’. So if you read something somewhere else, make sure it is also about Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse analysis – otherwise it may say something completely different than this text.

How to analyse discourse

Key terms:

  • Nodal point
  • Chain of equivalence
  • Chain of difference

A discourse is a way of articulating something. So the first thing we must decide in order to analyse a discourse is what this something is. This something is called the nodal point. The nodal point is a central term in a text that the text articulates and gives a particular meaning – and often a term . It is also the term we choose to focus on in our analysis.

Once we have chosen a nodal point, we can start looking for how it is assigned meaning. We do this by looking for the places in a text where the nodal point is mentioned in connection to other concepts and ideas. These connections creates an understanding of what the nodal point means in the text, which we call the chain of equivalence because the nodal point is made equivalent to all the concepts in the chain. Sometimes there are also terms that the nodal point is defined as different from, which can then form a chain of difference.

Once we have found the chain of equivalence we look at the specific word choices and what meaning they give to the nodal point. What exactly do the words mean? What effect does it have that these exact words were chosen?

Example of a discourse analysis

The following is an extract from an essay written by a 3rd year English-A student:

Donald Trump wishes to put America and the American people first. This is his priority in his plan for America. He will do what he thinks is best for America. He states: “The American people will come first once again. My Plan will begin with safety at home.”(1) American people becomes the nodal point, this is what he will act from. Safety is a floating signifier, he wishes to keep the nodal point safe, and to be kept safe from anything evil will always be a good thing. The Chain of equivalence in the quote from Trump is “home”. He believes that the equivalent to America is home. It is where Americans should be safe, and is a nice and good place to be.

(1) Donal Trump national convention speech, page 1, line 34.

How to analyse conflicts between discourses?

Key terms:

  • Antagonisms
  • Floating signifiers
  • Hegemonic discourse

Discourses also are ways of fighting about how we define our identities – who belongs and who does not belong in certain groups. When a discourse says that someone cannot possible be a part of a group, excluding them from the group we call it an antagonism. Antagonisms are that which a discourse excludes from an identity – the things that cannot be combined. (pp. 47+ in Jørgensen and Phillips 2002). The most common types of antagonisms are up-down, in-out and before-after.

Often, two conflicting discourses will use some of the same concepts, but use them to mean completely different things. When this happens, often with terms that are universally agreed to be good (such as ‘justice’, ‘freedom’ or ‘beauty’) or bad (such as ‘injustice’, ‘unfairness’ or ‘corruption’) these terms are called floating signifiers because they float around, waiting to be used to support a discourse and be filled with meaning of exactly how they are good or bad. It can be interesting to loko at what these floating signifiers mean not just in the discourse you are analysing, but also in competing discourses.

Discourses in a society fight to become the dominant or hegemonic discourse. A hegemonic discourse is one that has won to such a degree that it is something you have to consider when talking about a topic, or maybe even something that is considered the only possible truth. Something we consider objectively true. Something that noone would ever talk against. At that point most people have stopped thinking that any other discourses exist at all, and instead reproduce the hegemonic discourse without noticing it. But there are always alternate discourses and some ways to notice them is to listen to those without power in a society, to travel to a different place in the world, or to compare to a different time in history. What seems obvious and true to those in power today will not seem so obviously true to people without power, or people in other places or other times.

What texts should I analyse?

Discourse analysis makes most sense when you analyse texts where someone has a political agenda, a strong opinion or where they want to change how something is understood. So you want strongly normative and subjective texts.

Discourse theory

Discourse analysis is a method that is based on a theory: discourse theory. Discourse theory is the theory that words don’t have fixed meanings that you can just look up in a dictionary, but rather than the meanings of words are always under debate.Not only does discourse theory say that the meanings of words are always being fought over, but discourse theory goes on to say that we are also continually fighting over how these discourses make us understand reality. This is because discourse theory is based on social constructionism – the theory that we can only understand reality through language.

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