Discourse Analysis

Discourse Analysis — A Primer

Katie MacMillan

What is Discourse Analysis? It is a term for a broad area of language study, containing a diversity of approaches with different epistemological roots, and very different methodologies, but, in general, can be defined as a 'set of methods and theories for investigating language in use and language in social contexts' (Wetherell et al. 2001: i). It focuses on the categorizing, performative, and rhetorical features of texts and talk (Antaki et al. 2003; Billig 1987; Billig et al. 1988; Edwards 1997; Potter 1996; Potter and Wetherell 1987). A major foundation of discourse analysis (DA) is in ethnomethodology (Garfinkel 1967), which, broadly, examines the methods used by ordinary folk to make sense of their everyday social world. From this perspective talk is not 'merely about actions, events and situations, it is also a potent and constitutive part of those actions, events and situations' (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 21). Approaches include discursive psychology; conversation analysis; critical discourse analysis and critical linguistics; and sociolinguistics. For all methods of DA context is important in collecting and analyzing data (although the focus on context varies between approaches).

Discursive psychology

The focus here is on talk as action (Edwards 1997), rather than a reflection of action. Discursive psychologist Jonathan Potter (2000: 31) describes discursive psychology (DP) as focusing 'on the production of versions of reality and cognition as parts of practices in natural settings.' As such, Potter argues, it is 'offered as one potential successor to cognitivism' (ibid.: 31). In a discussion of questions addressed by DP, Potter explains that the crucial point of interrogation is what cognition does (ibid.: 35). In looking at memory, for example, DP is concerned with what memory does in interaction - how a version of the past is constructed in order to sustain an action. Middleton and Edwards (1990), in their study on the pragmatics of communication, examine people talking about their memories of a recent film in order to show how memories are jointly constructed versions of events. Thus, present discussions of past events functionally attend to the occasions within which they are being recalled, with various discursive practices used to establish agreement of an account.

Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis

Within Critical Linguistics and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) the central concern is with social conditions, rather than discursive action. Roger Fowler (1991: 5), in a discussion of the 'different goals and procedures' of different branches of linguistics, describes Critical Linguistics as an 'enquiry into the relations between signs, meanings and the social and historical conditions which govern the semiotic structure of discourse.' CDA is concerned with 'understanding the nature of power and dominance' and how 'discourse contributes to their production' (van Dijk 2001: 301-2. See also Fairclough 1995; Fowler 1991; van Dijk 1995). For both critical linguistics, and for critical discourse analysts, textual context is crucial - with the text 'not the sentence (or the word, or the sound)' important as 'the basic unit' of analysis (Kress 2001: 35). Suitable data for analysis, examining how language legitimates social control, include documents, textbooks, media texts and media broadcasts.

Conversation Analysis

Conversation Analysis (CA) with its roots in ethnomethodology, broadly, examines the methods people use to make sense of their everyday social world. However, unlike ethnomethodology, CA examines 'the minutiae of naturally occurring conversations represented in verbatim transcript' (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 81), looking at accounts in context, and in terms of sequential organization, in order to identify systematic properties in talk. All conversations, from formal and informal settings, provide data for studies in CA, including institutional talk (e.g. Drew & Heritage 1992; Heritage 1997), the media (e.g., Hutchby 1996), and identity construction (e.g. Antaki & Widdicombe, 1998).


Within linguistics different strands of the discipline have different aims and different procedures. Traditional approaches, for example, treat language as a set of precise rules which must be adhered to in order to facilitate efficient communication. This perspective, which builds on existing assumptions about language, focuses on the structure of language units (including sounds), and conventionally involves using invented sentences to illustrate how these rules work - a method which tends to be disconnected from ordinary talk and social context (de Beaugrande 1996).

Compatibility with CAQDAS

In terms of compatibility with CAQDAS, Corpus Linguistics (CL) is a linguistic approach which, with its interest in counting or measuring linguistic features, lends itself readily to the search, count, and code facilities of computer programmes. Unlike the rationalist approaches of traditional linguistics, CL (as with sociolinguistics) tends to use naturally occurring language data - 'based on large samples of language use that the researchers hope are representative of general language practices across a group, culture or even a society' (Yates 2001: 94). The data, the 'corpus' of materials, is a body of text frequently available in machine-readable form (McEnery & Wilson 1996). In CL 'concordance programmes' are used to finds words in the context of text segments, to list them in order, and to calculate word frequency.


media methods > resources > methodologies > discourse analysis > a primer contact