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GuidesResearch methodsExploring discourse analysis for making meaningful decisions

Exploring discourse analysis for making meaningful decisions

Last updated

20 March 2023

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Dovetail Editorial Team

Discourse analysis is an interdisciplinary field that studies how conversations are structured and used to create meaning. It examines how language is used in written texts, spoken conversations, and digital media conversations.

The method can be used to identify how participants in a conversation influence it and how their words and phrases shape it.

From everyday conversation to political speeches and media representations, discourse analysis can shed light on how language shapes the world.

You can learn the basics of this wide-ranging field in this article.

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What is discourse analysis?

Discourse analysis is a method that researchers use to study the use of language and communication in social contexts.

This interdisciplinary method relies on the systematic analysis of spoken or written communications, focusing on how language is used to form meaning, convey social identity, and reinforce power relations.

The method is used in several different contexts, ranging from everyday conversations to political speeches and representations in the media.

What is discourse analysis used for?

Discourse analysis is used whenever researchers want to gain a deeper understanding of the social and cultural contexts that drive language use in a given area.

Some common uses for discourse analysis include the following:

  • Understanding how language use reflects and reinforces social and cultural norms

  • Examining how power relations are constructed and maintained through language

  • Identifying patterns and trends in language use over time and across different contexts

  • Analyzing how social identities are constructed through language

  • Investigating how language is used to persuade or influence others

  • Informing the development of language teaching and learning materials

  • Supporting policy and decision-making in areas such as media, politics, and education

  • Understanding how political actors use language to persuade, influence, and mobilize support

  • Studying how language in media representations constructs social reality and shapes public opinion

  • Analyzing how legal language is used to construct legal concepts and reinforce power relations

  • Examining how everyday language is used to negotiate social relationships

The main approaches to discourse analysis

As an interdisciplinary field, discourse analysis can be approached from radically different perspectives depending on who is performing the analysis and the field they are in.

The broad fields where this method is used are discussed below.

Sociology

In sociology, discourse analysis is used to study how language is used to construct social reality.

It enables sociologists to examine how language is used to create and maintain social structures, impact social identity, and affect changes to the social order.

One of the key ideas in sociology is that social reality is constructed through the way society uses language. Sociologists believe that language evolves as a reflection of a culture’s existing values and the power hierarchies that have resulted from those values. They argue that the use of language can reinforce those values and structures.

Sociolinguistics

As the study of the relationship between language and society, sociolinguistics can benefit greatly from discourse analysis.

The method allows sociolinguists to examine how language is used in specific social contexts, ranging from conversations the average person has with their neighbor to the speeches a politician broadcasts to millions of listeners.

Sociolinguists believe a variety of social factors inform the language we choose to use. 

Philosophy

Philosophers employ discourse analysis to study how language is used to construct meaning and convey philosophical concepts. It is used in this field to examine how language constructs truth, knowledge, meaning, and social and cultural reality.

Linguistics

Linguists can use discourse analysis to examine how a language’s structure evolves over time and how social and cultural factors impact languages. When linguists understand how these social factors change language, they can draw more informed conclusions.

Artificial intelligence

Natural language processing systems are designed by programmers to help computers understand human language. Discourse analysis is used to study the structure and meaning of language in order to develop algorithms that can analyze and interpret language use. It can also help in the development of chatbots, virtual assistants, and other conversational interfaces.

Steps to conduct discourse analysis

The steps involved in discourse analysis can vary depending on the specific approach and methodology used. Outlined below is a general guide to the process.

1. Define the research question

The first step is to clearly define what you’ll be researching. Identify the key concepts, themes, or issues you’ll explore as you conduct the analysis.

2. Select a data sample

Next, you need to gather the data sample you’ll be using for the research. This could include written or spoken texts.

Depending on the subject being studied, you may gather interviews, speeches, news articles, social media posts, or other relevant forms of communication.

3. Collect and transcribe the data

Spoken data should be transcribed into written form as accurately as possible. This includes both verbal and non-verbal cues.

If you have collected text data, you can skip this step.

4. Analyze the data

Now it’s time to analyze the data to look for patterns or themes that emerge in the way language is used.

The patterns you look for will depend on the subject you’re performing analysis for. Take careful notes of what you notice for further analysis in the next step.

5. Identify themes and categories

With the data analyzed and patterns notated, it’s time to begin looking for common themes among those patterns. These might be specific linguistic features like word choice, metaphor use, or speaking register. They may also be based on broader themes or topics.

6. Interpret the data

Once you have identified themes and categories, you can begin to interpret the data to develop insights and conclusions about the communication being analyzed. This involves reflecting on the data in relation to the research question, drawing connections between the identified items and your research question, and developing a coherent and nuanced interpretation of the data.

7. Write up your findings

Finally, you can write up your findings, drawing on your analysis and interpretation of the data. Your write-up should clearly present your research question, the methods and data used, the themes and categories identified, and your interpretation of the data.

You should also discuss your findings’ implications and any limitations or challenges you encountered during the process.

Advantages and disadvantages of discourse analysis

Now you understand what discourse analysis is and the basics of how to perform it, you can start evaluating whether or not it’s the right choice for achieving your research goals.

Below is a list of the advantages and disadvantages of using discourse analysis:

Advantages

  • Provides a deeper understanding of communication—the method can help identify factors that influence communication, such as power dynamics, social norms, and cultural values.

  • Provides insights into social issues—by analyzing communication patterns, researchers can gain insights into social issues such as inequality, discrimination, and exclusion.

  • Uncovers implicit meaning—researchers can reveal hidden meanings and messages in communication.

  • Reveals changes over time—researchers can gain insights into how the public views and relates to social issues over time by analyzing historical data.

  • Informs policy and practice—by revealing the underlying social structures and power relations that shape communication, researchers can identify areas for intervention and develop strategies to address social issues.

Disadvantages

  • Time-consuming—the process of collecting the large amount of data needed for discourse analysis and then transcribing, analyzing, and interpreting it can be time-intensive.

  • Highly subjective—different researchers may interpret the same data differently, leading to potential disagreements about findings.

  • Requires advanced training—researchers need to be familiar with the specific methodological approaches and techniques used in discourse analysis

  • Limited by data availability—conducting a thorough analysis can be challenging if data related to the subject being studied is limited or unavailable.

  • Doesn’t generalize well—discourse analysis tends to focus on specific instances of communication and may not produce findings that can be generalized to broader populations or contexts.

Summing up

Discourse analysis is a powerful and versatile research method that can help researchers study how language use reflects and reinforces social structures and identities.

By using the method, researchers can examine the linguistic features of different types of discourse across social contexts. Through that analysis, they can gain insights into how language use is shaped by complex social factors.

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