May 22, 2018

Initial Thoughts and Ideas of the Definition and Philosophy of Discourse Analysis

Emergent research designs are shaped by what you observe in your qualitative data. This can include part of the design, perhaps such as the methods that you use to analyse your data or holistic reconfigurations which can include your research questions and even research directions. This is what I am finding with my research design at the moment. I am finding that I am being drawn to characteristics and aspects of the data that are not likely to be captured by grounded theory, but I previously thought they could. I was wondering which methodological direction I could turn or perhaps use in addition to Grounded Theory. I found usefulness in graph theory or network analysis but this still, as far as I can currently understand, is not able to capture the characteristics that I really want to study and explore the most in relation to the phenomenon of interest and characteristics of that phenomenon. After thinking about this further and in conversation with my supervisor I returned to reading about a method I had previously read about but did not think was relevant, till now (plenty of this happening recently!) and that method is Discourse analysis.


Discourse analysis is a complex, fluid, flexible and adaptable set of ideas, competencies, approaches and methods suitable for the analysis of discourse and language use that can be situated with a variety of different theoretical and philosophical theories and ideologies. Because I have only just begun rereading the relevant literature and contextualise the literature within my own philosophical and theoretical frameworks, this blog post briefly sets out some of my initial thoughts of the definitions and philosophies of Discourse Analysis.


Thoughts about definitions


Discourse analysis is, unsurprisingly, the analysis of discourse and language that occurs in a variety of different contexts and situations. Unsurprisingly therefore, many authors of papers and textbooks note the difficulty in creating a universal definition of discourse because different contexts and situations creates different emphasise, types, structures and formations of discourse. Educational discourse, for example, would be different to political discourse, which in turn would be different to scientific discourse, and so on, not to mention there are many internal differences e.g., Educational discourse differs depending on the its purpose and context e.g., teacher-learner discourse is different to, say, student-student discourse. Teacher-learner discourse could be based on power relationships and acknowledgement of authority whilst student-student discourses could emphasise learner empowerment and the impact of democratic classrooms.

I am beginning to align with the perspective of Julianne Cheek where in a paper titled, “At the margins? Discourse Analysis and Qualitative Research” the author argues that to understand discourse analysis is to effectively understand our own theoretical and philosophical positions because discourse analysis can effectively be placed within any theoretical or philosophical orientation. Julianna Cheek situates discourse analysis within Foucauldian Theory, Post Structualism, and Post Modernism; therefore, the author situates their discussions and applications of discourse analysis within those theoretical frameworks.

A while ago I came to the point where I do not consider myself a post structuralist or post modernist in relation to my own views of the phenomenon of interest and I have further acknowledged this through disagreeing with a quote by an author named Parker who in 1992 suggests that all objects of reality and perhaps reality itself is created by our own discourses and language. I find this a little difficult to accept within Educational circles because in a social learning situation where learners disagree, the person who disagrees with another’s claim needs to present an alternative claim and, ideally, some sort of evidence. Where has this evidence come from? If this evidence has come from an external source then it cannot be possibly suggested (from my current understanding) that evidence is constructed by our discourses and language because this evidence has a real, external existence and would exist independent of our own ideas and awareness of it. What might be more correct to suggest, possibly, is that it is not evidence that is constructed by the learners but the discourse and language that is contained within and surrounds the use of this particular piece of evidence in relation to a claim being made within the context of, for example, challenging another claim. Here you have important questions such as what is the relationship between evidence and claim? What is the nature of the evidence? What is the nature of the claim? What is the nature of the relationship? In what way is the other claim being opposed? What are the discourse and language structures being applied? In what way do these differ from person to person and from context to context? It’s a complex field and that’s just a basic example, from what I can currently understand!


Philosophical Thoughts


It’s quite an idea to get your head around: to best understand discourse analysis is to best understand your own philosophical ideas, because it is your philosophical frameworks, both ontological and epistemological, that determines the way in which you frame your qualitative data and your framing of the way in which discourse can be and shall be analysed.

As I have discussed on this blog, I align more with a realist ontology than a relativist ontology (I’ve also hinted towards this in the previous section) and therefore I have difficulties in accepting definitions of discourse that suggest that reality itself is constructed by our discourses and language. I am developing my arguments and critiques of this but it suffices to say currently that perhaps in some cases it is not that the object itself is created by our discourses and language, but it is the meaning and interpretations that we apply to an object that is constructed by our language and discourse but that doesn’t mean that our discourse reflects the reality of it and that doesn’t mean that each account is equally true.

Another observation I have made in the literature is that some authors associate discourse analysis with Social Constructionism. I have talked about Social Constructionism briefly previously on this blog, and what I have found with the previous readings of Social Constructionism is that it does not necessarily align itself with a relativist ontology as some authors attempt to make out (remember though that papers and textbooks are usually written to align with an author’s conceptions of reality) but that it is ontologically neutral. I have to reread the literature on Social Constructionism again but from what I can remember and what I can remember writing about it, Social constructionism as an epistemology can work with varieties of realism as well as relativism. Whichever Social Constructionism is situated ontological depends on you and your conceptualisations of reality.

The philosophical concerns of discourse analysis appear to be very open for debate and therefore there does not appear to be any universally acceptable definition or philosophical positioning of Discourse Analysis. This very much depends on the understanding that you have of yourself and your own philosophical positioning.

This is all work in progress but I do feel that there is a place for Discourse Analysis in my research as it aligns now with the way I have been observing and exploring the data and my observations of Grounded Theory being able to capture what I have been observing. Whether or not I keep Grounded Theory and Graph Theory approach, and whether or not this research is going to be multi-method or mixed methods, depends entirely on the way that I can use discourse analysis, and the way in which it can complement other approaches. A blog post shall be written either soon or sometime in the future about my initial thoughts of the methodological thoughts of discourse analysis.

It’s a complex field!

‘till next time!


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