May 23, 2018

Updated Thoughts on Discourse Analysis: Brief Comparisons With Conversational Analysis

Thoughts About Definitions


There has been a plethora of definitions of discourse and many approaches to discourse analysis defined, and understanding them is going to take some time. Judith Baxter in her paper “Discourse-Analytic Approaches to Text and Talk” published in the book “Research Methods in Linguistics” brings some much-needed clarity in this early stage of deepening my understanding of discourse and language. As I had expected, different theoretical orientations, philosophical perspectives, and the disciplines that provide some of the contextual and situational characterisations have caused the emergence of differing definitions and perspectives of discourse and its analysis.


Baxter suggests three general definitions of discourse. Firstly, that discourse can be viewed as language above the sentence: any piece of text that consists of more than just a single sentence can be considered a discourse. Secondly, and is a definition that appeals most to me personally, is the, as Baxter puts it, “functional and sociolinguistic” definition that views language as language-in-use with a focus on the context and situational aspects of discourse. The third definition revolves around the existence of discourses and not just a single discourse, which when placed within a post modernist, post structuralist perspective refers to the emergence of social realities from these discourses, with a focus on power structures and authorities. The first two definitions from what I can currently understand aligns more with a realist ontology perspective of discourse, with Baxter later suggesting that Conversational Analysis is situated within a more realist perspective compared to discourse analysis.


I have some reservations about a post structuralist, post modernist view of discourse that leads to the construction of a social reality. That’s more than likely because I identify myself as an ontological realist or at least some flavour of realism where I believe that external objects exist and through discourse and language can be referred to by learners. I have difficulties in accepting that certain objects are simply constructed by learners, which is advocated by Parker who in 1992 suggested that objects and reality itself are constructed through discourse and language. As mentioned in yesterday’s post, evidence is an externally existing object that is not constructed by the learners at that time (although one could argue that ultimately evidence is a human constructionbut it’s not exactly black or white and quite frankly that’s another matter) but is externally referenced through discourse and language. What we have therefore is a mix of what is real (evidence exists; it is real independent of a participant knowing about it) and what is a construction (the relationship between evidence and another relatable object that needs evidencing, and the discourse surrounding the evidence, which might differ between different types, between different people, and different contexts).

Philosophical Thoughts


It appears to me from the literature that I have read so far, different authors have different philosophical ideas about what discourse analysis is. There appears to be some sort of consensus that discourse analysis is commonly used within a post structuralist, post modernist, Foucauldian theoretical perspective (even though Michael Foucault actually rejected post structuralism and post modernism labels) as well as hermeneutic and interpretive perspectives. Conversation analysis is positioned typically within a more empiricist, realist perspective. Both deal with discourse and language in different ways and there is a huge amount of debate and discussion regarding both. For example, some authors have aligned discourse analysis with a social constructionist epistemology and therefore assume a relativist ontology; however, other social constructionist authors have argued that a social constructionist epistemology does not necessitate a relativist ontology. From what I have read about social constructionism previously and from the notes I have taken, I remember thinking about social constructionism as an epistemological concern and not an ontological concern.


Conversational analysis, meanwhile, according to Baxter works better within the empiricism and realism orientations. From what I can understand with my initial readings, the core attack against Conversational Analysis refers to its philosophical assumptions: some authors suggest that language and discourse cannot be analysed objectively or reveal truth about reality, because those authors believe that the truth of social reality is embedded within the discourse and thus revealing a relativist social reality. This is again something I have difficulties accepting when exploring the phenomenon of research interest because, as already mentioned, as already mentioned through the previous discussion of evidence.


Brief Summary


I appear to be developing a philosophical understanding of Conversational Analysis and Discourse Analysis and therefore from the Philosophical level it could be argued that I am learning towards Conversational Analysis. However, as I think about the methodological application of both I am finding that things are not quite so black and white. And this is where I have a challenge now because it is coming clear that Grounded Theory is not able to capture the characteristics of the data that I am becoming more fascinated with and desire to explore more (and there is a need in literature to explore these characteristics). The question is, which methodology or method do I now use? Which is the most suitable and in what way shall I know which is the best to use? Will graph theory now be affected? Could I still go for a multi-method or mixed method approach to understanding the phenomenon of interest?


Those questions I shall begin to answer in the next post that shall be written soon!


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