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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!


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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