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September 05, 2005

The research process

This chapter aims to make transparent the processes involved in knowledge production within my research. In considering issues of research design, data analysis, epistemology, power and ethics, I aim to show their interrelationship and the way in which the research process and method of analysis forms an intrinsic component of knowledge production. As Skeggs argues, knowledge is not formulated in a void and legitimated by an abstract, disembodied ‘knower’, but rather is constructed, interpreted by specific researchers positioned within particular structures of power and privilege:

To ignore questions of methodology is to assume that knowledge comes from nowhere allowing knowledge makers to abdicate responsibility for their productions and representations. To side-step methodology means that the mechanisms we utilize in producing knowledge are hidden, relations of privilege are masked and knowers are not seen to be located (1997: 17).

In this chapter we will examine the background to the study, the research design and method of data analysis employed in my research. Having outlined the basic choices I made in conducting this research, I will discuss the methodological and epistemological consequences of these choices, showing the way in which they shaped my findings and the knowledge that was produced.

4.1 Background and sample
My own interest in the area of men and unemployment was piqued as a result of my part-time job as an administrative clerk for a project called ‘Grey Panther’ offered by the Office of Part-Time Education (OPTED) at Leeds University. This project was established in June 2004, and aims to help males aged 45+ who have been unemployed for over six months to undertake a vocationally-relevant course of study comprising discussion sessions, group exercises, ‘soft skills’ sessions such as CV-writing or interview techniques, and work placement. Through my involvement in the ‘Panther’ project from an early stage, which involved speaking to potential beneficiaries about their experiences of unemployment, I became aware of some of issues facing unemployed older men on an everyday, lived basis.

The participants of my research were eight white, unemployed men aged between 45 and 60 from the Yorkshire and Humberside region (mostly Leeds area), who were attending a week-long ‘Panther project’ ‘summer school’ in June 2005. While some participants had heard about the programme through Job Centre Plus advisors, others had seen the course advertised in the local press, or heard about it by word-of-mouth. As such, participants tended to be fairly motivated to attend, viewing the scheme as an aid rather than an imposition. Unlike similar training courses offered in conjunction with Job Centre Plus, the ‘Panther’ course is not mandatory or linked to benefit receipt. The facilitators on this particular course created a safe space for the group to vent their feelings of anger and outrage with regard to their unemployed position.

Although they shared various commonalities (their age, ethnicity, gender and the fact they were all long-term unemployed), the group was far from homogeneous, with the result that they had very varied responses to my questions. The participants came from a variety of class and educational positionings, which meant they had access to varying amounts of cultural, social and educational capital. Three of the men were linked with Job Centre Plus and depended on this for benefit receipt. These dimensions of difference affected their perceptions and representations of experiences and situations and meant that often openly challenged other participants’ interpretations.

4.2 Research design
I initially conducted participant observation over the course of the one-week summer programme with the eight men described above. This gave me an initial understanding of some of the issues and topics that were pertinent to them. I followed this up with a focus group, as I felt the topic was particularly suited to interaction in a group context. As I was known to and had built sufficient trust amongst the members of the group, I introduced my research to them at the end of the week-long summer programme, and asked them if they would be willing to be involved in a recorded focus-group discussion at a later date. The ‘Panther’ project manager helped me to set up a mutually convenient date and booked a seminar room at the university for this purpose.

As Tonkiss (2004) suggests, using a focus group enabled me to elicit information not easily observable ‘in the field’ in order to explore the men’s experiences of unemployment in greater depth. My participant observation and involvement in the ‘Panther project’ as an administrative assistant was useful in formulating my research questions and to inform the focus group discussion guide. The discussion guide was devised in a logical order, so that 'warm up' questions were placed at the beginning and built up to the more important and complex questions towards the end (appendix 1).

The focus group took place on the 8th July 2005 in a seminar room at Leeds University, lasting approximately two and a half hours with two fifteen minute breaks. Seven of the eight original group members were present (one was unable to attend). Before the discussion I outlined the broad research aims, reiterated my position on confidentiality and anonymity, and checked that it was okay to record the discussion. I also encouraged them to express their views as freely as possible by stressing that there are 'no right or wrong answers'. I recorded the discussion with a Dictaphone and made fieldwork notes of my general impressions of the discussion.

The focus group was keen and lively, and I found that I did not need to prompt much to elicit the kind of information I required. Indeed, the discussion proceeded quite naturally along the lines of themes I had envisaged when writing the topic guide. The most difficult part for me was ensuring that everyone had the opportunity to express themselves. Guiding, stimulating and facilitating the discussion was crucial to the success of the focus group. Providing interesting material for research and ensuring all participants were sufficiently as ease to disclose occasionally quite private info was also important.

After the focus group I transcribed the tapes, a process that was useful for giving me an overall impression of the discussion and the emergent themes and discourses. However, the quality of the recordings, volume of the participants’ voices and interruptions meant that sometimes I was unable to understand comments or attribute them to a particular person.

4.3 Doing research with a friendship group
The participants all had a significant relationship to the research topic , as they were all long-term unemployed and had recently participated in the ‘Grey Panther’ summer project at Leeds University. Although they were not known to each other at the beginning of the summer project when I conducted my initial participant observation, by the time I carried out my focus group they had spent a considerable amount of time together in an official capacity on the course, and had begun to formulate friendship groups and to meet socially outside the formal context of the project. Tonkiss (2004: 201–2) suggests that this might create problems in terms of established relations of power, disagreement or consensus being brought into the research setting. Certainly, assertive voices tended to dominate and direct the group discussion, and it was sometimes difficult to ensure that all participants had equal opportunity to express their views.

However, I would argue that familiarity could also be seen as an advantage with this particular group. Their friendship allowed their differences in opinions and interpretations to be discussed openly, as they knew each other sufficiently to express disagreement and to disclose quite private information. The fact that they had common experiences meant that as a group they were able to give specific examples of events that they all knew about. The friendship dynamics of the group, the subject of the research, the familiar setting, and the fact that I was known to them and had already build up a friendly rapport with them through my work on the project, were all factors that enabled the focus group to be successful. It was possible for the participants to feel at ease ‘in the familiar’, meaning that they were keen, lively and open in their interaction with me and the other group members.

4.4 Discourse analysis
Because of the interactive nature of the focus group data, I analysed the transcripts using discourse analysis, a process that is concerned ‘with how language is used to create and secure meanings, how competing accounts are negotiated and how speakers draw on certain interpretive repertoires in making their arguments within a given discursive context’ (Tonkiss 2004: 2050). I understand a discourse to refer to a particular set of meanings, metaphors, representations, images, narratives and statements that together present a particular version of events (Burr 1995: 48). Unemployment, for example, is represented in various and often conflicting ways by different sources e.g. the media, government, people who are unemployed etc. The knowledge and experiences voiced by the men were always mediated through the discourses available to them to interpret and understand their situation.

Furthermore, discursive constructions are linked to the shaping of social institutions and practices of social regulation. Foucault (1984), for example, argues for a theoretical understanding of discourse as a realm in which institutions, norms, subjectivity and social practices (such as enactments of masculinity, gender roles etc.) are constituted and naturalised. We saw an example of this in the literature review with McVittie et al’s study (2003), which found employers employed egalitarian discourses to mask and legitimise age discrimination. In employing discourse analysis as a mode of analysis I aim to show how meanings are constructed around work, unemployment and masculinities, and examine how the men positioned themselves to accept or resist particular representations of their experience.

I began by searching for recurrent themes in the transcripts, a search which was partly guided by the findings of existing research outlined in the literature review and partly a result of my own impressions of the discussion. I colour-coded the transcripts into approximately ten broad themes that were frequently spoken about, for example ‘public life’, ‘education’ and ‘work’. These themes not only fed back into the initial research questions, but also modified them to create new questions and topics. Having established the main themes of the discussion, I conducted a close critical reading of these. I identified the different ways in which a particular theme was talked about and constructed, looking at the type of language employed, rhetorical devices and images that fed into particular discourses. For example, I examined the ways in which particular versions of masculinity were sustained through specific discourses endorsing the notion of the ‘public man’ and ‘provider’ / ‘breadwinner’. I also tried to understand how the men resisted discourses that positioned them as helpless, or employed particular discourses in order to attempt to renegotiate their masculine identities.

Crucially, the different backgrounds and positionings of the participants meant that they were able to access certain discourses more easily than others. For example, one member of the group was familiar with and well-versed in pro-feminist discourses, meaning that he challenged other participants about their understandings and interpretations of gender and work. Rather than confusing my interpretation of the data, I deliberately looked for patterns of variation and contradiction in the transcripts, examining the ways in which the men attempted to reconcile conflicting ideas.

4.5 Methodological and epistemological issues
My methods of data collection and analysis allowed me to gain insight from a variety of perspectives, providing the flexibility to pursue topics arising through previous discussion. Most importantly, these methods captured the interactive quality of the group and the way in which they were keen to explore social and cultural meanings, knowledges and discourses surrounding their experiences of unemployment. Using a focus group meant that I was able to examine the way in which the men defined and positioned themselves in relation to public discourses surrounding unemployment, accepting particular discourses and resisting others.

An important methodological assumption underpinning my choice of methods and mode of analysis is the idea that opinions, attitudes and accounts are socially produced and shaped through interaction with others. The group context of my research was important for exploring the way in which the men articulated and justified their ideas in relation to others, placing the emphasis on social interaction and collective meanings:

[Focus groups] are not simply a means of interviewing several people at the same time; rather they are concerned to explore the formation and negotiation of accounts within a group context, how people define, discuss and contest issues through social interaction (Tonkiss 2004: 194).

Rather than assuming that there is a tangible social ‘reality’ that can be accessed and ‘objectively’ presented through neutral, colourless language, I wanted to show how the men used language to (re)present their accounts of the social world. I thus adhered to the viewpoint that ‘language is both active and functional in shaping and reproducing social relations, identities and ideas’ (Tonkiss 1998: 248), regarding language as an inherently social practice which actively orders and shapes the way in which the men interpreted their experiences of unemployment. Far from viewing language as speaking its ‘truth’ in a straightforward referential way, it is subject to varying interpretations and put to different uses depending on context and its potential for explanatory power (Skeggs 1997: 26).

As such, knowledge is not only context-dependent but also necessarily partial, with the result that interview data are ‘situated’ and bound to the research situation in which they were collected. This has methodological implications in terms of the generalisability of my research findings, which cannot be viewed as representative of the discourses expressed by other unemployed men outside the context of the focus group. As Gibbs (1997) argues, while focus groups may aim to reproduce the interactive aspect of naturally occurring social processes, they are not inherently naturally occurring interactions, offering no guarantee of what people say or how they interact outside the research context. Furthermore, as Skeggs points out, the transcription of spoken utterances and experiences into written format inevitably fails to capture the subtleties of expression, nuance and feeling (Skeggs 1997: 28).

4.6 Power and ethics in the research process
The partiality of representation described above has ethical as well as epistemological implications. In adopting a poststructuralist approach which emphasises discourses, multiple interpretations and the constructed nature of experience, I do not anticipate my analysis of the data to perfectly match the interpretations of my participants. As research and writer, I had the ultimate power of production and explanation, selecting the words that were used and subjecting them to my own interpretations. However, I tried to avoid othering and mis-recognition in the research, placing the men’s voices at the centre of my research wherever possible. I would argue that although the men were used for purposes of research, they were nevertheless active agents who were not prepared to be exploited, providing perceptive and challenging insights into their experiences.

In one sense I was in a position of power as moderator because I could decide which topics were discussed; however, the men also had clear ideas about what was relevant and important to them. I encouraged flexibility in the discussion to allow the emergence of themes I hadn’t previously considered. Furthermore, the men’s experiences of the focus group discussion seemed positive insofar as they communicated them to me, providing a safe but challenging environment to discuss topics that were important to their lives. They told me that the session had represented a chance to ‘sound off’ confidentially amongst other people who understood their position. As Gibbs (1997) argues ‘if [a focus group] works well, trust develops and the group may explore solutions to a particular problem as a unit, rather than as individuals’. In this way, the focus group appeared to provide a potential source of support and empowerment for the men.

August 17, 2005

Domestic provision and disempowerment

Follow-up to Public life and scrutiny from L'Etrangère

Part 2 of 'Masculinities and Unemployment chapter

Simon: Nature – and this is what people don’t take into account sometimes – nature of a man is to defend a woman… There’s something inbuilt, there’s a gene there… in general it’s the man who looks after her…
Ben: There’s something inside men that makes them want to provide for his wife. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying women are soft, because they’ve got things to do, things like having a baby – but the thing is it’s nature that the man protects her and the children.
Simon: It goes back to the caveman days – a woman would stay at home while the guy goes out with his spear to fight the sabre-toothed tiger and the vagabonds or whatever.

Traditionally, employment means that a man will earn a wage and bring this back to the home. Simon and Ben employ a traditional discourse in relation to the sexual division of labour: that men belong in the public arena and women in the private, domestic sphere, and that men should provide for and protect their wives and children. In presenting this traditional version of masculinity, they draw on arguments about a ‘natural’ sexual division of labour – it is “something inside men” that “makes them want to provide”, “something inbuilt”, a “gene”. Ben evades criticism and accusations of sexism by asserting “I’m not saying women are soft”, but simultaneously constructs both the categories of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as inflexible and essentialist. Through his reference to “the caveman days”, Simon uses ‘history’ as a further rhetorical device to establish the authority of the ‘provider’ discourse, implying not only that this gender order is natural, but also immutable throughout time.

In adhering to an essentialist construction of gender relations, unemployment may be interpreted as an assault on masculine pride, for this discourse not only links the position of (male) breadwinner to economic independence, but also to social status and ‘respect’. A sense of disempowerment and emasculation manifests itself in patterns of discourses around domestic provision, with the men voicing feelings of anxiety, guilt and resentment as a direct response to their inability to provide. Furthermore, the connection between failing to provide and feeling less of a man coincides with talk of losing ‘your’ woman:

Ben: Relationships are more insecure nowadays… the missing word’s trust. When you’re unemployed, don’t forget that you are then at a low, a low point in your life, so anything that your wife does – when she’s out at a job, you wonder who’s she seeing, who’s she talking about, somebody talks to her. And then you get paranoid.
Sam: Yeah, for men, there is a guilt associated with unemployment.

In voicing these feelings, however, they consciously position themselves outside discourses that equate unemployed masculinity with vulnerability and insecurity, speaking about the situation in abstract rather than personal terms:

Sam: It’d stick in my throat. If I was unemployed and couldn’t get work, to rely on a woman earning on my behalf.
Simon: An awful lot of husbands don’t want their wives to have a career because they still want to be the biggest wage packet in the house.
Ben: This doesn’t apply to everyone but my wife goes out to work because she wants to go out to work… no man likes a woman going out to earn for him. And if they’re honest enough he’ll tell you. They might tell you otherwise…

Sam utilises the conditional tense when talking about unemployment – it would stick in his throat if he had to rely on a woman to provide for him. Ben consciously constructs his situation as ‘different’ from the experiences of other unemployed men whose wives may be forced to work to support the family by employing the language of freewill and choice – his wife “goes out to work because she wants to go out to work” (my emphasis), not because it is necessitated through circumstances beyond his control.

They discuss the issue in abstract, generalised terms and refer to their situations in the third person. This partially serves a rhetorical function, suggesting that ‘other men’ who are perhaps less honest or self-aware “might tell you otherwise”, but it also forms one means of coping with the social objectification that occurs through the process of being categorised as unemployed. This is an attempt to reconstruct themselves as legitimate ‘knowers’ and subjects rather than objects lacking agency and volition, a means of resisting and refusing the potentially emasculating effects of unemployment. However, this represents only an individualised coping strategy, rather than collective and co-operative action, and therefore poses little challenge to the prevalent discourse of masculine provision and the sense of disempowerment this may entail for men who are unemployed.

Unemployment is not the only way in which hegemonic discourses of masculinity may be challenged, and indeed the challenges posed by material changes in the labour market – an increase of women in particular labour markets and subsequent transformation in meanings surrounding men’s and women’s work – intersect with male unemployment to produce changes in subjectivities. Ben and Simon employ the language of pragmatism and necessity when talking about the entry of women into the workplace, constructing it as an economic necessity and suggesting that men and women alike are ensnared by social structures that pervade and influence daily existence:

Ben: Necessity. A lot of it’s to do with necessity. A woman has children, she’s got to work and get employment and she’ll take the job that men won’t take.
Simon: Yeah. Now women have got to work.
Ben: Yes. The thing is now what’s changed that is, is the house market. Because they now need two wages, they don’t need one. It’s a reality… They both need to work – both man and wife need to work to live.

Ben positions women in an inferior section of the labour market to that inhabited by men (“she’ll take the job that men won’t take”), which diminishes the threat that such changes in employment patterns pose to hegemonic versions of masculinity. Thomas takes up this point in a pro-feminist discourse, arguing that feminisation of the labour market does not necessarily represent true gender equality, but rather that sections of the job market where women are mostly concentrated tend to be those where people are underemployed and undervalued:
Thomas: That might be exploitation of a group i.e. women who are fifty one percent of the population. And they desperately need to earn money, and therefore they’ll take a job that we as males would not take…I think there is an awful lot of pressure on women from their husbands to take a non-career job, such as a checkout, rather than be a professional manager. I suggest that that happens, and is widespread.

Whereas attributing changes in gendered employment participation to the ‘reality’ of economic necessity does not unduly upset the traditional gender order, a greater threat is posed by women moving into sections of the labour market traditionally viewed as male, especially given that men do not feel that they can afford to move into traditionally female areas:

Ben: The nurses were resenting because the men – if you look at the nursing professions, most of the managers on the nursing side of it were women. They resented men coming into their profession – women don’t like men infiltrating their area. Likewise, I’ll never agree with a woman coming into a more physical job. What’s a woman want to be a welder for?

Here Ben represents the shift as an invasion of one sex into the other’s domain, adhering to traditional symbolic values that construct ‘men’s work’ as physical and ‘women’s work’ as caring and nurturing. Some of the other men expressed resentment at changes in the nature and content of men’s employment, reflected by accusations such as “women bring the salaries down”. It is thus not only unemployment but also changes in the labour market that threaten hegemonic discourses of masculinity, blurring a gender order hitherto perceived by many as clearly demarcated and irrevocably separated.

August 11, 2005

Public life and scrutiny

Part 1 of masculinities and unemployment chapter

Ben: You can’t meet other people, and if you do then you feel as though everyone’s looking at you, like you’re reliant on other people’s charity.
Sam: You can’t go to the pub because of lack of money, and that restricts a lot of what you do when you’re unemployed.
Philip: It’s lack of money, the hardest part.
Sam: Money. Yeah it is.

These men claim that their lack of wage restricts their participation in the public sphere, particularly in the social arena of leisure. As Willott and Griffin (1997) argue, there is an association between traditional masculine identities and belonging in the public rather than the domestic sphere both in terms of waged work and leisure activities such as the pub. Traditionally, the pub has been understood as a crucial site for both the expression and reinforcement of traditional masculinities and gendered consumption (Morgan 1992). Yet employment not only provides the financial means of ‘paying your way’ in public places such as the pub, but is also viewed as an important site within the public sphere in itself, providing freedom from the private sphere and a potential source of social interaction:

Thomas: The hardest part of being unemployed for me is the reduced social group. The fact that basically, through work, I think our social groups often come out of work.
Philip: I agree. I tend to think that a lot of our social contacts do come out of work. When I worked at [name of company] we’d have one or two social events a month. I didn’t go to them all the time.
Simon: If you’re unemployed you tend to be in a little box on your own. You’re not related to somebody, you’re not part of a company, you’re not part of a corporation, you’re very isolated. It’s difficult to find jobs to do when you’re unemployed.

Unemployment can thus result in reduced social capital and isolation from life in the public sphere, leading to a reduced sense of purpose and lethargy. While some of the men constructed work as an unpleasant necessity or duty ‘forced’ upon them, a ‘nine-to-five grind’ that was necessary to ensure their continued existence, others contested this interpretation by suggesting that work can in fact form an integral part of their identities and provide a source of personal fulfilment or stimulation. The implication here is that there is a direct connection between the type of work that the men do with the types of men that they are, that work provides a means of sustaining and enacting particular values and subjectivities within the domain of public life:

Thomas: I would say work has to be something we passionately care about, and not just a meal ticket. Sure we live in the real world, yes we have our bills to pay, etcetera etcetera… But we’re not working just for that, because we’ve got to be working for something. It’s got to be for ourselves.
Sam: We have a set of needs to fulfil, everybody does, and work plays a part in fulfilling those needs, and creates needs of its own. Whether we view work as a means in itself or as a means to an end.
Ben: That sounds like a nice idea, a utopia. I don’t have a problem with that idea. But the reality is sometimes you’ve got to do a job you don’t want to do.

Although this representation of work may only embody an unrealistic ‘utopia’ in some ways, the trappings of full-time employment are still understood to be infinitely preferable to full-time entrapment within the domestic sphere. This realm is construed as stagnant and dull, offering little in the way of mental stimulation or structure. The lethargy, boredom and reduced motivation understood to result from unrelenting positioning within the domestic sphere contrasts strongly with traditional discourses of working masculinities characterised by vigour, strength, competitiveness and activity. Furthermore, the prospect of recovering these former identities appears bleak while stuck in a domestic ‘rut’ that offers meagre access to economic and social resources:

Simon: The biggest problem I’ve got at home is that my brain has always been active… The trouble with all that time is boredom, and when I don’t have anything to push myself with my mind spends all its time spinning.
Sam: Yeah, you whiz.
Simon: That’s very very tiring. It also drives people up the bloody wall… I don’t think I’m a stronger person, I think I’ve gone backwards… my brain doesn’t work as quickly cos I’ve had nothing to pit it against.
Ben: I agree with you that your motivation diminishes… With your motivation, once that drops, you just can’t get up – you just go to yourself ‘I can’t be bothered’. And that reflects on everything.
Simon: Yeah. Everything drops.

Not only is employment understood to be an important anchor for hegemonic masculine identities in terms of making money and escaping the domestic sphere, but it also plays an integral role in the construction and enactment of public masculine identities. The men showed acute awareness of the ‘policing’ of a judgemental external other who ‘assesses’ them (“you feel as though everyone’s looking at you”), positioning them according to the kind of work in which they engage and enabling them to be recognised as respectable, responsible men. Paid employment is not only a means of accruing cultural capital such as a home or car, but it is a form of cultural capital in itself that may be called upon to reinforce public enactments of masculinities:

Ben: People ask questions about what you do and you can’t always answer those questions. It’s like you don’t exist.
Joe: First thing people ask, to assess you, like where you live, what car you drive.
Thomas: In society’s mind your own identity is linked to the professional work you’re doing or not doing. People ask ‘who are you?’ If you’re at a party or at a function people will ask you what you do, and so forth.

Unemployment has the dual effect of making them feel invisible “like you don’t exist” and under scrutiny. Although keenly conscious and resentful of this external surveillance and judgement, as they do not necessarily passively accept it, but rather make strenuous efforts to negotiate alternative masculine identities and resist the interpretation that they have been somehow sidelined. Thomas, for example, insists upon a post-modern concept of subjectivity, in which individual identities are slippery, fragmented and multiple, never absolute but rather context-dependent, resisting an essentialist conceptualisation of masculinity:

Thomas: I say, well, it depends which day it is or which head I’ve got on, and then I list a whole bunch of, various stuff that I’m involved in. You can shut that line of enquiry right off.

Ben and Joe, on the other hand, employ humour to manoeuvre their own social positioning and throw their imagined interrogators off balance, a small act of defiance that provides the means of fighting back against perceived injustice and regaining some self-respect as men in a world that has rendered them and their industrial skills redundant:

Ben: I say I’m a pole-dancer.
Joe: I say I live in a bail hostel.
Ben: You should see the faces on them when they ask me what I do and I say ‘pole-dancer’ and you can see them picturing it, a real vivid picture.

Ben’s proposed method for contending with external scrutiny contains a strong performative element reminiscent of the exploration of the relationship of men to looking and being looked at in the 1997 film The Full Monty (Cattaneo 1997). Rather than passively accepting the gaze of a society that constructs unemployed masculinities as fragile and uncertain, suspended in a state of subjective uncertainty, he toys with the idea of reasserting his own masculinity as an embodied performative construct, a means of recovering some self-esteem in a world where the nature of work and gender roles have been forever transformed.

August 03, 2005

Analysis of data

(more notes / scribblings / thoughts)

Discourse Analysis
(the theoretical and epistemological bit)

Because of the interactive nature of the data, focus group data are often suited to discourse analysis. Discourse analysis is concerned 'with how language is used to create and secure meanings, how
competing accounts are negotiated and how speakers draw on certain interpretive repertoires in making their arguments within a given discursive context' (Tonkiss 2004: 205).

Language is not viewed as neutral or colourless, reflecting an 'objective' reality, but rather as a means of re-presenting it (c.f. Abrams 'The Mirror and the Lamp'):

Language is seen not simply as a neutral medium for communicating information, but as a domain in which our knowledge of the social world is actively shaped… Discourse analysis involves a perspective on language which sees this not as reflecting reality in a transparent or straightforward way, but as constructing and organizing that social reality for us (Tonkiss 1998: 246).
The way that we use language is rarely innocent, and discourse analysis can help to reveal how talk and texts are ordered to produce specific meanings and effects (ibid: 247).

Foucault (1984) argues for a theoretical understanding of discourse as a realm in which institutions, norms, subjectivity and social practices are constituted and naturalised. In this way he links discursive constructions to the shaping of social institutions and practices of social regulation and control.

Rather than garnering accounts so as to access people's views, attitudes and opinions, or to find out what happened (i.e. assuming that there is a tangible social 'reality' that can be accessed and 'objectively' presented), the discourse analyst is interested in how people use language to (re)present their accounts of the social world. 'Language is both active and functional in shaping and reproducing social relations, identities and ideas' (ibid: 248).

As Skeggs (1997) argues, language does not simply speak its ‘truth’ in a straightforward referential way, but rather it is context-dependent and comprised of discourses that are in fact constructed themselves. In adopting a postmodern epistemological position, it is necessary to acknowledge fragmented and multiple subjectivities and reject the existence of an ‘authentic’ self. Language itself is subject to varying interpretations and representations, contains different meanings and adopts a variety of forms, and is put to different uses depending on context and potential for explanatory power (Skeggs 1997: 26).

Language is thus viewed as a social practice which actively orders and shapes people's relation to their social world (Tonkiss 1998: 249).


  • Interpretive context
    The social setting in which a particular discourse is located. The context is relevant at both a macro- (e.g. gender inequalities in society) and micro- level (e.g. type of interaction, relationship between participants, immediate discursive aims of the speaker)

  • Rhetorical organisation
    'The argumentative schemes which organise a text which work to establish the authority of particular accounts while countering alternatives' (Tonkiss 1998: 250). How are statements put together? What effects do they seek? What forms of knowledge are privileged? Which speakers will be heard as authoritative? Is discourse persuasive to action?

Doing discourse analysis (the practical bit)
Formulate a research problem – not one that is looking for answers to specific questions but looking at the way meanings are constructed. E.g. how is unemployment constructed as a political issue or 'problem', how are unemployed people represented within public discourses, how do they construct themselves to resist these interpretations, how does unemployment affect discourses of hegemonic masculinity?

Be selective about data – extract sections that provide the richest source of analytic material. Are there contradictions or inconsistencies in the text? Representations that contradict the researcher's assumptions? Are these productive?

Select a number of recurrent themes / sections of data. Categories of analysis that emerge from data may feed back into the research question and cause it to be modified.

Once themes are established – what ideas / representations cluster around them? What associations are established? are paricular meanings being mobilised? what languages are employed (e.g. economic / medical / religious / natural) and bound up into particular discourses?

Are there patterns of variation? How do participants attempt to reconcile conflicting ideas, to cope with contradiction or uncertainty, to counter alternatives? How are seemingly coherent, 'smooth' discourses disrupted? How are discourses brought together and for what purposes? Are discourses founded on a series of oppositions? Are there consistencies within and between texts?

Read for emphasis, detail and silences. Read against the grain of the text and look at gaps – what is absent from the accounts? Alternative accounts are excluded by omission.

Discourse analysis may be concerned with the examination of meaning, but meaning is contestable and specific texts are open to alternative interpretations:

The discourse analyst, like other social actors, aims to provide a persuasive account, which in this case offers an insightful, useful and critical interpretation of a research problem (Tonkiss 1998: 259).

Although internal validity may be achieved by interpreting data closely, external validity is more difficult to claim as it is difficult to contend that the analyst's own discourse is obective, factual, true, not to mention the fact that discourse analysis typically deals with small datasets. Social researchers should question their own assumptions and adopt a reflexive approach to social research (c.f. feminist issues of epistemologies / power).

So basically it's a bit like analysing a piece of literature, is it then?

Foucault, M. 1984. 'The order of discourse', in Shapiro, M. (ed.) Language and Politics. Oxford: Blackwell.

Tonkiss, F. 1998. 'Analysing discourse'. In Seale, C. (ed.). 1998. Researching Society and Culture (1st ed.). London: Sage.

Tonkiss, F. 2004. 'Using Focus Groups'. In Seale, C. (ed.). 2004. Researching Society and Culture (2nd ed.). London: Sage.

Skeggs, B. 1997. Formations of Class and Gender. London: Sage.

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