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Discourse (L. discursus, "running to and from") means either "written or spoken communication or debate" or "a formal discussion of debate."[1] The term is often used in semantics and discourse analysis.

In the work of Michel Foucault, and social theorists inspired by him, discourse has a special meaning. It is "an entity of sequences of signs in that they are enouncements (enoncés)" (Foucault 1969: 141). An enouncement (often translated as "statement") is not a unity of signs, but an abstract matter that enables signs to assign specific repeatable relations to objects, subjects and other enouncements (Ibid: 140). Thus, a discourse constitutes sequences of such relations to objects, subjects and other enouncements. A discursive formation is defined as the regularities that produces such discourses. Foucault used the concept of discursive formation in relation to his analysis of large bodies of knowledge, such as political economy and natural history.(Foucault: 1970)

Studies of discourse have been carried out within a variety of traditions that investigate the relations between language, structure and agency, including feminist studies, anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory and the history of ideas. Within these fields, the notion of "discourse" is itself subject to discourse, that is, debated on the basis of specialized knowledge. Discourse can be observed in the use of spoken, written and sign language and multimodal/multimedia forms of communication, and is not found only in "non-fictional" or verbal materials.


The Social Scientific Conception of Discourse

In the social sciences (following the work of Michel Foucault), a discourse is considered to be a formalized way of thinking that can be manifested through language, a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic, or, as Judith Butler puts it, "the limits of acceptable speech"—or possible truth. Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to escape discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists." In other words, the chosen discourse delivers the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate. Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. It also helped some of the worlds greatest thinkers express their thoughts and ideas into what we now call public orality.

This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (see below)


Modern theorists were focused on achieving progress and believed in the existence of natural and social laws which could be used universally to develop knowledge and thus a better understanding of society.[2] Modernist theorists were preoccupied with obtaining the truth and reality and sought to develop theories which contained certainty and predictability.[3] Modernist theorists therefore viewed discourse as being relative to talking or way of talking and understood discourse to be functional.[4] Discourse and language transformations are ascribed to progress or the need to develop new or more “accurate” words to describe new discoveries, understandings or areas of interest.[4] In modern times, language and discourse are dissociated from power and ideology and instead conceptualized as “natural” products of common sense usage or progress.[4] Modernism further gave rise to the liberal discourses of rights, equality, freedom and justice; however, this rhetoric masked the substantive inequality and failed to account for differences.[5]


Structuralist theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, argue that all human actions and social formations are related to language and can be understood as systems of related elements.[6] This means that the “…individual elements of a system only have significance when considered in relation to the structure as a whole, and that structures are to be understood as self-contained, self-regulated, and self-transforming entities.” [7] In other words, it is the structure itself that determines the significance, meaning and function of the individual elements of a system. Structuralism has made an important contribution to our understanding of language and social systems. Saussure’s theory of language highlights the decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life more generally.[6]


Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged postmodern theory.[2] Postmodern theorists rejected modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society.[3] Rather, postmodernist theorists were interested in examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and common experiences.[4]

In contrast to modern theory, postmodern theory is more fluid and allows for individual differences as it rejected the notion of social laws. Postmodern theorists shifted away from truth seeking and instead sought answers for how truths are produced and sustained. Postmodernists contended that truth and knowledge is plural, contextual, and historically produced through discourses. Postmodern researchers therefore embarked on analyzing discourses such as texts, language, policies and practices.[4]

French social theorist Michel Foucault developed an entirely original notion of discourse in his early work, especially the Archaeology of knowledge (1972). In Discursive Struggles Within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood,[8] Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault's definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak." He traces the role of discourses in wider social processes of legitimating and power, emphasizing the construction of current truths, how they are maintained and what power relations they carry with them.” Foucault later theorized that discourse is a medium through which power relations produce speaking subjects.[4] Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and therefore every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power. Foucault further stated that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth.[4] Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse therefore is controlled by objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak.[9] Coining the phrases power-knowledge Foucault (1980) stated knowledge was both the creator of power and creation of power.


Feminists have explored the complex relationships that exist among power, ideology, language and discourse.[10] Feminist theory talks about "doing gender" and/or "performing gender."[11] It is suggested that gender is a property, not of persons themselves but of the behaviours to which members of a society ascribe a gendering meaning. “Being a man/woman involves appropriating gendered behaviours and making them part of the self that an individual presents to others. Repeated over time, these behaviours may be internalized as "me"—that is, gender does not feel like a performance or an accomplishment to the actor, it just feels like her or his "natural" way of behaving."[12] Feminist theorists have attempted to recover the subject and "subjectivity." Chris Weedon, one of the best known scholars working in the feminist poststructuralist tradition, has sought to integrate individual experience and social power in a theory of subjectivity.[13] Weedon defines subjectivity as "the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself, and her ways of understanding her relation to the world.[14] Judith Butler, also another well known post structuralist feminist scholar, explains that the performativity of gender offers an important contribution to the conceptual understanding of processes of subversion. She argues that subversion occurs through the enactment of an identity that is repeated in directions that go back and forth which then results in the displacement of the original goals of dominant forms of power.[15]

See also


  1. ^ Compact Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide [2001], Oxford University Press, New York
  2. ^ a b Larrain, 1994
  3. ^ a b Best & Kellner, 1991
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Strega, 2005
  5. ^ Regnier, 2005
  6. ^ a b Howarth, 2000
  7. ^ Howarth, 2000, p. 17
  8. ^ Lessa (2006)
  9. ^ Foucault, 1972
  10. ^ Strega, 2005.
  11. ^ Cameron, 2001.
  12. ^ Ibid., at 171.
  13. ^ Weedon, 1987.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Lessa, 2006.


  • M. Foucault (1969). L'Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Éditions Gallimard.  
  • M. Foucault (1980). "Two Lectures," in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews. New York: Pantheon.  
  • J. Larrain (1994). Ideology and cultural identity: Modernity and the third world presence. Cambridge: Polity Press.  
  • I. Lessa (2006). "Discoursive struggles within social welfare: Restaging teen motherhood". British Journal of Social Work 36: 283–298. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bch256.  
  • J. Motion & S. Leitch (2007). "A toolbox for public relations: The oeuvre of Michel Foucault". Public Relations Review 33 (3): 263–268. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2007.05.004.  
  • R. Mullaly (1997). Structural social work: Ideology, theory, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press.  
  • B. Norton (1997). "Language, identity, and the ownership of English". TESOL Quarterly 31 (3): 409–429. doi:10.2307/3587831.  
  • Research as resistance: Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches.(2005). In Brown L. A., Strega S. (Eds.), Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  • S. Strega (2005). The view from the poststructural margins: Epistemology and methodology reconsidered. In L. Brown, & S. Strega (Eds.), Research as resistance (pp. 199-235). Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  • J. Sunderland (2004). Gendered discourses. New York: PalgraveMacmillan.  

External links



Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Discourse Initially discourse (L. discursus, "running to and from") simply meant any communication that involved debate or argument. The term is today used mainly in semantics and discourse analysis. In semantics, discourses are linguistic units composed of several sentences; in other words, conversations, arguments, or speeches.

Sourced Quotes

  • A discourse is "a language or system of representation that has developed socially in order to make and circulate a coherent set of meanings about an important topic area."
    • John Fiske (1987). Television Culture. New York: Methuen. ISBN 0415039347.
  • We can no longer maintain any distinction between music and discourse about music, between the supposed object of analysis and the terms of analysis.
  • It is of the nature of idea to be communicated: written, spoken, done. The idea is like grass. It craves light, likes crowds, thrives on crossbreeding, grows better for being stepped on.

Unsourced Quotes

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