Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis —What Speakers Do in Conversation— is sometimes defined as the analysis of language ‘beyond the sentence’. This contrasts with types of analysis more typical of modern linguistics, which are chiefly concerned with the study of grammar. Linguistics is the study of smaller bits of language, such as sounds (phonetics and phonology), parts of words (morphology), meaning (semantics), and the order of words in sentences (syntax). Discourse analysts study larger chunks of language as they flow together.

Pragmatics and Discourse Analysis involve the study of language in its contexts of use. Pragmatics focuses on the effects of context on meaning. While Discourse Analysis studies written and spoken language in relation to its social context.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines discourse analysis as:

“Linguistics, a method of analyzing the structure of texts or utterances longer than one sentence, taking into account both their linguistic content and their sociolinguistic context; analysis performed using this method.”

Some discourse analysts consider the larger discourse context in order to understand how it affects the meaning of the sentence. For example, Charles Fillmore points out that two sentences taken together as a single discourse can have meanings different from each one taken separately.

To illustrate, he asks you to imagine two independent signs at a swimming pool: “Please use the toilet, not the pool,” says one. The other announces, “Pool for members only.” If you regard each sign independently, they seem quite reasonable. But taking them together as a single discourse makes you go back and revise your interpretation of the first sentence after you’ve read the second.

Discourse and Frames

‘Re-framing’ is a way to talk about going back and re-interpreting the meaning of the first sentence. Frame analysis is a type of discourse analysis that asks; What activity are speakers engaged in when they say this? What do they think they are doing by talking in this way at this time?

Consider how hard it is to make sense of what you are hearing or reading if you don’t know who’s talking or what the general topic is. When reading the newspaper, one needs to know whether it’s a news story, an editorial, or an advertisement in order to properly interpret the text.

Years ago, when Orson Welles’ radio play “The War of the Worlds” was broadcast, some listeners who tuned in late panicked, thinking they were hearing the actual end of the world. They mistook the frame for news instead of drama.


Conversation is an enterprise in which one person speaks, and another listens. Discourse analysts who study conversation note that speakers have systems for determining when one person’s turn is over and the next person’s turn begins. This exchange of turns or ‘floors’ is signaled by such linguistic means as intonation, pausing, and phrasing. Some people await a clear pause before beginning to speak, but others assume that ‘winding down’ is an invitation to someone else to take the floor. When speakers have different assumptions about how turn exchanges are signaled, they may inadvertently interrupt or feel interrupted.

Listenership too may be signaled in different ways. Some people expect frequent nodding as well as listener feedback such as ‘mhm’, ‘uhuh’, and ‘yeah’. Less of this than you expect can create the impression that someone is not listening; more than you expect can give the impression that you are being rushed along. Some people expect eye contact nearly continually; for others, it should only be intermittent.

The type of listener response you get can change how you speak. If someone seems uninterested or uncomprehending (whether or not they truly are), you may slow down, repeat, or overexplain, giving the impression you are ‘talking down’. Frederick Erickson has shown that this can occur in conversations between black and white speakers, because of different habits with regard to showing listenership.

Discourse Markers

‘Discourse markers’ is the term linguists give to the little words like ‘well’, ‘oh’, ‘but’, and ‘and’ that break our speech up into parts and show the relation between parts. ‘Oh’ prepares the hearer for a surprising or just-remembered item, and ‘but’ indicates that sentence to follow is in opposition to the one before.

However, these markers don’t necessarily mean what the dictionary says they mean. Some people use ‘and’ just to start a new thought, and some people put ‘but’ at the end of their sentences, as a way of trailing off gently. Realizing that these words can function as discourse markers is important to prevent the frustration that can be experienced if you expect every word to have its dictionary meaning every time it’s used.

Speech Acts

Speech act analysis asks not what form the utterance takes but what it does. Saying “I now pronounce you man and wife” enacts a marriage. Studying speech acts such as complimenting allows discourse analysts to ask what counts as a compliment, who gives compliments to whom, and what other function they can serve. For example, linguists have observed that women are more likely both to give compliments and to get them.

There are also cultural differences; in India, politeness requires that if someone compliments one of your possessions, you should offer to give the item as a gift, so complimenting can be a way of asking for things. An Indian woman who had just met her son’s American wife was shocked to hear her new daughter-in-law praise her beautiful saris. She commented, “What kind of girl did he marry? She wants everything!”. By comparing how people in different cultures use language, discourse analysts hope to make a contribution to improving cross-cultural understanding.

Discourse Analysis

Applications of discourse analysis

A search [October 2009] of Emerald’s journal database content (all fields excluding full text) for the phrase “discourse analysis” over the last ten years produced results with the following distribution:

  • Organizational change and organizational studies – 10.
  • Corporate social responsibility – 5.
  • Employee development and human resource development – 7.
  • Education – 3.
  • Entrepreneurship – 3.
  • Accountancy – 9.
  • Library and information management – 6.
  • Gender issues and diversity – 7.
  • Political economy – 2.
  • Hospitality – 2.
  • Marketing, market research, and corporate communications – 7.
  • Sociology and social work – 4.
  • Miscellaneous (gaming, law, supervenience, quality, nutrition, psychopathology, virtual communities, health care) – 8.

Discourse analysis as a way of describing organizational change

Grant et al. (2005) provide a guest editorial to an issue of the Journal of Organizational Change Management (Vol. 18 No. 1) which looks at the contribution of discourse analysis to the area. They cite a number of benefits of the method:

  1. it enables researchers to analyze the key discourses which formulate change;
  2. it shows how particular discourses can shape behavior, by way of development of a dominant meaning;
  3. it shows the importance of the overall context;
  4. it affords the advantage of a multidisciplinary perspective;
  5. all these advantages mean that discourse analysis can generate fresh insights.

Tsoukas (2005), in an afterword to the same issue, confirms the value of discourse analysis in understanding the complexity of organizational change.

Language is very subtle: new meanings can be created or subtly subverted to put a positive gloss on something, while the same events can be described in radically different ways. Some years ago, a large publishing conglomerate decided to pull all its academic journals out of one company and exchange them for another company’s small division of distance learning materials. The managers described this as “portfolio realignment”; a disgruntled worker, disillusioned at the loss of a cash cow in return for a problem child, referred to the exchange as “leprosy”.

Reading between the lines: analyzing policy texts

Policy documents are often in fact public relations documents. In a democracy, policy has to be sold; you cannot enforce it. And policy, too, may be dictated by complex factors – free market capitalism, for example – which it may not be politic to disclose too clearly.

Discourse analysis can disentangle the different agendas of policy documents. Ocler (2009) describes how in France, corporate social responsibility became a legal requirement, but firms needed to present their corporate social responsibility policies in a positive light for the benefit of their policy holders.

Cheng (2009) discusses the introduction of the voucher scheme for pre-primary education in Hong Kong. She shows how while the policy text highlighted issues of choice, efficiency and equity, the reality is in fact more complex:

” … notions of choice and efficiency have an obvious attraction, but the language presented masks a much more complex situation in which choice and efficiency are to be secured through the application of market principles and given this development it is by no means certain that these objectives will be secured.

For example, different producers and consumers become privileged in this market context, and it is by no means certain that all will have choice. More likely, is that choice will be restricted to the more affluent, whilst efficiency may be effected by a failure to create any level playing field between not for profit and private providers” (Cheng, 2009; p. 364).

All policy documents should be read within their context, in this case, marketisation, and in that referred to above, legislation. This is what Fairclough means by “discourse practice”.

Providing greater depth to qualitative accounting research

Accountancy is an area which has recently seen a greater interest in qualitative methods; in fact, a journal was recently launched devoted to this approach (Qualitative Research in Accounting & Management). According to Ferguson (2007), the study of text can be limited if it does not look at the circumstances surrounding its production and interpretation.

Motivation is also part of the surrounding context, and Yusoff et al., (2006) use discourse analysis to probe the corporate motivation for environmental activities.

Information synthesis

Various uses have been made of discourse analysis in the field of library and information science, but Haider and Bawden (2007) make an interesting contribution when they point out that one of the key concepts of the field, information poverty, is in fact a product of information synthesis: two concepts, both with strong resonances, are put together with explosive political effect.

It is a versatile technique which brings insights from many disciplines, and which uses the richness and ambiguity of language to go beyond the text into the many worlds that influence it.

Where does discourse analysis fit?

Discourse analysis is an analytic technique rather than a theory, and its popularity has arisen from the growing interest, starting late in the last century, in qualitative research and ways of analyzing the data it produces. There are a number of similar methods, for example,

  • content analysis, which analyses content according to key variables,
  • narrative analysis, which looks at the patterns people find in their lives and situations, and
  • conversational analysis, which looks at the structure of dialogue

Discourse analysis has multiple disciplinary origins – sociology, socio-psychology, anthropology, linguistics and philosophy, communications studies, and literature (Grant et al., 2005). It thus brings a multidisciplinary perspective.

Its regard for context sets it slightly apart from ethnographic methods, which, according to Lee and Roth (2006) tend to approach participants’ talk and actions at face value. Participant observation often involves the researcher having a relatively “invisible” role, as an observer. In the collection of data for discourse analysis, however, the researcher has a more active role and may “co-construct” the interview process.

One can also contrast it with behaviorist and cognitivist approaches: discourse is not just a product of a person’s cognitive and mental state. Thinking makes use of concepts, and concepts are by definition in the public domain, influenced by a broad range of social and intellectual factors. Discourse analysis is also influenced by social constructionism: people and their doings are not “natural observable facts”, but are constantly shaped by the society around them.

Some prominent thinkers in discourse analysis

Many writers have contributed to the field of discourse analysis, but two of the most prominent are Norman Fairclough and Michel Foucault.

Norman Fairclough is the father of critical discourse analysis. He comes to discourse analysis from a linguistics and language perspective; he is emeritus professor in the Department of Linguistics and English Language at the University of Lancaster, UK.

Fairclough sees discourse as:

“a social practice which constructs social identities, social relations and the knowledge and meaning systems of the social world … [which] both reflects and produces the ideas and assumptions relating to the ways in which personal identities, social relations, and knowledge systems are constituted through social practice” (Nielson and Nørreklit, 2009; p. 204).

In other words, critical discourse analysis sees the language of discourse as a kind of two-way mirror. It both reflects and contributes to the social world, its knowledge systems and its social relationships.

There are two dimensions to critical discourse analysis: the “communicative event”, or the specific incident of language use, and that which Fairclough terms “discourse order”, which is the “discourse practices” or the way language is used within a particular social institution (for example, the particular vocabulary used within an organization) or domain area (for example, linguistics, sociology, or medicine).

Critical discourse analysis uses three levels of analysis (Nielson and Nørreklit, 2009; p. 205):
  1. The text of the communicative event itself, with reference to its vocabulary, its use of metaphor and rhetorical forms, its grammar and the relationship between sentences, the types of argument used.
  2. The discourse practice – i.e. how the particular communicative event changes or copies existing practice within that particular discourse.
  3. The wider social practice of which the communicative event forms part.

Critical discourse analysis combines an “internal” study of language with “external” study of its context – how the text is affected by social practices and relations (Cheng, 2009). The term “intertextuality” is often used – which means the need for one text to be read in the light of its allusions to and differences from the content or structure of other texts. Critical discourse analysis can often be used to reveal power relationships, and how certain groups can be marginalized.


Cheng, A.Y.N. (2009), “Analysing complex policy change in Hong Kong: what role for critical discourse analysis?”, International Journal of Education Management, Vol. 23 No. 4, pp. 360-366.

Chio, V. (2008), “Transfers, training and inscriptions: The production of modern market citizens in Malaysia”, critical perspectives on international business, Vol. 4 No. 2/3, pp. 166-183.

Clulow, V. (2005), “Futures dilemmas for marketers: can stakeholder analysis add value?”, European Journal of Marketing, Vol. 39 No. 9/10, pp. 978-997.

Court, M. (2004), “Advancing women’s careers: what can we learn from co-principals’ stories?”, Equal Opportunities International, Vol. 23 No. 7/8, pp. 39-61.

Ferguson, J. (2007), “Analysing accounting discourse: avoiding the ‘fallacy of internalism’”, Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal, Vol. 20 No. 6, pp. 912-934.

Grant, D., Michelson, G., Oswick, C. and Wailes, N. (2005), Guest editorial: discourse and organizational change, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Journal of Organizational Change Management, Vol. 18 No. 1, pp. 6-15.

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