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Discourse is a term used in semantics as in discourse analysis, but it also refers to a social conception of discourse, often linked with the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jürgen Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action. Even though each thinker had personal and incompatible conceptions of discourse, they remain two important figures in this field; Habermas trying to find the transcendent rules upon which speakers could agree on a groundworks consensus, while Foucault was developing a battle-type of discourse which opposed the classic marxist definition of ideology as part of the superstructure).
In semantics, discourses are linguistic units composed of several sentences — in other words, conversations, arguments or speeches. The study of discourses, or of language used by members of a speech community, is known as discourse analysis. It looks at both language form and function, and includes the study of both spoken interaction and written texts. It is a cross-disciplinary field, originally developing from sociolinguistics, anthropology, sociology and social psychology.
However, in the social sciences, a discourse is considered to be an institutionalized way of thinking, 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; in other words, 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. According to Foucault's definition, discourse must be heard rather as synonym of his concept of episteme, notwithstanding important theoretical displacements (episteme was first thought as the condition of possibility of discourses). In other words, Foucault's discourse must both be understood as a singular discourse, as defined above, and as a more general discourse, meaning the boundaries given to any particular discourse. In this more general sense, discourse is not composed only of words, which would be to limit oneself to a dualist conception: as he demonstrated in Discipline and Punish, discourse is also composed of architectural dispositifs, such as Jeremy Bentham's panopticon or the map of a classroom, etc.
According to Foucault, discourse can't be reduced to an ideological reflexion, it is to be thought as itself a Kampfplatz or battlefield. Against Kant's conception, Foucault argues that truth is not the objective bounty that the winners can take; truth is not an absolute, it is on the contrary produced in this battle with strategic aims. This conception of truth may be related to Althusser's theory on the "epistemological break" between science and ideology (the "epistemological break" is not an event, but a process; "science" always has to fight for its truth against ideology, which keeps coming back). Since truth and power are intrinsically related, according to Foucault, he can thus say that power relations are immanent to discourses, whereas in the classic marxist conception, the discourse is conceived as the ideological superstructure - which, of course, interacts with the infrastructure, as did Marx always write, but this doesn't impede the power relations being essentially located in the economic infrastructure, afterward reflected in the superstructure. Furthermore, as he showed in Society Must Be Defended (1976-77), discourse is not anyone's property and thus has no essentialist meaning. The same discourse may change political sides quite often, being reappropriated and endlessly modified, as did Foucault show in his analysis of the historical and political discourse. In other words, specific discourses are not tied to the subject; rather, the subject is a social construction of the discourse, or, as Nietzsche said, a "grammatical fiction". Judith Butler would maintain this ambivalency of discourse, which can be performed in various contexts by different subjectivities.
Critical Discourse Analysis
- Main article: Critical discourse analysis
Norman Fairclough's books, Language and Power (1989) and Critical Discourse Analysis (1995), are the origins of the term, which designs an interdisciplinary approach to the study of texts. It views "language as a form of social practice" and attempts "to unpack the ideological underpinnings of discourse that have become so naturalized over time that we begin to treat them as common, acceptable and natural features of discourse" (Peter Teo 2000). This analysis is founded on the idea that there is unequal access to linguistic and social resources, resources that are controlled institutionally. In terms of method, CDA can generally be described as hyper-linguistic or supra-linguistic, in that practitioners who use CDA consider the larger discourse context or the meaning that lies beyond the grammatical structure. This includes consideration of the political, and even the economic, context of language usage and production.
This approach is explicitely influenced by Althusser, Foucault or Pierre Bourdieu's analysis, in order to examine ideologies and power relations involved in discourse. Fairclough notes in a foucaldian statement "that language connects with the social through being the primary domain of ideology, and through being both a site of, and a stake in, struggles for power" (1989: 15).
In computational linguistics practice, a discourse may lightly refer to a cohesive piece of text, such as a newspaper article or a book paragraph.
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