D is for Discourse

Although I don’t call the kind of analysis of language I do “discourse analysis” – it arises from different sources to the academic practice known technically by that name – as a method, it has a lot in common and I do end up identifying some ‘discourses’ around the topics which interest me. You can read the Wikipedia article about discourse or the University of Strathclyde’s piece about discourse analysis, but these get technical quite quickly. Rather than using the term discourse, I might talk about the way in which an issue is framed, or how some terms are expected to appear together – so often, sometimes, that it can seem natural or even inevitable, although language isn’t really either of those things.

For example, much of my work focusses on religious language, and specifically on ways of talking about – or the discourse around – God (or the Light, or the Spirit, or whatever you call it: regular readers of this blog will know this song by now!). In this work, I’ve identified the use of lists as a key feature of some ways of approaching the problem. They work in several ways: pointing out and making explicit the diversity of the community’s theological views; demonstrating the value the community places on both inclusion (all these perspectives are included in our list); and potentially directing us back towards a negative theology in which we cannot say anything about God by saying too much, overwhelming us with words. Here, talking about the discourse around naming the Divine directs our attention towards the way that language is used in a particular social context to construct a community with particular features (one which values both diversity and inclusivity, for example).

In other situations, the discourse around a term might tell us how people understand that word or phrase – looking at how they use it and what else comes to mind when they think about it can tell us a lot about what the term means to them. This is part of what I’ll be doing in my current research project about ‘threshing’ as a Quaker concept. I don’t want to say much about this yet, because it’s still in progress (you could help by filling in the survey or coming to the workshop). However, the questions we are asking in that work could be described in part as looking at the discourse around threshing.

The concept of discourse has been used in all sorts of contexts to look more deeply into the ways which people talk about things. Everything from the way we talk about health to the way the media talks about political figures can be addressed by looking at discourse which surrounds a concept – usually there turn out to be overriding ideas present in popular discourse around a topic (for example: ‘health’ looks a certain way and can be measured by weight and other numbers; ‘politicians’ are described using a particular set of verbs and adjectives). Recently, I’ve been paying attention to the Quaker discourse around nominations, and realising that the words paired with the term ‘nominations’ can be subtly weighted: ‘nominations committee’, ‘nominations business’, ‘nominations process’ and ‘the Friend nominated’ but also ‘accepting nomination’, ‘considering nominations’, ‘nominated and appointed’, etc. Perhaps some of the significance of these becomes clear when you consider possible alternative discourses: what if, instead of ‘accepting nomination’, Friends ‘welcomed nomination’ or ‘submitted to nomination’? It’s clear to me that these terms feel very different and that in choosing the term ‘accept’ the community is saying something about what it is like to be asked to be nominated and to say ‘yes’ to that. (I’m still working on exactly what it says, suggestions for further discourse analysis in this area are welcome!)

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