Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Discourse analysis

core definition

Discourse analysis is a term used for a variety of processes that examine or deconstruct the underlying meanings in speech or other form of communicative text.

explanatory context

The focus of discourse analysis is on the language used and what the implicit, underlying, taken-for-granted or concealed meanings might be.

analytical review

Heffernan (undated) described discourse analysis as follows:

Discourse Analysis: This is concerned with the production of meaning through talk and texts. Language is viewed as the topic of the research and how people use language to construct their accounts of the social world is important.

The University of Texas at Austin (undated) explains discourse analysis as follows:

It is difficult to give a single definition of Critical or Discourse Analysis as a research method. Indeed, rather than providing a particular method, Discourse Analysis can be characterized as a way of approaching and thinking about a problem. In this sense, Discourse Analysis is neither a qualitative nor a quantitative research method, but a manner of questioning the basic assumptions of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Discourse Analysis does not provide a tangible answer to problems based on scientific research, but it enables access to the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind a project, a statement, a method of research, or - to provide an example from the field of Library and Information Science - a system of classification. In other words, Discourse Analysis will enable to reveal the hidden motivations behind a text or behind the choice of a particular method of research to interpret that text. Expressed in today's more trendy vocabulary, Critical or Discourse Analysis is nothing more than a deconstructive reading and interpretation of a problem or text (while keeping in mind that postmodern theories conceive of every interpretation of reality and, therefore, of reality itself as a text. Every text is conditioned and inscribes itself within a given discourse, thus the term Discourse Analysis). Discourse Analysis will, thus, not provide absolute answers to a specific problem, but enable us to understand the conditions behind a specific "problem" and make us realize that the essence of that "problem", and its resolution, lie in its assumptions; the very assumptions that enable the existence of that "problem". By enabling us to make these assumption explicit, Discourse Analysis aims at allowing us to view the "problem" from a higher stance and to gain a comprehensive view of the "problem" and ourselves in relation to that "problem". Discourse Analysis is meant to provide a higher awareness of the hidden motivations in others and ourselves and, therefore, enable us to solve concrete problems - not by providing unequivocal answers, but by making us ask ontological and epistemological questions....

Van Dijk (undated, pp. 352–3) answered the question 'What Is Critical Discourse Analysis?' as follows:

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance, and inequality are enacted, reproduced, and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context. With such dissident research, critical discourse analysts take explicit position, and thus want to understand, expose, and ultimately resist social inequality.
Some of the tenets of CDA can already be found in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School before the Second World War (Agger 1992b; Rasmussen 1996). Its current focus on language and discourse was initiated with the "critical linguistics" that emerged (mostly in the UK and Australia) at the end of the 1970s (Fowler et al. 1979; see also Mey 1985). CDA has also counterparts in "critical" developments in sociolinguistics, psychology, and the social sciences, some already dating back to the early 1970s (Birnbaum 1971; Calhoun 1995; Fay 1987; Fox and Prilleltensky 1997; Hymes 1972; Ibanez and Iniguez 1997; Singh 1996; Thomas 1993; Turkel 1996; Wodak 1996). As is the case in these neighboring disciplines, CDA may be seen as a reaction against the dominant formal (often "asocial" or "uncritical") paradigms of the 1960s and 1970s.
CDA is not so much a direction, school, or specialization next to the many other "approaches" in discourse studies. Rather, it aims to offer a different "mode" or "perspective" of theorizing, analysis, and application throughout the whole field. We may find a more or less critical perspective in such diverse areas as pragmatics, conversation analysis, narrative analysis, rhetoric, stylistics, sociolinguistics, ethnography, or media analysis, among others.
Crucial for critical discourse analysts is the explicit awareness of their role in society. Continuing a tradition that rejects the possibility of a "value-free" science, they argue that science, and especially scholarly discourse, are inherently part of and influenced by social structure, and produced in social interaction. Instead of denying or ignoring such a relation between scholarship and society, they plead that such relations be studied and accounted for in their own right, and that scholarly practices be based on such insights. Theory formation, description, and explanation, also in discourse analysis, are sociopolitically "situated," whether we like it or not. Reflection on the role of scholars in society and the polity thus becomes an inherent part of the discourse analytical enterprise. This may mean, among other things, that dis- course analysts conduct research in solidarity and cooperation with dominated groups.

Hammersley (2002, pp. 1–3) attempted to provide a guide to the differences in the types of discourse analysis:

The term ‘discourse analysis’ is interpreted here as referring to detailed analysis of language-in-use, whether this takes the form of speech or text. (In practice, it is almost always text which is analysed, since speech is usually transcribed from audio- or video-recordings for analysis.)

Even as defined here, rather narrowly, ‘discourse analysis’ covers a multitude of rather different approaches. These vary in several important ways: in their focus, in what sorts of knowledge claim they aim to make, and in the kinds of technique they deploy.

[On] focus, we can distinguish, to some extent, between analysis which is restricted to conclusions about discourse itself, and that which is directed towards drawing conclusions about social or societal processes or structures. For example, discourse analysis based on systemic linguistics falls into the first category: it usually draws a sharp line between language and society, and focuses primarily on the first. By contrast, much discourse analysis in social psychology and sociology has a broader focus, often rejecting any discursive/social distinction—on the grounds that all discourse is action and all action is discursive.
Equally significant are differences in aim. As with other kinds of social research, discourse analysis varies in terms of whether the exclusive immediate goal is to produce knowledge or extends beyond this to include practical or political purposes. There is a very sharp contrast in this respect, for instance, between Conversation Analysis (CA) and Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA). The latter rejects the very idea that research can avoid serving political purposes. The former usually adopts a relatively strict value-neutral approach, though there have been attempts to change this...

Sometimes, discourse analysis is applied to some set of texts in order to draw substantive conclusions about the way in which the production and effects of those texts are related to the particular social contexts in which they are located. Alternatively, discourse analysis may be used to develop theoretical understanding of various general types of discursive mechanism, rather than particular instances of them....

Another area of disagreement concerns what can reasonably be inferred from texts, however produced; and this is closely related to the question of how context can and should be used to inform the analysis. Thus, as developed by Sacks and (especially) Schegloff, CA limits inferences to what can be validated by reference to what is observable in the discourse being analysed. The argument is that there has to be some analytically rigorous means of determining what is to count as context; since this will shape any interpretation of the text, and there are always alternative possible interpretations of context.... Once again, CDA is at the other end of this spectrum. Advocates of that approach argue that one cannot properly understand what goes on in any particular interactional episode unless one knows its place in the relevant macro societal context; and to a large extent this has to be specified by the analyst rather than by participants, given the role of ideology in capitalist society. It is this context, the argument goes, which largely determines what happens in the discourse. An example is Fairclough’s analyses of newspaper reports in terms of the functions they serve in reproducing capitalism (see N. Fairclough Critical Discourse Analysis, London, Longman, 1995). Most discourse analysts probably occupy positions somewhere between these two extremes; focusing more on local contexts and/or treating contextual knowledge as a fallible resource to be used in a tentative fashion.

associated issues


related areas

See also

conversation analysis

critical social research

critical theory


document analysis



Agger, B., 1992b, The Discourse of Domination. From The Frankfurt School to Postmodernism. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Birnbaum, N., 1971, Toward a Critical Sociology, New York, Oxford University Press.

Calhoun, C., 1995, Critical Social Theory, Oxford, Blackwell.

Fay, B., 1987, Critical Social Science, Cambridge: Polity.

Fowler, R., Hodge, B., Kress, G., and Trew, T., 1979, Language and Control, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Fox, D. R. and Prilleltensky, I., 1997, Critical Psychology. An Introduction, London, Sage.

Heffernan, C., undated, 'Document analysis', available at, accessed 15 May 2013, still available 17 December 2016.

Hammersley. M., 2002, Discourse Analysis: A bibliographic guide, Revised April 2002, available at, accessed 31 July 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Hymes, D. (Ed.), 1972, Reinventing Anthropology, New York, Vintage Books.

Ibanez, T. and Iniguez, L. (Eds), 1997, Critical Social Psychology, London, Sage.

Mey, J. L., 1985, Whose Language. A Study in Linguistic Pragmatics, Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Rasmussen, D. M. (Ed.), 1996, The Handbook of Critical Theory, Oxford, Blackwell.

Singh, R. (Ed.), 1996, Towards a Critical Sociolinguistics, Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Thomas, J., 1993, Doing Critical Ethnography, Newbury Park, Sage.

Turkel, G., 1996, Law and Society. Critical Approaches, Boston, MA, Allyn and Bacon.

University of Texas at Austin, undated, 'Discourse analysis', available at, accessed 15 May 2013, still available 17 December 2016.

Van Dijk, T.A., undated, 'Critical Discourse Analysis?' on Research in Critical Discourse Studies website, available at, accessed 15 May 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Wodak, R., 1996, Disorders of Discourse, London, Longman.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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