Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, 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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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core definition

Discourse is the presentation of a perspective either verbally or in writing, often formally and at length.

explanatory context

Discourse originally meant an argumentative exchange, in the sense of two proponents of different points of view exchanging arguments in a discourse, or an exposition of a particular argument, as in the sense of a person discoursing on a subject. Indeed dictionary definitions assert variants on the following:


Discourse, as a verb, is to write or speak formally and at length or to, converse, that is, to engage in conversation or discussion. As a nouns , a discourse is a verbal expression or written expression; a conversation; a formal lengthy discussion of a subject; or, for rather more old-fashioned meaning, the process or power of reasoning (from Medieval Latin discursus).


With the advent of postmodernism, discourse became a relatively meaningless term referring to any form of communication or exposition or argument, on the one hand and implying an embedded worldview, presupposition or ideology, on the other. In short, just about anything is a discourse, whether or not it involves any one directly expressing an argument, formal or otherwise.

analytical review

Locke (2004):

One definition regards a discourse as a coherent way of making sense of the world (or some aspect of it) as reflected in human sign systems (including verbal language).

Fairclough (undated, p. 2) stated:

The term ‘discourse’ is used in various ways within the broad field of discourse analysis. Two are of particular relevance here. First, ‘discourse’ in an abstract sense as a category which designates the broadly semiotic elements (as opposed to and in relation to other, non-semiotic, elements) of social life (language, but also visual semiosis, ‘body language’ etc). I prefer to use the term ‘semiosis’ (Fairclough, Jessop & Sayer 2004) to avoid the common confusion of this sense of ‘discourse’ with the second, which I retain: ‘discourse’ as a count noun, as a category for designating particular ways of representing particular aspects of social life (e.g. it is common to distinguish different political discourses, which represent for example problems of inequality, disadvantage, poverty, ‘social exclusion’, in different ways). The category of ‘discourse’ in this second sense is defined through its relation to and difference from two other categories, ‘genre’ and ‘style’....

associated issues


related areas

See also

conversation analysis

discourse analysis



Fairclough, N., Jessop, R. and Sayer, A., 2004, 'Critical realism and semiosis' in: Joseph, J and Roberts, J. (Eds.), Realism Discourse and Deconstruction. London, Routledge.

Fairclough, N., undated, Critical Discourse Analysis, available at, accessed 30 July 2013, page not available 17 December 2016.

Locke, T., 2004, Critical Discourse Analysis. London, Continuum.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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