Discourse (from Latin discursus, meaning "running to and from") generally refers to "written or spoken communication". [1] The following are three more specific definitions:

  • In semantics and discourse analysis: A generalization of the concept of conversation to all modalities and contexts.
  • "The totality of codified linguistic usages attached to a given type of social practice. (E.g.: legal discourse, medical discourse, religious discourse.)" [2]
  • In the work of Michel Foucault, and social theorists inspired by him: "an entity of sequences of signs in that they are enouncements (enoncés)."[3] An enouncement (l'énoncé - often translated as "statement") is not a unity of signs, but an abstract matter that enables signs to assign specific repeatable relations to objects, subjects and other enouncements.[3] Thus, a discourse constitutes sequences of such relations to objects, subjects and other enouncements. A discursive formation is defined as the regularities that produces such discourses. Foucault used the concept of discursive formation in relation to his analysis of large bodies of knowledge, such as political economy and natural history.[4]

Discourse in the first sense is studied in corpus linguistics. Analysis of discourse in the second and third senses is carried out within a variety of traditions that investigate the relations between language, structure and agency, including sociology, feminist studies, anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory, and the philosophy of science. Within these fields, the notion of "discourse" is itself subject to discourse, that is, debated on the basis of specialized knowledge. Discourse can be observed in multimodal/multimedia forms of communication including the use of spoken, written and signed language in contexts spanning from oral history to instant message conversations to textbooks.

Discourses being corpuses of texts or communication have internal relations to themselves as well as external to other discourses. Thus, a discourse is not locally isolated, rather interdiscourse and interdiscusivity takes part in the constitution of a discourse.


In the humanities

In the humanities and sometimes the social sciences, 'discourse' refers to a formalized way of thinking that can be manifested through language, 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; it is not possible to avoid 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 provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.

Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them. That is language talking about language, for instance the American Psychological Association's DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry. [5]

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. This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (see below).


Modern theorists were focused on achieving progress and believed in the existence of natural and social laws which could be used universally to develop knowledge and thus a better understanding of society.[6] Modernist theorists were preoccupied with obtaining the truth and reality and sought to develop theories which contained certainty and predictability.[7] Modernist theorists therefore viewed discourse as being relative to talking or way of talking and understood discourse to be functional.[8] Discourse and language transformations are ascribed to progress or the need to develop new or more “accurate” words to describe new discoveries, understandings, or areas of interest.[8] In modern times, language and discourse are dissociated from power and ideology and instead conceptualized as “natural” products of common sense usage or progress.[8] Modernism further gave rise to the liberal discourses of rights, equality, freedom, and justice; however, this rhetoric masked substantive inequality and failed to account for differences, according to Regnier.[9]


Structuralist theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, argue that all human actions and social formations are related to language and can be understood as systems of related elements.[10] This means that the “…individual elements of a system only have significance when considered in relation to the structure as a whole, and that structures are to be understood as self-contained, self-regulated, and self-transforming entities.” [11] In other words, it is the structure itself that determines the significance, meaning and function of the individual elements of a system. Structuralism has made an important contribution to our understanding of language and social systems. Saussure’s theory of language highlights the decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life more generally.[10]


Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged postmodern theory.[6] Postmodern theorists rejected modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society.[7] Rather, postmodernist theorists were interested in examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and common experiences.[8]

In contrast to modern theory, postmodern theory is more fluid and allows for individual differences as it rejected the notion of social laws. Postmodern theorists shifted away from truth seeking and instead sought answers for how truths are produced and sustained. Postmodernists contended that truth and knowledge is plural, contextual, and historically produced through discourses. Postmodern researchers therefore embarked on analyzing discourses such as texts, language, policies and practices.[8]

French social theorist Michel Foucault developed a notion of discourse in his early work, especially the Archaeology of knowledge (1972). In Discursive Struggles Within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood,[12] Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault's definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak." Foucault traces the role of discourses in wider social processes of legitimating and power, emphasizing the construction of current truths, how they are maintained and what power relations they carry with them.” Foucault later theorized that discourse is a medium through which power relations produce speaking subjects.[8] Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and therefore every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power. Foucault further stated that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth.[8] Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse therefore is controlled by objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak.[13] Coining the phrases power-knowledge Foucault (1980) stated knowledge was both the creator of power and creation of power. An object becomes a "node within a network." In his work, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network. A book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather "is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences." The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, over-arching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.


Feminists have explored the complex relationships that exist among power, ideology, language and discourse.[14] Feminist theory talks about "doing gender" and/or "performing gender".[15] It is suggested that gender is a property, not of persons themselves but of the behaviours to which members of a society ascribe a gendering meaning. “Being a man/woman involves appropriating gendered behaviours and making them part of the self that an individual presents to others. Repeated over time, these behaviours may be internalized as "me"—that is, gender does not feel like a performance or an accomplishment to the actor, it just feels like her or his "natural" way of behaving."[16] Feminist theorists have attempted to recover the subject and "subjectivity." Chris Weedon, one of the best known scholars working in the feminist poststructuralist tradition, has sought to integrate individual experience and social power in a theory of subjectivity.[17] Weedon defines subjectivity as "the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself, and her ways of understanding her relation to the world.[17] Judith Butler, also another well known post structuralist feminist scholar, explains that the performativity of gender offers an important contribution to the conceptual understanding of processes of subversion. She argues that subversion occurs through the enactment of an identity that is repeated in directions that go back and forth which then results in the displacement of the original goals of dominant forms of power.[18]

See also


  1. ^ Compact Oxford Dictionary, Thesaurus and Wordpower Guide [2001], Oxford University Press, New York
  2. ^ Marks, Larry (June 2001). "A Little Glossary of Semantics". revue-texto.net. http://www.revue-texto.net/Reperes/Glossaires/Glossaire_en.html#discourse. Retrieved 25 Mai 2011. 
  3. ^ a b M. Foucault (1969). L'Archéologie du savoir. Paris: Éditions Gallimard. 
  4. ^ M. Foucault (1970). The order of things. Pantheon. ISBN 0415267374. 
  5. ^ Catherine F. Schryer and Philippa Spoel. Genre Theory, Health-Care Discourse, and Professional Identity Formation. Journal of Business and Technical Communication 2005; 19; 249 http://jbt.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/19/3/249
  6. ^ a b J. Larrain (1994). Ideology and cultural identity: Modernity and the third world presence. Cambridge: Polity Press. 
  7. ^ a b Steven Best & Douglas Kellner (1997). The postmodern turn. The Guilford Press. ISBN 1572302216. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f g Strega, 2005
  9. ^ Regnier, 2005
  10. ^ a b D. Howarth (2000). Discourse. Philadelphia, Pa.: Open University Press. ISBN 0335200702. 
  11. ^ D. Howarth (2000). Discourse. Philadelphia, Pa.: Open University Press. p. 17. ISBN 0335200702. 
  12. ^ I. Lessa (2006). "Discoursive struggles within social welfare: Restaging teen motherhood". British Journal of Social Work 36 (2): 283–298. doi:10.1093/bjsw/bch256. 
  13. ^ M. Foucault (1972). Archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0415287529. 
  14. ^ Strega, 2005.
  15. ^ Cameron, 2001.
  16. ^ Cameron, 2001, at 171.
  17. ^ a b Weedon, 1987.
  18. ^ Lessa, 2006.


  • M. Foucault (1977). Discipline and Punish. New York: Pantheon. ISBN 0394499425. 
  • M. Foucault (1980). "Two Lectures," in Colin Gordon, ed., Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews. New York: Pantheon. 
  • M. Foucault (2003). Society Must Be Defended. New York: Picador. ISBN 0312422660. 
  • A. McHoul & W. Grace (1993). A Foucault primer: Discourse, power, and the subject. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. ISBN 0814754805. 
  • J. Motion & S. Leitch (2007). "A toolbox for public relations: The oeuvre of Michel Foucault". Public Relations Review 33 (3): 263–268. doi:10.1016/j.pubrev.2007.05.004. 
  • R. Mullaly (1997). Structural social work: Ideology, theory, and practice (2nd ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0771066732. 
  • B. Norton (1997). "Language, identity, and the ownership of English". TESOL Quarterly (Teachers of English to Speakers of Other Languages, Inc. (TESOL)) 31 (3): 409–429. doi:10.2307/3587831. JSTOR 3587831. 
  • Research as resistance: Critical, indigenous and anti-oppressive approaches.(2005). In Brown L. A., Strega S. (Eds.), Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  • S. Strega (2005). The view from the poststructural margins: Epistemology and methodology reconsidered. In L. Brown, & S. Strega (Eds.), Research as resistance (pp. 199–235). Toronto: Canadian Scholars' Press.
  • J. Sunderland (2004). Gendered discourses. New York: PalgraveMacmillan. 

External links

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Look at other dictionaries:

  • discourse — n Discourse, treatise, disquisition, dissertation, thesis, monograph designate in common a systematic, serious, and often learned consideration of a subject or topic. Discourse, the widest of these terms, may refer to something written or spoken… …   New Dictionary of Synonyms

  • Discourse — Dis*course , n. [L. discursus a running to and fro, discourse, fr. discurrere, discursum, to run to and fro, to discourse; dis + currere to run: cf. F. discours. See {Course}.] 1. The power of the mind to reason or infer by running, as it were,… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • discourse — discourse, discourse analysis The study of language , its structure, functions, and patterns in use. For Ferdinand de Saussure , language in use (or parole) could not serve as the object of study for linguistics, since as compared tolangue (the… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Discourse — Dis*course , v. i. [imp. & p. p. {Discoursed}; p. pr. & vb. n. {Discoursing}.] 1. To exercise reason; to employ the mind in judging and inferring; to reason. [Obs.] Have sense or can discourse. Dryden. [1913 Webster] 2. To express one s self in… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • Discourse — Dis*course , v. t. 1. To treat of; to expose or set forth in language. [Obs.] [1913 Webster] The life of William Tyndale . . . is sufficiently and at large discoursed in the book. Foxe. [1913 Webster] 2. To utter or give forth; to speak. [1913… …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • discourse — [n] dialogue; dissertation address, article, chat, communication, conversation, converse, descant, discussion, disquisition, essay, gabfest*, homily, huddle, lecture, memoir, monograph, monologue, oration, paper, rhetoric, sermon, speaking,… …   New thesaurus

  • discourse — [dis′kôrs΄; ] also, & for v. usually [, dis kôrs′] n. [ME & OFr discours < L discursus, discourse < pp. of discurrere, to run to and fro < dis , from, apart + currere, to run: see CURRENT] 1. communication of ideas, information, etc.,… …   English World dictionary

  • discourse — I noun address, allocution, argument, argumentation, commentary, conference, conlocutio, conloquium, conversation, declamation, dialogue, discussion, disquisition, dissertation, elucidation, exchange of views, excursus, exhortation, exposition,… …   Law dictionary

  • discourse — (n.) late 14c., process of understanding, reasoning, thought, from Fr. discours, from L. discursus a running about, in L.L. conversation, from pp. stem of discurrere run about, from dis apart (see DIS (Cf. dis )) + currere to run (see CURRENT …   Etymology dictionary

  • discourse — is pronounced with stress on the first syllable as a noun, and with stress on the second syllable as a verb …   Modern English usage

  • discourse — ► NOUN 1) written or spoken communication or debate. 2) a formal discussion of a topic in speech or writing. ► VERB 1) speak or write authoritatively about a topic. 2) engage in conversation. ORIGIN Latin discursus running to and fro , from… …   English terms dictionary

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