[Dissertation Log 2] Discourse: what and why?

My dissertation is going to use a technique called ‘discourse analysis’ to help me understand the ways in which people are talking about a particular alternative cancer therapy, and invariably about the people involved in delivering, using and promoting the therapy. But what is discourse, and why is it important? My aim in this post is break down what we mean by discourse, and why I think it’s important, and useful for my topic.

“The Universe began with a word you know. But which came first? The word, or the thought behind the word? You can’t create language without thought, and you can’t conceive a thought without language. So, which created the other, and thus created the Universe?”
– Lorien, Babylon 5 ‘Whatever Happened to Mr Garibaldi?’ (s4 e02)

As Lorien told Sheridan in Babylon 5, words and thoughts, and therefore attitudes, beliefs and values, are deeply intertwined in such a way that it’s impossible to tell where language shapes our thought and our thoughts shape our language. This is true not only about individuals – after all, this is the basis of going and talking to a counsellor – but also about wider society.

The language used to talk about a subject – spoken or written, in conversation, in formal and informal publications such as newspapers and blogs, on broadcast media or in other locations – both reflects and shapes the attitudes and thoughts we have about the subject. We call this collection of written and spoken communication “discourse”, and we can use discourse analysis to understand the the underlying attitudes and thoughts and how each influence the other.

A classic example of this is looking at the language used in national newspapers and politics to describe asylum seekers. Asylum seekers are those people who travel to Britain from abroad seeking sanctuary from abuse in their own countries, and, wearing my namby-pamby pinko commie liberal T-shirt for a second, their stories are frequently horrific and heartbreaking. (Examples taken from Lynn and Lea 2003 : 446, as quoted in Bryman 2008 p 506.)

However, the people writing and talking about asylum seekers often (and sometimes deliberately) confuse the concepts of asylum seekers with immigrants here for economic, family or other reasons. In addition, the language used often paints an extreme view of what an asylum seeker is. For example, a letter to The Sun stated, “[they should] say no now and again instead of accepting every freebie that comes their way…” a perspective which ignores that under UK law asylum seekers are not legally able to work or claim many benefits.

“Asylum seekers who are genuine should have no qualms about being held in a reception centre”. This quote from a letter to the ever compassionate Daily Mail suggests that people escaping political imprisonment and torture shouldn’t have a problem with being locked up without charge.

A final letter confuses the value, ‘society has a responsibility to support asylum seekers’ with ‘I have a personal responsibility to support asylum seekers’: “A solution to the problem of dispersing asylum seekers is staring us in the face – namely, billet them free of charge on white liberals… White liberals will of course be only to happy to welcome them into their homes. Indeed, it is most odd that they have not been queuing up to offer their services.” (from The Independent).

The use of language contributes to how publics build their view of the topic. In this case, it is argued that these extreme positions (asylum seekers shouldn’t accept ‘freebies’, asylum seeks should be locked up, ‘white liberals’ should house asylum seekers free of charge) influence the ways in which people talk about asylum seekers.

One way of thinking about this is by imagining the range of all possible conversations on a topic as a spectrum running from red at one end to violet at the other, with red and violet representing extreme positions (say, violet being ‘we shouldn’t tolerate asylum seekers being in the country at all’ and red being ‘anyone who says they’re an asylum seeker should be welcomed at the tax-payers expense’ – note this is not intended to represent political party affiliations).

Visible spectrum running from Violet through Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red

Visible spectrum running from Violet through Indigo, Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange and Red.

The actual conversations that are being had can be imagined as a window onto the spectrum, and the Lynn and Lea research suggested that in 2003 the conversation was perhaps around the blue indigo region of the spectrum. Every time someone makes a contribution to the conversation – perhaps a violet-, green- or red-tinged comment – that window representing the conversation moves a bit in that direction.

The louder the contribution, the bigger the movement, so a comment from a leading politician would cause a bigger movement than a comment from a drunk bloke in the pub (although, arguably you may not be able to tell the different between their statements). If there are enough people making violet or red contributions then the window might stretch wide, suggesting that public opinion is spread across the entire spectrum. However, if all of the contributions are at one end, then the window is likely to be very narrow.

People who subscribe to the concept of social construction believe that the language used builds the ways in which we view the world, so they often examine the language being used to look at what we mean when we use certain words or concepts. So, in the example I’ve quoted here, we could argue that the language constructs a quite an extreme anti-asylum seeker position, which could perhaps be argued to be borderline racist in nature.

I would personally argue that this is the dominant view in society, and it’s a position that I don’t support. However, I am fascinated by the interplay between the newspapers’ use of language and the attitudes and values of people in society. Do newspapers or people have more influence over the other? Does the language or the thought come first?

It’s for this reason that I think conversations – discourse – are important. It’s rare that I get to cite one of my favourite television programmes when I’m writing, let alone twice in one piece, but I think G’Kar might just have it right:

“Our thoughts form the universe. They are always important.”
– Citizen G’Kar, Babylon 5 ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ (s4 e01)

In my next post, I’ll be discussing several different-but-related approaches to understanding how a particular discourse is being built, and making a decision about which method I am going to use in my project.


Bryman, Alan (2008) Social Research Methods 3rd edition, Oxford University Press (Oxford)

Lynn, Nick & Lea, Susan (2003) ‘”A Phantom Menace and the New Apartheid”: The Social Construction of Asylum Seekers in the United Kingdom’, Discourse and Society, 14 : 425-52


About David Waldock

Open University graduate, health and life science at undergraduate level, science and society at post-graduate. Interested in how the Internet is transforming the ways in which the public(s) engage with science(s). Also interested in "the skeptical movement" as a form of science activism and it's effectiveness in achieving its goals. Interested in the representation of LGB types in science and in the periscience communities. Work for a well known and loved public institution. Views are mine and not necessarily my employers.

One response to “[Dissertation Log 2] Discourse: what and why?”

  1. Sarah Waldock says :

    I’ve always had a theory that you can tell a lot about a nation’s general traits by studying its language.
    German for example has no word for ‘fluffy’ and has a tendency to cram a load of words together as portmanteau words.
    Both Finnish and Japanese permit one to talk [like English] for a long time about the weather without having to touch on any meaningful communication.
    Oh, and go G’kar. One of my favourite characters.

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