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[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


Dissertation Log 1: My dissertation research project

I guess I’m not a typical blogger as I don’t like to generate my own reasons to blog: I blog when there’s a topic which interests me and about which I feel I can say something novel. (Which is another way of saying that a lot of blogs seem to be somewhat echo-chambery – not that echo chambers are inherently a bad thing, but that I don’t necessarily feel sufficiently married to any particular social group that I feel the need to necessarily reinforce my social bonds with that group by echoing discursive themes.)

However, having completed modules in science and the public and communicating science in the information age, and been awarded my post graduate diploma in science and society, I now have to research and write a 15,000 word dissertation. in order to get the full MSc in Science and society degree. (That’s mainly sociology of science and technology, with some philosophy of science, social psychology, linguistics, politics and other odds and sods.)

Well, my research proposal has been accepted. I’ll expand on the detail shortly, but part of the marking criteria includes keeping a regular research log. Rather than keep a purely private log, my intention is to develop it as part of my blog.

First, we are living in a networked world, and my research cannot exist independently of the world in which it exists, so this is a good way of acknowledging engaging what I’m doing with that world.

Second, one of my modules was on science communication in the digital age: if, as the basic thesis of that module proposes, the world of research is being transformed, I don’t think that can be restricted to just the natural sciences. I can do a bit of action research and actually try out the idea of a public lab book, and see how I feel about it, and how it compares with other projects I’ve worked on. May be it won’t work, but negative findings are still findings 😉

Third, the discipline of writing something each week will actually benefit me, ensuring I’m writing down what I’m thinking and allowing me to keep a track of the development of ideas and theories. It will probably allow me to air drafts of sections of the dissertation, and refine the arguments and presentation.

Fourth, I’d be interested in getting feedback on my ideas and actions. The main weakness of Open University study (and it’s not much of a weakness in the grand scheme of things) is that I often feel disconnected from the academic community, and I’d welcome intellectual discussion and constructive criticism of my ideas and action. This is not a licence to slag me off because you don’t like me, social science, my values, my face (you’re not alone in this one) or whatever, and I will cull comments which aren’t constructive, but could be fun for me. (Of course, what will probably happen is no-one will ever comment. Meh.)

So over the coming few months (the dissertation is to be submitted in September 2012) I will try to post a blog at least once a fortnight touching on my research; for example, my next post will be on choosing a methodology for undertaking the research. If you have questions, ideas and comments, please post them.

So, now for the big reveal, what is it I’m studying? I’m interested in the way social groups construct their views of scientific topics, and in particular in medical subjects. I’m also interested in a social group who describe themselves as “skeptics”; they’ve become increasingly active and high profile in the UK and I have a lot of sympathy with a lot of what they say and do, but there’s very little research into them as a social group, influence and norms and values. So, my proposal aims to explore those key areas.

My accepted proposal reads as follows:

The Burzynski Affair: a case study in perspectives on alternative cancer therapy

Patients with terminal cancers, their friends and families often seek out therapies which would not normally be considered as a “last ditch” effort to save their own or loved ones’ lives. An example of this type of therapy, which appears in the press not infrequently, is the “antineoplaston therapy” promoted by the Burzynski Clinic in Texas, USA ( A typical story is that of Chiane Cloete, a five year old girl who has been diagnosed with a supratentorial primitive neuroectodermal tumour in the brain; her parents are seeking to raise £130,000 to get her treatment “not available in the UK” at the Burzynski clinic (Parsons, 2011).

I am interested in exploring how four different groups represent the Burzynski Clinic’s therapies in discourse available publicly. The first group will be that of proponents of the Burzynski Clinic and its work. The principle sources will be the Burzynski website, promotional materials, testimonials (via blogs, tweets and publicly accessible fora) from patients and associated materials.

The second group will be that of skeptics in the UK (the spelling using a ‘k’ comes from the American spelling, and is used to differentiate skepticism – the movement – from scepticism – the philosophical position – although the two are not unrelated). Writing about the emerging skeptical community in the USA in 1993, Hess described skeptics as “antiantiscientists” (Hess, 1993, p 11) who focus on debunking and demystifying “parapsychology … superstition, occultism and ‘pseudoscience’” (ibid. p 11). In the intervening 18 years, a sceptical community has arisen in the UK, complete with its own internet counter-culture and real-world community events (such as skeptics in the pub, and conferences such as Q.E.D.). After skeptics in the UK raised concerns about Burzynski in September 2011, a threat of libel action was made against several of the sceptical voices. The principle sources will be sceptical websites, blogs, tweets and other associated materials of people in the UK who self-identify as skeptics, or who are strongly associated with the skeptic movement in the UK (for example, Dr Ben Goldacre, Robin Ince and Dr Brian Cox).

The third group will be the printed news media in the UK. The principle sources will be Nexis and using Google to find other material hosted on major outlet (ie. national distribution) websites. This will be limited to information available at no direct cost to the consumer.

The fourth group will involve a literature search exploring the view of peer-reviewed scientific journals and associated research (eg. Cochrane reviews). This will be as light-touch as possible, to identify the boundaries of knowledge rather than to provide a considered opinion on the use of such treatments.

In order to undertake this research, the following questions will be considered:

  1. What language is used by each group to describe the Burzynski therapy, and what are the implications of the language used?
  2. What are the similarities between the way the Burzynski therapy is represented by each groups, and what are the differences?
  3. What values are revealed or highlighted by the language used by the contrasting groups?
  4. How does what each of the groups say compare with what the scientific literature has to say on the issue? What situated knowledge is implicit or explicit in the discourse?
  5. How are groups (particularly proponents and skeptics) represented by the other participants in the discourse?
  6. What implications does this analysis of the discourse have for understanding the ways in which an issue is represented in the public?

Exploring these research questions will demonstrate an understanding of the ways in science, scientists and their limitations are understood and represented by contrasting public groups. This will touch on issues raised in S802 such as concepts of anti-science, ethics, expertise, regulation, policy and risk.

Certainly the issue raises questions of what constitutes science and non-science (see for example: Grove, 1989), but also raises the issues of the knowledge boundaries of scientific research (Collins & Pinch, 1998). It also touches on how scientific knowledge is used, constructed and reconstructed in everyday life (Irwin & Wynne, 1996).


  1. Construct a narrative relating to the Burzynski affair based on publicly available material
  2. Compare and contrast through discourse analysis four differing perspectives on the Burzynski affair: proponents, skeptics in the UK, UK news media and published papers in scientific journals
  3. Understand how the perspectives reflect on the construction of scientific knowledge, uncertainty and how the values of each group influence their representation of the issue

Collins, H., & Pinch, T. (1998). The Golem: What You Should Know about Science (Second.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Grove, J. (1989). Anti-science. In Defence of Science: Science, Technology and Politics in Modern Society (pp. 151-177). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Hess, D. J. (1993). Science in the New Age: the paranormal, its defenders and debunkers, and American culture. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Irwin, A., & Wynne, B. (1996). Misunderstanding Science? The public reconstruction of science and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kozinets, R. V. (2010). Netnography: doing ethnographic research online. London: Sage.

Parsons, R. (2011, December 14). Cancer girl’s £130,000 plea for life-saving operation in US | News. The London Evening Standard. London.