Knowing or Understanding


I spent the better part of yesterday and today reflecting on how I would explain discourse analysis to someone now that I’ve attended two classes and read a few introductory texts. I don’t have any more clarity than I did last week at this time. Actually, I think my understanding is a bit muddier.

Whenever I’m grappling with something like understanding discourse analysis, it’s always muddy at the outset. And often it remains muddy for quite awhile. Maybe that’s a good sign. Often when I think I’m clear on something soon after encountering it, I’ve only acquired knowledge and not necessarily understanding. I’m distinguishing between knowledge and understanding here in the same way Richard Feynman does. Actually, Feynman distinguishes between knowing the name of something and knowing something. I’m translating this as knowing something and understanding something.

Knowing what discourse analysis is, for instance, means if someone puts an example of discourse analysis in front of me, say this week’s paper on the discursive construction of intelligence, and asks me what it is, I would answer,

“That’s discourse analysis.”

To prove that I understand it, I would have to say something like,

“Lester and Gabriel are exploring how textbook authors use the ‘available discourses’ of intelligence to ‘create and negotiate representations’ (lg) of students and their cognitive potential, and, in addition, to explore the social consequences of this use. Textbooks are one way teachers’ thoughts on intelligence are ‘formed and transformed,’ (w) and the consequences of their understanding of intelligence as either fixed or malleable are actually quite profound since it has been suggested, as they point out, that there might be ‘a strong relationship between teachers’ views on intelligence and students’ view of intelligence.’ (lg) Students are products of their interactions with their teachers. Can they learn? Or are they naturally inhibited from learning? Teachers are products of their interactions with textbooks. Is intelligence fixed or is it malleable? What is the relationship between ideology and the discursive construction of intelligence? And textbook authors are apparently products of their interactions with other sources of authority. What do the experts say about intelligence? At each level, an individual is both ‘the product of a discourse and the producer of discourse in specific contexts of interaction.’ (w) So with all of this in mind, we can say that this is discourse analysis from a discursive psychology perspective.”

**Quotes within the quotes come both from the Lester and Gabriel (lg) reading and last week’s Woofit (w) reading.

I think what really resonates with me this week is the conclusion that it is impossible to explain discourse analysis effectively without an example of it. Jonathan Potter points out how discourse, the word, has many meanings. “Sometimes discourse is treated simply as a word for language-in-use; at other times a discourse is theorized as a linguistic object that can be counted and described.” So, that means we might rename discourse analysis as Language-in-use Analysis or Linguistic Object Analysis or maybe even Utterance Pattern Analysis (from last week’s Woofit reading), which is possibly the same thing as Language-in-use Analysis.

I’m not attempting to come up with a unified definition or anything. The complexity is ok. I think my grappling is born out of two things: a fascination with definitions and a frustration that comes from reading many papers whose keywords’ meanings are just sort of taken for granted. Discourse is a muddy word. That’s ok. Maybe all words are muddy words. The poststructuralism-informed metaphor of the fishing net versus the internet re: acquisition of meaning from last week’s Jorgensen reading seems relevant here. Word meanings are flexible. They change. They die out. There isn’t one explanation of discourse analysis. There’s several depending on the context. But all this does is reaffirm the importance of understanding these multiple meanings so that when someone puts something in front of me that doesn’t look like the Lester and Gabriel (or Hepburn) reading(s) I can still explain why it’s discourse analysis and not something else.

Discourse Analysis


I’m excited. The first readings for this discourse analysis class were really interesting. I’ve organized some thoughts into the following bullet points in no particular order. Questions and critiques are welcome!

  • I was interested to learn that discourse analysis (like hci and design) is not immune from poor definitions of key terms and that there is a lack of consensus regarding what discourse means and how to analyze it. I believe Jorgensen describes use of the word discourse as “indiscriminate,” which at least communicates that it should be used with more precision and care. I’m unsure about is the degree to which this indiscriminate use is actually harmful to discourse analysis writ large. How is discourse analysis (the field?) suffering from the indiscriminate use of one of its key (if not the key) terms? I’m confronting a similar question in my own work in design research.
  • I was really intrigued by a few insights near the end of the Jorgensen reading about what the purpose of discourse analysis is and is not. Discourse analysis is not about getting “behind the discourse to find out what people really mean.” It is about “identifying the social consequences of different discursive representations of reality.” It was especially helpful to consider this insight relative to the Hepburn reading, which clarified for me what it means to identify such social consequences. Of course, I also found some of Jorgensen’s closing insights challenging, e.g. distancing one’s self from one’s object of study. Is this because the distance helps the researcher to circumvent the discursive limits constraining their object of study? For example, the distance between Hepburn and the discursive practices in the secondary school where she conducted her research better positioned her to identify the limits hindering attempts to “tackle the problem of bullying”
  • Woofit gave me a few questions to think about, too. One of the key methodological principles of conversation analysis (ca) was that, “All aspects of interaction must be considered.” What is it the authors mean when they say “aspects” of an interaction?Breathes? Pauses? I guess I can infer some (of what I assume are) aspects of an interaction from the sample transcription in the text, and I’m sure we’ll talk more about transcription protocol in class. As an aside, the Woofit text got me thinking about the way in which hci researchers conceive of interaction compared to the way discourse or conversation analysts conceive of it. Within hci, I suspect interaction and interactivity are, like discourse to the scholarly community of discourse analysts, hotly contested terms with no real definitional consensus.
  • I can already tell that I’m going to need to take a lot of time to read and re-read the material. Foucault, Derrida, Saussure… postmodernism, poststructuralism, semiotics, and, of course, linguistics, are all topics with which I’m familiar, but familiarity doesn’t seem like it’s going to be sufficient. I really liked reading in the Jorgensen text that, in discourse analysis, “theory and method are intertwined [and that] researchers must accept basic philosophical premises in order to use discourse analysis as a method of empirical study.” Of course, researchers must understand these basic philosophical premises before they can accept them. And it’s this idea of understanding the basic premises that I’m latching onto here. Understanding something in a deep way (which is maybe a prerequisite for rigorous application?) takes time for me. And despite how many courses I’ve gone through that require reading dense texts in a short amount of time, I still feel a twinge of uncertainty at the outset. Probably like the anxiety a runner feels the night before a marathon or a cyclist feels the night before riding a century. I’d think something was wrong if I didn’t feel it.