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.

One thought on “Knowing or Understanding

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  1. Jordan,
    Ah, yes — the muddy nature of naming something DA. When I go to DA gatherings, I find myself often raising my hand and asking “what makes your work a DA study?” I am mostly doing this to hear more about how discourse is being defined and made sense of and how researchers are conceiving of DA. I think we can definitely find commonalities across the perspectives (as Jorgensen and Phillips highlighted in last week’s readings). However, as you mentioned the variability is VAST and very very muddy. Nonetheless, I think a really wise place to start is with this question I see woven throughout your posts…what makes this work DA? This is a useful place to begin with one’s own DA study, as well as the evaluation of other’s work. Hmm…now you’ve got me thinking!

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