chapter  30
Discourse analysis
ByGuy Cook
Pages 14

Applied linguistics (AL) interest in discourse analysis (DA) originated in an awareness of the inability of formal linguistics to account for how participants in communication achieve meaning. As such DA has been a major impetus in ending an early narrow conception of AL as a subsidiary discipline which merely applies insights from linguistics to language-related problems (Widdowson 1984: 21-8), and moving it towards the broader independent enterprise it is today. Although there are many diverse approaches to discourse in AL, there are also common principles and themes. Discourse can be defined as a stretch of language in use, of any length and in any mode, which achieves meaning and coherence for those involved. Discourse analysis can be defined as the use and development of theories and methods which elucidate how this meaning and coherence is achieved. This quest makes DA inevitably concerned not only with language, but with all elements

and processes which contribute to communication. Consequently, AL discourse analysts have espoused and also developed a wide range of approaches to language beyond linguistics. These have included pragmatics, schema theory, conversation analysis, ethnography, semiotics, multimodal analysis, literary theory, rhetoric, genre analysis, and social theory. This widening purview has led to encounters with many different disciplines and definitions of discourse. One major influence, which changed the direction of DA in AL, has been social theory, especially the ideas of Foucault, for whom discourses (used in the plural) are conceived as distinct ways of using language which express institutionalised values and ideology, delimiting and defining what can be said and how: for example, sexist discourse, medical discourse, legal discourse, etc. Rather than simply adding yet another dimension to understanding, for many AL discourse analysts this approach fundamentally changed the original conception of DA in AL as merely an extension of linguistic analysis. Yet while this Foucauldian tradition emphasises the key importance of language use in ideology, it has not in practice paid close attention to linguistic detail in the same way as the AL tradition. While DA in AL has absorbed this Foucauldian tradition, and subsequently other social theoretical approaches such as that of Bourdieu, it has

often used these social theories to supplement rather than replace close linguistic and textual analysis. It has thus merged two traditions, one from linguistics, the other from social and critical theory, using the two in a complementary manner. At its best, the AL DA tradition thus currently combines the strengths of linguistics and non-linguistic perspectives, making it the most powerful and rigorous tool for the analysis of language in use. Consequently, it has a great deal to offer to social theory and sociology on the one hand, and to linguistics on the other. With this power and breadth, however, comes a problem of scope. AL DA embraces all

aspects of language in use, eclectically deploying insights from a variety of traditions to arrive at a rounded and rich interpretation of language in use. It is in this sense open to criticism for being a ‘study of everything’, concerned with such a wide variety of phenomena that it has no distinct identity of its own. It is certainly true and frequently remarked that the terms ‘discourse’ and ‘discourse analysis’ are very variously defined and often loosely used. Many approaches to DA proceed down their own paths without mentioning or even showing awareness of others. Nor is it clear in many cases whether particular DA studies belong to AL or some other discipline. The broadening of scope has thus made it harder to define and describe DA than when it first emerged in the 1970s. Recent years have, however, seen some successful attempts to provide inclusive structured overviews of the field (Gee 1999; Johnstone 2002; Paltridge 2006; Widdowson 2007; Bhatia et al. 2008; Slembrouck 2009). An issue for this chapter is how to distinguish DA from the other approaches to language

use included elsewhere in this volume. The study of ESP, EAP, institutions, medical communication, the media, and classrooms all involve the practice of DA, while conversation analysis, corpus linguistics, critical discourse analysis, linguistic ethnography, multimodal analysis, and stylistics are all among its tools. Each such area of study is in its own field or in its own way concerned with the achievement of meaning in actual communication, making each a constituent of DA as much as of AL. As such, each could validly appear in the contents of a ‘handbook of discourse analysis’ as easily as in a ‘handbook of applied linguistics’. For both DA and AL, like the areas listed above, distinguish themselves from formal linguistics by their resolute focus upon attested language use in actual social contexts, and their lack of concern with invented or decontextualised models of language as an idealised abstraction. How then is DA to be distinguished from AL on the one hand, or from the many branches of study which address specific aspects of language use on the other? And how can a summary of DA do more than briefly allude to several other areas of AL, with a vague implication that these approaches, taken together but not separately, constitute DA? How can the description of DA here be more than a composite, giving summaries of approaches which are dealt with more fully elsewhere? These are difficult problems for the contemporary discourse analyst – not only within the covers of this handbook, but in the study of language in general. They were not perhaps so problematic in the past, for reasons which will become apparent. I shall return to the problem at the end of this chapter, having in the meantime done exactly what I have just cast doubt upon: summarised a number of different developments as constituent of an overarching DA.