Exploring the Possibilities of Discourse Analysis for LIS Research


Published: March 5, 2019 by Dr. Deborah Hicks

I recently had the opportunity to speak with students enrolled in the iSchool’s Gateway PhD program about one of my favorite topics – discourse analysis. I thought I’d give a brief overview of my talk here to hopefully help others trying to understand the ins and outs of a great and useful methodological approach to LIS research.

What are discourses?

The first thing you have to unpack when talking about discourse analysis is: what are discourses?  At their most basic, discourses are language-in-action or language-in-use. And by language I mean anything spoken or written. We are born into worlds of language. In that sense, language pre-dates us. It’s what gives us the ability to structure and understand our world. It also forms the basis of our thoughts and sense of self. Language not only shapes how we think about the world and ourselves, but also how to act within the world. We use language to do things. For example, we make promises and give orders. In other words, discourses do not simply describe and reflect the world “out there.” Instead, they are a form of social action. People use words, both written and spoken, to linguistically construct social reality. And one way to study this construction is discourse analysis.

Epistemology and Ontology

Discourse analysis approaches are often described as being “mute or agnostic on matters of ontology” (Schwandt, 2000, p.198). What matters are not real phenomena in and of themselves, but our discursively mediated perceptions and experiences of these phenomena. As Gergen (1994) wrote: “Whatever is, simply is. . . . Once we attempt to articulate ‘what there is,’ however, we enter the world of discourse.” But, we do things with language. As discourse-users, people create accounts of the world that appear factual and difficult to refute. Therefore, to study discourses is to study the nature of this reality.

Approaches to Discourse Analysis

There are many different approaches to discourse analysis. Discourse Theory and Practice (2001) offers a great starting place to explore them. The approach I use in my research comes from the field of discursive psychology and focuses on the discourses people use to account for their actions and beliefs in different contexts. Discourses are not directive. In other words, while discourses constrain and shape our actions, they do not predetermine them. They do not tell people how to think or act. Instead, they provide us with a sense of self, the ideas we hold, and a narrative that we use to talk and think about ourselves. In other words, they provide us with a common sense that we can choose to use to account for ourselves and the world around us. But, this narrative is not self-generated. Instead, it is negotiated through our interactions with other people. And, to complicate matters even more, not all discourses are equal. Some dominant discourses influence social arrangements and practices, which in turn support the status quo.

The goal of this approach to discourse analysis is to explore, quoting Schwandt (2000, p. 197),  “how utterances [both spoken and written] work” and to analyze “the rhetorical strategies in play in particular kinds of discourse.” My favorite metaphor to help elucidate this idea comes from Edley (2001). She uses the metaphor of books in a public library that are “permanently available for borrowing” (p. 198). Discourses, like books, can be drawn upon and used to construct versions of events.

Why I Used Discourse Analysis

Why did I use discourse analysis? My research agenda is focused on the concept of identity. For me, understanding identity is about understanding how people answer two core questions: “who am I?” and “how should I act?” (Alvesson, Ashcraft, & Thomas, 2008). This exploration started with my doctoral dissertation, which examined the professional identity of librarians.

I came to discourse analysis by first defining what I meant by identity. Traditional definitions of identity focus on two extremes: identity as a personal project and identity as social group membership. The personal project approach to identity tends to focus on identity development. And, while understanding how librarians develop their professional identities is an important research question, I was interested in the identity that they would eventually develop, not the development process. Social group approaches to identity tend to focus on the social contexts of social identities. And, again, that wasn’t quite what I was interested in.

What I wanted to explore was how these two ideas intersected. That’s when I came across a discursive definition of identity in which identity is a social product that is produced and interpreted by other people. Identity, therefore, is actively constructed within talk and texts and not merely reflected by them. In this framework a person can have multiple identities and it’s the negotiating towards communal meaning-making that is the focus. In other words, a discursive approach to identity allowed me to discern what discourses librarianship offers its members to form their identities and to understand how this identity shapes and influences the work librarians do and the relationships they build with clients, communities, policy makers, coworkers, and other librarians.

Why You Should Explore Discourse Analysis

Although, like any methodology, discourse analysis will only help you answer certain research questions, it is a very useful approach for examining how people communicate and interact with each other. It is, after all, focused on examining exactly that! But, that’s not all it does. It can also help us to see how the social context shapes, limits and informs the way we understand the world. And, it helps us identify which voices are dominant in our society, why they are dominant, and which voices are ignored. In other words, discourse analysis enables us to interrogate the status quo and examine its inner workings both at the micro-level of interactions and at the macro-level of society. By doing so, it gives us the opportunity to deepen social conversations around complex issues.

By exposing the inner workings of discourses, we can create space for new voices to be heard and new social opportunities. But, and this is perhaps my favorite part of discourse analysis, we can also stay aware that these new voices and opportunities will not fix the world. Instead, they will just give us more data to analyze!

References and Places to Start Exploring

Alvesson, M., Ashcraft, K. L., & Thomas, R. (2008). Identity matters: Reflections on the construction of identity scholarship in organization studies. Organization, 15, 5-28. doi: 10.1177/1350508407084426

Edley, N. (2001). Analysing masculinity: Interpretative repertoires, ideological dilemmas and subject position. In M. Wetherell, S. Taylor, & S. J. Yates (Eds.), Discourse as data: A guide for analysis (pp. 189-228). London, England: SAGE Publications.

Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive psychology. London: Sage Publications.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. New York: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1972). The Archeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gilbert, N., and Mulkay, M. (1984). Opening Pandora’s box: A sociological analysis of scientists’ discourse. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Gergen, K. J. (1994). Realities and relationships: Soundings in social construction. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jorgensen, M. & Phillips, L. (2002). Discourse Analysis as Theory and Method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Keller, R. (2013). Doing Discourse Research: An Introduction for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology. London: Sage Publications.

Schwandt, T. A. (2000). Three epistemological stances for qualitative inquiry: Interpretivism, hermeneutics, and social constructionism. In N. K. Denzin & Y. S. Lincoln (Eds.), Handbook of qualitative research (2nd ed., pp. 189-213). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.

Van Dijk, T. (2008). Discourse & Power. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., & Yates, S. J. (Eds.). (2001). Discourse theory and practice. London: Sage Publications.