Discourse Analysis - Assumptions, Theories and Steps

Discourse analysis involves an ‘analysis of the ways in which discourses – which can be read in texts and talk – constitute the social world (Mason, 2006). It is a qualitative research method...

Explain the assumptions, theories and steps of discourse analysis.

Discourse analysis involves an ‘analysis of the ways in which discourses – which can be read in texts and talk – constitute the social world (Mason, 2006). Discourse analysis is a qualitative research method that investigates the use of language in social contexts. Concerned with the creation of meaning through talk and texts, discourse analysis provides insights into the way language works to help “shape and reproduce social meanings and forms of knowledge” (Tonkiss, 2012, p. 403).

Assumptions of Discourse Analysis 

Grounded in social constructivism, which emphasizes the sociocultural interactions as sources of knowledge, discourse analysis is based on the three theoretical assumptions (Potter,1996) :

1. First, knowledge cannot be gained by pure objectivity as scientific and positivist researchers believe it can. A researcher brings his or her own set of beliefs, cultural values, expectations, subjectivity and bias into the study when conducting his or her research: A researcher recognizes his or her own beliefs, and acknowledges how these beliefs influenced by his or her own personal, cultural, and historical experiences shape his or her interpretations of reality and knowledge.
2. Second, reality is socially and culturally constructed. Unlike scientific approaches in which reality, ideas, or constructs (e.g. intelligence & attitudes) are categorized as naturally occurring things, in social constructivist or interpretive approaches, these categories and constructs are shaped by the language and since language is a sociocultural phenomenon, our sense of reality is socially and culturally constructed. These realities which are often varied and multiple lead researchers to look for the complexity of the views rather than reduce meanings into a few categories or ideas. The goal of research, then, is to give insights into the different views and perspectives of participants and how these views and perspectives are socially and historically negotiated.
3. Third, in social constructivism, a researcher is more interested in studying the language (discourse) and the role it plays in construction of meaning and knowledge in society. As such, the emphasis of such research is placed on the discursive patterns of talk in societies, their impact on the formation and reproduction of social meanings and identities as well as their role in empowering and disenfranchising institutions and individuals.

Theories of Discourse Analysis 

The various approaches to discourse are as follows:


Modern theorists were focused on achieving progress and believed in the existence of natural and social laws which could be used universally to develop knowledge and thus a better understanding of society. They were preoccupied with obtaining the truth and reality and sought to develop theories which contained certainty and predictability. They, therefore, viewed discourse as being relative to talking or way of talking and understood discourse to be functional.


Structuralist theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, argue that all human actions and social formations are related to language and can be understood as systems of related elements. It is the structure itself that determines the significance, meaning and function of the individual elements of a system. Saussure’s theory of language highlights the decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life more generally.


Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged postmodern theory. Postmodern theorists rejected modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society. They were interested in examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and common experiences.

Postmodern theorists shifted away from truth seeking and instead sought answers for how truths are produced and sustained. They, therefore, embarked on analyzing discourses such as texts, language, policies and practices.

Steps of Discourse analysis

Analysis in discourse research is highly varied and depends to some extent on the nature of the supplies that are available and how developed on the nature of the materials that are available and how developed research is on the topic or setting of interest. The following are the four stages that are overlapping but broadly distinct.
1. Generating hypotheses: The first part of the discourse research is the generation of more specific questions or hypothesis or the noticing of intriguing or troubling phenomena. It is common and productive to continue this open-ended approach to the data in group sessions where a number of researchers listen to a segment of interaction and explore different ways of understanding what is going on.

2. Coding: The building of collection. The main aim of coding is to make the analysis more straightforward by sifting relevant materials from larger corpus. It involves searching materials for some phenomena of interest and copying the instances to an archive. Often phenomena that were initially seen as disparate merge while phenomena that seemed singular become broken into different varieties.

3. Doing the Analysis: In discourse research the procedures for justification are partly separate from the procedure for arriving at analytical claims. The research will typically develop conjectures about activities through a close reading of the materials and then check the adequacy of these hypotheses through working with a corpus of coded materials. To establish the relevance of these features for the activity being done, one would do a number of things:
a. Search for patterns: Looking through our corpus to see how regular pattern is. If such a pattern is not common, then our speculation will start to look weak.
b. Consider next turns: In discourse work the sequential organization of interaction is a powerful resource for understanding what is going on.
c. Focus on deviant cases: These might be ones in which very different question constructions were used; or where surprising next turns appeared. Such cases are analytically rich.
d. Focus on other kinds of material: There is an infinite set of alternative materials that might be used for comparison.

4. Validating the analysis: There is no clear cut distinction between validation procedures and analytical procedures in discourse work; indeed some of the analytical themes are also differently understood, involved in validation. It is always useful in highlighting some of the major elements involved in validating claims.

* * *

Discourse analysis is a qualitative research method that investigates the use of language in social contexts. The three key underlying assumptions are knowledge cannot be gained by pure objectivity, reality is socially and culturally constructed and people are the result of social interaction. There are three different views of discourse viz. Modernism, Structuralism and Post-modernism.  Discourse analysis is composed of four major steps – generating hypothesis, coding, doing the analysis and validating the analysis.


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