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What is Discourse Analysis?

By Eamon Fulcher

The method of discourse analysis is complex and cannot be properly understood without extensive reading. The aim of this web page is to provide you with an outline of the approach so that if you haven't read much about it you can, among other things, decide whether you would like to learn more about the method or whether you would like to carry out an investigation using this approach. An example is provided further down the page to illustrate a popular kind of discourse analysis, whihc is known as thematic analysis. It includes some examples of transcription symbols.

Discourse analysis is a qualitative method that has been adopted and developed by social constructionists. Although discourse analysis can and is used by a handful of cognitive psychologists, it is based on a view that is largely anti-scientific, though not anti-research. Social constructionism is not easy to define in a single sentence, but it is possible to outline some basic assumptions of the approach:

• Psychologists cannot be objective when studying human behaviour. In the scientific approach there is the belief that knowledge can be gained by objectivity (observations made as though the investigator is an alien from another planet and has no preconceived notion of what is being observed). However, this has been disputed – people, including researchers, cannot be objective. A researcher is very likely to hold some position (expectation, belief, or set of cultural values) when they are conducting their research. The result is that people can construct their own versions of reality.

• Reality is socially constructed. In the scientific approach it is assumed that it is possible to categorise reality, and that constructs psychologists use, such as personality and intelligence, are naturally occurring categories. However, this ignores the fact that language shapes the categories and constructs we use. Since language is a social and cultural thing, our sense of reality is socially and culturally constructed.

• People are the products of social interaction. In the scientific approach it is assumed that many of the constructs used are ‘inner essences'. That is to say that personality, anxiety, drives, and so on exist somewhere within our heads and our bodies. However, it may be the case that many of these so-called essences are actually the products of social interaction.

In order to understand these assumptions, let's look at the example provided by Burr (1995) on the issue of personality.

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