Pursuing ‘Discourse’ Without Morphing into a Linguist

Romain Chenet

There is a slipperiness to poststructural discourse analysis and explaining this seems to either enthuse or repel interest. It does not help there is no genuine unity to poststructuralism or agreement on what discourse is, with the concepts informed by loosely knit critical efforts joined concretely only in rejecting or questioning binarily-presented social phenomena. Add in the continental obscurantism of its early purveyors – Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze – and poststructuralism’s intellectual embrace with linguistic complexity to produce insightful word soup does it no favours in clarifying the approach. This post does not claim to resolve the above but explores the approach in practice, sharing reflections on how a stripped-back yet considered ‘turn away’ from linguistics can render poststructural methodology firmly approachable within sociological enquiry.

To contextualise this, bear in mind how pre-2000s sociological emphasis on postmodern theories accompanied a linguistic turn in the social sciences, integrating such analysis into new venues to produce rich and innovative research. Here, underutilised opportunities signalled by the 1970s’ critical linguistics school morphed into the comparatively salient ‘critical discourse analysis’ (CDA) approach, popularised by Fairclough, Wodak, and Van Dijk amongst several other methodological champions. Hierarchies of power, knowledge, and domination hence all proliferated into prominence, with sophisticated linguistic analytical frameworks offering scope to problematise how language (manifested in texts, speeches, and the like) shapes society and vice versa. Through this refinement, however, alienation affecting us non-linguists also emerged. By occupying terms such as ‘critical’ and ‘discourse’ in academic investigation, an attention to Foucauldian concepts in CDA was internalised but also made part of a wider lineage alongside other theoretical influences. In the field of discourse analysis methods, linguistics now rule a large part of the roost, amalgamating with political economy approaches to enable valuable critique of dominant knowledges in society and, in turn, those propagating such knowledge.

But what of researchers with less interest in grammatical constructs, argumentative frames, metaphors, or other focuses required by in-depth linguistic enquiry? Similarly, what place remains for desire to embody post-structural contingency in research while attempting to appear ‘scientific’ enough to be published, even if this is a reluctant attempt to fulfil maxims of academic acceptability? Encountering this reflexively demanding space necessitates clarity on what is being sought here. In my case, this has been to unpack potential implications of how the modern-day international development sector perpetuates ideas, delving into policies that set the tone for global action affecting our societies. Yet, encountering linguistics-heavy methods as a nascent researcher interested in policies by the UN and related actors, my head spins in making sense of the frameworks affixed to discourse enquiry – in spite of a decent familiarity with interdisciplinary styles. The alternative, returning to early works on discourse for solace, also feels too quick in welcoming Foucault’s own (in)famous claim regarding these:

I am well aware that I have never written anything but fictions. I do not mean to say, however, that truth is therefore absent. It seems to me that the possibility exists for fiction to function in truth, for a fictional discourse to induce effects of truth

(Foucault, 1980).

Sharing this sensibility while not being able to get away with it as an early-career researcher, activist undertones here strike a chord despite my belief that post-structuralism can benefit from becoming seen as less fictional— if only to build its practical relevance as an analytical approach in an era marked by neoliberal oversight on what constitutes proper research. If being ‘less fictional’ can help post-structural research tick enough metrics denoting rigorous effort, e.g. by demonstrating a basis in established methodological frameworks, room for fictions may in turn be smuggled in to facilitate broader questioning of what’s holding us back from social equality, global justice, and environmental sustainability. Well, this is the dream, at least.

As I have discovered, it has however hinged on gaining clarity of what ‘discourse’ means to an individual researcher pursuing the concept in practice; for all the reference to it as a stand-out topic in critical enquiry, ‘discourse’ has no sole meaning in research application. Often being targeted as pertaining to language and its uses in approaches such as CDA, the prevalence of linguistic analysis suddenly makes more sense, albeit not helpfully to linguistically disinclined analysts. Immeasurably more useful is Bacchi’s (2009) intellectual exploration of how ‘discourse(s)’ can be reclaimed as a byword for disciplinary knowledges such as ‘development’, which shape society and its relations. This is itself enabled by returning to Foucault, who posited discourses as ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak, […resulting in] material effects’ (1972). Language, while featuring in ‘practices’, is no longer the focus. Instead, Bacchi’s (2009) methodological approach to poststructural policy analysis focuses specifically on how texts aiming to shape and govern knowledges construct the problems they target. As Bacchi (2005) terms it, such ‘analysis of discourses’ prioritises the politics underlying accepted knowledge(s) rather than effectuating a discourse analysis dwelling on language use.

It thereby offers a poststructural approach which can help researchers approach data with methodological rigour without necessarily morphing into linguists. This sensibility also allows practical compromise between addressing the critiqued vagueness of poststructural analysis and the contemporary expectation that researchers must build on an established lineage shown to have been relevant by methodological predecessors. It has also spoken to my own experience of writing public-facing organisational materials, which has indicated how many linguistic choices in such datasets can be arbitrary, sometimes even being reliant on which intern was tasked with drafting a text. On the other hand, ways in which public texts reproduce certain knowledge(s) or assumptions about the topic being discussed often stand out more than the choices made in expressing them. In turn, getting lost within the technical construction of texts may veer analysis away from exploring underlying problems and solutions communicated by influential actors – and therefore the kinds of insights with direct relevance to understanding what is happening in our rapidly changing world.

Romain Chenet has lived in many developing countries and worked for several NGOs before returning to higher education. His doctoral research analyses the contemporary ‘sustainable development’ era in the wake of Agenda 2030 to explore if and how transformative opportunities are emerging in policies with a long history of questionable priorities.

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