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February 3, 2009 / andreasterzuk

discourse on Discourse and discourse

I thought I knew what discourse means but after recently reading a number of books on the subject, the sense of this word seems increasingly slippery to me.   Tons of people in academic writing use this word (Bourdieu, Fairclough, Foucault, Gee…) and none of them use it in exactly the same way.  Now, I am no fan of language standardization schemes so I am not advocating some language academy-sanctioned definition of the word discourse. I do think it might be nice, however, if each new theorist or writer would be required to submit a paragraph explaining how their use of discourse differs from other theorists’ uses.

I’m only partially joking.

I find Gee’s distinction between “little d” discourse (language-in-use) and “big D” Discourse (little d discourse combined with non-language stuff to enact specific identities and activities) useful in the work I do in applied linguistics (for more information about Gee’s uses, see his 2005 edition of An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method). So, keeping Gee’s “D/d” distinction in mind, the title of this blog post (if I were to translate it to everyday language) would be something like “talking about how we demonstrate what groups we’re affiliated with and talking about language.”  Its far less catchy in regular language.  Anyway, the gist of my title is to show that this word is used in different ways and in order to understand what this particular blog post talks about, you have to know that discourse has multiple meanings (at least in academia.)

As it stands now, as partial as I am to Gee, I’ll likely focus on Foucault’s use of the word because his views on discourses (no capital letters here) as functioning like disciplines is more useful to me in my work around linguistic prescriptivism than Gee’s idea of situated identities.

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