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  Discourse (middle English, ‘[verbal] communication’) is an important idea in critical theory, linguistics, literary theory and sociology. The term is especially associated with the French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) and others, who used it to describe the way systems function in culture, ideology, language and society, and the way in which that functioning reflects and sustains power and those who wield it. For sociologists, discourses are specialist systems of knowledge and sustain practices which are united by a common assumption and which function to close off the possibility of other ways of thinking, talking or behaving. Often, their power is maintained by the terms used to describe things: a simple example is lawyers\' jargon and more complex examples are scientific classification and the patterns of religious ritual. Foucault and his followers advocate the use of ‘intellectual archaeology’: studying phenomena such as the structure of a society or its attitudes to such things as madness or sexuality by deconstructing the discourse involved.

In literary theory, the study of discourse is a way to examine creative work in the light of the mind-set of past societies and of groups or individuals within them: this sheds light on the content and meaning of the works created within those societies. Thus, for example, Homer\'s Odyssey is not fully understood in terms of its images or narrative or poetic qualities alone, but also in light of the assumptions in Homer\'s mind as he wrote, in the inventors and elaborators of the myths on which he based his work, on the hierarchies and ideas of the society for which he wrote, and of ours as we read his work. Knowledge of such matters can radically change our view of a work of art—as has been shown, for example, by feminist assessments of the novels of Jane Austen.

In linguistics, until quite recently, enquiry into the nature of language was almost entirely confined to the analysis of individual sentences or parts of sentences. However, it has become increasingly apparent that extended sequences of language are worthy of our attention, since discourse is more than just a random jumble of unconnected sentences. In fact, both spoken and written texts have structures and functions of their own which are entirely missed unless we look beyond the level of the sentence. And once we begin to explore the way language is organized as discourse, the focus necessarily shifts away from the treatment of language as an abstract object, to a consideration of the way language is used as a socially situated phenomenon.

An adequate discourse analysis must take into account who is saying (or writing) the words of a text to whom, and in what social context. Despite a multiplicity of theoretical orientations, there is an overarching concern in discourse analysis with the way language functions in speech or writing. An influential model which adopts this basic tenet investigates the language of the classroom in terms of the patterns of interaction between teacher and students. In a deliberate move away from an analysis based purely on linguistic forms, it was argued that discourse could be described in terms of a series of units defined according to their function in the discourse. For example, it emerged that a common interaction sequence in the classroom comprised three so-called moves, each with a different discourse function: Initiation, Response and Feedback:

 Teacher: ‘What\'s two plus two?’ = Initiation Student: ‘Five.’ = Response Teacher: ‘Not quite, I\'m afraid.’ = FeedbackIndividual moves are composed of one or more lower order units, known as acts, while moves combine in turn to create a higher order unit, termed an exchange. Thus the combination of the three moves, Initiation, Response and Feedback, together constitute a single exchange typical of classroom interaction. In this model, exchanges combine together to make transactions, which combine in turn to give the lesson as the highest unit of classroom discourse.

Crucially, the structure of discourse is revealed to be hierarchical in nature, since units at one level, or rank, combine together to make a single unit at the rank above. The notion of a hierarchy of discourse ranks has been adapted in various ways to render it applicable far beyond the narrow scope of classroom interaction. Clearly, this kind of analysis views discourse as a series of actions which describe the structure of interaction without recourse to the particular linguistic forms employed. Various other models of discourse analysis emphasize that the ability to convey and understand messages can often be understood by taking into account the social context of the discourse, in addition to the way the language forms are organized above the level of the sentence. DA KMcL MS

See also dominant ideology; hegemony; social construction of reality; social control; sociology of knowledge.Further reading M. Coulthard, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis; , Michel Foucault, The Order of Things; , A. Sheridan, Michel Foucault, the Way to Truth.



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