Defining… Discourse

Over a year ago now, I wrote a ‘post for the posts’, touching on postmodernism, poststructuralism and a few things in between. I promised to come back to the concept of ‘discourse’, and have been skillfully avoiding the topic ever since. Today I’ve decided to bite the bullet and address this troublesome term head-on.

In the first post of my new ‘defining…’ series, I said that ‘feminism’ is a word in most people’s vocabulary, but that it doesn’t mean the same thing for everyone. This statement is even more true of ‘discourse’, which has a mind-boggling range of potential meanings.

In the most everyday definition, ‘discourse’ is pretty much just a posh way of saying ‘talk’. Within Linguistics, the most common definition is similar to this, but it includes other forms of language, most notably written as well as spoken. Zellig Harris was the first to use the term ‘discourse’ in Linguistics and he basically described it as any stretch of language that’s longer than a sentence.

But this is not the ‘discourse’ that I’d like to focus on. For most poststructuralists, ‘discourse’ is a much more philosophical and altogether more elusive animal. It can be likened to a more well-known concept, ‘ideology’, and both can be described, though somewhat reductively, as systems of thought that have become so everyday, so central to the way we think, act, behave and speak, that until somebody points them out, the chances are we’ve hardly noticed them at all. To use some examples from my topic of interest, I could propose that ‘mothers love their children’ and ‘children need two parents’ are dominant ideologies (or ‘discourses’) surrounding family life.

But ‘discourse’ and ‘ideology’ are not the same thing. A Marxist notion of ‘ideology’, at its most extreme, can almost be understood as a form of mind-control, or ‘brainwashing’. This view leads to a simplistic polarisation of the ‘powerful’ social structures and institutions that create these ideologies, and the ‘powerless’ subjects who are controlled by them. Discourses can also be seen as ‘systems’ or ‘structures’ that create and control ‘reality’. To use Foucault’s often-quoted definition, from ‘The Archaeology of Knowledge’, discourses are ‘practices that systematically form the objects of which they speak’ (1972: 54). Many poststructuralists following Foucault will argue that, outside of discourse, the individual cannot actually exist; that there is no ‘material reality’ beyond discourse.

Within discourse studies, however, the individual doesn’t have to be positioned as a passive victim, powerless to the controlling forces of society. The individual is subject to discursive forces, but they also have resources at their disposal, which they can draw on in order to comply with, contest or resist discourses; to negotiate their own position in the world. Despite the sense that the individual cannot escape discourse, that it is difficult to ‘be’, to ‘speak’, to ‘know’ outside of discourse, there is a place for the individual within discourse studies; an individual with choices to make and alternatives to fight for. The individual can therefore rarely be described as universally ‘powerless’.

It’s difficult to get to the heart of what my research is really about without talking about discourse. But discourse is such a challenging concept to understand and explain (I’m still getting to grips with it myself, and have only really scratched the surface here). If you’ve taken the time to read this, you might have begun to understand that I’m not just looking at ‘what motherhood means’ or ‘the Mumsnet discussion forum’, or one of those other wholly unsatisfactory responses I’ve given to the question ‘what’s your research about?’ over the past 18 months. Looking at the discursive construction of motherhood allows me to analyse interactions in a local context with an eye to wider social forces. It allows me to consider some ‘big’ questions like ‘can parents break free from gender stereotypes?’ and ‘what options are available to mothers in today’s society?’.

So that’s discourse in a nutshell. It’s probably one of the most fascinating but at times bewildering concepts I’ve come across so far – but I’m learning not to be afraid of it.

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