Last updated: Mar 20, 2021
‘Discourse’ is not a simple term. It means different things to different people. Scholars of discourse studies generally agree that the term has three main meanings:
- ‘Language above the sentence’, or, following Gee (2014), ‘d discourse’: This is about how we package what we say or write into discrete units and arrange these packages in, for instance, the flow of a conversation.
- ‘Language in use’: This is about how we use language to do things. In other words, this is about how people deploy specific utterances in specific situations for a specific purpose.
- Orders of discourse, or what Gee (2014) calls ‘D Discourse’: This is discourse in a Foucauldian sense and refers to how people create their social worlds through the way they use language, how we use language for “structuring areas of knowledge and social practice” (Fairclough, 1992: 3), and points us to how different ways of thinking about things are tied up with different socially and historically situated ways of talking about things, all of which is inevitably tied up with different power relations in society.
These are, of course, all connected, with the second kind of discourse (‘language in use‘) functioning as a kind of meso layer that first and the third: It is through language in use, through language in action, that the specific words or utterances come to construct social norms and structures.
The way we use ‘D Discourses’ is organised through systems of classification and exclusion which determine who can say what (or, in other words, which semiotic resources are available to which sorts of people). Such orders of discourse are (re)produced by institutions such as governments, schools, corporations, and so on. Whether we can participate in certain Discourses depends on our status in society, and, in turn, our participation in these Discourses has an impact on where we stand in society.