Discourse analytic research falls under the broad category of qualitative research which is ’employed when researchers seek to understand how people make sense of their environment and the factors or conditions which shape their lives’ (Sarantakos, 2000:124). There are a number of disciplines that claim the title discourse analysis and although they are based on differing theoretical frameworks, must involve a ‘common attention to the significance and structuring effects of language and are associated with interpretive and reflexive styles of analysis’ (Burman & Parker, 1993:3).
But the lack of a single, unitary understanding of the term discourse analysis means that without an understanding of the underlying psychological theories and an acceptance of the basic principles of the particular version of discourse analysis being undertaken, its use a research tool is not only inappropriate, it is also unworkable since: ‘discourse analysis is more than a methodology because it involves a theoretical way of understanding the nature of discourse and the nature of psychological phenomena’ (Billig in Willig, 2001:94).
For the purposes of this assignment, I shall therefore be concentrating on Critical Discourse Analysis and its use as a research method for youth and community workers studying power, dominance and oppression. Critical Discourse Analysis Potter and Wetherell say of language that it ‘orders our perceptions and makes things happen’ (Potter and Wetherell, 2001:1) and that it ‘can be used to construct and create social interaction and diverse social worlds’ (Potter and Wetherell, 2001:1).
The theory that language ‘does’ things as opposed to just ‘describing’ things, makes us of a social constructionist understanding of human beings and their social interactions, the theoretical framework of which is based on a belief that the world is not ‘out there’ waiting to be discovered by researchers, psychologists and social scientist, rather it is created by people in their everyday interactions with each other. Critical discourse analysis is therefore ‘a research orientation based on a post modernist commitment to the socially constructed nature of reality or the socially constructed reality of nature’ (Burman & Parker, 1993:6).
Language therefore has a fundamental role to play in the way knowledge is created, agreed and adopted as ‘common sense’. Vivian Burr goes so far as to suggest that ‘the very nature of ourselves as people, our thoughts, feelings and experiences, are all the result of language’ (Burr, 2000:33) and she argues that whereas struturalists such as Saussure believed that once language and the application of signs and meanings had been assigned, they were fixed and unchangeable, ‘post-structuralism has identified language as a site of struggle, conflict and potential and social change’ (Burr, 2000:44).
The identification that issues of power and dominance are inextricably linked to the use of language has been taken on board and developed in the field of critical discourse analysis. ‘Critical discourse analysis is a type of discourse analytical research that primarily studies the way social power abuse, dominance and inequality are enacted, reproduced and resisted by text and talk in the social and political context’ (Van Dijk in Schiffrin et al, 2001:352).
Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is therefore particularly attractive to researchers who are concerned with issues of power and oppression since CDA offers not only an explanation for how dominance is achieved and perpetuated but also provides the possibility of challenge and change. Foucault believed that power and resistance were a natural pairing and that ‘prevailing discourses are always under implicit threat from alternatives which can dislodge them from their position as ‘truth’. ‘ (Burr, 2000:70).
He argued that the key to challenging and understanding the way in which dominance is perpetuated through language is the history of how particular discourses came into being. If we understand how our present day knowledge and understanding of the world, ourselves and others have developed, we can question their validity and challenge their use more effectively. Thus discourse analytic research takes into account the historical and cultural specificity within which the discourse arose and is used.
However, despite a belief that reality is ‘constructed’ in the discourse people use in their interactions with each other, there is an acceptance that issues of culture, time and place can significantly reduce the discourse material available for people to use. Thus ‘solidarity’, ‘collective action’ and ‘unions’ are all discourses that only became available when large numbers of people were brought together to work, as happened during the industrial revolution. In this way knowledge and discourse become inextricably linked since knowledge provides alternative discourses with which to construct understanding.
Thus access to discourse becomes another facet of power. If critical discourse analytical research is concerned with power and oppression, then this has significant impact on the way in which data is collected and analysed since the relationship between the researcher and the researched is often characterised by inequality. The balance of power lies with the researcher. This is particularly true of discourse analysis since researchers take other peoples talk and text and analyse them within their own theoretical frameworks (a point I shall return to later).
This also leaves us with a question about whose interests are being served by the purpose of the research. Berry Mayall argues that; ‘the research process in all its stages is constructed and reconstructed through the intersections of three sets of interests; those of the researchers; those of disadvantaged groups and of the individuals within them; and those of socially dominant political structures, organisations, social groups and individuals’ (Mayall et al, 1999:1).
Powerful groups in our society such as the middle and upper classes avoid the scrutiny of researchers and it is no coincidence that much research is carried out on those groups who may represent a threat to the social order that benefits the interests of the politically dominant or on those identified as problems or in need of help. In this respect; ‘research has a directly politicial function; to describe and so expose the unacceptable with the aim of shifting policy and practice’ (Mayall et al, 1999:5).