The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 6 Discourses
Edmund Husserl, the founder of the philosophical movement called “Phenomenology”, argued that humans bring to their experiences in the world theories that over time encrust or obscure phenomena so that we cannot see them as they really are. It is as if “reality” is hidden behind a veil made up of our theories, interests, and prejudices. But in fact we humans never do and never can see the world in any “pure” and unmediated way. We can never see behind the veil. We see things as always and already shaped by the frameworks we bring to them, frameworks that allow us to interpret them and deal with them in meaningful ways.
By “frameworks” I mean sets of ideas that guide us in what to expect and how to value, assess, or appreciate things and happenings in specific situations. We see things like families, children, parenting, schools, cooking, dating, gender, religion, race, the environment, and everything else, through the lens of the framework we bring to the situations in which we deal with these things. We can call these sorts of frameworks “ontological frameworks” because they tell us what exists, what characteristics these things and events have, and what perspectives to take on them.
We have seen, too, that every word we use is used in relationship to a framework that guides as to what to take as exemplars of what the word refers to and how to judge what is sufficiently like these exemplars in specific situations to merit the application of the word. We can call these sorts of frameworks “linguistic frameworks” because they tell us how to apply words in specific situations where we use them. Obviously ontological frameworks and linguistic ones are deeply related. In a sense they are the same thing seen in two different ways.
Different Discourses use different frameworks. By a “Discourse”—with a capital “D”—I mean any socially significant identity in the world. Discourses are ways of being, doing, communicating, and knowing so as to enact and recognize socially significant identities or “kinds of people”, such as different socially significant types of men, women, Native-Americans, lawyers, gang members, biologists, politicians, ministers, anime aficionados, “foodies”, special education students (“SPED”), gamers, or so on through a nearly endless, but historically changing, case of characters, identities, or types of people.
People use ways of talking, writing, thinking, acting, interacting, valuing, feeling, dressing, and using objects, tools, and technologies at specific sorts of times and in specific sorts of environments to pull off or enact socially significant identities. Identities in this sense are a “dance” in which a person gets in synch with and coordinates him or herself with, and, in turn, gets coordinated by, other people, other beings, objects, tools, and technologies. People are recognized in the dance and as part of the dance. Others recognize the dance as much as they recognize the person. Think of how a top chef must “dance” with certain sorts of other people, kitchen tools, food, and ingredients, while dressed and gesturing and talking in certain ways, in order to be seen as, or socially recognized as, a top chef of a certain kind. So, too, for any other identity.
Identities change through time and history. They are not once and for all. Someone can get recognized in a given identity in some circumstances and not in others where more rigorous criteria are applied. Identities can be socially negotiated and contested. People have many different identities and some of these can align with each other or be in contention with each other. People can feel “at home” in an identity or uncomfortable in it. A bid to be recognized in a certain way can fail or succeed and much sometimes hinges on the outcome.
Each Discourse has its own ways of using language and its own favored frameworks for what things are and what words mean. For example, everyday people do not look at heat and temperature in the same way as chemists do and they use the words “heat” and “temperature” differently. I call any Discourse’s distinctive way of using language in speech or writing a “social language”. The social language of chemists is not the same as the social language of cooks and, in turn, they are both different from how we talk about chemicals or food when we are being “everyday people” and not “professional” chemists or cooks.
We can now answer this question: Where do we get our frameworks from? The answer is: From our Discourses. We get our frameworks from other people. We get them from parents, communities, social groups, cultures, and institutions that teach or mentor us in what to expect when and where and how to value, think about, and act on things in such circumstances. Frameworks are partly in our heads, but we can also call on media and texts and talk with others to fill them out if we need to. Applying a framework is part of what it means to be acting as a certain kind of person or enacting a certain socially significant identity.
Since we all belong to or move among many different Discourses, we can often bring different, sometimes conflicting, frameworks to a situation. For example, a Catholic may well know how to bring a framework to a situation in which abortion is seen as murder, but know, as well, how to bring a framework to that same situation in which abortion is seen as a woman’s choice about her own body and life. This person could even be conflicted about which framework to apply or may even apply one in some situations and the other in other situations. Note, we cannot say, let’s drop frameworks altogether and see abortion as it is “really” is, since it is not “really” anything other than what we take it to be or make it mean in actual situations of use.
So are we “trapped” in frameworks, since we can never get outside of them? In one sense, yes, precisely we cannot get outside of them. But in another sense no, because we can modify frameworks and learn new ones as we choose to use different Discourses, change them, or learn new ones. How we do these things, why some people choose to do them and others don’t, is an important topic we will take up later. Some people—many people in fact—are trapped in fairly narrow and unbending frameworks.
Though I use the word “framework” here, nothing much hinges on this word. Others have used terms like mental models, cultural models, figured worlds, discourse models, thought collectives, theories, and other terms. Each of these terms means somewhat different things because they come out of different academic fields, but they overlap a good bit.
Discourse analysis is the analysis of “discourse” (language in use) and “Discourses” (identities at play in specific situations) and, too, the analysis of frameworks within Discourses and society. Frameworks are a good place to focus because they are the point at which so much conflict in history and society has arisen, is caused, and might be worked out. We will see that the key issues in the study of frameworks as sites of possible war or peace are: 1) How can people communicate across different frameworks? and 2) When, where, and how are people willing to test their frameworks? These two questions, it turns out, are very closely related.
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