The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make more concrete my previous remarks about comparing frameworks as wholes, not claim by claim, and viewing truth as a journey, not a destination.

Years ago I worked in the town of Worcester, Massachusetts.  Worcester is a fascinating place.  It has been a town since long before the U.S. became its own country.  For hundreds of years it has defined itself against Boston as the “big city.”  Worcester was “free soil” and opposed slavery and the return of escaped slaves, while Boston was much more tepid in these matters. 

By the early 20th century Worcester was a successful industrial working-class town.  Its population was a mix of 19th century “white” immigrants from places like Poland, Russia, Ireland, and other parts of Europe, and African-Americans whose families went back to the Underground Railroad.  This population “melted” (as in the “melting pot”) into “Americans” primarily by becoming common citizens of Worcester first and foremost.  Many teachers in Worcester’s public schools had used teaching as a way to enter the middle class from working class family backgrounds.

By the 1970s Worcester’s industrial base was beginning to decay, a victim of the out-sourcing of jobs.  A once vibrant working-class community became financially depressed.  Furthermore, the population of Worcester was fast “browning” due to a new wave of immigration from Asia, South America, Mexico, and the Caribbean.  The teachers in the public schools, themselves a product of immigration, viewed the “brown” children in their classrooms as “Worcester kids” and felt it was their job to help them become citizens of Worcester, and, thus, in that sense, to “melt” as had their own families.

Worcester has a number of good colleges and years ago there was a project where university history professors and middle-school teachers worked together to design and teach a new history curriculum based on local oral history.  I was part of a team facilitating the meetings between the professors and teachers and also involved with studying their discourse practices.

The project went on for many meetings and eventually a curriculum was made and taught.  However, the meetings were often contentious.  From interviews it became apparent that the professors thought the teachers were racists and the teachers thought the professors looked down on them and did not trust them.  At one meeting a professor asked a teacher if she had diversity in her classroom (which was, in fact, made up of white, Asian, South-American, Mexican, African-American, and Caribbean students).  The teacher said, “No, they’re all Worcester kids.”  The professors wanted the middle-school kids to study their own neighborhoods (so, for example, a Vietnamese student would engage in oral history with the largely segregated Vietnamese people in her neighborhood, which earlier had been, perhaps, a Polish neighborhood).  The teachers wanted students to focus on the downtown of Worcester (“the center”) and the people who went there from the different neighborhoods of Worcester.

The professors and the teachers never overtly discussed their conflicts and or the possible sources of those conflicts.  Eventually we noticed, however, that over the course of many meetings, the professors had used the words “diverse” and “diversity” many times, but never used words for having things in “common.”  The teachers, on the other hand, rarely used the word “diversity,” but often used terms for having things in common as citizens of Worcester.

It became clear that the professors and the teachers brought two different frameworks to the meetings.  Of course, people do not normally formalize their frameworks in explicit claims and I cannot know the full details of their frameworks.  However, as a discourse analyst, I can make hypotheses about their frameworks given how the professors and teachers talked, interacted, acted, and expressed values.

Here are simplified versions of the two different frameworks: 


Honoring diversity is the primary goal in schooling

Diversity is defined in terms of race, class, and gender, but with a primary emphasis on race

Stressing commonality over diversity is a form of colonization

Failing to orient to a child’s race or ethnicity is a form of racism

Academics have privileged insight into the politics of race and diversity

Larger macro-level power structures systematically victimize “people of color,” thereby severely limiting their agency at a local level

Larger macro-level power structures are where the important causes and effects happen though most people do not have the insight or knowledge to see this or really understand it

Diverse neighborhoods are the focus of Worcester, not the downtown, which is possibly unsafe anyway

Teachers and the American public in general are not sophisticated intellectually or politically

Teachers are locally focused, academics are nationally and globally focused. 


Honoring commonality is the primary goal of Worcester public schooling

The earlier “white” immigrants (their own families) “melted” into being co-citizens of Worcester and the new “brown” immigrants need to do so too

One key goal of schooling is to make students become citizens of Worcester

Placing children in large social groups effaces their individuality

Teachers are there to teach individual children not “abstract” groups

Class is more central than race or ethnicity in terms of people failing to get ahead

The primary causes of people’s success and failure are at the local level and a matter of their individual agency

In a community where new immigrants are poor and often (the teachers believe) have dysfunctional families, teachers must not just teach, but nurture the children as individuals

The downtown of Worcester needs to be a focus for everyone because that is where all the people of Worcester used to come together as citizens of Worcester.  It needs to be revitalized.

Though professors teach, they are not teachers.

Academics live in an Ivory Tower and do not know what is going on “on the ground” 

These two frameworks look incommensurable and they sure seemed to be such in the meetings.  Note it will not do much good to cherry pick a claim and ask whether it is true or cherry pick a word and ask what it “really” means.  This is so because each claim and each key word is inextricably linked to many of the other claims and words in the framework.  It is not surprising that the professors felt the teachers were hiding things or even lying and the teachers felt the professors looked down on them and attributed racism to them.

Note what might happen if people saw the value of a critical discussion comparing both frameworks in their entirety, with the goal not to convince each other or settle a given claim or word meaning.  The goal would be for each party to come to a better understanding of their own framework, learn better ways to argue for it and explicate what it means, face new questions, and discover where their framework might not be working well for their own purposes, values, and their own good and the good of others.  In the end, we would settle not for agreed upon “truth” or conversion, but for the possibility that new or transformed frameworks will gradually evolve in the course of critical discussions based on good will and a shared journey that is tropic to truth, but not likely to reach any definitive, once and for all certainties.

Such a critical discussion would require people to seek to express, and get better at expressing, and even defending their frameworks.  Like science at its best, participants in such a critical discussion will hope that by comparing, contrasting and defending their frameworks within the context of shared data, evidence, and experiences in the world they will gradually converge on deeper, more moral, better, and truer frameworks.  Even if they never converge each will have deepened their own understandings and long-term, life-long search for truth

I have said several times that what is required for such critical discussions is good will.  But now we reach our final question: What could possibly be the source of good will in our politically, socially, religiously, culturally, and ideologically fractured country and world?  To that question we turn next.

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Blogs for


The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 10 The End (2016-04-17)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis Step 9 Interpretation (2016-04-15)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 8 An Example (2016-04-14)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 7 Discussions (2016-04-12)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 6 Discourses (2016-04-03)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 5 Frameworks (2016-03-28)
The Importance of Discourse Analysis: Step 4 Sausage (2016-03-26)
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