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Discourse Analysis

I’ve mentioned in two previous posts that I am a researcher using discourse analysis to study end-of-life interviews with palliative care patients. These posts gave a high-level introduction to the methodology I use, but I should have started with a post explaining about more about the theoretical background I work from. At the onset I’ll answer the question my post poses: discourse analysis is a method of analysing the structure of texts that takes into account both their content and their context. Let me explain what that means:

Discourse analysis is a method of analysing the structure of texts . . .

reading The first important fundamental of discourse analysis is that the word text is unsuitably defined. A text is more than just, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) would have it, “the wording of anything written or printed; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written.” Although it is true that most texts are words printed on a page (i.e., books, newspapers, websites, recipes, lists), this definition excludes the idea that texts are socially produced. For example, a book is the conventional design for delivering a text, yet books are socially produced objects. Like toys or vehicles, an economy of supply and demand determines the production of texts; like songs or works of art, various genres divide, categorize, and organize texts; and, like a conversation or political speech, the reader interprets and responds to the authors’ words—in the form of a text.

Texts share the properties of a conversation: they are the interchange of thoughts and words. Although readers don’t explicitly exchange their thoughts and words with the content of a text (or, by extension, the thoughts of the author), readers are implicitly a part of the society that necessitates, demands, and generates a texts’ social production. Therefore, a discourse analysis approach takes all organized groupings of language, both written and spoken, to comprise the definition of the word text. Discourse analysis studies texts, but defines a text as “the wording of anything written, printed, or spoken; the structure formed by the words in their order; the very words, phrases, and sentences as written or spoken.”

. . . that takes into account their content and context.

A text’s context is either the “whole structure of a connected passage regarded in its bearing upon any of the parts which constitute it” or, more broadly and more appropriately for our purposes here, “the parts of a text which immediately precede or follow any particular passage or ‘text’ and determine its meaning.” Yet both of these standard definitions from the OED of context disregard the social aspects of textual production that determine meaning. What I mean is that a text’s popularity, controversialness (yes, it’s a word; I wasn’t sure at first looked it up), and generic categorization, aren’t “parts of a text,” and yet they do impact the way texts are interpreted by readers.

A_Million_Little_Pieces One example I like to use to illustrate how context influences meaning is the controversy around James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces.” Frey’s book was categorized as an autobiographical memoir, and thus hyped by Oprah’s Book Club as a harrowing journey through the trials of drug and alcohol addiction. Yet when The Smoking Gun published an article disproving several impactful claims Frey makes in the novel—specifically regarding his criminal record and a section detailing dental work without anesthetics. A media frenzy erupted surrounding these allegations of dishonest and suddenly a debate about integrity and generic classification of books was being discussed by media celebrities like Oprah Winfrey and Steven Levitt.

Oprah had James Frey back on the show and told him that she felt “duped” and that he “betrayed millions of readers.” So here we have a book’s context brought into popular culture and now when readers buy Frey’s book—and millions have since this controversy—this controversy will in many cases act as a context for reading the book.

What is Discourse Analysis?

So, discourse analysis is a method of analysing the structure of texts that takes into account both their content and their context. Discourse analysis finds patterns of text features that point to relations between texts and context—they have linguistic integrity and contextual value; they can be any feature in a text or a set of texts that points to the way that meaning is embedded into that text in connection to its context. And so, in my research, I use verb tense and aspect to argue that the context of dying impacts the way texts (stories) are created (told) in end-of-life interviews by patients. I hope this clears up some questions about the theoretical background behind my research. But if you have anymore questions, please post them as a comment attached to this post.

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  1. […] That was a single sentence. It didn’t say anything (go ahead, read it again). It’s logic is cumbersome. The hardest part about working in academia is to politely side-step this kind of sophomoric language and reasoning from people who should know better. What they should have figured out by the time they earn a Ph.D. is what matters–what helps people understand the world and themselves differently. The human universals that interest Pinker matter. How we live, love, and die matter. […]

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