An Introduction to Discourse Analysis

Written By:

Dr. Tami Oliphant, Assistant Professor, School of Library and Information Studies (SLIS), University of Alberta

 Discourse analysis is a domain of scholarly practice concerned with how language generates, constitutes, and constructs identities, reality, and social relations; how language is used to perform social action; and how power is reproduced, construed, perpetuated, and legitimated in society through talk and texts (Fairclough 2003; Foucault, 1972; Keller, 2013; Potter, 1996; van Dijk, 2008). James Paul Gee (2005) makes a useful distinction between two types of discourse—capital “D” Discourse and lowercase “d” discourse. Lowercase discourses are concerned with discourses used in localized settings and localized contexts whereas capital “D” Discourse is concerned with discourses that are integral to a culture or society and can be found across texts (Discourse analysis, 2008). Wetherell, Taylor and Yates (2001) suggest that the study of discourse can be divided into three domains: the study of social interaction, the study of minds, selves, and sense-making, and the study of culture and social relations (p. 5). Discourse analysis focus on how representations of reality are created and constructed through people’s use of language and discourse analysts study the meanings and actions people ascribe to language when it is used in a social context (Gee & Handford, 2014).

Underlying discourse analytic studies are certain epistemological and ontological claims. Discourse analyses are not concerned with uncovering objective “truth.” Foucault, for example, avoided epistemological questions about the correctness, veracity, or adequacy of knowledge claims and instead focused on how institutions such as psychiatry and criminology produce knowledge. In addition, discursive psychologists such as Potter (1996) and Wetherell (2001) explain that discursive psychology does not focus on the accuracy or veracity of claims but rather on how cases and descriptions are constructed to appear authoritative and accomplish social action. Researchers using discourse analytic approaches do not typically aim or claim to capture a truth of reality but instead they offer an interpretation or version that is inevitably situated and partial (Wetherell, 2001, p. 11).

Discourse analyses concentrate on the empirical investigation of discourses. The term “discourse analysis” does not refer to any specific method, but rather to a research perspective on particular research objects that are understood as discourses. Discourse analysis is a cross-discipline field of study that is distributed throughout the humanities and social sciences in linguistics, psychology, cultural studies, political theory, and sociology, to name but a few disciplines. Consequently, heterogeneous research goals, research questions, methodologies, methods, theoretical frameworks, and disciplinary backgrounds inform discourse analytic studies. Many discourse analysis practitioners, and in particular critical discourse analysis practitioners, prefer methodologies that are consistent with the interests of the social groups in which they engage and with methods that do not infringe upon the rights of the people they study. Methods are often chosen so as to contribute to the social empowerment of dominated groups (Keller, 2013).

The object of research with discourse analysis is the talk itself. Researchers are not concerned with why someone believes or says what they do, but rather, they are concerned with talk as the site for research. Language is not merely a reflection of mental processes; it is constructed. Materials used in discourse analytic research can be just about anything spoken or written such as online discourse, interview and group discussion transcripts, texts produced by institutions, policy, governments, and other media; discourse can be commercial or non-commercial, historical, and aimed at adults or children. However, this material is not data. Material becomes data through the process of selecting and sampling, based upon the research question. Discourse analysis offers a rigorous and fruitful approach for qualitative researchers to examine social relations, social issues and problems, domination, power, and related phenomena, contextually situated discourse, and how people use language to construct reality and perform social action.


Discourse analysis. (2008). Foundations of Qualitative Research in Education. Harvard Graduate Schoolof Education.

Fairclough, N. (2003). Analysing Discourse: Textual Analysis for Social Research. New York:Routledge.

Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. New York: Pantheon Books.

Gee, J.P. (2005). An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method. New York and London:Routledge.

Gee, J. P. & Handford, M. (2014). Introduction. In (J. Gee & M. Handford) (Eds.), Routledge

Handbook of Discourse Analysis (pp.1-6). New York: Routledge.

Keller, R. (2013). Doing Discourse Research: An Introduction for Social Scientists. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction. Thousand Oaks, CA:Sage Publications.

Van Dijk, T. (2008). Discourse & Power. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave MacMillan.

Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., & Yates, S. (Eds.) (2001). Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader. London: Sage.


About IIQM

The International Institute for Qualitative Methodology (IIQM) is an interdisciplinary institute based at the University of Alberta, in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, but serves qualitative researchers around the world. IIQM was founded in 1998, with the primary goal of facilitating the development of qualitative research methods across a wide variety of academic disciplines. Today IIQM offers a wide variety of training and networking opportunities through our annual conferences, courses, workshops, and programs. We have provided this YouTube Channel and video clips as a resource for the qualitative research community at large in order to advance qualitative inquiry. Email: Twitter: @theIIQM Facebook: @IIQMUofA LinkedIn: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology Youtube: International Institute of Qualitative Methodology (IIQM)
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