|Discourse can be conveniently described
as the "great milling mass" of thought, opinion, information,
assessments, and so on, that fills millions of column inches of newspapers
and magazines, and hours of radio, TV and conversations
It is a convenient word to use, and it has advantages over the
concepts of thought and mind which are more widely used. Discourse
implies that 'we all knit along together' in a number of fields,
reacting to events, comparing schools of thought, adapting to new
(and more fashionable) ideas. From this viewpoint, there is little
'new' thought which is our own - we adapt to the general discourses
around us and in the media, and take up a fairly narrow range of
positions in relation to these discourses.
This usage of discourse seems useful and relevant, and I will describe
more fully how discourse may have developed, and some of the main
'structure and properties' of discourse itself.
The Original Questions ?
I have wondered how discourse might have begun, and I imagine that
the earliest humans only had three basic questions in their lives:-
What is safe to
How can we get
more of it ?
How can we store
it so we never run out of food and go hungry ?
These questions have now evolved into a massively complex system
of ideas (especially more complex since economics began by trading
foodstuffs at the start of history ?).
For example, "What is safe to eat" diverges into two directions
What is healthy
to eat ? - evolving into medicines and treatments
What tastes good
to eat ? - evolving into cookery and gourmet issues
These seem like the roots of separate discourses, though they are
clearly connected (for example, some medicines are healthy, but
unsafe in excess, and the discourses of health and safety interact
in many different ways)
Structures and Properties of Discourse (strands, events,
Discourse may have begun from simple questions, but it has now
elaborated into a massive field. I will summarise below some of
the main current ideas about the nature and structure of discourse
(from Jaeger, 2001, pp 46-51)
'Thematically uniform discourse processes' are called for simplicity
Discourse Strands. In my example, the initial "How can we get
more food ?" question has developed into scientific studies
of soil fertility, plant breeding, farming techniques, and so on,
which are separate strands, and which have many sub-strands - for
example the soil fertility strand has further sub-strands on organic
techniques, fertilizers, irrigation, water retention, etc.
Some of these are Special Discourses, as they are part of the sciences,
others are Inter-Discourses, which are non-scientific (the technical
effects of fertilizers on soil chemistry is a special discourse,
but the advertising of fertilizers is part of an inter-discourse)
In this way, we can see that there are many Discourse Fragments
- a text on fertilizers may have fragments about soil chemistry
and soil micro-organisms, but there might also be discourses about
how to use the fertilizers, and even of how to open the package
and store the contents. Texts can be considered as units of discourse
However, as we are already seeing, there is Entanglement of Discourse
Strands - most texts refer to other strands, using techniques
such as comparison, evidence, reinforcement, debate, reflection,
and so on. The way the entanglement occurs can also be described
tightly or loosely,
with one or more
complex or simple,
lightly or heavily.
It seems that entanglement of discourse strands is very common,
and it can be expected to occur in almost all circumstances.
Within each fragment of discourse, there will also be Themes,
and these themes can have a big influence on the text itself
||Some texts clearly refer to several main themes
(with more or less emphasis)
||Other texts have one main theme and subsidiary
references to others
||Some commentaries deliberately deal with two main
themes which might
Have nothing to do with each other (but may create entanglement
Be closely related
||Other texts draw in other themes accidentally
(or perhaps unconsciously)
Discursive Events. It can be claimed that 'discourse causes
events' - the reasons for actions and events often have discursive
roots, as they can be traced back to discursive constellations whose
materialisations they represent. This is debatable, but the opposite
is certainly true, that some 'events cause discourse' - they are
discursive events, and that a series of these events 'forms the
history' of the discourse (and often provides a shorthand for commentators)
and may form the theme of the discourse. These discursive events
form historic reference points (and it is interesting to study how
these events are handled by the discourse in general and by individual
However, some other events do not get emphasised by the media (or
politically), so do not become discursive events. For example, Chernobyl
WAS a major discursive event, but the similar Harrisburg incident
was barely reported at all, and the media even kept it secret for
many years. This depends on the respective political power constellation
and developments. Debatably, these accidents also derived from discourses
between the politicians, scientists and designers in the early stages
of the development of these reactors. It is difficult to trace these.
In the food and farming area, a similar example is the UK outbreak
of BSE, which was (eventually) a major news story wordwide - it
was a discursive event, and it has formed a point of reference ever
since. There may have been similar outbreaks of animal disease which
did not become 'big news', and indeed, there may have been efforts
to try to prevent information about BSE spreading. The BSE outbreak
typifies a discursive event which had an impact on a very wide range
of other discourses worldwide, and it also typifies a key reference
point in a number of debates. Some authors use events like BSE as
a shorthand in their discourses.
Similarly, we can describe a concept of Discursive Context.
Discourse events can be useful to mark out the contours of the discursive
context to which a current strand relates. A synchronic cut
through a discourse strand can find its historic roots by looking
back at the main discursive events throughout history, and may look
at the way the discourse has evolved and changed. A diachronic
cut through a discourse would give a cross-section of the range
and manner of the discourse being conducted in a particular strand
and sub-strands. With BSE, for example, farmers, shopkeepers, scientist
and politicains, would have different discourses about the outbreak,
but they would all be connected (by the media)
Discourse Planes. Different strands, and different sections
of strands, operate on different discourse planes
politics, media, education, everyday life, business life, administration,
are all examples of different discourse planes (astonishingly, the
author omitted the academic and psychological planes from this list
||These planes can also be called the societal locations
from which speaking happens.
|| These different planes relate to each other,
use each other, and impact on each other
||Individual discourse planes can be very tightly
interwoven with each other
||Fragments from the special discourse of science
or from political discourse are used in the media, which borrows
and takes from many sources.
||The media often takes 'everyday discourse' about
events and sensationalises it (in the yellow press), dressing
it up in a popular form. By some mechanism, this seems to regulate
the everyday thinking of people and exercises influence on the
political agenda and 'what is conductible' (that is, what discourses
and positions are permissible at any one time)
||Sometimes the media (try to) take over a discourse
from the other planes
||Some planes of discourse are dominant in different
ways and at different times
||The discourses used by a plane can have impacts
varying from strong to weak at different times
Discourse Position. The category of a discourse position
can refer to a specific ideological position of a person, plane
or medium. In particular
||The discourse position is the (ideological) location
from which people participate in the discourse and assess it.
This applies to individuals and also groups or institutions,
which may also take part in discourses.
||Any discourse position is typified by particular
discursive entanglements which feed on the previously, current
and expected experiences of the participant. This is often entirely
|| The discourse position is a result of the person's
previous involvement in various discourses in which the individual
has been subjected (involved). The person has been "knitted
into" the discourse, and has "knitted in" the
discourse into their own position
||What begins as a discourse position may develop
further (and be fixed) into an ideological or institutional
||Correspondingly, this applies to the media and
to entire discourse strands, which form certain (implicit) discourse
positions, which shape overall reporting
||Groups and individuals can assess and use discourse
positions in different ways
Hegemonial discourses might see a supermarket as a positive
symbol of wealth.
Anti-hegemonial discourses might see the supermarket negatively
(idealising small shops and small farmers)
There may even be people so influenced by the discourse to think
of "my favourite supermarket"
These deviating positions relate to the same basic discourse
structure, the supermarket
||These discourse positions belong (in a rough form)
to the general knowledge of the population - they usually distrust
both of the extreme positions
|| Discourse positions within a dominant or hegemonial
discourse are usually rather homogeneous. This can be seen as
a function of hegemony - the positions will agree
Not to rock the boat
Not to put doubt on the ruling economic system
||Discourse positions which DO deviate from the
dominant are sometimes assigned to the camp of 'all opposing
discourses', whether they fit there or not
||However, opposing discourses (and elements of
them) can be introduced subversively into the hegemonial discourse
(e.g. the cliché 'time is money' can be turned into a
criticism of capitalism)
||Some opposing discourses are allowed to exist,
for example, the organic discourse has been allowed to enter
supermarkets, but in a tightly controlled way in terms of packaging
and shelf-life - it has to fit in with the 'supermarket paradigm'
to get in.
The overall societal discourse. In any particular society,
there is an overall societal discourse, composed of a large number
of strands, positions, etc. in a state of complex entanglement.
||This may be entirely homogenised (as in the FR
Germany - especially since the big political change in 1989
when East Germany 'joined' the West)
||However, society is never entirely homogeneous
(and will always change to survive
||A homogenised society may throw up sub-groups
in the most surprising ways (hippies, punk, Baader-Meinhof)
||The world discourse is perhaps the sum total of
the national discourses, and it is even more homogeneous ( ?
), but this changes slowly, for example from a West/East discourse
to North/South to Others/Islam as the main overall world discourses.
||The overall societal discourse may be particularly
entwined, interdependent and deep rooted. An analysis of discourse
can attempt to untangle this, generally by
1. working on individual discourses on individual discourse
planes (e.g. focussing only on the media - immigration discourse)
2. joining other analyses to this, e.g. political/immigration,
3. then asking how the discourse planes of the entire strand
relate to one another - do they 'eat into' each other, dovetail,
how do they influence each other (especially in the media)
||National Discourses can differ greatly in subtle
and unexpected ways. For example, in Germany, because of the
harsh winter weather, animals have always spent the whole winter
in their cowsheds and stalls. The weather is also too hot in
summer, so, about 30 years ago, apparently without any public
objection at all, nearly all German livestock was moved into
indoor accommodation for the whole year, giving the great advantage
that fences are no longer needed in the German fields, thus
cutting costs. This shows a profound national difference in
attitude and ideas about what is acceptable.
History, Present and Future of discourse strands. Sometimes
it is necessary to analyse longer timeframes of discursive processes
the density of the
entanglement of various related discourse strands
drying up and re-emergence
In this way we can perhaps reach an 'archaeology of knowledge' (Foucault's
ideal) or 'a genealogy', which may take the form of unfolding scenarios,
perhaps even predicting discursive events that can be expected in
How Do Discourses Affect Us ?
I have summarised discursive events above - on the one hand 'discourse
causes events', but also, some 'events cause discourse'. A series
of such events forms the history of the discourse (and often provides
a shorthand for commentators).
Let us take Animal Nutrition and the BSE outbreak as an example
of this (drawn from my personal memory). Fifty years ago (1950),
animal nutrition was not an issue, even in agriculture. It was relatively
fixed and settled. Animals grazed in the fields in the spring, summer
and autumn, the farmer made hay, and grew some special root crops
to feed them through the winter. There may have been some technical
and specialist discourses about exactly how to get the best results
from this, and there may have been some imported animal feeds. However,
for the public, this was a discourse that had 'dried up'.
At that time, the 'overall societal discourse' on food in the UK
was almost entirely homogenised - we wanted more and cheaper food,
and there was a homogeneous UK diet of meat, potatoes, and two vegetables
- the whole system was almost entirely fixed and unchanging (and
voluntarily so by nearly all the consumers !)
However, in the 60's, silage began to replace hay, there were the
first battery chicken farms, and these were generally hailed as
great improvements by all the consumers (who got cheaper and more
plentiful chickens and eggs)
In the 1970's, there began to be the first hints that all was not
well, and that animals were being kept in unsuitable ways (in cages
that were too small) and fed with unsuitable products (at the time,
fish meal was extensively fed to chickens and other animals). There
were the first counter-movements of animal activists, vegetarians
and back-to-the-land advocates.
As we now know, there were indeed problems with what was being
done, which showed up later with the BSE outbreak.
This was a major discourse event, taking many millions of column
inches and hours of prime-time television worldwide.
But how has all this discourse affected us, individually and collectively
||Firstly, we have each become aware that eating
food may involve some cumulative risk. Perhaps a new discourse
of risks and food has arisen that never existed before. We all
have to make our own decisions in response to these risks -
some have informed themselves about the risks involved and changed
their diets, others have not.
||There has been a continuing switch towards 'white
meat' (poultry) and away from red meat (beef, lamb). This was
occurring anyway as 'white meats' have lower cholesterol, and
a 'health discourse' has tried to reduce consumption of this.
||There was a collapse in the market for beef, and
many countries banned the import of British beef. There are
still ongoing cases at the European Court where the UK Government
is trying to remove the last restrictions on beef imports (especially
by the French), and is campaigning to 'prove' to the world that
UK beef is now safe by re-launching and re-marketing British
||The government introduced emergency research into
the causes of BSE, and eventually an understanding was reached
that BSE was linked to cattle feed, as recycled proteins (meat)
from other animals had been included in the feeds. In particular,
it is thought that BSE is related to scrapie, which is a persistent
(and not very serious) disease in sheep kept in very wet pastures.
It is thought this scrapie virus was in cattle feed and mutated
to affect cattle, although other theories have also been proposed.
However, the Government introduced tighter controls on
The contents of animal feed
The use of animal spinal tissue in human foodstuffs was stopped
Animal tracking schemes were introduced so that animals could
be traced better, and the treatment of each animal throughout
its life could be recorded, so that in future, the problems
could be analysed and the causes found more easily
Slaughterhouses were inspected more thoroughly and more frequently.
The government is apparently trying to rationalise the slaughterhouse
Emission of effluents from farms is more tightly controlled,
especially into watercourses, to reduce risks of other routes
of transfer of diseased materials to humans
||However, there has also been a major tendency
for small farmers to leave the agriculture sector - the new
regulations and systems need professional managers to implement
them, small farms have become relatively less efficient and
economic, and generally "the playing field is not level"
- it appears to favour large farms with capital-intensive operations.
||Reporting of animal conditions became of greater
interest to the media - I recently saw a TV exposure of illegal
slaughterhouses and illegal animal trading
Unfortunately, there has since been an outbreak of Foot and Mouth
disease, which tends to imply that either:-
The controls introduced
so far are insufficient
Or, the farmers
are cheating the systems
Or, perhaps, that
a reduction of animal numbers was wanted, as the supply exceeded
demand and was uneconomic.
This brief introduction to a discourse event shows the way it has
been used in a variety of discourses, and the way that these discourses
have affected the general public. Often, the discourse only has
a subtle and background effect on society and on our own personal
decisions. There is seldom a direct link between discourse and everyday
life, except in the cases where the discourse has generated finite
evidence and the Government has introduced legally binding regulations.
The closest link between discourse and life is perhaps the idea
that "we all knit along together", we keep up to date,
adjusting our own personal discourses, levels and roles to external
events. This process can be seen as orchestrated by the media, and
the sum total of this forms public opinion, which sensitises the
politicians, who might create legislation corresponding to the majority
position (discourse), or they might try to influence the public
by use of the media (examples of Government Ministers eating meat
in public during the BSE crisis spring to mind here).
What are the Limits of Discourse ?
As with many academic ideas, discourse has a central area where
it provides a good explanations - discourse strands, events, levels
and positions, added to the idea that we individually and collectively
'knit along together' gives a clear idea of 'the way things work',
especially in the realms of the media and politics.
However, as with all theories, there are boundary areas where the
theory has difficulty, and discourse theory is no exception:-
1. Everything is discourse. It may describe events and opinions,
but it easily becomes too rarified - I have written 'a discourse
about discourse' above. While this illustrates something about the
nature of society and the nature of discourse, it is 'two removes'
from reality, and it is easy to dismiss on that basis.
2. The real world in discourse. I have used the discourses connected
to BSE as an example relevant to my study. It is clear from this
that discourse is always 'an interpretation of reality'. The discourse
does not deal with the cows themselves, or the actuality of BSE.
It deals only with 'the idea of a cow', and the discourse event,
not the real event. As such, it is principally involved in the creation
and adjustment of mental models, not of 'reality'. I examine the
cognitive aspects of mental models later
3. How discourse affects the world. As I have tried to describe
above, discourse can be seen as the basis behind public opinion,
convictions, ideological positions, and administrative policies.
It only has an indirect effect on the world through this medium.