What is Discourse ?

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 eat ?
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, levels, etc.)

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 fragments.
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 as
tightly or loosely,
with one or more knots,
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 or reflection)
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 authors).

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 …… Science(s), 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 predictable.
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 position.
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, everyday/immigration, etc.
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 to reveal
their strength,
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 future

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 beef.
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 industry
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.

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