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Discourse Analysis Essay

Discourse Analysis is one of the qualitative research methods, and is one that I admit I didn’t get on with very well myself. One of my recent assignments was to write a 600 word essay on Discourse Analysis, and I was very pleased to get an A grade for this (a combined grade with another assignment that I will post here soon).

Explain what Discourse Analysis is and why you would use it to analyse your qualitative data. Discuss the underlying theory, the basic tenets, analytical terms, and include a discussion of the strengths and weaknesses of the method.


Discourse analysis (DA) is an umbrella term for a number of qualitative research methods used to understand the cognitions of an individual through analysing the language they employ. Gee (2005) described language as serving two functions: “…to support the performance of social activities and social identities and to support human affiliation within cultures, social groups, and institutions.”  DA addresses these functions both in terms of the conscious and unconscious goals of the speaker, and analysing discourse as a constructing the social world. DA also looks at how power, inequality, and other social goods are shared and attributed through language.

As a qualitative research method, DA allows the researcher to take advantage of naturally occurring data as well as collected data.

Basic Tenets

One of the tenets of DA is and examination of the function of language. Functions can be direct such as a request, or they more global such as social promotion by disparaging another (Potter, 1987). Function is sometimes abstracted and can only be understood in context, for example an elderly woman complaining about a sore back on a bus is implicitly requesting a seat.

DA explores how language is used for construction of different versions of the world. Gee (2005, p.11) elaborates this by defining seven areas which are said to be simultaneously built by any communication: significance (endowing meaning or value onto things), activities, identities, relationships, politics (the distribution of social goods such as responsibility and power), connections, and sign systems and knowledge.

Particularly over time, an analysis of language can expose variation; an individual may give different and sometimes contradictory accounts. While it is often explored as an element of its own, variation is both tool and by-product of language serving different functions and constructing different realities to support those functions. For example choosing a certain subset of available characteristics to describe someone dependent on your opinion of that individual (Potter, 1987).

Analytical Terms

Interpretive repertoires have been described as the “terminology, stylistic and grammatical features, and preferred metaphors and other figures of speech” (Willig, 2008) which are used in the construction of objects in the text. They are different ways of talking about an object, which are used to construct different realities. For example in one context “youth” may be described as unruly, criminal, and resistant, however in another instance “youth” may be described as disenfranchised, abandoned, and helpless.

Lived ideologies are the “beliefs, values, and practices of a given society or culture” (Edley, 2001), which, in contrast to intellectual ideologies, are not necessarily mutually compatible.  Ideological dilemmas occur when an individual can accept two conflicting sides of an argument. The resulting internal conflict can then be played out through language.

A subject position is an identity that is constructed through language. For example through the language used a woman may identify herself with mother, sister, professional, or lover subject positions in different contexts, however discourse can also position others. Edley (2001) wrote, for example, of wartime posters positioning the reader as “British” with the text “Your country needs you.”

Strengths and Weaknesses

By working so closely with the data and being flexible DA allows the researcher to open up new areas for research that would otherwise not have been apparent, and the established analytical terms provide a powerful tools for mining the text for meaning. Unlike quantitative methods, DA can open up new areas of interest for research.

DA has some disadvantages; it is highly labour intensive and can only be employed on a small scale, usually only considering single cases. DA remains unclearly defined, with multiple and occasionally contradictory explanations of the method and process. This makes it difficult for new students to master, and means that different cases cannot be compared. Also by restricting focus to the texts being analysed, DA overlooks “the influence of who the speakers are and the broader social context in which the texts are produced” (McMullen, 2011) when compared to some other qualitative methods.


Coulthard, M. (1985), An Introduction to Discourse Analysis (2nd ed.). Essex: Longman Group UK.

Edley, N. (2001), Analysing Masculinity: Interpretative Repertoires, Ideological Dilemmas and Subject Positions in M. Wetherell (Ed.), Discourse as Data: A Guide for Analysis, (pp.189-228). London: Sage.

Gee, J . P. (2005), An Introduction to Discourse Analysis Theory and Method (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

McMullen, L. M. (2011), A Discursive Analysis of Teresa’s Protocol in F. Wertz (Ed.), Five Ways of Doing Qualitative Analysis (pp. 205-223). The Guilford Press.

Potter. J. (1987), Unfolding Discourse Analysis in J. Potter & M. Wetherell (Eds.), Discourse and social psychology: beyond attitudes and behaviour (pp.32-53). London: Sage.

Willig, C. (2008), Discourse Analysis in J. Smith (Ed.) Qualitative Psychology: A Practical Guide to Research Methods (pp.160-185). London: Sage.

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