1 While most of the recent developments in the nursing literature using discourse perspectives have come from Australia (e.g. †, 2000; ‡,§), it is also appearing in North America (e.g. ¶; ‖; ††); New Zealand (e.g. ‡‡; Crowe 2000), and the UK (e.g. Harden, 2000; Hallett et al., 2000).
Discourse analysis and the epidemiology of meaning
Article first published online: 20 DEC 2001
Blackwell Science Ltd 2001
Volume 2, Issue 2, pages 163–176, July 2001
How to Cite
Allen, D. and Hardin, P. K. (2001), Discourse analysis and the epidemiology of meaning. Nursing Philosophy, 2: 163–176. doi: 10.1046/j.1466-769X.2001.00049.x
2 In saying ‘our’ perspective, we are emphasizing commitment, not ownership. The view of discourse and language described here is widely held and has a complex genealogy we cannot begin to address. See §§Objectivity, Relativism and Truth, and discussions of his work in ¶¶ Reading Rorty (especially Nancy Fraser's critique of Rorty's politics). See also ‖‖ and Wilkinson & Kitzinger (1995).
4 Hermeneutically speaking, the ‘meaning’ is in the interaction between interpreter and text – Gadamer and Derrida would both agree that the association of one set of signifiers with another is never fixed or determined but bounded. Multiple interpretations are warranted, but some more strongly than others. See also ‡‡‡‡ and §§§§).
6 Most phenomenological research, if it addresses social structure at all, represents it as separate from and producing/causing language patterns. Our version of discourse analysis would see employing a vocabulary as the enactment (production and reproduction) of social structure (‡‡‡‡‡, §§§§§; ¶¶¶¶¶). Social structure, in this view, is not something outside of, behind, or underneath these performances. We will return to this theme later.
7 Usually this is consensual. We take on the vocabularies of our different workplaces as ‘natural’, often forgetting how long we worked to acquire them. Outsiders often have trouble understanding (knowing how to act within) these languages and sometimes we find some of our interests (e.g. more autonomy) at odds with them. See ‖‖‖‖‖, ††††††, Butler (1997) and ‡‡‡‡‡‡.
8 This ‘private language’ view was thoroughly criticized by Wittgenstein (1953) in Philosophical Investigations, and, although it remains a common-sense (and ideologically laden) view, it has few advocates today.
11 At several points, we will return to different dimensions of the definition of ‘discourse’ we are promoting. Nancy ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡ offers a pragmatist definition that captures much of what we are pursuing: ‘Discourses are historically specific, socially situated, signifying practices. They are communicative frames in which speakers interact by exchanging speech acts. Yet discourses are themselves set within social institutions and action contexts’ (p. 160–161). Such a pragmatist orientation sees discourses as historically contingent, as action rather than representation, as plural, contradictory and thoroughly enmeshed with power and inequality.
12 Nancy ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡ argues the necessity to interrogate the tendency to dissociate political economy and language. Social justice requires ‘models that connect the study of signification to institutions and social structures’ (6).
13 See ††††††.
15‘Discourses’ and ‘discursive objects’ can be analysed at varying levels of specificity. One can examine how a particular conversation is organized around a discursive object (‘aliens’), link those to broader discursive fields (e.g. the burgeoning popular literature such as X Files upon which both participants may be drawing or the psychiatric literature on delusions) and/or tie them to social or organizational practices (television, medicine). The ‘same’ discursive object can have different and conflicting attributes (‘real’, ‘fictional’) and functions (‘entertain’, ‘excuse/manipulate’). We argue it is appropriate to analyse the causes and effects of these differences (there is an epidemiology of meaning).
17 This sentence displays a key slippage: from ‘average’ (in the sense of statistical mean) we infer ‘normal’ (in the sense of the ways things should be). See ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡.
18 Actually this distinction is misleading: description itself entails norms – we learn what vocabularies to employ and the vocabularies involve implicit norms. However, there is an important performative distinction between describing one's self (6 feet tall; grey hair) and judging oneself to be too short and in need of Grecian Formula.
20 This is a misleading notion, as not all actors can take part in all productions. One always has to ask, who wrote the scripts, for what stages, and for what purposes. Who has access to what stages? The example used here is to illustrate how individuals at a microlevel of analysis take-up available subject positions and negotiate within them.
22 Narrative and story are used interchangeably as differentiated from a ‘discourse’, which we conceptualize, on a broader level of analysis, usually in relation to a ‘discursive object’ such as mental illness or anorexia. When referring to narrative/story, we are referring to an individual's accounting/understanding of their experiences as articulated in conversations with others (or themselves).
23 Rhodes (2000).
24 One rationale for the growth of research on marginalized populations is to identify alternative and resistive discourses that help privileged groups understand how their practices/ vocabularies are viewed by others and to open up new ways of speaking that might be less oppressive. Foucault would warn us, however, that a risk of such research is ‘normalizing’ the very population being studied. See ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡, §§§§§§§§§.
25 We tend to not use the term ‘identity’ because it tends to imply a single, fixed set of characteristics (see discussion of subjectivity, below) rather than a more fluid and contradictory notion of how an individual behaves/talks.
26 Stillar et al. (1998), ¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶¶, Harden (2000).
27 Thus these interviews are neither ‘neutral’, nor without effects: they are part of the normalizing practices of social science analysed by Foucault and colleagues: people learn many ways to monitor and report on their behaviour as they do in research interviews. See ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡, Chap. 8: The means of correct training (pp. 170–194); also ‖‖‖‖‖‖‖‖‖, ††††††††††).
29 Post-structuralism takes on different meanings depending on what is being resisted or ‘posted’. In this case, we are referring to the reaction to classical Marxism, which was a target for many French theorists after the revelations of Stalin's brutality and the 1968 student revolution in Paris; but another target of poststructuralism is Levi Strauss or Saussure, for whom structure is internal, not external.
30 At least they are arguing that these structures are not more ‘real’ or do not exist on any different ontological plane than the everyday activities of participants.
31 Of course, no interpretation can be so limited because interpretation always draws on implicit and explicit stocks of knowledge and practice that precede the encounter with the text. Nevertheless, in phenomenological inquiry this dependency is repressed as it was in the New Criticism of the 1950s.
32 No story or narrative is ‘complete’ or ‘stable.’ There are always alternative understandings and narrative analysis always depends on implicit and explicit cultural discourses that make it possible.
33 In one sense, reliability remains a concern: We have an obligation to ‘get the words right’– that is, not to misquote or inaccurately transcribe the text. ¶ emphasizes that the participants’ interpretation of their own words may, but need not necessarily, be privileged.
34‖‖‖‖‖‖‖‖‖‖, Chap. 8: ‘Recovering epistemological resources: strong objectivity.’ In Harding, Is Science Multicultural?. ‘Truth’ is an important concept in almost any social system: Social groups develop ways of authorizing claims they endorse and methods of sorting claims into those authorized as ‘true’, ‘false’, or undetermined. We use ‘truth’ in this sense. We are trying to avoid either a transcendental view (that ‘truth’ lies outside discourse) or a relativist view that regards ‘truths’ as arbitrary impositions. Both these perspectives tend to close down conversation and mask the play of power and normative consensus. ‘Normalizing truths’, following ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡, ‡‡‡‡‡‡‡‡), are taken as authorized claims about people and society that tend to reproduce current social arrangements.
35††††††††††† refers to her work as deconstructive ethnography, which is similar to the concepts explicated in this paper of critical discourse analysis. She opposes deconstructive ethnography to reflective ethnography, which is similar to hermeneutic methodologies used in nursing research.
36 It is important to distinguish ‘value free’– an impossibility – from ‘value neutral’. In conducting inquiry, one should endeavour to be neutral with respect to some values (e.g. avoid privileging evidence that supports one’s view over evidence that does not). But one does this within a field of values (including the value of being fair).
- Issue published online: 20 DEC 2001
- Article first published online: 20 DEC 2001
Abstract This paper delineates a postmodern discourse analysis that is positioned within a semiotic theory of language. This theory of language foregrounds the performative aspects of language usage and provides the theoretical space from which to theorize the interrelationship between social organizations or structure and social agents or individuals. Our version of discourse analysis contends that social structure is enacted (production and reproduction) through the employment of various vocabularies: social structure is not something outside of, behind, or underneath these performances, and we argue that social organization is not produced by external structures operating upon or causing people to adopt certain behaviours. Rather, social structure is an effect of taking up practices and reproducing and modifying them. From this perspective, individuals are constituted by being recruited into and reproducing discursive practices. Hence, by looking at the actual employment of language – its tactical, practice dimensions – one can avoid the usual binary of seeing the person as either the autonomous origin of his or her experience or the ideological pawn of social determination. This methodology calls into question how the narratives or stories that individuals recount are imbricated within relational plays of power, and concomitantly, how subjects reauthorize their own positions. We assert that the methodological challenges of research addressing social injustice cannot be reduced to either: (i) interpersonal relationships between researcher and participants, or (ii) relegated to ‘social structures’ acting upon or outside of individuals.