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Themes in discourse research: the case of Diana
Themes in discourse research: the case of Diana

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1.10 Voice and the speaking subject

Discursive practices, as we have seen, order the shape of written and spoken discourse; they order the features which appear and the selection of words and phrases. But these properties are only a small subset of those which govern meaning-making. In this and in the next section we will be more concerned with patterns in the content of discourse and the psychological and sociological implications of those patterns. This will help elaborate further on the notion that language is constructive – that it builds social worlds.

I want to look first at some of the patterns in Diana's own representation of herself in the Panorama interview and then move on in the next section to consider Diana as a popular icon – Diana as the subject of discourse – and the many millions of words which have been written about her.

In an analysis of the Panorama interview, Lisa Blackman (1999) argues that, in telling her story, Diana draws on a type of therapeutic discourse of strong women suffering and coping which has become characteristic in recent years in women's magazines. By discourse, Blackman means here an organized system of statements. The suggestion is that as members of a culture we are rarely original. Rather, to communicate at all, we have to draw on accepted and conventional images, ideas and modes of talking about ourselves and others. These modes, of course, are constantly changing so that any study of the content of women's magazines in the 1950s is likely to find very different discourses and modes of representation compared to the 1990s.

One of the startling aspects of the Panorama interview was its confessional quality. Diana discussed, for example, her bulimia, her own and her husband's adultery and her attempts at self-injury. But how did she represent these things? What broader narratives did she draw upon to contextualize these? Discourse researchers often focus on the kinds of stories people tell. They look at the way these stories are formed, the genres of storytelling they draw upon (such as romance or the heroic epic) and the ways in which stories construct identities and events (Bruner, 1990; Mishler, 1995; Riessman, 1993.)

Blackman argues that the narratives Diana chose exemplify a sea change in our culture's representations of what might previously have been called ‘madness’. Aspects of self which might once have been described as symptomatic of insanity are presented instead as the opportunity for work on one's self and a stimulus for self-development. The focus is on coping and self-empowerment. Bulimia is thus a failed coping strategy to be replaced by more constructive coping styles. This is not a story, then, of tragedy but a narrative of winning out over adversity.

Extract 6
BASHIR And so you subjected yourself to this phase of bingeing and vomiting?
DIANA You could say the word ‘subjected’ but it was my escape mechanism and it worked for me at the time.
(adapted from transcript in Blackman, 1999: 114)

Blackman argues that the ideal in Diana's talk and in modern women's magazines is of ‘the autonomous woman who does not lean on or need others and who above all can "believe in herself''’ (1999: 115). The goal is presented as gaining enough self-confidence to become so empowered. Diana presents herself as a victim who nonetheless emerges as a strong woman who has sorted herself out.