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

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1.13 Conclusion

So far we have traversed three kinds of domain in which the study of discourse is relevant. Discourse is often (but not necessarily) interactional and researchers have studied the order and pattern in social interaction. The study of discourse also has important psychological implications for the study of minds, selves and sense-making. Finally, discourse is about social relations, culture, government and politics.

No doubt, as you have been reading some problematic and confusing areas of debate have emerged. Here I want to note two related points of debate for further consideration. First, what are the boundaries of discourse? We could take as a simple definition that discourse is talk, language in use and human meaning-making activities. This definition suggests a couple of contrasting possibilities. The term ‘talk’ proposes quite tight boundaries; language in use is broader – it includes texts such as novels and newspapers – while ‘human meaning-making activities’ is very broad. Meaning-making activities might include, for instance, the visual such as films and works of art. It might include objects, such as gas cookers, for instance, since such objects represent a long history of meaningful work and the significations we have inherited in our cultural practices of eating and cooking (Chouliaraki, 2001).

With Diana, much of our information is visual. We have very few of her words. As Geraghty argues, ‘for much of her married life, Diana was literally speechless; it was clearly her person, her body, which was the news. Her being there was what was important’ (1998: 71, emphasis in the original). Are bodies part of discourse, however? What are the boundaries? What is discursive and what is extra-discursive? Is anything extra-discursive? The circumstances of Diana's death were intensely physical: the car crash and the mangled pile of steel in the tunnel. That, surely, is real, beyond talk. Yet what knowledge do we have of these things beyond human meaning-making?

Such queries raise immensely difficult epistemological issues and raise problems, too, for what we might be trying to do as analysts studying a piece of discourse. What is the status of our own interpretations of a piece of talk, for instance; are these outside discourse? Such debates reverberate through the discourse research community. What is clear, however, is the pervasiveness of discourse. Increasingly, everywhere, talk, self and other representation are becoming more and more central to how we define what work is, for example. In studying discourse, then, we cannot help but study social life.