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

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1.3 Discourse as social action continued

1.3.1 Discourse is constitutive

First we'll focus on Diana's utterances as a form of description. She is describing some events in the world and people's reactions to those. Social scientists deal with descriptions of this kind all the time. They are basic data. But what do we do with them? One way to respond is to move to judgements about adequacy and accuracy. Is this objective data? Is Diana telling it how it was? Would we want other sources of information about what really happened? Social science is made up of these kinds of decisions about the reliability of people's talk. Before we go down this path, however, it is worth pausing and considering what this emphasis on true or false (accurate or inaccurate) descriptions assumes about the world and about language. What is it saying about discourse and the way it works?

I think it assumes two things. First, it assumes that language works rather like a picture. It represents the world and people's thoughts and opinions. This representation can be faithful or, if people are malicious or lying, it can be unfaithful and misleading. Language's main function, however, is representational. The second related assumption is that the world, language and people are separate entities. Language in its picturing and representational modes mediates between the world and people. But language itself is removed from the world. It adds nothing but simply conveys from one person to another the nature of the world, people's impressions, their thoughts and opinions. Language in this sense is the neutral servant of the people.

Together these two assumptions suggest that language mostly works as a transparent medium. It assumes that language is a vehicle for getting to the real nature of events, people's real experiences, their views about what is going on as they report those to an audience. If this is the case then social scientists need not have much interest in language. Why should they? What is interesting is what is really going on and what people think about things and language is a means of studying those things.

The notion of discourse as social action questions all these assumptions. A central point discourse researchers make is that language is constructive. It is constitutive of social life. Discourse builds objects, worlds, minds and social relations. It doesn't just reflect them. What does this mean exactly?

Words are about the world but they also form the world as they represent it. What is the case for humans, what reality is, what the world is, only emerges through human meaning-making. As Diana and others speak, on this and many other occasions, a formulation of the world comes into being. The world as described comes into existence at that moment. In an important sense, the social reality constructed in the Panorama interview and in other places of Diana's happy marriage buckling under media pressure did not exist before its emergence as discourse. Just as, for instance, we could say that whereas odd, discrepant or deviant behaviour might have always been found in human societies, it takes a certain kind of discourse and pattern of meaning-making to turn this into, for instance, ‘schizophrenia’ or ‘witchcraft’ or ‘adolescent delinquency’. These are classifications which may be entirely unfamiliar in other societies. Once we have the notion ‘schizophrenia’ and it continues to be widely current (in a way witchcraft is no longer) then it is difficult to construct events alternatively. Indeed the very term ‘deviant’ relies on the forms of knowledge from social science.

As accounts and discourses become available and widely shared, they become social realities to be reckoned with; they become efficacious in future events. The account enters the discursive economy to be circulated, exchanged, stifled, marginalized or, perhaps, comes to dominate over other possible accounts and is thus marked as the ‘definitive truth’. In discourse research, decisions about the truth and falsity of descriptions are typically suspended. Discourse analysts are much more interested in studying the process of construction itself, how ‘truths’ emerge, how social realities and identities are built and the consequences of these, than working out what ‘really happened’. Part of what is meant, then, by the ‘turn to discourse’ is this epistemological stance which reflects the broader cultural and intellectual shifts of postmodernism.

The first facet, then, of the claim that discourse is social action is a rejection of the view that language is a ‘do-nothing domain’ (Edwards, 1997). It is worth pondering that notion of a ‘do-nothing domain’ a little longer. When language is seen as simply mediating between people and the world, then it tends to be seen as ‘doing nothing’. If our notions of how language works are dominated by the metaphor of language as a picture then, again, language is seen as a passive rather than an active principle in social life. The alternative view is that texts (such as a transcribed interview) are not part of some natural process like a chemical reaction or electrons moving around a circuit. They are complex cultural and psychological products, constructed in ways which make things happen and which bring social worlds into being.