Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

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

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

1.4 Discourse as social action continued

1.4.1 Discourse involves work

If discourse is doing something rather than doing nothing, what kinds of things are being done? We can see that Diana's account in Extract 1, like all accounts, constructs a version of social reality. When we talk we have open to us multiple possibilities for characterizing ourselves and events. Indeed, there are many ways Diana could have answered Bashir's first question in the extract above. Any one description competes with a range of alternatives and indeed some of these alternatives emerge in this particular interview. An interesting question for discourse analysts, therefore, is why this version or this utterance? What does it do? What does it accomplish here and now? And what does it tell us about the wider discursive economy or the politics of representation which influence what is available to be said and what can be heard?

This property of language – that it allows for multiple versions – creates an argumentative and rhetorical context (Billig, 1991). The notion of rhetoric comes from ancient studies of political oratory but it has an important modern resonance. It suggests that discourse is often functional (Potter and Wetherell, 1987). It is designed to be persuasive, to win hearts and minds. The study of rhetoric is, in part, the study of the persuasive work and the organization of discourse to that end. This study demonstrates that what is said is often produced, heard and read in relation to the things which are not said. Discourse is a designed activity. It involves work.

Let us consider some of the discursive work involved in the extract above in more detail (see Abell and Stokoe, 1999; Bull, 1997; Kurzon, 1996). As Bull notes, very many of Diana's responses in the interview involve equivocation, criticism is predominantly done implicitly. Abell and Stokoe unpack this further. They note that the construction of Charles as proud and the unspecified reference to jealousy in Extract 1 are carefully managed. Criticism is often most effective rhetorically when it looks as though it is coming from an unbiased and neutral source who is merely describing what is the case, or from a source who is otherwise positive about the person criticized. Diana constructs herself as understanding of her husband: he possesses good qualities (he is proud) and is doing what any man might do. Yet, by contrast with ‘sharing’, these same qualities become questionable. Similarly, Diana's formulation in the last lines of the extract avoids explicitly claiming that Prince Charles was jealous, instead it is not specified who is jealous, yet the general context allows this to be heard as Prince Charles.

Discourse, then, involves labour; it is an active construction. This principle does not just apply to Diana carefully choosing her words in front of an audience of millions. Utterances in general are organized for a context, in response to or in dialogue with previous utterances, and oriented to other possible versions. Later we will need to consider just how intentional this process might be and the extent of the speaker's control.