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

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1.5 Discourse as social action continued

1.5.1 The co-production of meaning

The third sense in which discourse is a social action refers to the origins of meanings. Meaning emerges from complex social and historical processes. It is conventional and normative. We have some idea what it signifies to say Prince Charles is a proud man because we are members of a speaking community and culture which has agreed associations for ‘proud man’. We draw on those to make sense. Meaning is also relational. Proud signifies as it does because of the existence of other terms, the contrast with meek, arrogant, humble and so on. Discourse continually adds to, instantiates, extends and transforms the cultural storehouse of meanings.

Meaning is social not just in the very grand global sense of storehouses and dictionaries but also in a very local sense. Utterances are indexical. Their sense depends on their contexts of use. Thus Diana describes Charles as a proud man in what for us as readers is the immediate context of the rest of Extract 1. And, at the end of the extract we have a quite specific evaluation and frame of reference for ‘proud man’ coloured by what precedes and what follows.

There is a further sense in which meaning is a joint production. It is a production of culture but also of the participants engaged in any particular interaction. With conversation this point is obvious but it is the case also for writing. Writing is addressed to someone and writing and reading (interpretation) together make a text for that moment, always open, of course, to other readings so a piece of writing can become other potential texts. In the production of discourse we see people cooperating to generate social events which make shared sense (Garfinkel, 1967). Social life depends on this very possibility of coordinated action. Consider, for example, Martin Bashir's role in Extract 1. Together, these two (interviewer and interviewee), and the hidden institution of television, create a context where this talk is appropriate and works as communication.