1.2 What is meant by ‘discourse’?

Hicks points to the importance of the notion of discourse in recent sociocultural research. Discourse is a key notion in much contemporary work in the social sciences and its meaning varies according to the particular theorists that researchers draw on. For example, in applied linguistics research, discourse is often used to refer to a stretch of language – spoken or written – in context (Crystal, 1997). In contrast, for many social theorists, notably post-structuralist social philosophers such as Foucault (e.g., 1980), discourse refers to socially and historically situated domains of knowledge or ways of construing the world. In the first reading, Hicks emphasises the work of researchers on language who aim to combine the more concrete use of discourse as actual stretches of language with some elements of the more abstract notion of discourse from social theory. Throughout this unit we draw on these two notions of discourse to talk about language in context:

  1. Discourse as ‘language in its social context, as it is used to carry out the social and intellectual life of a community’ (Mercer, 1995, p. 79). This meaning of discourse emphasises the importance of looking at language in context and usually involves an analysis of actual stretches of spoken and written language, often referred to as ‘texts’. Note that ‘text’ is a term widely used in language research to refer to both spoken and written language, and, more recently, visual images, as we will see in section 4.
  2. Discourse as ‘different ways of structuring areas of knowledge and social practice’ (Fairclough, 1992, p. 3). This is a more abstract meaning of the term than (1) as it is not used to refer to particular texts, but rather to explain how certain ideas and values are embodied in the communications of a community or society. Discourse in this sense cannot be observed or recorded but is rather a theory of social reality. This meaning is found in some research on education (e.g., Ball 1990; Usher and Edwards, 1998) and on language in society (Pennycook, 1998). It is commonly used in analyses of political influence and social power. For example, in his examination of global English, Pennycook refers to the ‘discourse of colonialism’ (1998). Naz Rassool (2000), whose article you will be reading in section 3, refers to what she terms the post-structuralist discourses of language, identity and cultural power.

While we can distinguish these two different kinds of meaning of the term ‘discourse’, it is important to bear in mind that it is often used in confusing or ambiguous ways. Researchers and writers may use the term to mean either or both of the meanings outlined above and they may not make it absolutely clear how they are using the term. In this section, we will use the term mainly in the first of the meanings described above as we focus primarily on actual instances of language in context: talk in the classroom. But the second meaning is also briefly referred to; for example by linking actual instances of talk in classrooms with schooling as a particular kind of institution with its own particular language values and beliefs. Other aspects of the notion of discourse arise in later parts of the unit and will be discussed as they do so.

The importance of the notion of discourse in what are known as social constructionist perspectives on language, including a sociocultural perspective, is that language not only reflects but constructs social reality. As Hicks points out in her reading, classroom life is constituted through the specific discourse practices in which students and teachers engage.

1.1 A sociocultural perspective on language and learning

1.3 The nature of educational discourse