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Discourse Analysis

It is difficult to give a single definition of Critical or Discourse Analysis as a research method. Indeed, rather than providing a particular method, Discourse Analysis can be characterized as a way of approaching and thinking about a problem. In this sense, Discourse Analysis is neither a qualitative nor a quantitative research method, but a manner of questioning the basic assumptions of quantitative and qualitative research methods. Discourse Analysis does not provide a tangible answer to problems based on scientific research, but it enables access to the ontological and epistemological assumptions behind a project, a statement, a method of research, or - to provide an example from the field of Library and Information Science - a system of classification. In other words, Discourse Analysis will enable to reveal the hidden motivations behind a text or behind the choice of a particular method of research to interpret that text. Expressed in today's more trendy vocabulary, Critical or Discourse Analysis is nothing more than a deconstructive reading and interpretation of a problem or text (while keeping in mind that postmodern theories conceive of every interpretation of reality and, therefore, of reality itself as a text. Every text is conditioned and inscribes itself within a given discourse, thus the term Discourse Analysis). Discourse Analysis will, thus, not provide absolute answers to a specific problem, but enable us to understand the conditions behind a specific "problem" and make us realize that the essence of that "problem", and its resolution, lie in its assumptions; the very assumptions that enable the existence of that "problem". By enabling us to make these assumption explicit, Discourse Analysis aims at allowing us to view the "problem" from a higher stance and to gain a comprehensive view of the "problem" and ourselves in relation to that "problem". Discourse Analysis is meant to provide a higher awareness of the hidden motivations in others and ourselves and, therefore, enable us to solve concrete problems - not by providing unequivocal answers, but by making us ask ontological and epistemological questions.

Though critical thinking about and analysis of situations/texts is as ancient as mankind or philosophy itself, and no method or theory as such, Discourse Analysis is generally perceived as the product of the postmodern period.  The reason for this is that while other periods or philosophies are generally characterized by a belief-system or meaningful interpretation of the world, postmodern theories do not provide a particular view of the world, other that there is no one true view or interpretation of the world. In other words, the postmodern period is distinguished from other periods (Renaissance, Enlightenment, Modernism, etc.) in the belief that there is no meaning, that the world is inherently fragmented and heterogeneous, and that any sense making system or belief is mere subjective interpretation - and an interpretation that is conditioned by its social surrounding and the dominant discourse of its time. Postmodern theories, therefore, offer numerous readings aiming at "deconstructing" concepts, belief-systems, or generally held social values and assumptions. Some of the most commonly used theories are those of Jacques Derrida (who coined the term "deconstruction"), Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, Jean-François Lyotard, and Fredric Jameson (this extremely brief listing of a few critical thinkers is neither comprehensive nor reflecting a value judgment; these are merely some of the most common names encountered when studying postmodern theories).

Critical thinking, however, is older than postmodern thought, as the following quote by John Dewey illustrates. Dewey defined the nature of reflective thought as "active, persistent, and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in the light of the grounds that support it and the further conclusion to which it tends" (Dewey, J. Experience and Education. New York: Macmillan, 1933. Page 9). When critically evaluating a research project or text, one should, therefore, not limit oneself to postmodern theories.  

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Uses of Discourse Analysis

The contribution of the postmodern Discourse Analysis is the application of critical thought to social situations and the unveiling of hidden (or not so hidden) politics within the socially dominant as well as all other discourses (interpretations of the world, belief systems, etc.). Discourse Analysis can be applied to any text, that is, to any problem or situation. Since Discourse Analysis is basically an interpretative and deconstructing reading, there are no specific guidelines to follow. One could, however, make use of the theories of Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Julia Kristeva, or Fredric Jameson, as well as of other critical and postmodern thinkers.

Again, the purpose of Discourse Analysis is not to provide definite answers, but to expand our personal horizons and make us realize our own shortcomings and unacknowledged agendas/motivations - as well as that of others. In short, critical analysis reveals what is going on behind our backs and those of others and which determines our actions.

For example, Discourse Analysis applied to the theory of Library Science, would not argue for or against the validity and "truth" of a certain research method (qualitative or quantitative), statement, or value (i.e. the Library Bill of Rights, or policies concerning free speech).  Rather, discourse analysis would focus on the existence and message of these texts and locate them within a historical and social context (see Bernd Frohmann's article "The Power of Images: A Discourse Analysis of the Cognitive Viewpoint" below).  In this manner, Discourse Analysis aims at revealing the motivation and politics involved in the arguing for or against a specific research method, statement, or value.  The concrete result will be the awareness to the qualities and shortcomings of each and the inception of an informed debate.  Though this debate will never be settled, it allows for the correction of bias and the inclusion of minorities within the debate and analyzed discourse.

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Types of Discourse Analysis

There are numerous "types" or theories of Discourse Analysis. Jacques Derrida's "Deconstruction" would be one; so would Michel Foucault's Genealogy and social criticism and analysis of the uses of discourse to exercise power (such as his analysis of how "Knowledge" is created in our societies and with what purpose or effect);  Fredric Jameson's Marxist analysis of Postmodernism itself would provide another interesting reading on the dominant discourse of our time; as would Julia Kristeva's or Hélène Cixous' Feminist interpretations of current social practices. Numerous other theories or "readings" exist and the bibliography and list of links will provide further information to allow you to chose the most relevant or appealing to you. The bibliography of preparatory reading to the Module "Critical Theories" of the University of Wales Swansea might also be helpful.

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Issues of Reliability and Validity

Discourse or Critical Analysis always remains a matter of interpretation. As there is no hard data provided through discourse analysis, the reliability and the validity of one's research/findings depends on the force and logic of one's arguments. Even the best constructed arguments are subject to their own deconstructive reading and counter-interpretations. The validity of critical analysis is, therefore, dependent on the quality of the rhetoric. Despite this fact, well-founded arguments remain authoritative over time and have concrete applications.
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Advantages and Disadvantages

Discourse Analysis and critical thinking is applicable to every situation and every subject. The new perspective provided by discourse analysis allows personal growth and a high level of creative fulfillment. No technology or funds are necessary and authoritative discourse analysis can lead to fundamental changes in the practices of an institution, the profession, and society as a whole. However, Discourse Analysis does not provide definite answers; it is not a "hard" science, but an insight/knowledge based on continuous debate and argumentation.

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Works Cited, and other Useful Resources


Works Cited

Frohmann, Bernd.  "The Power of Images: A Discourse Analysis of the Cognitive Viewpoint." Journal of Documentation 48.4 (1992): 365-386.
Frohmann introduces Discourse Analysis as applied to the field of Library Science and analyzes the current debate between proponents of various research methods. In so doing, he deconstructs the claims and arguments made by each and provides his own interpretation of the "yearning for natural-scientific theory" in our field. He perceives this yearning as dominating the discourse of research in Library Science and expands his critique to the dominance the modern capitalist discourse in our society. In this sense, Frohmann uses Michel Foucault's theory and combines its method with a social critique reminiscent of Fredric Jameson.

Other Useful Print Resources

Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg.  The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present.  Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin's Press, 1990.
Excellent introductory work to the whole history of rhetoric, that is, critical thinking and discourse analysis. Authors and works are presented and their theories/contents explained. This is an excellent starting point and also provides a selected bibliography at the end of each chapter. Use this resource to become more familiar with the theories and authors in Discourse Analysis.
Dickens, David R. and Andrea Fontana, Eds. Postmodernism & Social Inquiry. New York: Guilford Press, 1994.
The volume contains essays by scholars in the Humanities and Social Sciences on "Postmodern Theories of Society," and "Postmodern Research Methods." The chapters on postmodern research methods are particularly relevant, as they provide information on Structuralism and Post-Structuralism and their application in the Social Sciences, as well as a useful critique of the failings of and dangers inherent in Postmodernism.
Frohmann, Bernd.  "Discourse Analysis as a Research Method in Library and Information Science." Library and Information Science Research 16 (1994): 119-138.
Frohmann applies the kind of discourse analysis practiced by Michel Foucault to the field of Library and Information Science. This is both an introduction to Discourse Analysis and an explanation why the theories of Michel Foucault are relevant to our field, as well as an example of the practical application of Discourse Analysis.
Marshall, Donald G. Contemporary Critical Theory: A Selective Bibliography. New York: The Modern Language Association, 1933.
Though a selective bibliography, this resource provides brief explanations of all major authors in critical theory and their importance, in addition to extensive bibliographies of the major works by the authors and on the authors. If you chose to select a particular critical thinker in your research and would like to know more about him/her, consult this bibliography.
Poster, Mark. The Mode of Information: Poststructuralism and Social Context. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
This is one of the few resources that combines poststructuralist theories, social context, and Information Science. The monograph contains five chapters: the first on the concept of the Postindustrial Society and analyzes the theories of Daniel Bell; the second chapter applies the though of Baudrillard to TV ads and describes the language of economy; chapter three is entitled Foucault and Databases; chapter four on Derrida and electronic writing; and chapter five on Lyotard and Computer Science.
Steele, Meili. Critical Confrontations: Literary Theories in Dialogue. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997.
Dr. Steele teaches Literary Theory at the University of South Carolina and explains the thoughts of the main theorists and schools in a straightforward language without the heavy use of jargon that characterizes so many of the texts in Literary/Critical Theory. This resource constitutes a good complementary reading to the Bizzell and Herzberg volume.

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Useful Links

Olson, Hope.  "Quantitative 'versus' Qualitative Research: The Wrong Question." http://www.ualberta.ca/dept/slis/cais/olson.htm
Example of critical analysis as applied to the traditional opposition of quantitative versus qualitative research in the field of Library and Information Science. The article is by Dr. Hope Olson from the School in Library and Information Science at the University of Alberta, Canada.
Page on Contemporary Philosophy, Critical Theory and Postmodern Thought by Martin Ryder at the University of Colorado at Denver. Everything you ever wanted to find on the Web on Postmodernism. Profiles of thinkers and summaries of their thoughts, bibliographies, essays, reviews, etc. - this is one of the most comprehensive pages available.
The links page of the "Critical Theory" module of the University of Wales Swansea. Excellent starting page to surf the web for resources on Postmodern theories. Links for "The Postmodern", Deconstruction, Feminism, Multiculturalism, etc., and for individual thinkers, such as Foucault, Derrida, Kristeva, Bakhtin, Barthes, Saussure, etc.
Selected General Bibliography by the School of European Languages, Core Module "Critical Theories" 29-30 November 1997 at the University of Wales Swansea. This page provides a bibliography of reference and general/introductory resources in Discourse Analysis and Critical Theories.

Examples of DiscourseAnalysis

Budd, John and Douglas Raber.  "Discourse Analysis: Method and Application in the Study of Information." Information Processing & Management 32 (1996): 217-226.
This paper provides an evaluation of Discourse Analysis and its application in the field of Library and Information Science. Starting with the premise that communication lies at the heart of our profession, Budd and Raber conclude that Discourse Analysis is a useful tool that can be applied to LIS literature. By investigating form and function of the current research and analyzing its use and definition of the term "information," the authors infer key implications for LIS theory and practice.
Forrester, Michael A., Christopher Ramsden, and David Reason. "Conversation and Discourse Analysis in Library and Information Services." Education for Information 15.4 (1997): 283-295.
Considering that the research interview constitutes the main source of information on library users, the three authors apply Discourse Analysis to the research interview in a reference situation. The paper discusses the advantages and disadvantages of using discourse analysis when examining users' responses, in particular in response to costs and benefits of utilizing discourse and conversation analytic methods.
Frohmann, Bernd.  "Communication Technologies and the Politics of Postmodern Information Science."  Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 19.2 (1994): 1-22.
Frohmann addresses the "identity and politics of modern communication and information technologies." Considering that they are not "mere hardware", but are having direct consequences for individuals and society.  According to Frohmann, they "embody social relations of domination and dependence, especially in their construction of specific forms of human subjectivity." The text is another example of the application of Michel Foucault's theories to the field of Library Science and enables Frohmann to expand his findings to a social criticism.
Tuominen, Kimmo.  "User-Centered Discourse: An Analysis of the Subject Positions of the User and the Librarian." The Library Quarterly 67.4 (1997): 350-371.
Through the analysis of the discourse of librarians and the analysis of their interaction with library users, Tuominen critically evaluates the current trend in LIS research to analyze the inner world of the user. In so doing, Tuominen explores the hidden ideas and agendas, as well as institutional implications of this new trend. By analyzing how the identities of user and librarians are constructed in an often-cited user-centered text, Tuominen concludes that users and librarians are positioned in an unequal power relationship. While the identity of librarians are constructed/positioned as mind-reading experts and as the information search controllers, users are positioned as uncertain layperson, unsure of their needs and information search. According to the author, the main goal of the paper is to analyze how our profession constructs identities in order to fulfill its own fallacies.

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