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How to... use discourse analysis

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Applications of discourse analysis

Discourse analysis is used in a wide range of fields. A search [October 2009] of Emerald's journal database content (all fields excluding fulltext) for the phrase "discourse analysis" over the last ten years produced results with the following distribution:

  • Organizational change and organizational studies – 10.
  • Corporate social responsibility – 5.
  • Employee development and human resource development – 7.
  • Education – 3.
  • Entrepreneurship – 3.
  • Accountancy – 9.
  • Library and information management – 6.
  • Gender issues and diversity – 7.
  • Political economy – 2.
  • Hospitality – 2.
  • Marketing, market research, and corporate communications – 7.
  • Sociology and social work – 4.
  • Miscellaneous (gaming, law, supervenience, quality, nutrition, psychopathology, virtual communities, health care) – 8.

It is interesting that there are in this sample almost as many accountancy papers as there are ones on organizational change. Several of the top journals in their fields are represented – Journal of Organizational Change Management (6), Accounting, Auditing & Accountability Journal (6), Journal of Documentation (4), European Journal of Marketing (1).

Methods of collecting the data included document analysis, interviews, group discussion, case studies, and ethnography; the data are drawn from a variety of different types of "talk" and "text".

"Talk" examples

  • Interviews, often described as "semi-structured" or "in-depth", are the most common method of soliciting talk. Examples include: research on consumers' shopping experiences (Sitz, 2008), and a case study of new-start entrepreneurs in New Zealand (Mills and Pawson, 2006).
  • Longitudinal case studies with repeat interviews of primary school co-principals were carried out by Court (2004).
  • Ethnographic research: e.g. interview in a social context to understand workplace practice (Lee and Roth, 2006); shadowing managers and observing them interacting with their work colleagues (Rigg, 2005); observation of training and training-related events, in conjunction with interviews (Chio, 2008); reflective journals (in conjunction with interviews) used to study workplace learning (Jurasaite-Harbison, 2009).
  • Discussion in a documentary programme, e.g. one on a model of sustainability for Australia (Clulow, 2005).
  • Netnography – an ethnographic research method used to observe behaviour in an online environment, e.g. a web-based discussion forum on fantasy sport (Smith et al., 2006), using net chat to research the sensitive topic of cosmetic surgery (Langer and Beckman, 2005); chat on health care (Misra et al., 2008).
  • Focus groups: e.g. used as a method to study managers in a small-to-medium enterprise (O'Shea, 2007); institutionalization in community organizations (O'Shea, 2007).

"Text" examples

  • Business documents, e.g. corporate social responsibility reports, documents relating to a takeover (Ferguson, 2007), corporate annual reports, brochures, diversity documents.
  • The media: for example, Jensen (2008) analyses the Mohammed cartoon controversy by reference to Danish newspaper articles on the subject; Krefting (2002) analyses the Wall Street Journal's portrayal of women executives.
  • Scholarly journal articles, e.g. Haider and Bawden (2007) look at the concept of "information poverty" in 35 English language articles.
  • Textbooks, government policy documents, etc., e.g. Iarskaia-Smirnova and Romanov (2008) analyse Russian textbooks on social care.
  • Poetry: Robinson and Lynch (2007) explore hospitality breakdown by means of an Ogden Nash poem.
  • Websites: e.g. Pollach (2005) analyses the "About us" sections of 20 well-known corporate websites.

The above lists are not exhaustive, but are meant to show the versatility of discourse analysis, which can be applied to almost any situation in which language is used (and indeed, to images as well, as these are often intended to convey a particular meaning, as in cartoons or newspaper advertisements).

Neither the methods nor the data sources are used exclusively: observation is often combined with interviews, interviews with document analysis, for example. Discourse analysis is often not used on its own, but in combination with other analytic methods, such as content analysis, critical sense making, rhetorical analysis, or quantitative linguistic analysis.