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How to... use discourse analysis

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Article Sections

  1. What is discourse analysis?
  2. Applications of DA
  3. What can DA contribute to research?
  4. References

What can discourse analysis contribute to research?

The big advantage of discourse analysis is that it challenges "the taken-for-granted nature of language" (Sitz, 2008). Thus it can probe the way in which organizational language displays subtle shifts in values and priorities, disclose how documents may appear to present a positive agenda to the reader, but in fact have a much darker purpose, and encourage a more qualitative, interpretative perspective on an area such as company reports, which have previously only been subjected to quantitative approaches.

Discourse analysis as a way of describing organizational change

Grant et al. (2005) provide a guest editorial to an issue of the (Vol. 18 No. 1) which looks at the contribution of discourse analysis to the area. They cite a number of benefits of the method:

  1. it enables researchers to analyse the key discourses which formulate change;
  2. it shows how particular discourses can be used to shape behaviour, by way of development of a dominant meaning;
  3. it shows the importance of the overall context;
  4. it affords the advantage of a multidisciplinary perspective;
  5. all these advantages mean that discourse analysis can generate fresh insights.

Tsoukas (2005), in an afterword to the same issue, confirms the value of discourse analysis in understanding the complexity of organizational change.

Language is very subtle: new meanings can be created or subtly subverted to put a positive gloss on something, while the same events can be described in radically different ways. Some years ago, a large publishing conglomerate decided to pull all its academic journals out of one company and exchange them for another company's small division of distance learning materials. The managers described this as "portfolio realignment"; a disgruntled worker, disillusioned at the loss of a cash cow in return for a problem child, referred to the exchange as "leprosy".

Reading between the lines: analysing policy texts

Policy documents are often in fact public relations documents. In a democracy, policy has to be sold; you cannot enforce it. And policy, too, may be dictated by complex factors – free market capitalism, for example – which it may not be politic to disclose too clearly.

Discourse analysis can disentangle the different agendas of policy documents. Ocler (2009) describes how in France, corporate social responsibility became a legal requirement – but firms needed to present their corporate social responsibility policies in a positive light for the benefit of their policy holders.

Cheng (2009) discusses the introduction of the voucher scheme for pre-primary education in Hong Kong. She shows how while the policy text highlighted issues of choice, efficiency and equity, the reality is in fact more complex:

" ... notions of choice and efficiency have an obvious attraction, but the language presented masks a much more complex situation in which choice and efficiency are to be secured through the application of market principles and given this development it is by no means certain that these objectives will be secured. For example, different producers and consumers become privileged in this market context, and it is by no means certain that all will have choice. More likely, is that choice will be restricted to the more affluent, whilst efficiency may be effected by a failure to create any level playing field between not for profit and private providers" (Cheng, 2009; p. 364).

All policy documents should be read within their context, in this case, marketization, and in that referred to above, legislation. This is what Fairclough means by "discourse practice".

Providing greater depth to qualitative accounting research

Accountancy is an area which has recently seen a greater interest in qualitative methods; in fact, a journal was recently launched devoted to this approach (). According to Ferguson (2007), the study of text can be limited if it does not look at the circumstances surrounding its production and interpretation.

Motivation is also part of the surrounding context, and Yusoff et al., (2006) use discourse analysis to probe the corporate motivation for environmental activities.

Information synthesis

Various uses have been made of discourse analysis in the field of library and information science, but Haider and Bawden (2007) make an interesting contribution when they point out that one of the key concepts of the field, information poverty, is in fact a product of information synthesis: two concepts, both with strong resonances, are put together with explosive political effect.

The above are just a few of many examples which could be cited of the insights which discourse analysis can bring to research. It is a versatile technique which brings insights from many disciplines, and which uses the richness and ambiguity of language to go beyond the text into the many worlds that influence it.

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