Recent years have brought a flurry of excitement about the concept of discourse and the importance of discourse analysis in the human and social sciences. This has led to a growing set of contested definitions and competing theoretical assumptions, as well as rival methods and research strategies. But it has also meant that the concept of discourse and the methods of discourse analysis vary widely with respect to their scope and complexity. Alongside traditional concerns with the importance of ‘talk and text in context’, which includes conversation analysis, speech act theory and various forms of hermeneutical research, Foucault and his many followers have developed archaeological and genealogical approaches to analyze scientific discourses and systems of power or knowledge; Norman Fairclough and others have elaborated ‘critical discourse analysis', whilst Wodak has articulated a distinctive form of ‘historical discourse analysis'. In the fields of policy analysis, Maarten Hajer has developed a form of ‘argumentative discourse analysis', while Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and others have articulated a post-Marxist theory of discourse, which they apply to the emergence, sedimentation and transformation of social formations.

Such expansion in the scope and complexity of discourse analysis in the human and social sciences arose in part because of the impact of speech act theory and the evolution of linguistic philosophy, which has gradually moved the study of language away from a concern simply with the meanings of individual words, signifiers, phrases and sentences to a consideration of the wider linguistic and non-linguistic contexts within which these linguistic events or occurrences take place. What is more, the contexts are seen to include the associated forms of action and behaviour that are entailed by different forms of speaking or writing. As some philosophers have argued, linguistic utterances like ‘I promise’ are not just words, signs or even assertions but acts and discursive practices that carry a certain force and consequence. Action researchers may utilize discourse analysis, particularly in the context of doctoral research.

In an important sense, the various kinds of approaches elaborated in the social sciences reflect the different starting points of the various theorists or researchers involved, as well as the specific conceptual and theoretical resources they draw upon in elaborating their perspectives. For example, what might be called post-structuralist or post-Marxist discourse theory stems from initial attempts to use the work of Antonio Gramsci to tackle problems of class reductionism and economic determinism in Marxist theories of politics and ideology, which can be captured under the sign of essentialism in general.

Discourse and discourse analysis have been used to explore multiple themes and objects in the social sciences. But one set of questions that casts its shadow over many of these themes is the relationship between power, subjectivity and social practice. How, then, should this critical set of connections be conceptualized in the social sciences? Amongst the various approaches that have sought to connect these elements, the work of Foucault and his followers, on the one hand, and the writings of Laclau and Mouffe and their followers, on the other, are probably the most developed, and this entry examines their accounts in more detail.

Foucault and Discursive Practices

Without adding new layers to the voluminous literature on Michel Foucault's concept of discourse and power, it is possible to pinpoint three pictures of power, each of which mirrors his different methodological orientations. Foucault's earlier archaeological analysis of knowledge focuses on the discursive production of statements or serious speech acts, in which suitably qualified subjects are empowered to make serious truth claims about objects, which are constituted within particular discursive formations, because of their training, institutional location and mode of discourse. Such utterances qualify as candidates for truth and falsity because they conform to a historically specific system of rules. They are held to be true or false because they are accepted as such by the relevant community of experts.

Foucault thus examines those discursive practices in which subjects are empowered to make serious truth claims about objects, which are constituted within particular discursive formations. Such subjects can do so because of their training, institutional location and mode of discourse. For example, assertions and predictions about the prospects of global warming only become statements when they are uttered by suitably qualified scientists and climate experts, who present plausible theories and evidence to justify their arguments. Foucault is thus able to account for the rarity of scientific discourse, the way science is demarcated from non-science, the relationship between science and ideology and so forth.

Power is important in this approach because it enables the archaeologist to locate moments of exclusion, in which certain statements are condemned to what he calls ‘a wild exteriority’, and because it highlights a positive set of rules that make possible the production of discourse. But, as Foucault himself later admitted, the question of power remained implicit and under-theorized in his early work. His quasi-structuralist theory of discourse ran aground on a series of methodological contradictions, not least because his purely descriptive intent pushed against the critical potential of the enterprise.

By contrast, his Nietzschean-inspired genealogical approach broadens the notion of discourse to include non-discursive practices, whilst stressing the constitutive function of power in the formation of scientific knowledge. Foucault thus broadens the scope of his investigations in this picture to stress the interweaving of various systems of ‘power-knowledge’ in the production and disciplining of various subjects, and his genealogies enable us to explore the contingent and ignoble origins of such systems, whilst stressing the role of power and conflict in forging identities, rules and social forms. Yet he tends to conflate his account of power-knowledge with his critique of the scientificity of the human sciences, whilst reducing subjectivity to the disciplining of ‘docile bodies', leaving little or no space for freedom, agency and critique.

However, in his final writings on sexuality, governmentality and subjectivity, Foucault offers a third model of discourse and power, which promises to address these difficulties. Here, he modifies his critique of the juridical model of sovereign power by developing a more strategic perspective that power is everywhere because it comes from everywhere. Power is the name we give to a complex strategic situation in a particular society. This new strategic perspective enables Foucault to rethink the relationship between domination, power, subjectivity and discourse, whilst developing his novel account of governmentality.

Post-Structuralist Discourse Theory: Laclau and Mouffe

Foucault thus offers three ways to investigate and reflect upon the role of discursive practices, and their relation to power, subjectivity and society. Although it is by no means definitive, it is possible that discursive practices in Foucault's models are just a particular subset of social and political practices, which can and ought to be distinguished from other activities like kicking an object on a field. In a crucial respect, however, this is a problematical conclusion, for it is important to note that the latter activity is not without meaning, nor is it an element that is external to systems of sense and signification. Kicking an object in a particular context is an action, but it acquires its meaning and significance only within the context of playing a football match, for example. Its meaning thus differs from the angry response of a football supporter who kicks the ball into a nearby street after his team has conceded a late goal. At the same time, different social practices are themselves meaningful entities: They are thus instances of playing football or explosions of anger and frustration. Indeed, critical researchers also seek to characterize these practices in terms of their meaning, import and significance. They wish to render them intelligible in terms of rules and meanings. In short, language, actions and objects are intertwined in what can be called discourse.

Laclau and Mouffe's post-structuralist account of discourse theory offers a fruitful way to conceptualize these various distinctions. In this view, discourse is an articulatory practice that constitutes social relations and formations and thus constructs their meaning. Discourse is articulatory in that it links together contingent elements—both linguistic and non-linguistic—into relational systems, in which the identity of the elements is modified as a result of the articulatory practice. A key condition of this approach is that all such elements are contingent and unfixed, so that their meaning and identity are only partially fixed by articulatory practices. The outcomes of such practices are incomplete systems of meaning and practice.

In accounting for the formation of discourses, this approach stresses the primacy of politics and power. Discourses are thus constructed by the drawing of political frontiers between social subjects via the exercise of power. In this model, one force endeavours to impose its values and norms by winning the consent of its allies and by securing the compliance of its others, though force may be required to subject its opponents. The logic of hegemony captures this complex set of processes. An important condition for any articulatory practice (including hegemonic practices) is the radical contingency of all social and natural elements, which can always be constructed in different ways.

The radical contingency and historicity of the different elements that are located in particular fields of meaning are captured by the discursive character of social relations and processes. It is thus possible to disaggregate two key aspects of discourse theory: the discursive and the discourse. The discursive is best viewed as an ontological category—that is, a categorical presupposition for our understanding of particular entities and social relations—whereby every object or any symbolic order is meaningful, that is, situated in a field of significant differences and similarities. But equally in this approach, following thinkers like Martin Heidegger, Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, it also means that such entities are incomplete and thus radically contingent. Each system of meaningful practice is marked by a lack or a deficiency, and its overall meaning or objectivity depends on the way it is socially and politically constructed.

By contrast, the concept of discourse refers to particular systems of meaningful or articulatory practice. Thatcherism or New Labour in the UK, the different forms of the apartheid system in South Africa or the radical environmentalism associated with social movements in contemporary societies can all be classified as discourses in this sense of the term. It follows from this discussion of the discursive that these systems are finite and contingent constructions, which are constituted politically by the construction of social antagonisms and the creation of political frontiers. Such systems are marked by a ‘constitutive outside’ that renders them incomplete and vulnerable. Every discursive formation thus involves the exercise of power, as well as certain forms of exclusion, and this means that every discursive structure is finite, uneven and hierarchical. The emergence of crisis and dislocations in such systems enables agents to produce change by constructing and identifying with new discourses and projects.

Future Outlook

The discursive turn in the social sciences informs important trends in much social and political analysis, and this trend promises to continue in the future. The challenge for those employing the many versions of discourse analysis currently in circulation is to supplement their undoubted theoretical advances with greater attention to methodological questions about research design, the choice of appropriate techniques and research strategies and the articulation of adjacent theoretical approaches that can add more explanatory bite to their analyses. Critical in this regard is the production of exemplary case studies and comparative research that can demonstrate the importance of discourse in different disciplines and fields.

  • discourse
David Howarth

Further Readings

Fairclough, N. (1995). Critical discourse analysis: The critical study of language. London, England: Longman.
Fairclough, N., & Wodak, R. (1997). Critical discourse analysis. In T.van Dijk (Ed.), Discourse as social interaction (pp. 258–285). London, England: Sage.
Foucault, M. (1972). The archaeology of knowledge. London, England: Tavistock.
Foucault, M. (1977). Discipline and punish. London, England: Allen Lane.
Foucault, M. (1979). The history of sexuality: An introduction. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books.
Hajer, M. (1995). The politics of environmental discourse. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Howarth, D. (2000). Discourse. Buckingham, England: Open University Press.
Howarth, D. (2010). Power, discourse, and policy: Articulating a hegemony approach to critical policy studies. Critical Policy Studies, 3(3–4), 309–335.
Laclau, E., & Mouffe, C. (1985). Hegemony and socialist strategy. London, England: Verso.
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