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The primary definition of discourse denotes a method of communication that conforms to particular structural and ethnographic norms and marks a particular social group by providing a means of solidarity for its members and a means of differentiating that group from other groups. It is more accurate and useful to regard this concept in the plural, that is, as discourses, thus encompassing its capacity not only for marking boundaries (using linguistic borders philosopher Kenneth Burke called ”terministic screens, which are essentially the points at which one discourse becomes distinct from another), but also as a method in many disciplines.
Discourses come to be in different ways. One discourse may be chosen by the group to specifically designate its identity and membership (called a discourse community). Another discourse also may be imposed or identified by others as a means of stratification or ”othering a group, such as a pidgin language or other ”non-standard language variety. Yet other discourses develop more natively, determined by cultural, technological, or other factors.
A second definition of discourse lies within the field of linguistics and underlies the metatheory discourse analysis, a term brought into use in 1952 by linguist Z. S. Harris. This definition, which to some degree defines and therefore precedes the others, holds that discourse describes extra-grammatical linguistic units, variably described as speech acts, speech events, exchanges, utterances, conversations, adjacency pairs, or combinations of these and other language chunks. The basic distinction ascribed to this definition is its extra-sentential status. Thus, to the linguist, discourse is often referred to as the study of language above the sentence.
The term discourse also functions as a way of identifying an approach to a subject (as in analyzing a discourse community or terministic screen), a way of identifying the methodology used to extract information (as in therapeutic analysis), or a way of identifying a subject in itself (as in of extra-grammatical analyses of linguistic phenomena). Further, the number of graduate-level discourse studies programs is growing in English-speaking countries, promising an interest in the subject of discourse now and well into the future. The omnipresence of the term confirms its inherent interdisciplinary and cross-disciplinary value. That said, the term may also be in danger of overuse. Appropriating the term to describe virtually any use of language diminishes its capacity to function as shown above.
- Burke, K. (1966) Terministic screens. In: Language as Symbolic Action. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA, pp. 44—62.
- Gumperz, J. (1982) Discourse Strategies. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
- Harris, Z. S. (1952) Discourse analysis. Language 28: 1—30.
- Schiffrin, D. (1994) Approaches to Discourse. Blackwell, Oxford.