Discourse Analysis

What is Discourse Analysis?

Discourse analysis is a mainly qualitative research methodology based on the analysis of written or spoken language in the social context, drawing on the traditions of constructivism–structuralism (Elsharkawy, 2017). The study aims to understand the use of language within real-world scenarios (Johnson and McLean, 2020). The analysis is usually applied to assess words, but there needs to be a sufficient number of words to create a meaningful stretch (Cook, 1989). The need for this meaningful stretch indicates it is usually applied to more than single sentence and can apply to either partial or entire works, such as a speech, article, sermon, or other written or spoken work (Tauschel, 2004). However, while usually applied to text, it may also be approach can be used to analyse nonverbal communications, including tones and gestures which are a part of the linguistic universe (van Dijk, 1995).

Discourse analysis may be untaken for a number of research purposes, such as examining the effects associated with different types of language, identification and assessment of different conventions and rules as they relate cultural use of language, the way in which assumptions, beliefs, and/or values are communicated, as well as the use of language in political, social, and historical context (Johnson and McLean, 2020). These examples of the how the methodology may be used indicate when and where discourse analysis may be used.

When and Where to use Discourse Analysis

With discourse analysis used to examine language, it is apparent the methodology should be applied when studies are examining the use and functions of language, where it may be used in the context of written works and non-verbal communications (van Dijk, 1995). The methodology is most applicable when there are studies concerning social groups and the ways in which they communicate and interact, and can include (but is not limited to) research on issues such as how trust is built; the way emotions are stimulated; conflict evolution and mitigation; and manifestations of prejudice (Elliott, 1996; Christopher, Bartkowski and Haverda, 2018).

The processes are applicable to situations where there are written sources, such as books, newspapers and journals or periodicals. However, the studies may include non-academic or preoperational written sources, such as adverts and marketing materials, or point of sale materials (Johnson and McLean, 2020). The rise of social media has also expanded the potential circumstances where discourse analysis may be applied, with studies examining interactions or phenomena that emerge on those platforms (Younis and Younis, 2015). As van Dijk (1995) notes, discourse analysis also includes verbal and nonverbal language. The methodology may be applied to interviews, focus groups, and conversations, examining the linguistic tools, including tone and gestures.

Benefits of using Discourse Analysis

Discourse analysis provides several benefits which expand other linguistic approaches, as the study is not constrained to the usual rules of language and literal interpretation. Instead, the interpretation of the language is contextualised within the setting, allowing for pluralistic views of a world where it is accepted that words and phrased used in differing ways will have different meanings. Lee (2010) summarises this stating the benefit is that the analysis invariably includes a consideration of the communicator, the audience, and the language as a holistic model where all elements are interdependent. By adopting this subjective view of language, there is the ability to focus on the social aspects of the messages communicated, as indicated by the previous section looking at when the methodology should be employed. Furthermore, there is flexibility regarding the way discourse analysis is implemented. For example, different layers of communications may provide for different approaches. For example, the analysis of the vocabulary employed may be assessed to determine metaphorical content or ideological associations, as well as aspects such as formality and structure, may be analysed to identify the presence of an emphasis and aspects such as the creation of a narrative (Lazar, 2009).

Advantages and Disadvantages of Discourse Analysis

A majo0r advantage is the flexibility implied by the process's benefits (above) and how it may be implemented at different discourse levels (for example, grammar, sentences, and content). The advantages also include the ability to undertake analysis using different analysis techniques which may be used in isolation or concurrently. This provides a research approach that can be used within quality research and has a significant application when examined within the paradigm of indictive reasoning (Manzi, 2012). Another advantage is access to data, which is often easily available, and maybe gathered from publicly available sources. Easy data collection facilitates primary research methodologies relatively cost-effectively, especially if there are limited budgets.

The disadvantages of the methodology also relate to the flexibility and indictive reasoning, which characterises the methodology, with indictive reasoning where the potential for subjectivity to impact the results is often seen as less robust than processes associated with deductive reasoning (Saunders, Lewis and Thornhill, 2019). Language can also be used in different ways by people within similar groups, and context may not always be correctly identified o may not provide accurate results (Jones, 2018). The time required for discourse analysis may also be lengthy, resulting in a higher level of effort expenditure than other methodologies (Jones, 2018). However, it remains a valid research approach and is used in many fields.

Fields of Study which may Benefit from Discourse Analysis

Many fields of study may benefit from discourse analysis, with discourse analysis most often found within fields associated with the social sciences. The application is broad, for example, Al-Majali (2015) used discourse analysis to examine Arabic leaders’ political speeches, Mulderrig (2017) applied it to a study of advertising and marketing on social media, Ferreira et al. (2012) in engineering, Bergh et al. (2015) in nursing, and Lee (2010) in bible studies. It is also seen in areas such as law, psychology, architecture, anthropology, and even science (Manzoor, Saeed and Panhwar, 2019). This demonstrates the range of disciplines to which the process may be applied. In summary, the methodology may be applied to almost any subject where inductive reasoning process can be used or an interpretivist rather than a positivist research epistemology may be applied (Eggins and Slade, 1997). The key to understanding the potential broad appeal is though understanding the way the research is completed.


How to Complete a Study Using Discourse Analysis

The research process is one that is based on the principles of qualitative research using an interpretivist epistemology (Van Dijk, 1993). The process may be presented in four stages.

1. Definition of the research question(s) or research aims and identify the content to be analysed.

2. Gather data regarding the context of the content, such information about the authors and the circumstances of the communications, the historical context, and the intended audience. A literature review may accompany this to establish the circumstances and potentially create a theoretical framework that can be applied to the analysis.

3.  Perform the analysis, seeking to identify trends and patterns in the content with reference to the research question or purpose.

4. Review the results and use those results to draw conclusions that can be applied to the research's purpose.

Discourse Analysis Template

What is the research question or purpose?

What content is to be analysed

Contextualisation of the content (who is the communicator and who are the audience, what the purpose of the communications is, and the external influencing factors.

Analysis of the text, the themes and trends, the type of language used (formal, informal, descriptive, etc.), what relationships exist, how they influence or are influenced by the communications. Assessment for additional influences, such as power and status of those involved in the communication.

Review of the results, with consideration of the way they apply to the research purpose, and reference to existing knowledge and literature using inductive reasoning.

Present the results with justification and any caveats

Discourse Analysis Sample

Research Question: What type of messages do food firms use on social media to stimulate sales.

Content for Analysis: The social media pages of a sample of food firms, including the posts they have made to the page and analysis of the responses.

Contextualisation: Messages are posted to social by the firms or their advertising agencies, who control the content on their pages. The posts are seen by social media users/consumers who have subscribed to the firms’ social media pages indicating an existing interest in the firm or their products.

Analysis: Posts made by firms are predominantly presented in informal language with a high level of descriptive data, with a high level of images design to be enticing. Very few sales messages, with a large number of posts using positive and enticing language based on giving the impression of providing information. Those posts which received the greatest level of positive response were those with images and polls.

Review of the Results: Results appear to indicate food firms seek to use indirect strategies to entice consumers interest and stimulate a purchase intent. The use of messages presenting as information rather than an advertisement, with images most liked by the audience, indicated by the level of positive interactions. A review comparing these findings to past research indicates the informative posts and those that present images are most likely to generate user engagement, so these are likely to reflect the type of posts used by firms to stimulate sales.


Al-Majali, W. (2015) Discourse Analysis of the Political Speeches of the Ousted Arab Presidents during the Arab Spring Revolution Using Halliday and Hasan’s Framework of Cohesion, Journal of Education and Practice, 6(14), pp. 96–108.

Bergh, A. L., Friberg, F., Persson, E. and Dahlborg-Lyckhage, E. (2015) Perpetuating ‘New Public Management’ at the expense of nurses’ patient education: a discourse analysis, The Nursing Inquiry, 22(3), pp. 190–201.

Christopher, A., Bartkowski, J. P. and Haverda, T. (2018) Portraits of Veganism: A Comparative Discourse Analysis of a Second-Order Subculture, Societies, 8, pp. 55–75.

Cook, G. (1989) Discourse, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

van Dijk, T. A. (1995) Discourse Analysis as Ideology Analysis, In Language and Peace, Abingdon, Routledge, pp. 17–33.

Van Dijk, T. A. (1993) Principles of Critical Discourse Analysis, Discourse & Society, 4(2), pp. 249–283.

Eggins, S. and Slade, D. (1997) Analysing Casual Conversation, London, Cassel.

Elliott, R. (1996) Discourse analysis: Exploring action, function and conflict in social texts, Marketing Intelligence & Planning, 14(6), pp. 65–68.

Elsharkawy, A. E. (2017) What is Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA)?, The Second Literary Linguistics Conference, Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz.

Ferreira, J. J., de Souza, C. S., de Castro Salgado, L. C., Slaviero, C., Leitão, C. F. and Moreira, F. D. F. (2012) Combining cognitive, semiotic and discourse analysis to explore the power of notations in visual programming, In IEEE Symposium on Visual Languages and Human-Centric Computing (VL/HCC), pp. 101–108.

Johnson, M. N. P. and McLean, E. (2020) Discourse Analysis, In International Encyclopedia of Human Geography, Kobayashi, A. (ed.), London, Elsevier Ltd, pp. 377–383.

Jones, R. H. (2018) Discourse Analysis: A Resource Book for Students, London, Routledge.

Lazar, M. (2009) Entitled to consume: postfeminist femininity and a culture of post-critique, Discourse & Communication, 3(4), pp. 371–400.

Lee, J. H. (2010) Paul’s Gospel in Romans, Leiden, Netherlands, Brill.

Manzi, T. (2012) Discourse Analysis, In International Encyclopedia of Housing and Home, Smith, S. J. (ed.), London, Elsevier Ltd, pp. 354–358.

Manzoor, H., Saeed, S. and Panhwar, A. H. (2019) Use of Discourse Analysis in Various Disciplines, International Journal of English Linguistics, 9(3), pp. 301–309.

Mulderrig, J. (2017) Reframing obesity: a critical discourse analysis of the UK’s first social marketing campaign, Critical Policy Studies, 11(4), pp. 455–476.

Saunders, M., Lewis, P. and Thornhill, A. (2019) Research Methods for Business Students, London, Pearson.

Tauschel, M. A. A. (2004) Basic Concepts of Discourse Analysis, Munich, University of Frankfurt, [online] Available from: https://www.grin.com/document/120981.

Younis, E. and Younis, E. M. G. (2015) Sentiment Analysis and Text Mining for Social Media Microblogs using Open Source Tools: An Empirical Study, International Journal of Computer Applications, 112(5), pp. 975–8887.

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