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Discourse is a term used to describe networks of ideas about reality that have been developed in specific social contexts, in line with the interests of the social actors in those contexts.
Discourses affect our views on all things; it is not possible to escape discourse. Discourse exists in language, but, according to Foucault's notion of discourse-as-epistemological understanding, discourse also exists irrespective of any material realization. Any Discourse may be manifested in various forms, not just formal language; for instance the discourse on guerrilla movements could be realized in a newspaper, documentary, poster or as a water cooler conversation. Discourse cannot be detached from its mode, therefore the discourse on guerrilla movements will mean differently when realized in different modes.
Discourse as ideologyEdit
Discourse includes ways of using language, of thinking and of acting in order to identify oneself as a member of a socially meaningful group (a "social network"). A discourse creates a social institution that may be made up of, among other things, people, books, values, universities, journals and shared history. Being a man or woman, a Ukrainian or a literary critic are all examples of participating in a discourse which comes with its own ideology, its own particular set of values and viewpoints.
Discourses can not be scrutinized internally because being part of a discourse presupposes adhering to its ideology, the discourse defines what is accepted and can therefore only be scrutinized from the vantage of a different discourse. In this way a discourse exists in opposition to other discourses, so that its views and values necessarily exist in and through opposition to others. Much as a feminist discourse creates values in opposition to a male-chauvinistic discourse. Because of this opposition a discourse implicitly or explicitly marginalizes the views and values of other discourses which are in conflict with its own. (Much indebtedness is due James Paul Gee's Literacy, Discourse and Power)
Foucault vs HabermasEdit
Current social conceptions of Discourse can be traced to French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and to German sociologist Jürgen Habermas' (1929-) The Theory of Communicative Action (1985). Habermas defined discourse by objective rules upon which speakers could agree by consensus. Foucault, on the other hand argued in Society Must Be Defended (1976-77) that since discourse is not anyone's property it has no finite list of discrete characteristics. In other words, specific discourses are not tied to the subject; rather, the subject is a social construction of the discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements, describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists". And the discourse can be reappropriated and modified ad infinitum. The actual self-conception of “the subject" - guerrilla movements - is altered in a feedback loop between subject and discourse. Foucault's definition of discourse, then, is very close to his concept of episteme, or knowledge.
In Multimodal Discourse: The Modes and Media of Contemporary Communication Gunther Kress and Theo Van Leeuwen argue that the "realization mode" of language is but one of the many modes in which discourse can appear. The concept of Multimodality addresses all the means we have for making meanings – modes of representation - and considers their specific ways of configuring the world. Therefore all available semiotic modes can be used as a means of realizing discourse. This includes such modes as speech, gesture and color.
Discourse in semanticsEdit
In semantics, Discourses are linguistic units — conversations, arguments or speeches. The study of discourses, or of language used by members of a speech community, is known as Discourse analysis and studies the form and function of language, both spoken interaction and written texts. It is a cross-disciplinary field, originally developed from sociolinguistics, anthropology, sociology and social psychology.