Discourse traditions

In the previous entry I developed the argument that concepts ought to be treated as governmental mechanisms, centrally involved in how governing takes place. This description follows Dean’s (1999: 44-45) proposition that political vocabulary can be usefully viewed as a governmental technology due to its role in making “politics thinkable”. By approaching concepts in this way, they are “denaturalised, made specific and their governmental implications revealed” (Larner 2008: 23).

How then are concepts related to “discourse” and “discourses”? 

This topic became relevant while I was researching the German tradition of Begriffsgeschicht (History of Concepts), introduced in the last entry (27 Feb 2023)An important article by Krzyzanowski (2010) suggests the theoretical benefits of bringing together Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) – or more precisely Discourse-Historical Analysis (DHA) – and Koselleck’s  Begriffsgeschichte. Krzyzanowski (2010: 128) makes the case that “discourses” in DHA equate to “concepts” in Begriffsgeschicht.

This argument relies on a particular understanding of “discourse”, an issue that comes up repeatedly when considering the relationship between WPR and CDA/DHA. Many researchers have adopted the practice of developing a dual theoretical stance, combining WPR with CDA. Some time ago I discussed why I have concerns regarding this blending of theoretical approaches (Research Hub, 14 May 2018). As the practice continues, however, I feel the need to revisit the topic. The issue is also clearly connected to how “concepts” are conceptualized, our theme in this series of entries. 

To state the case clearly, I argue that WPR is best described as “an analysis of discourses” rather than as “discourse analysis” (Bacchi 2005). “Discourse analysis” involves the study of language use. By contrast, “an analysis of discourses” involves the study of discourses, understood as “knowledges”. I developed this distinction in a 2005 article titled provocatively, “Discourse, Discourse Everywhere: Subject ‘‘Agency’’ in Feminist Discourse Methodology”. I can remember at the time feeling overwhelmed by the ubiquity of the term “discourse” in the academic literature with which I engaged. It became clear to me that researchers were not always referring to the same thing when they spoke about “discourse”. 

I distinguished two central analytic traditions in discourse theory, a social psychological focus on patterns of speech (discourse analysis), and a political theoretical focus on the ways in which issues acquire a particular meaning within a specific social setting (analysis of discourses) (Potter & Wetherell 1990; Burr 1995:164). As mentioned above, in the first tradition the term discourse means something very close to language. There is a focus on the “linguistic and rhetorical devices” used in the construction of a text (Burr 1995:184). In the second tradition the goal is to identify, within a text, “institutionally supported and culturally influenced interpretive and conceptual schemas (discourses) that produce particular understandings of issues and events” (Bacchi 2005: 199).

In the 2005 article I note that this distinction should not be drawn too sharply. Clearly, WPR is interested in language use; however, attention to the operation of binaries and concepts/categories is a supplementary exercise, set in train through a focus on problematizations (Bacchi 2009). At the same time discourse analysts often pay heed to the interpretive and conceptual schemas that form the primary focus among those interested in the analysis of discourses. 

Nor am I suggesting that there is one correct definition of “discourse”. As discussed in the last entry (27 Feb. 2023), poststructuralists do not defend one meaning of a concept over another but consider how different meanings rely on contrasting presuppositions and produce diverse effects. For a poststructuralist, it is inconsistent, therefore, to search for a “correct” definition of discourse because the whole idea of discourse is that definitions play an important part in delineating knowledge (Bacchi 2000). Hence, definitions require scrutiny, not replication. 

What are these knowledges/discourses that are scrutinized in a WPR analysis? In a Foucault-influenced poststructural analysis, discourses/knowledges comprise both general background knowledge, apparent in epistemological and ontological assumptions, and forms of relatively bounded social knowledges, such as disciplines (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 21). Question 2 targets the epistemological and ontological assumptions that underpin specific problem representations. The concern with disciplinary knowledges appears in a particular emphasis on “expert” discourses. For example, the common reform proposal that women need training courses to gain access to higher paying and higher status occupations relies on a particular understanding of how “people” develop “skills” – a behavioural focus in other words – and an ontological conception of “people” as having “skills” ( KEYNOTE ADDRESS – CAROL BACCHI – 18 August 2022). In WPR, these assumptions, or presuppositions, underpin the knowledges identified as necessary to make the proposal to train women intelligible – e.g., psychological theories of development. These become the discourses/knowledges that require critical interrogation.

This distinction between “an analysis of discourses” and “discourse analysis” can be identified by examining how researchers in specific traditions use the term “discourse”.  For example, those who are interested in discourse as language use talk about “discursive practices” in terms of the ways in which people converse or argue. By contrast, in WPR, “discursive practices” refers to the ways in which discourses – or disciplinary knowledges – operate (or practice). Illustrating the latter stance, Foucault describes how, “in the nineteenth century, psychiatric discourse is characterized not by privileged objects, but by the way it forms objects that are in fact highly dispersed” (Foucault 1972: 44).  Therefore, when Foucault refers to “the discursive practice of psychiatry” (Foucault 1972: 75), he is not referring to how psychiatry is practised “discursively”, through writing, speaking or producing texts within psychiatry. His interest is not language use; rather, he is describing the practices of psychiatry, the operation of the sets of relations characteristic of psychiatry as an accredited form of knowledge (Bacchi and Bonham 2014: 182).

Other usages also indicate the two “discourse” traditions I have described here. When authors refer to discourses on or about an issue, e.g., climate change (Reisigl and Wodak 2017: 87, 119), this usage indicates a language perspective. The same is the case with references to “discourse participants” (Reisigl and Wodak 2017: 87), a phrase that points the way to a clearer delineation of the competing perspectives under examination here, as elaborated shortly. I need to repeat that these comments on the uses of “discourse” do not in any way suggest that one usage is correct and the other in error. Consistent with the argument developed in the previous entry (27 Feb. 2023) the task is to approach the contrasting uses of “discourse” in terms of how they offer contending proposals about how we ought to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207).  

Krzyzanowski (2010: Introduction) indicates his positioning in this field through his recognition of and reliance on Ruth Wodak, commonly identified as a leading theorist in Discourse-Historical Analysis (DHA). Wodak (2015) and Reisigl and Wodak (2017) clearly lay out the theoretical parameters of DHA. Wodak (2015: 3) identifies the “ideas of Habermas” as “of fundamental importance”.  The goal of DHA is to improve “public discourse” through “a theory of rational argumentation” among “discourse participants” (Wodak 2015: 3). The goal of critique is to point to “intended biases in representations (especially media coverage) and to contradictory and manipulative relationships between discourses and power structures” (Reisigl and Wodak 2017: 119).

WPR sits in contrast to this position. It is not a form of discourse analysis in the tradition of Wodak, Kryzyanowski, Fairclough (1992) and many others who engage in studies of language use. Instead, it offers a way to critically interrogate discourses as knowledges, highlighted in Question 2 of the approach. It targets what it is possible to speak of by examining the knowledges (discourses) that limit and form “the sayable” (Foucault 1991: 59, 63). Rather than looking for “intended biases” or “rational argumentation”, the goal is to show how knowledges form their truths. This position is illustrated above in the description of how psychiatry as an accredited knowledge forms objects for thought – e.g., “behaviours” and “skills”. Approaching these concepts as “proposals about how we ought to proceed from here” best describes the WPR engagement with concepts.  

Relying on “context” 

Alongside the theoretically distinct approaches to discourse just described, it is important to reflect on how the tradition of discourse analysis as language analysis treats “contexts”. This topic was raised briefly in the previous entry (27 Feb. 2023) where we discussed how Koselleck (1998) appeals to “social history” as “occurring history” and “what ‘actually’ – and not just linguistically – happened”. There I describe his position as realist and, with Van Gelderen (1998), call for clarification of the ontological distinction between language and society. 

Whereas Koselleck lays out his position clearly, many theorists inadvertently adopt a realist perspective in relation to the conditions they identify as “background” in their analyses. I would imagine that many readers have a section on “background” in their work and I have also slipped into referring to “context” on occasion as if its meaning is straightforward. Happily, on one occasion, in the 2009 book I specify: “the task of ‘filling in’ context is never simply a descriptive exercise” since “reflections on context are themselves interpretive”. “Indeed”, I proceed to argue, “in many cases it is necessary to pay attention to how a context, for example, ‘globalisation’, is represented” (Bacchi 2009: 21). 

Genealogy in WPR (Question 3) acts as a corrective for or defence against the simple recording of “context/s”. Foucault explicitly identified the “role of genealogy” in tracing the “history of the concept of liberty or of the ascetic life”. In his view, the task is to make such conceptual histories appear “as events on the stage of historical process” (Foucault 1977: 1). “Events” in Foucault are not simply bits of data; they need to be analyzed in terms of the practices that give rise to them (Bacchi and Goodwin 2016: 46). These genealogies of practices demonstrate how selected concepts or categories of analysis (e.g., “alcohol problems”, “drug problems”) are made under specific circumstances, and hence, how they can be unmade (Bacchi 2015). 

In a special issue of Discourse & Society on “Theories and concepts in Critical Discourse Studies” Krzyzanowski and Forchtner (2016) explore some possibilities for theoretical developments within CDA and DHA. One contributor, Macgilchrist (2016), suggests that CDS (Critical Discourse Studies) must move beyond its theoretical and conceptual foundations and incorporate “post-foundational” thinking in discourse studies. She expressly endorses “productive integration” with the post-structuralist discourse theory associated with Ernesto Laclau (1990). 

At the same time Petersen (2015) cautions researchers who ascribe to poststructural precepts to be wary of the frequent tendency in their work to refer to social realities (“contexts”, “backgrounds”) as if they simply exist. In her view, “mainstream post-structuralist policy analysis is presently overwhelmingly realist”, while the serious and ongoing onto-epistemological challenges of post-foundationalism are “glossed over in order to ‘get on with it’” (Petersen 2015: 148).

It seems, then, that we all have some work to do. 

In the last of three entries on applying WPR to concepts, which follows in a month’s time, I pursue the concept of “crisis”, alongside “risk” and “uncertainty”. I hope to clarify how the distinct theoretical perspectives introduced in this and the preceding entry (27 Feb. 2023) engage these concepts. The task, using WPR thinking, is to discern how different usages of “crisis” involve contrasting proposals about how we ought to proceed from here (Tanesini 1994: 207).  


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In I. Hampsher-Monk, K. Tilmans and F. van Vree (Eds) History of Concepts: Comparative Perspectives. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press. pp. 227-238.Wodak, R. 2015. Critical Discourse Analysis, Discourse-Historical Approach. The International Encyclopedia of Language and Social Interaction, First Edition. Karen Tracy (General Editor), Cornelia Ilie and Todd Sandel (Associate Editors). © 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Published 2015 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
DOI: 10.1002/9781118611463/wbielsi116