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JonnyCeltics's avatar

What is proper usage for the term "discourse?"?

Asked by JonnyCeltics (2698 points ) November 10th, 2011

(I almost wrote: what is the proper discourse for using the term discourse; though I intend that to ensue (?)!) :)

It’s a complicated word, and I feel is misused, at times by me as well. In academia, it gets thrown around like words such as “unpack” and “dialectic” (another one of those that gets misused). So please, I’d love your takes.

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7 Answers

TexasDude's avatar

The only correct answer:

dis·course/disˈkôrs/
Verb:
Speak or write authoritatively about a topic: “she discoursed on the history of Europe”.
Noun:
Written or spoken communication or debate.

lillycoyote's avatar

Discourse can mean different things, different quite specific things, in different academic disciplines, which are outlined in the Wikipedia article in the link. In veryday usage, it really just means communication, conversation. It seems, lately, in common usage, discourse is used when referring generally to the conversations we have with one another, The “public discourse” is a phrase you often here, referring the to sort of ongoing conversation the doesn’t necessarily occur directly between individuals, but the totality of all those individual conversations. That seams to be a nuance of the word.It is sort of difficult word.

JonnyCeltics's avatar

@Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard I think you answer, no offense, is inflexible and gated. @lillycoyote It gets tricky when people refer to the discourse of something, such as ‘the discourse or chess’ or the discourse of climate change.

lillycoyote's avatar

@JonnyCeltics The word, discourse means a number of different thing, some more specific and some less specific. I think some people sometimes use when the word conversation would have been more appropriate, I don’t know. It also means what @Fiddle_Playing_Creole_Bastard says it means, but he was wrong (sorry FPCB) that that is the only correct definition of the word, At it’s most basic, it just means a “verbal interchange of ideas; especially : conversation” These are the dictionary definitions from Merrium Webster means a number of different thing, some more specific and some less specific. Other, more specific, definitions, how it is defined in specific academic disciplines are outlined in the Wikipedia article in link.

Blackberry's avatar

“I don’t want to argue about this….”
“This isn’t an argument, it’s discourse.”

And when you see the title of a philosophers book: Discourse on the…...

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

To me it means an ongoing conversation about a particular topic, an academic conversation.

wundayatta's avatar

In academia, the people I see are constantly talking about discourse. The “this” discourse and the “that” discourse. I have not worked in any of their disciplines, but over time I have decided that they are talking about a certain kind of story or narrative. It is a story of mythic proportions, except it isn’t a myth in the sense that it is purported to be true.

So I have a client who is studying the “disabilities rights discourse.” He is reviewing the news media coverage prior to the passage of the ADA in order to see whether the discourse in the media changed the way the politicians talked about disabilities rights.

Discourse includes the words and pays attention to the choice of words. Do we refer to the disabled as the “disabled” or as “crips.” Do we talk about them with respect or as if they were feeble-brained.

There are discourses all over the place. Every community has a discourse. Every nation has one. So do cultures, sports, businesses. Each uses words in unique ways. Sometimes the same word is used differently. Sometimes different words are used similarly.

It’s more than that, of course. It’s a way of characterizing a conversation that is more that a conversation. It is an ongoing conversation. It is a conversation between many people who may not even be talking to each other. It is, I believe a kind of summary of all the things that people say and the way they say it within a certain, specifically defined context.

As such, it is not something you can specifically delineate or define. It is a fuzzy-edged concept. You can claim people misuse it, but that will be academic masturbation (and there’s a lot of that going on). I’m not sure what problem you have with it or how people use it. I think the best thing to do is to try to understand how people are using it. It’s not always clear, and I think a lot of people use it as a catch-all term that they hope will allow them to avoid specifically defining what they are looking at. In other words, it’s a pseudo-word. Probably from Derrida or Foucoult or some other member of the lit crit pantheon.

Now don’t get me wrong. I have great respect for theorists, but I also have great respect for communicators. It does not make me happy when the former is not the latter. I tend to make fun of people who can’t make themselves understood, especially if they are big-wig academics. Just because you are smart is no excuse to be unable to talk with an uncurled tongue.

Anyway, I my experience people often call things a “discourse” when they aren’t sure what they are talking about. This is fine. Most researchers don’t know what they are talking about when they start. That’s why they do the research. But academics is a blood sport, and so many people will see an opening and they have to attack it.

I suggest that we instead ask questions and try to help the poor fellow figure out what it is they are trying to understand. Of course, it is my job to do this, but I still think it’s nicer to try to help each other than to score points by poking pins into each other. So what discourse is that? The discourse of redemption? Cooperation? I don’t know. You tell me.

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