Michael B. Duignan – the Olympic Researcher

Mike's research and teaching blog | @michaelbduignan |


August 2014

Thinking of conducting a discourse analysis? Some tips here…

You research politics and are interested in political communication? Then chances are your most common source material is the text, and rightly so. Much of politics is expressed through texts, and closely examining both written and spoken language can provide useful insights into the political position of actors or the rhetoric that informs an argument.

Yet exploring politics through texts is by no means easy. Conducting a professional analysis requires not only access to the right texts, but also time and possibly other resources. This can lead even experienced academics to cut corners. One understandable temptation might be to limit oneself to reading political texts, to summarize them for others, and to then offer a personal interpretation. This may be a legitimate way to produce a review of the relevant sources, but is it an actual analysis? I believe that an analysis has to be more systematic than this. More importantly, I think that good, confident research should be based on evidence and should be transparent, so that others can check the evidence.

In a previous post, I gave an introduction to the theory of discourse. In this post, I turn to the practical question of how to set up a discourse analysis. I will first discuss what is a good research question for a discourse analysis, and will then go over some of the fundamental issues you might want to settle before starting your project. Along the way, I will introduce you to a couple of analytical concepts and approaches that I find helpful.

Finding the right research question

Like with any type of research, a good discourse analysis starts with the right question. Before you pick your sources, and decide what tools to use on them, ask yourself: what is my concern? What motivates you to conduct this particular research, and what do you hope to achieve? For instance, are you trying to find out what the position of a particular government is on a specific topic? Do you want to explore how specific political actors made sense of a crisis event? Maybe you want to know what arguments informed a major political decision, or you want to see how a politician manipulated a debate. All of these are legitimate concerns that could stand at the beginning of a detailed discourse analysis.

Try to turn your concern into a question and then narrow the scope of that question enough to make it “operational”. This will allow you to find sources that promise to address your concern. A poor research question would be how South Koreans think about North Korea. This question is too broad, not to mention that it assumes we can find out what a large group of people actually think. A good research question, on the other hand, would be what position the South Korean President Park Geun-hye voiced towards North Korea during the 2013 crisis between the two states. This question has everything a good research project needs: relevance, a clear topic, potential sources, and a clear time-frame.

In some cases, you may have simply come across a text that you liked, and that you feel deserves to be analysed. This is perfectly acceptable, but make sure you ask yourself what about the text attracted your attention. You likely had an implicit concern, and it is this concern that you can now turn into an explicit research question. Did a speech have a strong emotional effect on you? Then why not explore how the text elicited that emotion. Did the broad public reaction to a political debate intrigue you? Then how about trying to trace which arguments from the original debate made their way into journalistic texts and social media outlets, and in what form.
Without such a concrete agenda, you may still enjoy analysing the text that sparked your interest, but your hard work may not be able to carry a larger project, like a graduate or even post-graduate thesis. Pick your materials based on your questions, not the other way around.

Five points you should address before getting started

To narrow down your project and decide what sources and tools will be appropriate in your case, you may want to clarify the following five points:

1) What topic will you explore?

For instance, you could look at statements on national security, or statements on nuclear energy, or statements on health. The discourse analyst Siegfried Jäger (2004: 160-168) calls such general themes discourse strands. The idea is that such strands are intertwined, and that it can be helpful to explore not only what statements people make within one strand (Jäger calls such statements discourse fragments), but also to explore how one strand relates to others. Think of the disaster that struck Japan in 2011: what statements did various political actors in Japan make on nuclear energy before and after the event? How did these statements draw from assumptions, beliefs, and arguments that have their roots in the discourse strand on national security, on health, or on any number of other such themes? In short: define what topic you will analyse, and note down which various discourse strands you think might be important in that regards. These notes can then become your first coding categories: the analytical attributes you assign to different units of text, such as paragraphs, sentences, or even words, to later explore their distribution across the text, and their relation to one another.

2) What is your time frame?

There are generally two types of discourse analysis: the first focuses on a specific moment in time, and is called a synchronous analysis (Jäger 2004: 171). Discourse stretches out through time. Think of discourse for a moment as a bundle of intertwined wires, each with a different colour, that cross and twist as they stretch forward. These individual wires are the discourse strands, and the wire bundle is the discourse in its entirety. What a synchronous analysis does is dissect the bundle of wires at one spot and look at the incision: where is a specific wire located at that point? Does it touch other wires? The section where you slice into the discourse can be a major event that generates discussion. Such a discursive event could be an earthquake, or a terror attack, or an election.

The second kind of analysis looks at different sections of the wire-bundle and compares them. This is called a diachronic analysis, and is the sort of approach that the famous discourse theorist Michel Foucault favoured: he looked, for instance, at how the institutional setting of the hospital and the role of medical practitioners changed over time, and how these changes were a reflection of (and in turn an influence on) the kinds of “truths” that people held about health at different points in time (Foucault 2005/1989: 55-60).

3) What part of society is your analysis looking at?

Are you mainly interested in the discussions of politicians? Do you want to know how a political discourse plays out among academics, or in the press, or in private setting of people’s homes? Each of these different spheres, or discourse layers (Jäger 2004: 163), is interesting in its own right, but they also influence each other. Tracing how ideas travel between these layers through communication can be a rewarding analysis.

Think about the way in which an argument has influenced debates in different parts of society, for instance Samuel Huntington’s famous claim that the conflicts of the future will come from a clash of civilizations (Huntington 1996). How did this claim make its way into journalistic texts? When did politicians start positioning themselves and their political statements in relation to Huntington’s theories? What kind of statements did this lead to? These are the kinds of questions that a multi-layer discourse analysis would ask.

4) What medium and what language will you be working with?

A major decision on your part will be where you will look for discursive statements. You will need to be clear about the kinds of sources that promise to help you answer your question. A good analysis should explain what texts you used, where they came from, and why you chose them. You might decide, for instance, that your question is best answered by analysing Chinese newspapers, or speeches by Japanese politicians, or interviews with Korean activists.

If the source only exists in a verbal format, this does not need to stop you. You can transcribe such sources and turn them into written data, and can even add special markers to show intonations and emphases. Chilton (2004: 206) has provided a very useful list of such annotations.

Another important issue is whether your source material is already available digitally, or if you can somehow digitize your texts. It is possible to do a discourse analysis with paper-based sources, but digital texts allow you far more analytical options. Think only about how hard it is to do a text analysis without a search function. My advice would be to get your hands on digital versions of your sources, or to generate these yourself by typing up speeches, transcribing interviews, or scanning news articles and running them through software that supports Optical Character Recognition (OCR).

5) Will you need to work qualitatively or quantitatively, or maybe both?

If you are looking at one source, for instance a speech, a journalistic article, or a constitution, then your main concern will be with the kinds of discursive statements that this text makes, and the manner in which it makes them. In other words, you will likely be exploring qualitative aspects of the discourse. On the other hand, if your subject matter generates a large amount of text, for instance thousands or tens of thousands of words, then you will have a hard time deciding which statements to analyse in detail. In such a case, it makes sense to look at the numbers first, for instance by exploring which key words appear most commonly across the different texts.

Word distribution can be an interesting research project in its own right, particularly if you can highlight major emphases in a text. Just take a look at the two very different word clouds below that I created as part of my own research on Digital Nationalism in China, using a handy visualization tool called Tagxedo. One cloud represents the most common words in the Chinese government’s white paper on the relevance of the internet. The other is a similar representation of key words in a speech by Hillary Clinton on the same topic. You can immediately see how different the two political positions are, and where the differences lie.

I personally use such quantitative analyses as a starting point: they can reveal regularities or irregularities across vast amounts of data, and can highlight which specific parts of the text corpus might then lend themselves to a detailed qualitative analysis. In the example, it might now be interesting to check which key words appear in close proximity with one another. It might also be worth analysing what exactly the Chinese government has to say on internet security, or how the word government is used in the text, or how the two different texts use the word people.

Thanks to Florian Schnider (Politics East Asia) for writing the above.


An Introduction to Discourse Analysis

Written by Florian Scheidner, Politics East Asia

Discourse analysis is a useful tool for studying the political meanings that inform written and spoken text. In other posts, I have provided a quick video introduction to the topic, and have discussed the ideas behind discourse theory, the main questions that students and researchers will likely ask as they set up their discourse analysis project, and the things that are worth keeping in mind when working with East Asian language sources. In this post, I offer a handy set of tools for doing a text-based, qualitative discourse analysis. The idea of a discourse toolbox comes from Siegfried Jäger, but I have expanded his approach based on my own experience and the works of other discourse analysts such as Paul Chilton (2004) and Norman Fairclough (1994).

You can go through the whole list of work-steps and tick each item off in turn, which is a good way to practice these methods. However, if you are conducting a specific research project, I would recommend adapting this toolbox to your own needs and tailoring it to fit your concerns. At the end of this post, you will also find a few comments on the limitations of this toolbox plus a list of literature that you can turn to if you want to learn more.

Getting technical: discourse analysis in ten steps

So you have formulated a research question, have collected source material, and are now ready to roll up your sleeves and dig into your sources. But how do you make sure that you have covered all your bases and that you will later be able to make a good case for yourself and your work? Here are ten work steps that will help you conduct a systematic and professional discourse analysis.

1) Establish the context

Before you start chiselling away at your source material, jot down where the material comes from and how it fits into the big picture. You should ask yourself what the social and historical context is in which each of your sources was produced. Write down what language your source is written in, what country and place it is from, who wrote it (and when), and who published it (and when). Also try to have a record of when and how you got your hands on your sources, and to explain where others might find copies. Finally, find out whether your sources are responses to any major event, whether they tie into broader debates, and how they were received at the time of publication.

2) Explore the production process

You have already recorded who wrote and published your sources, but you still need to do a more thorough background check. Try to find additional information on the producer of your source material, as well as their institutional and personal background. For example, if you are analysing news articles, take a look at the kind of newspaper that the articles are from (Jäger 2004: 175): Who are the author and the editorial staff, what is the general political position of the paper, and what is its affiliation with other organizations? Are any of the people who are involved in the production process known for their journalistic style or their political views? Is there any information on the production expenditures and general finances of the paper? Do you know who the general target audience of the paper is? In many cases, media outlets themselves provide some of this information online, for instance in the “about” sections of their websites. In other cases, you will find such information in the secondary academic literature. Don’t hesitate to write the editors an email or call them up: personal interviews can be a great way to explore production backgrounds.

Once you have established the institutional background, take notes on the medium and the genre you are working with. Some scholars go as far to argue that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 1964/2001), or in other words that the medium in which information is presented is the crucial element that shapes meaning. While I am skeptical of such extreme technological determinism, I do agree that the medium matters: reading an article online is not the same as reading it in a printed newspaper, or in a hardcover collection of essays. Make sure to identify the different media types in which your source appeared, and to also be clear about the version that you yourself are analysing.

For instance, the layout of a newspaper article and its position on the page will be different in a print edition than in an online edition. The latter will also offer comments, links, multi-media content, etc. All of these factors frame the meaning of the actual text and should be considered in an analysis. This may also mean that you should think about the technical quality and readability of your source, for instance by looking at paper quality (or resolution for online sources), type set, etc. You should also take notes on the length of your source (number of pages and/or words) and any additional features of the medium that might contribute to or shape meaning (such as images).

Finally, ask yourself what genre your source belongs to. Are you analysing an editorial comment, and op-ed, a reader’s letter, a commentary, a news item, a report, an interview, or something else? Establishing this background information will later help you assess what genre-specific mechanism your source deploys (or ignores) to get its message across.

3) Prepare your material for analysis

In order to analyse the actual text, it is wise to prepare it in a way that will allow you to work with the source, home in on specific details, and make precise references later. If you are working with a hard copy I would recommend making a number of additional copies of your source material, so that you can write on these versions and mark important features. If you haven’t already, try to digitize your source or get a digital copy. Then add references that others can use to follow your work later: add numbers for lines, headers, paragraphs, figures, or any other features that will help you keep your bearings.

4) Code your material

When you code data, it means that you are assigning attributes to specific units of analysis, such as paragraphs, sentences, or individual words. Think of how many of us tag online information like pictures, links, or articles. Coding is simply an academic version of this tagging process.

For instance, you might be analysing a presidential speech to see what globalization discourse it draws from. It makes sense to mark all statements in the speech that deal with globalization and its related themes (or discourse strands). Before you start with this process, you need to come up with your coding categories. The first step is to outline a few such categories theoretically: based on the kind of question you are asking, and your knowledge of the subject matter, you will already have a few key themes in mind that you expect to find, for instance “trade”, “migration”, “transportation”, “communication”, and so on. A thorough review of the secondary literature on your topic will likely offer inspiration. Write down your first considerations, and also write down topics that you think might be related to these key themes. These are your starting categories.

You then go over the text to see if it contains any of these themes. Take notes on the ones that are not included, since you may have to delete these categories later. Other categories might be too broad, so try breaking them down into sub-categories. Also, the text may include interesting themes that you did not expect to find, so jot down any such additional discourse strands. At the end of this first review, revise your list of coding categories to reflect your findings. If you are working with several documents, repeat the process for each of them, until you have your final list of coding categories. This is what Mayring (2002: 120) calls evolutionary coding, since your categories evolve from theoretical considerations into a full-fledged operational list based on empirical data.

How the actual coding process works will depend on the tools you use. You can code paper-based sources by highlighting text sections in different colours, or by jotting down specific symbols. If you are working with a computer, you can similarly highlight text sections in a word processor. In either case, the risk is that you will not be able to represent multiple categories adequately, for instance when a statement ties into three or four discourse strands at once. You could mark individual words, but this might not be ideal if you want to see how the discourse works within the larger sentence structure, and how discourse strands overlap.

A real alternative is using other types of software. If you have access to professional research programmes like NVivo, then the software already has built-in coding mechanisms that you can customize and use. There is also open-source software available, for instance the Mac programme TAMS, but I have not tested their functionality. However, even if you only have regular office tools at your disposal, such as Microsoft’s Office or a Mac equivalent, there are at least two ways in which you can code material.

The first is to copy your text into an Excel table. Place the text in one column and use the next column to add the coding categories. You’ll of course have to decide where the line-breaks should be. A sensible approach is to place each sentence of your original text on a new line, but you could also choose smaller units of text.

Another tool that provides coding assistance is Microsoft OneNote 2010, or the Mac equivalent Growly Notes. In OneNote, you can right click anywhere in the text and select “tag” to assign a category to any sentence. You can also customize your tags, create new ones, and easily search and monitor your coding categories and activities. The downside is that you can only tag full sentences, not single words or phrases, but depending on your intentions, this may not be a crucial drawback.

5) Examine the structure of the text

Now that you have prepared your materials and have coded the discourse strands, it is time to look at the structural features of the texts. Are there sections that overwhelmingly deal with one discourse? Are there ways in which different discourse strands overlap in the text? See if you can identify how the argument is structured: does the text go through several issues one by one? Does it first make a counter-factual case, only to then refute that case and make the main argument? You should at this point also consider how the headers and other layout features guide the argument, and what role the introduction and conclusion play in the overall scheme of things.

6) Collect and examine discursive statements

Once you have a good idea of the macro-features of your text, you can zoom in on the individual statements, or discourse fragments. A good way to do this is to collect all statements with a specific code, and to examine what they have to say on the respective discourse strand. This collection of statements will allow you to map out what “truths” the text establishes on each major topic.

7) Identify cultural references

You have already established what the context of your source material is. Now think about how the context informs the argument. Does your material contain references to other sources, or imply knowledge of another subject matter? What meaning does the text attribute to such other sources? Exploring these questions will help you figure out what function intertextuality serves in light of the overall argument.

8) Identify linguistic and rhetorical mechanisms

The next step in your analysis is likely going to be the most laborious, but also the most enlightening when it comes to exploring how a discourse works in detail. You will need to identify how the various statements function at the level of language. In order to do this, you may have to use additional copies of your text for each work-step, or you may need to create separate coding categories for your digital files. Here are some of the things you should be on the lookout for:

Word groups: does the text deploy words that have a common contextual background? For instance, the vocabulary may be drawn directly from military language, or business language, or highly colloquial youth language. Take a closer look at nouns, verbs, and adjectives in your text and see if you find any common features. Such regularities can shed light on the sort of logic that the text implies. For example, talking about a natural disaster in the language of war creates a very different reasoning than talking about the same event in religious terms.
Grammar features: check who or what the subjects and objects in the various statements are. Are there any regularities, for instance frequently used pronouns like “we” and “they”? If so, can you identify who the protagonists and antagonists are? A look at adjectives and adverbs might tell you more about judgements that the text passes on these groups. Also, take a closer look at the main and auxiliary verbs that the text uses, and check what tense they appear in. Particularly interesting are active versus passive phrases – does the text delete actors from its arguments by using passive phrases? A statement like “we are under economic pressure” is very different from “X puts us under economic pressure”… particularly if “X” is self-inflicted. Passive phrases and impersonal chains of nouns are a common way to obscure relationships behind the text and shirk responsibility. Make such strategies visible through your analysis.
Rhetorical and literary figures: see if you can identify and mark any of the following five elements in your text: allegories, metaphors, similes, idioms, and proverbs. Take a look at how they are deployed in the service of the overall argument. Inviting the reader to entertain certain associations, for instance in the form of an allegory, helps construct certain kinds of categories and relations, which in turn shape the argument. For instance, if I use a simile that equates the state with a parent, and the citizens with children, then I am not only significantly simplifying what is actually a very complex relationship, I am also conjuring up categories and relationships that legitimize certain kinds of politics, for instance strict government intervention in the social sphere. Once you have checked for the five elements listed above, follow up by examining additional rhetorical figures to see how these frame the meaning of specific statements. Things to look for include parallelisms, hyperboles, tri-colons, synecdoches, rhetorical questions, and anaphora, to name only the most common.
Direct and indirect speech: does the text include quotes? If so, are they paraphrased or are they cited as direct speech? In either case, you should track down the original phrases to see what their context was, and what function they now play in your source material.
Modalities: see if the text includes any statements on what “should” or “could” be. Such phrases may create a sense of urgency, serve as a call to action, or imply hypothetical scenarios.
Evidentialities: lastly, are there any phrases in the text that suggest factuality? Sample phrases might include “of course”, “obviously”, or “as everyone knows”. A related question then is what kinds of “facts” the text actually presents in support of its argument. Does the text report factuality, actively demonstrate it, or merely suggested it as self-evident? One of the strongest features of discourse is how it “naturalizes” certain statements as “common sense” or “fact”, even if the statements are actually controversial (and in discourse theory, all statements are controversial). Be on the look-out for such discursive moves.
9) Interpret the data

You now have all the elements of your analysis together, but the most important question still remains: what does it all mean? In your interpretation, you need to tie all of your results together in order to explain that the discourse is about, and how it works. This means combing your knowledge of structural features and individual statements, and then placing those findings into the broader context that you established at the beginning. Throughout this process, keep the following questions in mind: who created the material you are analysing? What is their position on the topic you examined? How do their arguments draw from and in turn contribute to commonly accepted knowledge of the topic at the time and in the place that this argument was made? And maybe most importantly: who might benefit from the discourse that your sources construct?

10) Present your findings

Once you have the answer to your original question, it is time to get your results across to your target audience. If you have conducted a good analysis, then you now have a huge amount of notes from which you can build your presentation, paper, or thesis. Make sure to stress the relevance, and to move through your analysis based on the issues that you want to present. Always ask yourself: what is interesting about my findings, and why should anyone care? A talk or a paper that simply lists one discourse feature after another is tedious to follow, so try to focus on making a compelling case. You can then add evidence from your work as needed, for instance by adding original and translated examples to illustrate your point. For some academic papers, particularly graduation theses, you may want to compile the full account of your data analysis in an appendix or some other separate file so that your assessors can check your work.

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