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Discourse and Power

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    The term ‘discourse’ is central to many social sciences studies and takes on a range of meanings. Foucault offered a ‘three-dimensional’ definition, as Kumaravadivelu (2007: 218) states. The first of these definitions relates to all language in use; i.e. all texts or utterances. The second one relates to ‘specific formations of fields’ such as the ‘discourse of racism’, or the ‘discourse of feminism’. The third definition, Kumaravadivelu says, extends beyond language to the ‘sociopolitical structures that create the conditions governing particular utterances or texts’. Discourse, then, relates to the entire conceptual world in which knowledge is produced and reproduced. From this perspective, language is only one of the entities that construct discourse. Texts are generated by discursive formations or discursive fields of power and knowledge. These fields construct certain ways of understanding the world (within particular domains) which then take on the status of common-sense assumptions. A discourse then provides a limited set of possibilities and structures of what can be said and how it can be said within certain domains.

    The field of education may provide an example. Discourses prevalent when talking about Higher Education, for instance, are those located in the discursive field of liberal humanism or that of vocationalism. The former provides a way of thinking about education as well as a generally shared understanding of society which prioritizes the individual over the social, which focuses on the individual’s development of rational and rigorous thinking, and which is seen as leading to a general improvement of a ‘moral’ society. We could also add that this constitutes an understanding of education from a largely western perspective. The discursive field of vocationalism, on the other hand, constructs the value of education as helping students on the career ladder. To do so students do not need critical thinking, but practical skills. The implicit values relate to prosperity, ambition, business, booming economies, and financial security rather than an individual’s development of the ‘mind’. These discourses are reflected in prospectuses of HE institutions.

    However, it is also clear that prospectuses would not be written using only one of these discursive fields. As Kress points out (1985: 7, 8), discourses do not exist in isolation, but in larger systems of sometimes opposing and contradictory, or just different, discourses. As discourses tend to, what Kress calls, ‘colonize’ areas, i.e. to account for increasingly wider areas outside the initial domain, texts attempt to reconcile these ‘contradictions, mismatches, disjunctions and discontinuities’ to seamlessly interweave these different strands (ibid.:10). A university prospectus may therefore reflect both discourses of liberal humanism and vocationalism in a seamless fabric, interwoven with other strands such as those emphasizing the discourse of ‘community of the university’, as well as those referring to comfort and pleasure. Indeed, I draw on a range of discourses in the field of education myself in this thesis, and not always explicitly so. It is difficult for an individual to think outside these discursive formations which determine to a large extent what we can think and say in particular domains.

    Discourses then seem to be deterministic: to reduce the role of human agency and to limit the autonomous free-willed subject’s ability to step outside these discourses. After all, according to Foucault, discourse produces knowledge and meaning. As Stuart Hall explains: ‘physical things and actions exist, but they only take on meaning and become objects of knowledge within discourse’ (Hall, in Wetherell et. al. 2001: 73). In other words, it would be difficult to see a particular situation or action from a different perspective or attach a different meaning to it, then the meaning which is, as it were, provided through discourse. Discourse, then, guides how ‘reality’ is interpreted. Knowledge, as Hall (Hall, in Wetherell et. al. 2001: 75) explains, is ‘always inextricably enmeshed in relations of power because it was always being applied to the regulation of social conduct in practice.’ In this sense, ‘discourse’ comes close to ideology, but I prefer the notion of discourse, like Foucault, to make it clear I reject the Marxist position which focuses mainly on class.

    Instead of ‘ideology’, Foucault put forward the notion of ‘regimes of truth’, discursive formations which seem to become ‘true’ because ‘knowledge, once applied to the real world has real effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true’ (Hall, in Wetherell et. al. 2001: 76). Hall gives the example of single parenting. If everyone believes that single parenting inevitably leads to delinquency and crime, and single parents are being punished accordingly, ‘this will have real consequences for both parents and children, and will become ‘true’ in terms of its real effects […].’

    However, I believe the individual is not trapped within discourses, because in living complex and mobile lives, we are exposed to a multitude of discourses on which we draw at any one time, and sometimes these are ambiguous, conflicting or overlapping. Moreover, as an educational approach, we can step outside a particular discourse, when engaging in what Pennycook (2001) calls ‘discursive mapping’ or ‘problematizing practice’. Through discursive mapping, students can become aware of how discourses operate in texts to produce this configuration of power and knowledge. This discursive mapping can consist of relating the text to one’s own experiences, both in terms of other reading as well as in terms of one’s own lived experience. Using this approach allows students to see culture not as a one to one relationship with language, but in relation to the cultural complexity of our contemporary globalized society.

    This page titled Discourse and Power is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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