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Discourse is communication that goes back and forth (from the Latin, discursus, "running to and fro"), such as debate or argument. The term is used in semantics and discourse analysis. In semantics, discourses are linguistic units composed of several sentences — in other words, conversations, arguments or speeches.

There is a social conception of discourse that is often linked with the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (1926-1984) and Jürgen Habermas' The Theory of Communicative Action (Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns). Each thinker had personal conceptions of discourse which are thought to be incompatible with the other. They remain two important figures in this field; Habermas trying to find the transcendent rules upon which speakers could agree on a groundworks consensus, while Foucault was developing a form of discourse that opposed marxist definitions of ideology (superstructure).

The social conception of discourse

In the social sciences, a discourse is considered to be an institutionalized way of thinking, a social boundary defining what can be said about a specific topic, or, as Judith Butler puts it, "the limits of acceptable speech" - or possible truth. Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to escape discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists". In other words, the chosen discourse delivers the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate. Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. According to Michel Foucault's definition, discourse must be heard rather as synonym of his concept of episteme, notwithstanding important theoretical displacements (episteme was first thought of as the condition of possibility of discourses). In other words, Foucault's discourse must both be understood as a singular discourse, as defined above, and as a more general discourse, meaning the boundaries given to any particular discourse. In this more general sense, discourse is not composed only of words, which would be to limit oneself to a dualist conception: as he demonstrated in Discipline and Punish, discourse is also composed of architectural dispositifs, such as Jeremy Bentham's panopticon or the map of a classroom, etc. A dispositif is "a resolutely heterogeneous assemblage, containing discourses, institutions, architectural buildings [aménagements architecturaux], reglementary decisions, scientific statements, philosophical, moral, philanthropic propositions, in one word: said as well as non-said [du dit aussi bien que du non-dit], those are the dispositif's elements. The dispositif in itself is the network that we can establish between those elements."

According to Foucault, discourse can't be reduced to an ideological reflexion, it is to be thought as itself a Kampfplatz or battlefield. Against Kant's conception, Foucault argues that truth is not the objective bounty that the winners can take; truth is not an absolute, it is on the contrary produced in this battle with strategic aims. This conception of truth may be related to Althusser's theory on the "epistemological break" between science and ideology (the "epistemological break" is not an event, but a process; "science" always has to fight for its truth against ideology, which keeps coming back). Since knowledge and power are intrinsically related, according to Foucault, he can thus say that power relations are immanent to discourses, whereas in the classic marxist conception, the discourse is conceived as the ideological superstructure - which, of course, interacts with the base, as Marx wrote, but this does not impede the power relations being essentially located in the economic base, afterward reflected in the superstructure. Furthermore, as he showed in Society Must Be Defended (1976-77), discourse is not anyone's property and thus has no essentialist meaning. The same discourse may change political sides quite often, being reappropriated and endlessly modified, as did Foucault show in his analysis of the historical and political discourse; there is a "polymorphic tactics" of discourses. In other words, specific discourses are not tied to the subject; rather, the subject is a social construction of the discourse, or, as Nietzsche said, a "grammatical fiction". Judith Butler would maintain this ambivalency of discourse, which can be performed in various contexts by different subjectivities. In psychology critical perspectives on discourse have been developed in relation to developmental psychology by Erica Burman and in relation to social theory and psychoanalysis by Ian Parker (psychologist), and a critical research group, the Discourse Unit, was founded by these two. This perspective has also then had an influential bearing on critical psychology.


In computational linguistics practice, a discourse may lightly refer to a cohesive piece of text, such as a newspaper article or a book paragraph.

See also

Brill Dictionary of Religion

‘Discourse’ is not a religious term; it is used in attempts to describe, interpret, or explain religious phenomena. The term refers to linguistic phenomena beyond the basic units of word and sentence, but the extent of this ‘beyond’ can vary widely, from larger linguistic units to the widest possible historical, social, and cultural contexts. Although often used in writing about religion, the term is seldom defined, and the theoretical allegiances that frame its use are rarely made explicit.

Defining ‘Discourse’

Like ‘religion,’ ‘discourse’ is a term whose definition presupposes a theoretical perspective. It is useful to think of meanings of discourse ranged along a spectrum: from a naïve view that interpretation is a matter of straightforward textual analysis; through a more nuanced hermeneutical recognition that interpretation must always take account of the contexts of author and reader; to a radical constructionism which holds that human lives take shape within a web of language that literally constitutes self and world, a web with nowhere outside of it. In the first of these cases, ‘discourse’ is generally synonymous with ‘a characteristic way of speaking.’ In the latter cases, it points to, but can never completely capture, the fundamental role that language plays in constituting the historical, social, cultural, and personal networks within which all communication takes place.

From the sixteenth century, the word ‘discourse’ referred in English to spatial movement, to the act or faculty of conversation, to the movement of reason from premise to conclusion, and to a formal treatment of a subject at length. In the late twentieth century, the concept was developed in two fields: cultural studies, examining the historical, social, and cultural conditions that make possible specific statements and their effects; and linguistics, aiming primarily at an empirical analysis of texts.

Cultural Studies and Linguistics

In cultural studies, discourse refers to a body of text structured by rules outside the control of, and often the awareness of, an author or speaker. On this view, discourse shapes or constitutes the subject, in opposition to the view that language is simply a tool used by autonomous subjects. Several threads converge here. Mikhail Bakhtin's work on genre, polyphony, and the ‘dialogic principle’ argued that literature both reflects and shapes its social conditions. Drawing on Bakhtin, Julia Kristeva later developed the concept of ‘intertextuality’ to suggest that every text is in essence a complex network of relations to other texts (e.g., reference and influence). Linguists Ferdinand de Saussure and Émile Benveniste analyzed the systematic aspects of language in ways that laid the foundations for structuralism and for the extension of the concept of discourse to non-linguistic realms. Antonio Gramsci and Louis Althusser developed Karl Marx's concepts of ideology and hegemony, holding that illusory forms of thought come to be accepted as objective fact, thus perpetuating existing modes of domination and hierarchal social relations. Michel Foucault's early works analyzed ‘discursive formations’ in history, i.e. systems of thought that define the basic categories through which the world is seen and understood. Foucault defined discourse as a set of rules or constraints that make certain statements possible—and others not—in specific historical, social, and institutional contexts.

Critical or cultural views of discourse have had more effect than linguistic approaches on the study of religion. This is especially so in areas where critical analyses of texts reveal systems of domination, e.g., post-colonialist and feminist studies. Drawing on Foucault, Edward Said argued in Orientalism (1978) that academic works on Islam were examples of imperialist as well as scholarly discourse. Said made two distinct claims: one about the content of a specific discourse, i.e. that Orientalism presents a racist, hegemonic portrayal of Islam as the inauthentic, backward Other of Christianity and the West; and one about the function of discourse in general, i.e. that it helps create the reality it appears to describe, thus entrenching long-lasting biased representations of others. Scholars of religion are often quick to make the first sort of claim without adequately theorizing the second.

Language and Power

The presence of the term ‘discourse’ is no guarantee that one is reading a critical analysis of relations between language and power, such as Said's; nor does its absence imply that one is not. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in her feminist analysis of early Christianity, In Memory of Her (1983), speaks of androcentric language, texts, translation, interpretation, transmission, redaction, theology, and historiography where, as her later work attests, ‘discourse’ might be used. The fact that discourse can stand for all these terms and others has the advantage of reminding us that all uses of language are potentially implicated in relations of power. It has the disadvantage of vagueness.

The ‘Discourse of Sui Generis Religion’

The most prominent discourse of ‘discourse’ in the recent study of religion is the debate over ‘the discourse of sui generis religion.’ Russell McCutcheon argues that this ‘regnant discourse’—with the work of Mircea Eliade as its prototype—functions to draw four sorts of boundaries: between religious and non-religious phenomena (religion is unique and irreducible); between religious studies and other disciplines (a unique phenomenon demands a unique methodology and institutional location); between the interior, private, belief-oriented domain of religion and public, practical spheres like that of politics; and between tradition and modernity (authentic human life is rooted in traditional relations to the sacred). McCutcheon's ‘oppositional discourse,’ echoing the work of Talal Asad, Timothy Fitzgerald and others, critiques these distinctions. Again, the fact that discourse serves as an umbrella term to cover such a wide variety of issues has both advantages and disadvantages. Richard Terdiman has introduced the concept of ‘counter-discourse’ to suggest that all discourses come into being against a background of competing, contrasting utterances. In this light, McCutcheon's explicitly polemical stance is an example of the construction of a discourse as well as an analysis of the construction of ‘religion’ through discourse.

Linguistic Discourse Analysis

In linguistics, discourse refers most simply to a unit of analysis larger than the sentence and more generally to the set of utterances constituting a speech event. Linguistic discourse analysis developed into a bewildering variety of forms in the 1970s and 1980s. In general, these approaches relate three domains that are often kept separate: semantics (how language conveys meaning), syntax (how linguistic elements are organized), and pragmatics (how meaning relates to use in specific contexts).

Since the early 1990s a number of scholars have developed the application of discourse analysis to the study of the New Testament, as pioneered by J. P. Louw and K. Callow in the 1970s. Four distinct approaches have contributed to this work. The South African school analyzes relations between the smallest units of meanings of texts, i.e., individual nominative-predicate structures. The American Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) school has made important contributions to biblical translation studies through close sentence-level analysis. The Continental school explores relations between the micro- and macro-structures of texts. The English/Australian, or functional, school proposes a more developed theory of types of discourse and their relations to grammatical forms in specific linguistic contexts. However, apart from the narrow field of biblical studies, linguistic approaches have had little impact on the study of religion.

There are dozens of distinct approaches to linguistic discourse analysis. Although scholars of religion rarely use them, a few examples might indicate their potential value. (1) Drawing on poststructuralist discourse theory and critical linguistics, critical discourse analysis (Teun van Dijk) analyzes texts as forms of social action that occur in social contexts shaped by ideology and by differences in cultural capital. It has developed a complex set of techniques for analyzing broad text structures, as well as sentence structure and word-choice, as expressions of ‘cultural logics.’ (2) Rooted in phenomenology (Alfred Schütz) and ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel), Conversation Analysis (Harvey Sacks) empirically describes formal organizational details of ordinary conversation (e.g., turn-taking and sequencing), on the view that discursive practices mediate social actions and social settings. (3) Drawing on Marxism, feminism, and ethnomethodology, institutional ethnography (Dorothy Smith) grounds research in the texts produced by, and in the self-knowledge of, research subjects examined in their institutional contexts. It begins by analyzing everyday social relations rather than a ‘given discourse,’ holding that the latter sapproach necessarily imposes ruling ideologies on the social scientist's own discourse. (4) William F. Hanks has modeled an analysis of the components of ritual in terms of ‘participation frames’ and ‘discourse genres.’ (5) Taking issue with Clifford Geertz's view of culture-as-text, the natural history of discourse (Michael Silverstein and Greg Urban) analyzes relations between strategies of ‘entextualization’ and processes of ‘contextualization.’ This approach views the distinction between shifting discursive practices and established texts as one that is constructed in specific social and historical situations.

Steven Engler


Fairclough, Norman, Discourse and Social Change, London 1992

Gee, James Paul, An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method, London/New York 1999

Hanks, William F., “Exorcism and the Description of Participant Roles,” in: Michael Silverstein/Greg Urban (eds.), Natural Histories of Discourse, Chicago 1996, 160–200

Jaworski, Adam/Coupland, Nikolas (eds.), The Discourse Reader, London/New York 1999

McCutcheon, Russell, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse of Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia, Oxford/New York 1997

Porter, Stanley E./Reed, Jeffrey T. (eds.), Discourse Analysis and the New Testament: Approaches and Results, Sheffield 1999

Terdiman, Richard, Discourse/Counter-Discourse: The Theory and Practice of Symbolic Resistance in Nineteenth-Century France, Ithaca/London 1985. Citation:

Engler, Steven. "Discourse." The Brill Dictionary of Religion. Edited by Kocku von Stuckrad . Brill, 2006. Brill Online. https://www.brillonline.nl/public/discourse