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Discourse in Action

Rodney H. Jones
From

The Encyclopedia of Applied Linguistics , Chappell ed., Blackwell 2010

One of the most fundamental issues in discourse studies is

understanding the relationship between what we say and write and what

we do, that is, the relationship between discourse and action. Nearly all

mainstream approaches to discourse analysis begin with the assumption

that discourse itself is a kind of social action. Conversation analysts, for

example, see talk as a matter of ‘paired action’, genre analysts speak of

genres as examples of ‘communicative actions’, interactional

sociolinguists focus on how people strategize discursive actions within an

ongoing negotiative process with other social actors, and critical discourse

analysts remind us that discourse constitutes and is constitutive of what

they call ‘social practice’.

The problem with approaches that conceptualized discourse as

action is that there are a whole host of actions that we engage in everyday

that do not involve discourse, or only involve it in a rather peripheral way,

but still have an important relationship to discourse that may have been

produced before these actions are carried out or may somehow follow

from these actions. Scollon and Scollon (2005) discuss, for example, the

actions involved in lighting a camp stove, actions which for experienced

campers might not involve any talking or engagement with written text,

but which invariably arise out of a complex history of discursive actions

such as the writing and reading of advertisements, manuals, packages and

warranties or oral instructions given by an expert user to a novice, and

subsequently give rise to other discursive actions such as the


conversations that accompany the meals which the stove was used to

prepare or written reviews posted online by satisfied (or dissatisfied) users

of the stove, or papers filed in lawsuits by customers who have been

injured using the stove.

Mediated discourse analysis is less interested in understanding

discourse as a kind of social action, and much more interested in

understanding it insofar as it plays a role in the performance of social

actions. This concern has its theoretical foundations in the work of the

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1981), who, near the end of his life

became interested in the notion of mediation. For Vygotsky, all human

action (and thought) is mediated through cultural tools, some of which are

physical (such as screwdrivers, camp stoves, and physical texts of all

kinds) and others of which are ‘psychological’. Among what he termed

‘psychological’ tools he included ‘language; various systems for counting;

mnemonic techniques; algebraic symbol drawings; all sorts of

conventional signs’ (137).

The status of discourse as a cultural tool through which we mediate

social action is not entirely clear-cut. On the one hand, we might consider

discourse to be more of a ‘psychological tool’, given that it draws upon

‘languages’ and ‘signs’. For mediated discourse analysts, however, (as for

most discourse analysts), the interest is not so much in the ‘system’ (be it

language, algebra, or any other sign system) as it is in the instantiation of

that system in concrete instances of use in which the system is embodied

in some kind of material expression (i.e. a written text or sound waves

spoken or broadcast). In other words, although mediated discourse

analysts are certainly interested in how people form texts by drawing upon

various semiotic systems, ‘social languages’ and ‘speech genres’ (Bakhtin


1986), their main concern is with discourse as a physical object that is

used to take actions in the world. Therefore, the main concern is not is

what discourse ‘means’ (as in many branches of linguistics), nor with what

it does (as in pragmatics and other similar approaches to discourse and

social interaction), but on what people do with it, and how these doings

(not the discourse) work to construct individual identities and communities

of practice (Lave and Wenger 1991).

This formulation takes the traditional definition of discourse as

‘language in use’ one step further: ‘language in use to do something’. That

‘something’ that discourse is used to do, not the discourse itself, is the

starting point for mediated discourse analysis, for which any exploration

must begin with Goffman’s ( 1974) famous question: ‘What’s going on

here?’

Although many forms of discourse analysis are predicated on the

notion that meaning is inseparable from ‘what’s going on’, that is, that

discourse gets its meaning from the social practices in which it is

embedded (Gee 1999), most of these approaches conceptualize ‘social

practices’ in rather vague and generalized ways (e.g. having a meeting,

eating in a restaurant), or as ‘social practice’ (as a mass noun). This latter

formulation, favored by many cultural critics, takes the notion of practice

to an even greater level of abstraction, referring often to situations or

forms of social organization rather than to people actually taking action in

the world. An approach that focuses on discourse in action is less

interested in these generalized social practices (or this notion of ‘social

practice’) as categorical ‘types’ of actions or relationships and more

interested in the real time, unique, and irreversible actions that actually go

into creating these larger situations and social formations. When


‘practices’ are considered, they are considered as the ‘technologiztion’ of

particular sequences of actions that have become recognizable to

particular groups as representing particular activities and identities. Even

then, however, the focus remains on the discrete actions from which these

practices are constructed, and how these actions are related to one

another in chains of ‘conditional relevance’, so that one particular action

arises out of the actions preceding it and creates the conditions for the

actions that follow (Jones and Candlin 2003).

The notion of ‘discourse in action’, however, is not as simple and

straightforward as it seems. In fact, one of the consequences of

approaching discourse through action (as opposed to approaching action

through discourse) is a new awareness of the problematic relationship

between discourse and action, a realization that we cannot always read

social actions from discourse or expect particular kinds of discourse to be

used to perform particular kinds of actions. In his study of discourse about

HIV/AIDS, for example, Jones (2007) found that talk about ‘safer sex’ is

often used to perform actions that have very little to do with ‘safer sex’,

and, in fact, are sometimes part of patently unsafe sexual practices. In

other words, discourse does not cause actions, and actions do not cause

discourse in any direct way. Rather, discourse and action exist in what

Wertsch (1994: 205) calls a relationship of ‘tension between the

mediational means as provided in the sociocultural setting and the unique

contextualized use of these means in carrying out particular concrete

actions’

At the center of an approach that focuses on discourse in action,

then, is a preoccupation with who or what is responsible for actions that

occur in the world, in other words, what the source of agency is. Traditional
views of agency have seen it as a matter of individual intentionality or

power. Mediated discourse analysis, on the other hand, views agency as a

matter of the interrelationship among social actors, the cultural tools

(including discourse) they are using (and the various affordances and

constraints they embody), and the social circumstances in which they find

themselves (including the ideological formations and relations of power

that characterize these circumstances).

This focus on discourse in action has a number of practical

advantages for the analyst, perhaps the main one being that it helps to

solve the problem of deciding which discourse is worth analyzing and

which is not. Many approaches to discourse make this choice based on the

particular theoretical concerns of the analyst rather than the real life

concerns of those who actually produce and consume the discourse they

are analyzing. As a result, while such studies often make important

contributions to the advancement of theory, their contribution to solving

the real problems of real people is sometimes less clear.

In contrast, a discourse in action approach typically begins with a

‘site survey’, a step that the Scollons (2004) refer to as ‘engaging the

nexus of practice’. Such a survey involves identifying the key social actors,

the key actions, and the key cultural tools in a particular situation from the

point of view of participants themselves through methods like interviewing

and observing. The purpose of these interviews and observations,

however, is not to gather data, but rather, to develop, in collaboration with

participants, an understanding of the kind of data that needs to be

gathered.

The phrase ‘discourse in action’ also points to a vision of an

engaged discourse analyst, one who, rather than standing apart from the
people and actions he or she is studying, acknowledges that to study any

social phenomenon involves being part of it, that ‘objectivity’ is neither

possible nor necessarily desirable. Thus, another important aspect of

‘engaging the nexus of practice’ involves the analyst establishing what the

Scollons call a ‘zone of identification’, an understanding of where and how

the interests of the participants and the interests of the analysts overlap, a

thorough inventory of the perceptual limitations and biases of all

concerned, and an examination of how these limitations and biases are

inevitably part of any process of data collection and analysis. Mediated

discourse analysts, cannot stop at analyzing the actions of others, but

must also face up to their own actions and how they affect the world that

they analyze.

In the end, then, an approach that focuses on discourse in action

points us towards the notion of the discourse analyst as a social activist

who is actively engaged in helping people solve real world problems that

are of immediate concern to them. It is not surprising, then that studies

using this approach have focused on issues like HIV/AIDS prevention, racial

discrimination, illegal immigration, and unemployment. While studies

using this approach begin with ‘engaging the nexus of practice’, they

should ideally end with ‘changing the nexus of practice’ in some positive

way. Obviously, what constitutes positive change is highly subjective and

dependent on the ‘zone of identification’ the analyst has established with

participants at the outset of the research. What is really at the heart of

this goal of transformation is a process through which analyst and

participants work together to become more conscious of their own actions

and the kinds of social relationships and social ‘selves’ that they give rise

to.
Where this brand of activism differs from that sometimes associated

with other approaches like critical discourse analysis is that it is not

focused on processes of uncovering power relations, identifying victims

and assigning blame. Rather, it focuses on understanding and helping

others to understand that the solutions to problems often lie not in

attempting to grapple with large abstract social practices and social

formations, but rather in grappling with the mundane, situated, local

actions by which we build our social worlds moment by moment.

In this way, approaches that focus on ‘discourse in action’ are

closely related to models of ‘participatory action research’ (Freire 1970),

which emphasize useful knowledge, problem solving and social change.

Such models strive to transform people, organizations and communities by

reducing the gap between knowledge and action. What this means for us

as discourse analysts is that research is not seen as an aim in itself, but

rather as part of a process leading to some kind of action that will benefit

stakeholders. What it means for us as human beings and the other

humans we interact with is that action should never be seen as separate

from inquiry, that whenever we engage in action, the potential for learning

exists. To put it more concisely, analysis without action is sterile, and

action without analysis is dangerous.

Suggested Readings (not cited in text)

Norris, S. and Jones, R. (Eds.) (2005). Discourse in action: introducing


mediated discourse analysis.

Scollon, R. (2001). Mediated discourse: The nexus of practice. London:


Routledge.

Scollon, R. ( 2001). Action and text. In R. Wodak and M. Meyer (Eds.)


Methods of critical discourse analysis, pp. 139-83. London: Sage.
References (cited in text)

Bakhtin, M.M. (1986) Speech genres and other late essays, translated by
V.W. McGee, edited by C. Emerson & M. Holquist. Austin, TX: University of
Texas Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Herder & Herde

Gee, J.P. (1999). Introduction to discourse analysis. London: Routledge.

Goffman, E. (1974). Frame analysis: An essay on the organization of


experience. New York: Harper.

Jones, R. (2007). Imagined comrades and imaginary protections: Identity,


community and sexual risk among men who have sex with men in China.
Journal of Homosexuality 53 (3), 83-115.

Jones, R. and Candlin, C. N. (2003). Constructing risk along timescales and


trajectories: Gay men’s stories of sexual encounters. Health, Risk and
Society 5 (2), 199-213.

Lave, J. and Wenger, E. (1991). Situated learning: legitimate peripheral


participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Scollon R. and Scollon, S.W. (2004) Nexus analysis: discourse and the
emerging internet. London: Routledge.

Scollon, R. and Scollon, S.W. (2005) Lighting the stove: Why habitus isn’t
enough for critical discourse analysis. In R. Wodak & P. Chilton (eds) A
new agenda in (critical) discourse analysis (pp. 101-117), Amsterdam: John
Benjamins.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1981). The instrumental method in psychology. In J.V.


Wertsch (ed.) The concept of activity in Soviet psychology (pp. 134-143),
Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe.

Wertsch, J.V. (1994). The primacy of mediated action in sociocultural


studies. Mind, Culture and Activity 1 (4): 202-208.