A Foucauldian notion of discourse (1) holds that:
- discourse is a culturally constructed representation of reality, not an exact copy
- discourse constructs knowledge and thus governs, through the production of categories of knowledge and assemblages of texts, what it is possible to talk about and what is not (the taken for granted rules of inclusion/exclusion). As such, it re/produces both power and knowledge simultaneously
- discourse defines subjects framing and positioning who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do
- power circulates throughout society and, while hierarchised, is not simply a top-down phenomenon
- it is possible to examine regimes of power through the historicised deconstruction of systems or regimes of meaning-making constructed in and as discourse, that is to see how and why some categories of thinking and lines of argument have come to be generally taken as truths while other ways of thinking/being/doing are marginalised.
There are of course a range of critiques of this social theory – how much it denies material reality, whether it disallows agency, whether anything precedes discourse and so on (2) .
Turning this way of understanding discourse into method to apply to textual analysis means asking of the text or texts questions such as:
- What is being represented here as a truth or as a norm?
- How is this constructed? What ‘evidence’ is used? What is left out? What is foregrounded and backgrounded? What is made problematic and what is not? What alternative meanings/explanations are ignored? What is kept apart and what is joined together?
- What interests are being mobilised and served by this and what are not?
- How has this come to be?
- What identities, actions, practices are made possible and /or desirable and/or required by this way of thinking/talking/understanding? What are disallowed? What is normalised and what is pathologised?
(1) M. Foucault, The Archeology of Knowledge (London: Routledge, 1972/1995 ed, trans R. Sheridan); see also M Foucault, ‘Politics and The Study of Discourse’ in The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmentality ed. Graham Burchell, Colin Gordon and Peter Miller (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991), 53-72.
(2) See for example Nancy Hartsock ‘Foucault on Power: A Theory for Women?’ in Feminism/Postmodernism ed. Linda Nicholson (London: Routledge, 1990), 157-175; Paul Patton ‘Foucault’s Subject of Power’, Political Theory Newsletter 6. no. 1 (1994): 60-71; Jana Sawicki ‘Feminism, Foucault, and the “Subjects” of Power and Freedom’ in Feminist Interpretations of Foucault ed Susan Hekman (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996); David Hoy, “Foucault and Critical Theory’ in The Later Foucault ed. Jeremy Moss (London, Sage, 1998), 18-32.