Post lecture notes for students of IR 6007: Introduction to Discourse Analysis

By Farish A. Noor ~ March 10th, 2010. Filed under: Lecture Notes.

Welcome to the course IR 6007 ‘Introduction to Discourse Analysis with a special reference to religio-political discourse’.

Before we get into the course, allow me to highlight some of the points that were briefly discussed today:

1. What is discourse analysis and what is this course about?

Before we go any further, let me point out that discourse analysis is NOT a discipline in itself: Rather the term discourse analysis was coined by a number of contemporary theorists of linguistics, philosophy of language and political theory to refer to a mode of analysis, or an analytical tool, that draws heavily from the theories and praxis of philosophy (particularly philosophy of language), linguistics, hermeneutics, semantics, semiotics and political theory. It can best be described as ‘applied philosophy’, in this case applied philosophy of language, that has/is being used to understand the workings of political discourse by political analysts who have some background understanding of philosophy and linguistics.

Discourse analysis has been put to work by theorists like Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Bobby Sayyid et al in their attempts to understand the discursive dimension of contemporary political developments worldwide, in areas as diverse as the rise of Margaret Thatcher and the new conservative party of the 1980s in Britain to the rise of radical Islamism as a counter-hegemonic political movement in countries like Iran. In all these cases (and we shall be reading these texts closely later in the course) discourse analysis attempts to explain and understand the workings of discourse and how political discourses shape the social and political realities around us. It remains therefore a tool of analysis and is not a methodology or discipline in its own right, but rather a combination of different philosophical and linguistic tools that are applied to social phenomena with the intention of understanding that phenomena better.

Also note that discourse analysis emerged as a result of the failure of classical materialist and structuralist theories to explain exactly how and why some political systems/societies developed the way they did, and in particular the failure for materialist theories (ie. Standard political economy theories) to explain how and why certain modes of cultural politics have come to dominate in some societies even when in terms of political economy analyses these developments do not make sense or cannot be fully explained. (Such as the rise of far-right cultural and religious politics in some developing countries, despite their record of spectacular economic/material development.)

This does NOT, however, imply that discourse analysis confers epistemic claims or truths that override or supersede the observations made by other theoretical approaches; and we should not fall into the trap of thinking that discourse analysis offers us ‘higher truths’ compared to materialist political-economy analysis, for instance. One should therefore take discourse analysis as a complementary tool that can, at times, help us better understand the social/cultural/discursive developments of particular societies.

2. How will this course be taught?

The course will be divided between two parts: The first 7-8 weeks will involve rigorous reading of the foundational texts of Western philosophy, beginning with a quick and cursory overview of the central question that has bedevilled philosophers from Socrates and Plato to Ayer, Russell and Wittgenstein: What is knowledge, how does one know anything, and how do we make any epistemic claims?

Weeks 1-2 will involve a cursory reading of the classics leading us to the respective theories of knowledge and language-use formulated by John Locke, Berkeley, David Hume and Thomas Hobbes.
The main text that you will need to accompany you along your reading will be Bertrand Russell’s ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ where Russell has presented us with perhaps the most accessible introduction to the major ideas and theories of the abovementioned philosophers. If there is one text that you may want to get for yourselves for this part of the course (weeks 1-7), I would suggest this one. Look for: Bertrand Russell, ‘A History of Western Philosophy’ (Allen and Unwin, first edition 1946 but reprinted many times over and easily available in most bookshops and on-line as well.)

[Tip: While it is fashionable these days for students to speed-read and purchase books like ‘An Idiot’s guide to philosophy’ or ‘A Beginner’s guide to Plato’, etc, PLEASE do not waste your time and money on such publications. The ‘Idiots guide’ to anything is precisely, as the title suggests, meant for idiots, and they will hardly teach you anything apart from the value of money that you’ve lost. Stick to Russell’s work and you will be in safe hands.]

By weeks 3 we will be looking at the debates over language and language-use that were recurrent among philosophers of the 17th to 18th centuries, in particular looking at the respective theories of Hobbes, Locke, Berkeley and Hume. The theme/s that need to be discussed include: Language and its uses; the debate over private and public language; meaning and signification; and how language affords truth value.

Week 4 will focus on contemporary theories of linguistics and language use, covering the debate over verification and meaning that were dominant particularly among the Oxbridge scholars at the turn of the 20th century. Here we will touch on the theories of Ayer, Gottlob Frege, the early Russell and the early Wittgenstein and counterpose them to Nietzsche’s conception of truth as (amoral) fiction and language as an expression of will, agency and intent.

Weeks 5-6 will involve a close reading of the late Wittgenstein and in particular draw heavily from Wittgenstein’s theory of language-use and language-games as a social phenomenon that is rule-driven and normative. From this point we begin to enter into the realm of modern contemporary philosophy of language and we will trace the development of Wittgenstein’s ideas leading us up to Saussure and the foundations of Linguistics, Semantics and Semiotics. The three key theorists we shall be focusing on will be Ludwig Wittgenstein, Ferdinand de Saussure and Roland Barthes.

Weeks 7-8 will focus on Discourse Analysis and how it was developed by the so-called Essex school that was deeply influences by post-Marxist theories of language-use in the creation of political/ideological discursive economies. The main works that will be read closely will include the writings of Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and Bobby Sayyid. This marks the end of the first part of the course.

What about part 2 of the course?

The last 6-7 weeks of the course will involve the application of the theories we have learned to research material that many of you are working on. Hence the ‘applied philosophy’ dimension to this course.
This course is important and relevant to those of you who are and have done fieldwork and whose work/theses/dissertations involve the understanding and explanation of the workings of the respective political/ideological discourses in your respect research areas.

As such, CLASS PARTICIPATION and presentation of your work/research is vital. The last 6 weeks will involve me leading some of you as you present your research/fieldwork to the class, and it allows some of you (particularly those who wish to use discourse analysis in your own research/writing) to apply what we have learned to your respective areas of research.

In short: Think of this course as a driving course. In the first half, I, the driving instructor, will teach you what a car is, how it works and what it can/cannot do. After teaching you how to drive, in the second half of the course I will let you do the driving and I will assess your ability to use/apply the skills/tools I have taught you.
Despite the heavy amount of reading in the first half (weeks 1-7/8), do NOT panic. Nobody has been killed during the teaching of this course that Ive taught many times before and I hope that you finish it with some serious understanding of the fundamental tools, ideas and rules of language-use and discourse analysis.

See you next Monday at 9.30 am, lecture room 1.

Note: The full course outline and reading list will be made available to the registration office on level B3 by Thursday, latest.

4 Responses to Post lecture notes for students of IR 6007: Introduction to Discourse Analysis

  1. Gram Massla

    Seems to me that you have forgotten about the rest of us. Throw us some red meat from time to time.

  2. Farish A Noor

    Gram, who is ‘the rest of us’? Can you specify?

  3. ramli

    I m part of ‘the rest of us’ …. you othermalaysia readers ….

  4. Capt


    ,,,yes indeed, teach them malaysians that the hardest arithmetric to master is that which enables us all to count our blessings !.

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