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The Difference Between Discourse Analysis and X

The difference between Discourse Analysis and X* is one of the most recurrent questions the members of @Discourse Analysis Group ask.

This question can deceive learners into thinking that defining and drawing borders around the field of Discourse Analysis is something easy to do when in reality, it’s not.

By writing an answer to this, a lot of questions should be raised and the most important ones are that if it is not that easy, then who am I to attempt to answer this? Also, If I’m a student and not an expert, then should I give up looking up for answers?

In fact, I believe I’m in a good position to try to answer this question because, first of all, as a student, Discourse Analysis or any other discipline is not part of my identity. I neither make money out of it nor fame from it: These conditions must approach me more to neutrality.

Secondly, my formation in French Linguistics allowed me to see, read and be aware of the main and the multiple perspectives in the world. My vision is not confined to a method, tendency or space: And at least, I have formed an idea of how some prominent french discourse analysts view discourse; what lots of English speakers prefer as a tendency and what germans admire in this field. (J. Ängermuller in S. Bonnafous, M. Temmar, 2013, pp.9-24)

Finally, it’s not rocket science. In the overall, it’s just some organized speech arranged with what the mind is capable of; So, why shouldn’t I try my best and answer this question?

In this article, I’m not going the path that defines Discourse Analysis as Y and X as Z to conclude that because Y and Z are different, then, Discourse Analysis and X are different.

Instead, I’ll try to get a satellite view of the biggest picture, and then I will pivot my argument around a metaphor to make my explanation clearer.

* (Think of X as any field/discipline/approach in the humanities/social and human sciences.)

What is Discourse Analysis? 

The uncontroversial part about Discourse Analysis is that it is generally defined as a method(s), field, or a technique(s) that allows you to analyze written and spoken texts.

Furthermore, DA research usually gathers different disciplines/approaches in a single framework before it tackles the analysis of the text. It is, therefore, a pluri-disciplinary field.

The uncertain part about it is how Discourse is defined — Is it written text, spoken text, conversation, language in use or language as an action...? (D. Maingueneau, 2014, pp.17-24). The Handbook of Discourse Analysis summarizes it as follows:

“… Given this disciplinary diversity, it is no surprise that the terms “discourse” and “discourse analysis” have different meanings to scholars in different fields. For many, particularly linguists, “discourse” has generally been defined as anything “beyond the sentence.” For others (for example Fasold 1990; 65), the study of discourse is the study of language use.” (D. Schiffrin, D. Tannen, H. E. Hamilton, 2001, p.1)

As I see it, the fact that discourse is viewed in many ways is not problematic because that’s how it should be — Other than that, it must be wrong — The real problem here is that this fact will prevent you from drawing an ultimate border around it in your mind and easily resolve the main question above.

Why the Question Above is Difficult to Answer?

The question above doesn’t fall into the relative, it doesn’t tell you what Discourse Analysis is related to: Is it related to Norman Fairclough’s view of discourse in comparison with Conversation Analysis? — The answer to this should be easy.

It is not the case here. The main question above brings the absolute: it wants you to totalize everything and put it under an umbrella then compare it with whatever X is.

The Kingdom Metaphor

If you agree with me that Discourse Analysis is a pluri-disciplinary field that analyzes written and spoken texts, then the relationship of DA to social and human sciences’ disciplines is like that of a King or a Queen to his/her servants in a classical kingdom. It may call one or many of them to go under its service whenever it finds them useful. (See figure 1)

Nevertheless, the field can be mistaken for one or many of them when it calls only one, or this latter behaves the same way: Sociolinguistics and Conversation Analysis, for instance, do the same: They play the role of the King / Queen; They can call one or many approaches from different disciplines and have spoken and written texts as an object of analysis.

Discourse Analysis: Approaches - Clevious Discourse
Figure 1

Then, How Can You Tell Which is Which?

Apart from the recognition of their history and their goals pursued when they diverge, the only way to differentiate between them when they converge can sometimes only be achieved through the recognition of those people who hold them: i.e. Analysts’ identities: An analyst, for instance, may identify himself as a sociolinguist and not a discourse analyst or the other way around.

Also, it’s not surprising if it is both, and one or the other is considered for them as the same entity… One should expect the unexpected.

The Overall

In this article, I’m not pretending to have definitely answered such a difficult question, but I believe that answering this by looking for it from a satellite position is the best way to go.

Also, I hope this has brought your attention to the issue of the relative and the absolute, and how it becomes easier when you relate it to a place, someone or something.

However if one fails to see this, they may unconsciously relativize the absolute and that will only lead them to contribute to the literary noise and worse, to ridicule other analysts in exchange of an academic article through which some kind of discovery is shared with the world; What is it like? — They are the ones to know what Discourse Analysis is and others not.


Bonnafous, Simone, and Malika Temmar, eds. Discourse Analysis & Human and Social Sciences. Bern: PETER LANG, 2013.
Maingueneau, Dominique. Discours et analyse du discours: une introduction. ICOM Série “Discours et communication.” Paris: Armand Colin, 2014.
Schiffrin, Deborah, Deborah Tannen, and Heidi Ehernberger Hamilton, eds. The Handbook of Discourse Analysis. Blackwell Handbooks in Linguistics. Malden, Mass: Blackwell Publishers, 2001.

NB: The references above have been built with a web application called ZoteroBib. For more information, please check the article I wrote about this, titled “How to Cite and Build a Bibliography in Under 10 Minutes!”.

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