Nearly all the communication we are exposed to or engage in conform to discursive patterns. Discourses are so ubiquitous that, if you looked it up in a dictionary, sometimes discourses are defined as ‘communication or debate.’ Yet considered critically, discourses are much more interesting and complex than that.
We can start off by thinking about discourses as a form of communication that conforms to or reflects a particular social practice or ideological position. So we can speak of legal discourses, environmental discourses, medical discourses, feminist discourses, etc. All communication conforms to at least one discourse. This is because all communication is encoded and decoded, and as such passes through institutional and ideological filters that shape how the messages are encoded and decoded. Think of it as a kind of spin we consciously or subconsciously put on any message we give off or receive. A famous and basic example of this is news coverage of an attack – do you call the attackers terrorists, or do you call them freedom fighters? Insurgents or soldiers? Broadly speaking, both pairs have similar meanings to each other, but each word conjures up different emotions, moods and tones. Each fits within a different discursive position. If you call them freedom fighters, you are aligning your coverage to the ideology of those who are attacked. If you call them terrorists, you are constructing a more oppositional discourse by evoking signs and language that evokes such ideologies.
But discourses are more than signs. They are also organizing principles that set out the boundaries between different fields and areas and positions. Discourses can also include other forms of communication beyond written and spoken language. For example, what does a white lab coat signify? If you’re in a hospital, it might be part of the discursive system of medicine; in a meatworks, it might be worn by the butcher. These discourses do not operate in isolation but are part of, produced by, and help support institutions.
What are discourses? Can you think of an example where there are