Discourse as a Constraint

This chapter will explain how to uncover implicit content of discourses about public issues of concern to your research project.  Debates and documents on public issues are often presented in language tropes that purport to be neutral or objective.  Yet, upon critical examination, the language used masks a multiplicity of interests, values, assumptions, and agendas of actors. Thus, you will learn what discourse is all about in relation to your project and the various ways of looking at the content of any document relevant to your research project to grasp the implicit and symbolic content of discourse about public issues.  You will also learn how to discern decisions that matter, which are embedded in a given document and the steps you have to take when researching discourse on public issues.

Understanding Key Terms

A. Discourse

  • Discourse as used in this chapter is understood in an instrumental sense, i.e., in ways that contribute to understanding of the influential intentions and values of actors driving their deliberations and decisions-making on public issues.
  • It signifies the ways that public issues are spoken and written about.
  • It also denotes the modes of argumentation employed by actors in determining or attempting to determine outcomes of public issues.

B. Symbolic Communication

  • Symbolic communication means the images and image-evoking words or phrases that convey meaning in the absence of specific information, e.g., the word ‘slum’ gives rise to images of broken panes of glasses, garbage in streets, lawlessness, crowding, and abject poverty. Another example is the phrase ‘death stars’ in the context of early discussions of Canadian satellite communication, which conveyed the death of the conventional broadcasting regulation in the face of advancing technologies that made it no longer feasible.

C. Markers

  • Markers as used in this chapter signify the signs that clearly show the hidden or symbolic content of a document and the intentions and interests of its actors.
  • You will learn about the following nine markers:

I. Style and Format

  • The manner in which a document is written and presented and includes notions of genre i.e., the type or sort or kind or category; narrative i.e., the story line or sequence of events; aesthetic perspective, i.e., the artistic viewpoint or visual beauty, etc.
  • A government report looks like a government report because it is written in a particular style and follows a particular format while an academic paper in the discipline of economics is immediately recognizable to Economists because of its style and format.
  • Documents or reports for government officials are usually lengthy, with as much statistical and other data as are necessary to convey the message. In most cases there will be a bullet-point executive summary and a list of recommendations. Also provided is a list of people consulted. The format and style of the report is informed by the assumption that few, if anyone, will read the whole document carefully.

II. Insider Language

  • Insider language refers to jargon, acronyms, and specialized language used by those who share common experiences or reference points, e.g., those who work or deal with an organisation such as the United Nations (UN).
  • A UN document is usually full of jargon and acronyms. It is impenetrable or incomprehensible to anyone outside the UN. Even the numbering of the document has unique genre whose significance cannot be understood by an outsider.
  • Terms and words used in UN documents, e.g., “rapporteur” or “human rights” or “disability” have specific meaning and will have been fiercely debated in the relevant UN Committees until a definition acceptable to all participants is agreed. An outsider to the internal workings of the UN will not appreciate the nuance and the many layers of meaning that become attached to such word in UN documents.

III. Credibility and Authority

  • Credibility refers to assertions about the facts of a situation, which can be based on references to science, religious faith, personal experiences or anecdotes.
  • Authority, by contrast, refers to the actors deemed to speak credibly in presenting information.
  • The credibility and authority of a document are interrelated. Let us, for example, consider three actors reports: government, an environmental group, and media in that order.
  • The credibility of a government report will depend on the information provided about how other governments have responded to the same situation and reached the same conclusions. The authority of the report derives from the statistical data provided; statistical data are authoritative in their own right.
  • In addition, government reports are likely to indicate that the important actors were spoken to and that their views were taken into account in preparing the report.
  • The credibility of advocacy group’s environmental report is guaranteed by the values it professes and the reputation of the group. The authority of the experts quoted in the report will also enhance its credibility. The group’s authority is established by the size of the audience it can command, the media coverage it garners, its success in fund-raising, and the number of its members; these and other factors enhances its authority.
  • The media establish the credibility of a story and the authority of those who provide it using specific techniques. They reference spokespeople deemed to know about the matter they discuss; they present all argument as if balanced, i.e., ensure that both sides are heard. In this way, the media combat bias and retain their credibility and authority as reliable sources of information.

IV. The Public Interest and General Public

  • The public interest and the general public are rhetorical devices used to persuade an audience that what is being proposed is for the good of all.
  • The public is the centre of attention in all discourses about public issues, even when actors know that the general public are inattentive or unlikely to respond to information and arguments presented.
  • The public interest – there is no consensus about the meaning of what constitutes the public interest. But in legislation mandating regulation, there is almost always a reference to the public interest.
  • The meaning of the public interest is determined through the deliberative and adjudicative processes of the regulation, the courts, and the legislators.
  • The general public is not one entity. Actors know that the general public is made up of an assortment of many different publics, distinguished or differentiated by experience, identity, interests, beliefs, and predilections.
  • When actors appeal to the general public, to convey their message or information, they are simply saying that whatever is being argued, e.g., the importance of the environment or business in driving economic and social well-being for everyone should be the view point of everyone without distinction.

V. Information versus Belief

  • All discourse fall somewhere along the information-belief continuum or scale.
  • Information may be a set of data, materials, evidence, reports, and knowledge that is produced from scientific studies and from personal experiences.
  • Information is open-ended, contingent, and inconclusive. It is subject to change on the basis of new data, observations, scientific research etc.
  • Information can be sound and reliable; it may also be unreliable. Reliability or unreliability of information may depend or be contingent upon its sources.
  • Belief by contrast may refer to faith, principles, creed, or conviction; or values or worldviews or perspectives. Beliefs may be, for example, expressed or articulated as deep personal convictions, political perspectives, and religiosity, i.e., excessively or sentimentally religious.


I am confused. How can I draw the distinction between information and belief on the continuum?


Consider the debates about abortion and the degree to which globalization has affected the powers of the nation-state. The abortion debate is so polarized in terms of viewpoints – there are as many viewpoints are there are protagonists – but all participants claim to argue on the basis of principle and their convictions. Thus, the debate falls close to the belief end of the continuum or scale. The debate on the degree to which globalization impacts or affects the powers of the nation-state, by contrast, is animated by various types of data or evidence whether scientifically produced or the media-based, both print and electronic media. Therefore, it may be said to be debate based primarily on information.


Are there debates that fall anywhere on the continuum?


Yes, scientific debates fall anywhere on the continuum. The debate on climate change, for example, has now taken both information-based and belief-based aspects and characteristics. Originally, discussions about climate change were animated by scientific research that produced the information about observed changes in the climate. Now, the debate is no longer informed by scientific data or evidence alone but principles and convictions of the various protagonists involved, whether scientist or not. And there is little likelihood that new scientific evidence will change the views of those engaged in the discourse about this particular public issue.

VI. Good Reasons

  • Good reasons refer to the rationales of actors, i.e., the justifications, grounds, bases, and foundations, and even motivations of why actors say what they say.
  • The rationales may include information that the actors consider to be sound and the principles they consider to be important.
  • Therefore, even when what actors say may appear contradictory in relation what they do or irrational in relation to known truths, they will have good reason for saying what they say.


I am lost. How can I know that a given actor has good reasons for what they are saying when it is contradictory to what they do or irrational in the face of known facts?


 Consider the scenario of a government that says promoting women’s rights is a key priority; indeed, its officials, for example, believe that abuse of women is a problem.  But in practice, the government enacts policies that do the opposite, e.g., withdrawing funding from groups that help abused women. Their rationale for withdrawing funding for groups that support abused women is that abuse is better dealt with through criminal law and victim’s rights. Moreover, government should focus on those things that fall properly within the provenance of the State not those in citizens’ bedrooms. At a superficial level, it would appear contradictory that a government that professes to protect and promote women’s rights would withdraw funding from groups that help abused women. But when its good reasons for acting the way it did are taken into account, it is less so. Conclusion: what appears to be contradictory between actors’ professed values and actions is less so when their own good reasons are taken into account.

VII. Keywords

  • Keywords are terms in widespread use that are taken-for-granted as reliable descriptors of situations and events in today’s discourse about public issues.
  • The term is borrowed from Raymond Williams, a renowned Welsh cultural critic and Marxist academic, who developed an analysis of keywords in his book, Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana: 1976/1983).
  • Key words orient everyone to the same set of issues and perspectives, making particular ways of thinking or perspective seem natural.


What is the difference between “keyword” in the ‘Williams sense’ and “keyword” in the sense of ‘Google search’?


A keyword in the ‘William sense’ is ‘a socially prominent word that is capable of bearing interlocking yet sometimes contradictory and commonly contested contemporary meaning’ (The Keyword Project).  Examples of keywords in this sense and used in today’s discourse about public issues include command and control (referring to regulation) and deficits (referring to bad government policies). Actors tend to use these words as a way of orienting their listeners to whatever they have to say. Other examples of keywords are art, culture, industry, media or society. Keywords such as art, culture, and industry have, in Canada today different slightly different things than in the past. Instead of talking about art and culture as a distinct public good, supporters of art and culture now talk about cultural industries, creating yet another key word. By contrast, keyword in the sense of a Google search or any other electronic search engines or software, is a reference to target words in a searchable database or web page.

VIII. Essentially Contested Concepts

  • An essentially contested concept is a terminology adapted from William Connolly’s work, The Terms of Political Discourse (Princeton University Press: 1975/1993).
  • In its most basic meaning, essentially contested concepts are those where actors or a group of actors defend their own usage of the concept as correct while other actors will contend that an alternative usage is indeed the correct one.
  • Thus, essentially contested concepts are words or concepts whose definition is bound up in and central to highly contested philosophical or political theories.
  • Essentially contested concepts are rhetorical devices and are often used by actors as if they had a commonly accepted definition and meanings.
  • Examples of essentially contested concepts are justice, democracy, rule of law, and citizenship.
  • Let us take a look at democracy. The use of the term implies a good system of government. Some States use the term to describe themselves, e.g., the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), The Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC (formerly Zaire). Here the different actors presenting very different viewpoints use the term democracy to describe the political system there are purportedly promoting. Thus, democracy is used to cast a favourable light upon anything associated with its use.

IX. Ideographs

  • Ideographs are single words that serve as proxy terms for whole ways of thinking, ideologies, dogmas etc. The term is adapted from Michael McGee.
  • Ideographs allow speakers to convey a message without worrying about disagreement or rejection by others engaged in the discourse.
  • Class is one example of an ideograph. It stands for a complex analysis of social relations and announces that this analysis is called for. A community of speakers, Marxist in particular, coalesce around it and each knows what is being actually said or contested.
  • Command and control is another ideograph; it provides a way for understanding the proper relations between the State and society.
  • The environment can function as an ideograph when it implies an approach, values, and premises that are not spelt out. It could mean something different in various theories about the relationship between humans and nature.


2. Ways of Understanding Discourse About Public Issues

There are a number of ways or methodologies, some sophisticated, and others less so, for studying and understanding discourse about public issues.

A. Discourse Analysis

  • A theory-based method of studying discourse understood, in the case of the academic literature, in the broadest sense rather than the instrumental understanding used in this chapter.
  • The goal of discourse analysis is to dissect documents to find the many layers of meaning buried within them.
  • It is to explore their social ramifications; the way that documents support or determine social and power relations.
  • Debates about discourse analysis are impossible to understand without extensive background in the field. They are tightly bound to particular theorists and there is little agreement among the various theorists, e.g., Foucault versus Bourdieu.
  • The theories relied upon in discourse analysis are complicated and subject to much debate.
  • The complex theories and research methods attached to discourse analysis will not be considered in this chapter.

B. Content Analysis

  • Content analysis is a way of studying the content and biases within any body of written material.
  • Content analysis is not a theory but a method. It is exceptionally time consuming but at its best, it uncovers hidden layers of meaning; at its worst, it involves a large investment of resources to identify biases that are obvious to the tutored eye.
  • It shows the preoccupations, premises, and biases that slipped into any utterance, perhaps without the person speaking knowing.
  • Content analysis does not deal with the deeper significance of language; it does not deal with discourse as understood by the theorists of discourse analysis.
  • It depends on coding, counting, and statistical analysis.
  • A content analysis identifies the main preoccupations and values of the speakers, say, in a collection of government documents.
  • Through a content analysis of a document purporting to be about sustainability, you might find out that it does not deal with sustainability as an environmental group might understand the term.

C. Ethnographical Approaches

  • Ethnographic approaches to understanding discourse are concerned with how speakers and listeners together create a meaningful bond with each other and how they come to common understandings of whatever is being said.
  • Thus, an ethnographic study that looked at the housing market is in trouble would query what speakers and audiences understood by ‘housing’ as well as ‘trouble’; it may query how the issue of housing is being framed, i.e., how housing is being set up to be talked about; it may query why housing was chosen as the focus of attention as opposed to jobs or stock market.
  • An ethnographic study would ask questions about the intended audiences; which audience is paramount in the minds of the speakers; how such an audience comes into being; and query the debates in motion when this statement was uttered.
  • An ethnographic study would go beyond the actors’ motives to examine the understandings in the minds of those who produced and/or encountered documents.
  • An ethnographic study would pay careful attention to the context within which the discourse took place. This would include the mental landscape of those who might hear the statement, landscapes that reflected to some, extent, the political ethos of the day.

D. Symbols, Images, and Metaphors

  • Politicians as one of the key actors in discourse about public issues rely heavily on symbols, images, and metaphors to communicate their intentions and desired outcomes on public issues. In this sense, politics may be said to be a form of symbolic communication.
  • Words and images used symbolically have a profound impact on politics-driven discourse on public issues.
  • Symbolic communication serves as a means of gaining adherents to viewpoints that otherwise might well be disputed. Symbols override debate, making rational argument seem irrelevant.
  • Thus, symbolic communication is a strategic tool that allows politicians to achieve strategic purposes not only of influencing outcomes but also fashioning common bonds around people where otherwise they are absent.
  • Symbolic communication stifles rationale debate about the fate of pubic issues and discourse in such contexts moves quickly towards the far side of the belief end of the information-belief continuum.

E. Audiences

I. Audience in general

  • The word audience conjures a variety of images, e.g., a discrete group of people sitting on hard chairs in a room listening to whatever is being said; television watching individuals spread across the country in millions of homes; the general public; and a social media community of producers, for example.
  • These audiences possibly share one thing in common: they are inattentive to public issues most of the time and do not read the vast majority of documents produced on public issues.
  • This chapter is not, however, concerned by these audiences. Rather, by audience in this chapter is meant those who can be induced to pay attention, with the possibility that they will become engaged, respond, and even take action. Audience, conceptualised in this way, is a radical idea.
  • Discourse, in this sense of audience, plays a crucial role in inducing people to pay attention to public issues; it plays a role in the creation of audiences.
  • Discourse therefore establishes the sense that people have something in common with each other; a common bond and understanding of a particular public issue.


I don’t understand. How can discourse create audiences through common bonding of people?


Consider this scenario about a public issue such as a heavy traffic problem in a given community and how to resolve it, say, by installing one-way streets. Someone or some people would have to organize the residents of this community to implement the solution. But with some residents holding different views about the size of the community while others are inattentive to what this community is all about or preoccupied with other aspects of their lives or easy access to their own cars, the people trying to organize the residents to solve a traffic problem with the installation of one-way streets have a daunting challenge before them.

Before the people organizing the residents can successfully promote the idea of installing one-way streets, they need to get the residents of the community to think of themselves as having something in common with each other, something more important than their individual interests, namely, the need for quiet streets or neighbourhood. To achieve this, they simply need to convince some residents of the community to buy into the notion of neighbourhood and the benefit of quiet streets to all.

II. Intended Audience and importance of discourse in fashioning audiences

  • By intended audience in this chapter, is meant the goals of those who want to create audiences through their discourse.
  • In this sense, intended audience in the discourse about public issues are the people who are being induced to pay attention.
  • In practice, however, the intended audiences of the documents are not what they appear. For instance, a document addressed to the general public may, in fact, be designed to induce only government officials to pay attention or may be an inducement only to insiders – those already members of a group or organization.
  • To think of discourse as fashioning audiences allows you to focus on:
    • the actors involved, their stated or unstated assumptions and intentions as reflected in the discourse of the documents they produce;
    • the rhetorical strategies employed in the discourse, paying particular attention to the role of symbolic communication and metaphors;
    • the way ideas are made to see factual, sound, and persuasive within the discourse, i.e., be alert to the ways that credibility and authority are established and good reasons;
    • matters of inclusion and exclusion, i.e., insider language and ideographs.
  • In addition, you must pay attention to how common bonds are established through discourse, i.e., keywords, ideographs, and insider language.
  • Also, focus on how:
    • disagreements are papered over or made irrelevant through discourse, paying particular attention to essentially contested concepts, symbolic communication, etc.;
    • beliefs, values, and principles plus moral judgments are brought to bear on discourse by paying attention to essentially contested concepts, keywords, and the information-belief continuum.

F. The Information-Belief Continuum

  • When a discourse about a public issue leans heavily towards the information end of the continuum, it is a hard sell in the context of fiercely contested issues. Its conclusions might lend support to one view or the other but these conclusions could be overturned or revised in response to new information.
  • But when a discourse about public issue leans towards the belief end of the continuum, it becomes an exchange of fixed positions rather than a conversation.
  • And when discourse becomes an exchange of fixed positions rather than a conversation, the actors hope that their beliefs, principles, and values will be the most attractive. The actors are unlikely to be convinced by those who hold other beliefs, principles, and values.
  • When actors hear differing views or encounter information that seems to undermine their beliefs, principles, and values, this is likely to strengthen rather than weaken their commitment to their own conclusions.
  • Discourse that is skewed towards the belief end of the continuum becomes stale and predicable because new information or the viewpoints expressed by others is unlikely to alter existing beliefs and may even strengthen them.
  • A famous sociological study done in 1956 examined the Armageddon beliefs of a group whose prophesies failed to materialize. The new information that the world did not end not only failed to change those beliefs of those who were awaiting the end of the world but also strengthened them.

3. Steps in researching Discourse

Having understood some of the key terms and ways of understanding discourse about public issues, you now need to know the steps you will have to take when researching discourse. Fifteen steps have been identified and each is presented under subheadings labelled A to O.

A. Identify Body of Materials

  • Your first step should be to identify the body of materials that will serve as the exemplar or standard of relevant discourse.
  • You have considerable latitude or freedom about which documents or interactions you choose. A single document, every your notes from a single community meeting, can be very informative about discourse.
  • Having a complete collection of documents provides a rich picture but the disadvantage of having many documents is that the amount of work put into it is not commensurate with the kind of research on a public issue that you are undertaking.

B. Record Reasons for Choosing Exemplars

  • In your second step, you have to record the reasons you chose a particular exemplar or segment of discourse as illustrative of the whole.
  • Recording the reasons allows you to explain your decisions about how much material and which material was chosen and this helps establish the credibility of your findings.

C. Read Materials

  • Your third step involves reading the material you have identified in an ordinary way. Here, reading is not much different from identifying issues and arguments in any document.
  • Jot down impressions and observations and take notes of useful quotes.
  • Your goal in this is to capture the rational aspects of the discourse, i.e., the observations, viewpoints, and agendas being advance by actors and institutions in their attempt to influence or bring about particular outcomes.
  • Read the documents more closely, taking each marker in turn and reading them with this in mind, identifying points of controversy, taking notes and selecting quotes to support what you find in the documents.
  • Remember that the markers are simply ways of identifying, in a fairly systematic way, what is implicit in the documents, the content of the documents provided in its subtext, symbols, metaphors, style, etc.

D. Look for Markers of Style and Format

  • Your fourth step involves looking for the manner that a document is written and the way that ideas are presented within a document. Both provide information about the intended audience of the document.
  • Compare documents at hand and others that you already have in your possession.
  • Use table of contents and the formats of documents, e.g., a government document, to discern message and intended audience in document you are examining.
  • If you find an academic article dealing with a similar topic, a comparison will tell you whether the document you are examining was for an academic audience.
  • Scientists follow fairly precise formats, although variations exist within disciplines. This allows you to identify whether a document that contains scientific material is really addressed to a scientific audience. Sometimes, it is not.

E. Look for Markers of Insider Language

  • In your fifth step, look for markers for insider language.
  • There are many forms of insider language – from words and initials to the level of complexity in the presentation of ideas and arguments, cadence of the speakers, and the dialects and gestures used.
  • All these indicate who is expected to be included in and to understand the subtleties of the discourse, i.e., who is considered an insider.
  • Begin by making a list of the jargons, acronyms, and specialized language within the document you are analysing. In so doing, ask whether the ordinary person would understand these words and acronyms without the use of a glossary or set of definitions.
  • Decipher your own insider language. As a researcher with accumulated background knowledge and certain principles close to your heart, you too speak in specialised language. You might not be consciously aware of this but asking ordinary people what they understand from a word, sentence or document can be helpful and revealing.
  • In attempting to decode the hidden meaning in the complexity of vocabulary and cadence in the discourse about the public issues of interest to you presented in the document, consider, for example, whether:
    • this is the way ordinary people on the bus speak;
    • a first-year college student would understand the subtleties of what is being said;
    • an international student, say from Ghana, would grasp the subtleties and find the discourse comfortable enough to participate in.
  • Some good markers for an intended audience made up of those who are insiders include, newsletters, brochures, statements to the press, listserves, face pages, and websites.
  • These markers are prepared by insiders for other insiders and serve to cement common bonds by providing evidence that such a bond exits.
  • Many groups and organisations rely on newsletters and brochures; consider whether the intended audience of most groups, most of the time, is their own members.

F. Focus on Markers of Credibility and Authority

  • In the fifth step identify the makers of credibility and authority.
  • Those with authority are easier to identify – they are usually the spokespeople or experts consulted.
  • Citations, bibliography, and references might also reveal to you those with authority.
  • Credibility is harder to assess. But you can surmount the challenge by asking pertinent questions such as:
    • on what basis a claim made in the document should be considered to be factual or true?
    • are the actors relying on background experience, anecdotes and conventional wisdom; received truths from religion, politics or ideology, the views of groups they belong to, studies they themselves have done, publications of others they have come across, the media?
  • Your task here is not about judging whether something is true, but rather identifying how those who provide the information attempt to gain credibility for what they are claiming.

G. Identify Markers of Symbolic Communication

  • The seventh step involves identifying markers of symbolic communication.
  • Look for words that conjure images, rhetorical phrases meant to be suggestive of something other than the words immediately convey.
  • Metaphors in particular, are an essential element of symbolic content because they conjure images by making implicit comparisons between one phenomenon and the other although such images have no necessary relationship to the information content of a document.
  • In some cases there is no information in the document except that conveyed by the symbolic content, metaphors, et cetera.
  • Thus, with markers of symbolic communication, just about any meaning can be read into the documents for just about any purpose.

H. Locate Markers of ‘Public Interest’ and ‘General Public’

  • In the eighth step locate markers of “public interest” and “general public”.
  • This may be identified through intermediaries, well-known spokespeople, and the mass media.
  • The use of intermediaries drains the subtleties from arguments in debates and renders debates less amenable to resolution or change based on new information.

I. Identify Markers related to Information-Belief Continuum

  • The ninth step is identifying markers related to the information-belief continuum.
  • You should note that a document that leans more towards the belief end of the continuum is less likely to be altered by new information.
  • Similarly, the more a document leans toward the information end of the continuum the less likely will it withstand challenge or be considered true.

J. Identify Markers of Good Reason

  • In step ten identify markers of good reason.
  • As you examine a document, do not discount information and principles that you consider unconvincing or even abhorrent because they seem irrational.
  • Remember that everyone has reasons for the arguments they present, the information they consider to be sound, and for the principles they consider to be important. Actors have good reason for saying what they say.
  • All reasons, however, are not equally good, credible or worthy of adoption. What you have to determine is why seemingly irrational arguments, based clearly on questionable information or unsound principles, carry weight and find strong proponents.
  • The answer lies in identifying the good reasons that underwrite any document.
  • Good reasons imply that arguments are made in good faith yet in discourse about public issues, actors sometimes can lie, use facts strategically, exaggerate and employ rhetoric.


That is confusing. If actors can lie or exaggerate things, how then can one ever find the good reasons behind what actors say?


 Don’t worry. In such contexts, look beyond the document at hand; interrogate the unstated or implicit assumptions or goals that motivate actors to create documents in the first place. The good reasons may lie with the intended audience. In the controversy over healthcare in the United State, for example, actors for and against the reforms made all kinds of statements that had no factual basis. Behind the empty rhetoric and even lies, however, lay good reasons for actors’ fabrication of facts.

K. Identify Markers that are keywords

  • The eleventh step focuses on keywords.
  • Make a list of the keywords you find while reading a document.
  • Keywords appear in all kinds of documents, including the news media.

L. Identify Markers of Essentially Contested Concepts

  • In the twelfth step focus on markers that are essentially contested concepts.
  • Essentially contested concepts are excellent markers for the substantive issues underlying debate or controversy.
  • Identify each essentially contested concept in the document you are examining and then query the meaning attached to the concept by various protagonists.
  • Then investigate the political or philosophical framework that lies behind each protagonist’s use of it.
  • By following these steps, you are unpacking each essentially contested concept in a document and will learn what the debate is really all about, appreciate the significant differences among protagonists, and why any hope of finding common ground is illusory.
  • Note the rhetorical strategies being employed and in particular the use of a common word as if it had a single definition as means of assigning moral weight to the actual perspective of each protagonist.

M. Identify Markers that are Ideographs

  • The thirteenth step is about markers that are ideographs.
  • Make a list of ideographs you identify in a document.
  • It is hard to identify ideograph, however. First, actors who use ideographs in their documents assume that their readers will know what they mean by such words.
  • Second, other actors will significantly omit details of the analysis in their documents, thereby denying readers like you cues that would help them grasp the meaning of words used;
  • Third, outsiders use ideographs as if they were ordinary words with ordinary range of definitions and as a result are easily taken in or misled by those proffering perspectives that they do not appreciate.
  • Fourth, test yourself with two examples to see if you can easily identify an ideograph:
    • “Environment”: you will not see the “environment” as an ideograph, if you do not appreciate the deep disagreements about the best way to conceive of the environment; indeed you may not probe the various perspectives that animate these disagreements;
    • “Liberal”: if you unconsciously use the word “liberal” as an ideograph, you fail to grasp the deep divisions of opinion among liberals.
  • The best way to proceed in identifying ideograph is to circle possible ideographs in a document and then ask a few people what they mean by these terms.

N. Create a Field Diary

  • In the fourteenth step, you have to witness the discourse in person.
  • Create a field diary. For more on this aspect, see Chapter 5.
  • You need to see how language or symbolic communication is being used to know what it is intended to mean.

O. Conduct Interviews

  • The last step involves interviewing.
  • The type of interviews in this step is not meant for gathering information about what happened and why.
  • The interviews here help you to explore what was meant by particular statements, seen from the point of view of both those making them and those who received the information.
  • Make interview notes; these become part of the documentary record of what you are analysing.


4. Case Studies

  • In this chapter you have looked at discourse and its elements: the key terms used, the markers, and the steps in researching discourse about public issues.
  • Now, see how these ideas about discourse are deployed in practice by carefully looking at these two case studies – stories about the experiences of two researchers telling the story of how they conducted their own discourse analysis.
  • James Loney, “Setting the Stage for Digital Economy in digitaleconomy.gc.ca” (attach PDF copy).
  • ?? , “The Policy Slant of Canada’s Early Satellite Policy”..?? (attach PDF copy).



Once you have read this chapter, you should be able to: 

  1. Understand discourse about public issues and the various terms associated with it.
  2. Identify and locate the various markers of discourse and how to differentiate them.
  3. Locate and identify core documents on discourse about public issues relevant to your research project.
  4. Perform research steps required to interrogate and analyse discourse about public issues relevant to your research project.




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