DREaM event 2: Introduction to discourse analysis

Professor Andy McKinlay at LIS DREaM 2

Professor Andy McKinlay


Professor Andy McKinlay presented a workshop session introducing discourse analysis at the the first DREaM workshop on 25th October 2011.




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Session Summary

McKinlay opened his session by reflecting on how to generate a good research question. He identified four processes which have enabled him to come up with research questions: observation, theory, contingency and communication. He gave practical examples of these from his own research papers, observing that some of the best research questions actually result from conversations with people from outside of your own field.

Having established the various routes to reach a good research question, McKinlay moved on to discuss the relative value of both quantitative and qualitative data, observing that qualitative data makes it hard to get a clear, simple picture of what’s going on, whilst reducing responses to numbers can hide the complexity of an issue. He used this to introduce his main theme of discourse analysis, which is one way of analysing qualitative data.

In a practical overview of the method, he observed that most discourse analysts use convenience samples rather than randomised samples to collect their evidence. He discussed the logistics of conducting an interview to collect material, advising against asking interview participants leading or closed questions, as you are trying to collect a body of genuine discourse, not one word answers or your own views parroted back. He emphasised that it is perfectly legitimate to use “probe” questions to keep someone going.

Having collected the raw material, McKinlay discussed the analysis of the discourse, explaining that you cannot do this simply by listening back to the recordings. The recordings need to be transcribed, then studied in detail. He described part of his own working practice, including a first analysis, which involves reading the transcript multiple times and marking up sections which seem most relevant. He then described the core properties of discourse that he would look out for, explaining that discourse is contextual, rhetorical, action-orientated, and constructive. He went on to discuss each of these properties in more detail.

The context of a discussion is not always relevant, but we do associate certain social contexts with particular social norms. McKinlay played the following video as an exercise to illustrate this, and asked participants to discuss the signs within the discourse which indicated that social norms had been breached, and how the speakers in the video responded to the situation.

In describing rhetoric, McKinlay observed that people can often try to under cut another speaker by responding in a way that gets at the perceived meaning behind what was said. Again, this was illustrated by a video clip from the Guardian’s Steve Bell, which includes an interview with George Osbourne. McKinlay focused particularly on the interviewer’s question: “Well, you would say that, wouldn’t you?” and Osbourne’s subsequent response as an example of rhetorical discourse.

McKinlay moved on to discuss how discourse can be action-oriented, where the speaker effectively re-purposes an action when speaking about it. He observed that people will sometimes construct a story about an event to reflect how they want it to be perceived. He used the following video example featuring Sarah Palin, who was spotted with notes written on her hand ahead of a speech, which she tries to justify in this interview by referring to the tactic as “a poor man’s teleprompter”. Again, participants were asked to identify some of the techniques she used to retell the incident in a way that reflected better on her.

Finally, McKinlay tackled the issue of constructive discourse. Here, discourse analysts study different versions of an account to see how these become assembled and stabilised into a generally accepted version. He showed showed a video of short interviews, in which subjects describe their perception of the upper classes. This illustrated how a composite account can be constructed and become accepted through discourse.

McKinlay concluded his presentation by guiding the workshop participants through an analysis of a short section of a very topical transcript: a debate on library services held at Westminster in January 2011. The group observed how a speaker’s choice of words can construct an interpretation that suits their agenda, and identified features which could be misleading if one were not aware of the social norms of the UK House of Commons.

In summing up, McKinlay emphasising that the important thing in discourse analysis is to listen to participants and draw out how they see the world.

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