By Afrooz Rafiee
Afrooz interviewed prof. dr. Wilbert Spooren.
You are professor of Language and communication and ‘taalbeheersing’ that you have translated as ‘discourse studies’. What is ‘discourse’ or I’d better ask what is your definition of ‘discourse’?
Discourse is whenever language is put to action, when you are using language in a particular context. So, discourse is language in action. That’s my tweeter version of a definition of discourse and that comprises both written and spoken and mediated and non-mediated [communication].
Would you also include the non-verbal mode in your definition of discourse?
Sure! In Genre in Language, Discourse and Cognition, there is a contribution from Gerard Steen who suggests that when you think of genre or genre knowledge, one of the components there is the group of code variables- whatever code that we’re using to perform our discourse. Any code that we can use would be considered as discourse. So, that could go as far as people waving at each other or Morse code or visuals, that’s also discourse.
So, discourse analysis is then the analysis of all these different modes of communication in action.
Exactly! And systematic. I would only consider systematic forms of analysis as at least interesting forms of discourse analysis.
Can you explain what we mean by ‘systematic’?
Well, I don’t know what your experience is; in my experience, everybody who is a native speaker of a language considers him or herself as entitled to an opinion about the language and they are constantly commenting on language use, spelling issues, etc. and they have opinions on what is good or what is bad. But those opinions are not backed up usually by being able to point at particular aspects of the discourse that they are referring to. I would not consider that type of opinion about what’s going on in a discourse as proper form of discourse analysis because it is just a non-motivated feeling about the way language is used. So, discourse analysis is systematic look at what’s going on in ‘language in action’ to detect patterns, to predict interpretations, to understand language variation, etc.
And what is one of the ways to make the analysis more systematic?
I’d say you make your analysis explicit or systematic by setting a codebook, so having guidelines for doing the analysis and for doing the analysis in a particular way. That can be in a Conversation Analysis way that you first go through the conversations and see whether anything strikes you and then you formulate a question with respect to the material and then you go back and look more in detail and you reformulate and sharpen your question in a cyclical process (emic version) but you could also do the other way round where you have the categories already there based on your theory of what could be important in discourse and then take it from there: a systematic way to go through all of the categories that you deem important regarding your theory or research question (etic version). So, no discourse analysis without research question(s).
How is what discourse analysts do useful for the society?
Does it need to be useful for the society? I think you are a person who believes that scientific activities that are useful for the society are somehow more valuable than scientific activities that are not useful for society and to a large extent I agree, but I also think that society may not always be in the position to evaluate whether something is useful because the ultimate usability of a particular form or outcome of analysis may not show up immediately but only after it is combined with other things; so it can take a long time before the usefulness comes up.
I cannot imagine a scientific activity that would not have this usefulness in it. A lot of my research activities have to do with issues of comprehensible language: So, a comprehensible government is beneficial to society. My own research is one minute detail of informative text namely, the role of coherence devices in these texts and how they are processed, etc. You can tell a story about how that is beneficial to comprehend a text if the discourse structure is marked in a particular way. For example there’s a nice claim that people with a lot of background knowledge about a particular topic experience negative effects from too many discourse signaling whereas novices are helped by these relational devices, which means that a text can be good for one audience but the same text can be bad for another audience in terms of communicative efficacy. In general, given that language and communication are everywhere around us, discourse analysts have an easy task in demonstrating what they do is beneficial to society.