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From Denmark

From november 23th to november 25th 2005, a workshop on Discourse Analysis was held by James Gee at the Centre for Discourse Studies in Aalborg (Denmark). Since a lot of the questions that will be tackled in this workshop are closely related to the theme of V/J9, Kris Rutten will make a report of the workshop on this weblog during the coming days. Below you can read a part of the workshop description.

Workshop Description
There are a great many approaches to discourse analysis, rooted in different disciplines. This course will be concerned with a "family" of approaches to discourse analysis that, based on a close examination of language in use, seek to illuminate the significance and implications of social, cultural, and political practices. In addition, a particular concern of this course will be the ways in which discourse functions within institutions, whether these be families, communities, schools, academic disciplines, businesses, governments, or the media.

Discourse analysis is basically the analysis of "language in context". But this simple statement begs two questions: What is "context"? and Why bother? Let me speak to the first question first, since the answer to this question partly answers the second one, as well.

To understand a particular instance of language, we have to know what social identity the speaker (or writer) is adopting and what social activity the speaker (or writer) thinks he or she is accomplishing. For example, the same words uttered by the same person will mean quite different things if taken to have been spoken in her role as a professor in a formal advising session as against her role as a friend in an informal chat before getting down to "business". "Who" we are and "what" we are doing, where we are doing it, what has already been said and done, as well as the knowledge and assumptions that we assume we share with those with whom we are communicating, are all part of "context".

Language in context has a quite "magical" property. The words we utter (or write) simultaneously reflect (are shaped by, are determined by) the context within which we utter them and create (shape, determine) the context. For example, elementary school teachers talk (and act) the way they do because they are in classrooms and they are teaching, but their classrooms count as classrooms and they as teachers teaching because they talk (and act) that way. The "world" both pre-exists and shapes how we talk about it (and act in it) and it means what it means and has the shape it does because we talk about it (and act in an on it) as we do.

So, why do we bother doing discourse analysis? Because "context" ultimately means the very shape, meaning, and effects of the social world—the various social roles people play, the socially and culturally situated identities they take on, the social and cultural activities they engage in, as well as the material, cognitive, social, cultural, and political effects of these. If language both reflects and creates contexts (its "magical" property), then it is a unique window onto understanding (and, possibly, changing) the social world. We can see, here, too, that discourse analysis is not just a way of analyzing language in context. It is, in fact, a perspective on how to engage in the study of the social, the cultural, the institutional, and the political (i.e., social science).