Thoughts, writing & snippets

Marguerite Koole, PhD

Discourse analysis & a constructionist approach to phenomenography

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Gee, J. P. (2011). An Introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (3rd ed., p. 224). New York, NY: Routledge.

I am exploring the use of discourse analysis (DA) alongside the constructionistt phenomenographic methodology that I will be using on my PhD thesis. So, I have started with what has turned out to be a nicely written introductory text by James Paul Gee.

As my first love in academia was languages and linguistics, I feel very comfortable with Gee’s text. In fact, it feels much like a homecoming. I now understand why social constructionist philosophy has become, quite unintentionally, so significant in my doctoral work. In this book, Gee’s own philosophies about language are made clear:

In the broadest sense, we make meaning by using language to say things that, in actual contexts of use, amount, as well, to doing things and being things. These things we do and are (identities) then come to exist in the world and they, too, bring about other things in the world. We use language to build things in the world and to engage in the world building. (p. 16)

To an extent, I try to contain my excitement upon reading this until I can fully ascertain that Gee does not cross the line into critical realism—the idea that there is a reality out there, but we can only see it from our own limited perspective. (I know that this is an oversimplification.) The danger of this crossing could have been perpetrated in Gee’s treatment of the other “stuff” related to language such as non-vocalized behavours, appearances, enactments, social institutions, and props—the context of language (p. 35).  However, Gee appears firmly rooted in the social constructionist camp. Consider, for example, how he refers to knowledge:

. . . the physics that the experimental physicists “know” is, in large part, not in their heads. Rather, it is spread out (distributed), inscribed in (and often trapped in) scientific apparatus, symbolic systems, books, papers, and  journal, institutions, habits of bodies, routines of practice, and other people. Each domain of practice, each scientific Discourse . . . attunes actions, expressions, objects, and people (the scientists themselves) so that they become “workable” in relation to each other and in relation to tools, technologies, symbols, texts,  and the objects they study in the world. They are in sync. (p. 36)

In this example, a given discourse exists and creates and recreates itself including the scientists who engage in the discourse. This recognition of the cyclical relationship between language and perceptions of reality is, in my opinion, a cornerstone of social constructionism.  Later on the same page, Gee uses the word instantiation with reference to the power of language to create a constantly shifting and abstract world. This, too, dramatically buoys a social constructionist position. (Interestingly, Gee suggests reading Bourdieu, Clark, Engeström, Foucault, Hacking, Hutchins, Latour, Lave & Wenger, and Wittgenstein—all of whom have constructionist leanings or whose work has been foundational to constructionism.)

Before I outline how I will use DA to support my phenomenographic research, I will first post my notes on the main concepts of Gee’s book. But, that is for tomorrow.

One Response to “Discourse analysis & a constructionist approach to phenomenography”

  1. Sarah says:

    Thank you for sharing! It’s early days yet (this summer is my third semester), but I’m contemplating a phenomenographic methodology for my own dissertation exploring the role of information literacy skills in college student learning. I’ve skimmed the the most relevant Marton and Tsui book that’s in your currently reading list, but I haven’t had a chance to sit down and really wrestle with it. I’m enjoying this blog, and look forward to more of your thoughts!

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