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The term discourse has several definitions. In the study of language, it often refers to the speech patterns and usage of language, dialects, and acceptable statements, within a community. It is a subject of study in peoples who live in secluded areas and share similar speech conventions.
Sociologists and philosophers tend to use the term discourse to describe the conversations and the meaning behind them by a group of people who hold certain ideas in common. Such is the definitions by philosopher Michel Foucault, who holds it to be the acceptable statements made by a certain type of discourse community. This explanation will primarily consider the definition pertaining to sociology.
A discourse community can be defined as people who share similar thoughts and ideas. The fan base of the Rolling Stones for example, might constitute such a community. Within this fan base, certain attitudes would be considered unacceptable and outside of the community. For example, someone who did not hold the song Brown Sugar in the same high esteem as other members might be summarily tossed out on his ear. Ideology defines what can be discussed.
Discourse in this manner can exist over time and represents the total of all written/spoken/recorded thoughts that the community claims. Thus early analysis of the Rolling Stones is as valid as opinions held today by modern fans. When discourse applies to a larger philosophical ideal, like Marxism, that explaining Marxism, predating Marxism, and applying Marxism to today would all be part of the community, and some study the history of such discourse.
It is flexible to the degree to which a discourse community allows such. For example, the discourse of the post-structuralists tends to be wide open to new interpretations and ideas, as well as vehement attacks on the contribution of others. As long as some members of the community accept new conversation, then it forms part of the community and thus exists without a time line.
Rhetoricians and philosophers often speak of competing discourses. We can see such an example in the Christian right movement and the liberal left. Each group has a discourse that competes with other thoughts and beliefs and each has a history. Some study the times when certain competing discourses begin to emerge and become more popular. For example, a philosopher or political scientist might look at the predominant religious right and question how this discourse influenced presidential elections.
The same analysis of competing discourses might be applied to approaches to literature or art. For example, for a while, post-modernist discourse tended to be most influential in the study and interpretation of art. This has led to a backlash from formalist critics and their community. Philosophers like Foucault see competing discourses as something akin to war. In fact, real war can be often attributed to this competition.
Others liken discourse and its communities to an essential need for humans to express belonging and share beliefs. The variety is essential because of a person’s individual needs. Evaluation of discourse helps us to discover trends in all such communities.
Studies may also exist to determine how words within discourse can express viewpoints. The words couch potato has negative connotations and is primarily employed by those who view watching television as an inferior activity. Contrasting this to the words avid television fan shows how feelings about a subject are often expressed in words. A liberal person might employ the term bible thumper, where a person belonging to the religious right might employ the term religious right. Language choice frequently defines where our thoughts and allegiances lie.
Some effort has been made to nullify insulting language and discourse communities through what is frequently termed political correctness. However, the language of political correctness is now its own community. Those employing this language believe that words should exist without sexism or racism. By using politically correct speech, such members actually are making statements that sexism and racism are not acceptable. Anti-politically correct discourse communities now battle it out with those who consider themselves politically correct. Thus, the two communities are very much as Foucault described, fighting wars of words to express ideology.
Discourse changes based on which community one is interacting with. For instance, when talking among friends at a casual dinner, the discourse is casual and may present a lax sense of grammar and speech. Casual discourse is also more likely to include slang. However, while speaking at a literary conference among colleagues and professional superiors, the discourse would contain much more attention to grammatical rules and academically appropriate speech. The discourse performed at the literary conference would be stricter in terms of proper speech.
Discourse has its roots in Latin as do so many other words. The word could be translated from Latin as argument or conversation.