Discourse (from Latin discursus, "running to and from") denotes written and spoken communications:

  • In semantics and discourse analysis: Discourse is a conceptual generalization of conversation within each modality and context of communication.
  • The totality of codified language (vocabulary) used in a given field of intellectual enquiry and of social practice, such as legal discourse, medical discourse, religious discourse, et cetera.[1]
  • In the work of Michel Foucault, and that of the social theoreticians he inspired: discourse describes "an entity of sequences, of signs, in that they are enouncements (énoncés)", statements in conversation.[2]

As discourse, an "enouncement" (statement) is not a unit of semiotic signs, but an abstract construct that allows the semiotic signs to assign meaning, and so communicate specific, repeatable communications to, between, and among objects, subjects, and statements.[2] Therefore, a discourse is composed of semiotic sequences (relations among signs that communicate meaning) between and among objects, subjects, and statements.

The term "discursive formation" (French: formation discursive) conceptually describes the regular communications (written and spoken) that produce such discourses, such as informal conversations. As a philosopher, Michel Foucault applied the discursive formation in the analyses of large bodies of knowledge, such as political economy and natural history.[3][4]

In the first sense-usage (semantics and discourse analysis), the term discourse is studied in corpus linguistics, the study of language expressed in corpora (samples) of "real world" text. In the second sense (the codified language of a field of enquiry) and in the third sense (a statement, un énoncé), the analysis of a discourse examines and determines the connections among language and structure and agency.

Moreover, because a discourse is a body of text meant to communicate specific data, information, and knowledge, there exist internal relations in the content of a given discourse; likewise, there exist external relations among discourses. As such, a discourse does not exist per se (in itself), but is related to other discourses, by way of inter-discursivity. Discourses are also perpetually differentiating toward each other in time.[5] Therefore, in the course of intellectual enquiry, the discourse among researchers features the questions and answers of What is ...? and What is not. ..., conducted according to the meanings (denotation and connotation) of the concepts (statements) used in the given field of enquiry, such as anthropology, ethnography, and sociology; cultural studies and literary theory; the philosophy of science and feminism.

The concept across fields

In sociology, discourse is defined as "any practice (found in a wide range of forms) by which individuals imbue reality with meaning".[6] In the humanities and in the social sciences it describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language; the discourse is a social boundary that defines what statements can be said about a topic. Some definitions of discourse are largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault.

Discourse is closely linked to politics[7][8] and policy making[9] as well as to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself.

Discourse can affect the person's perspective; it is impossible to avoid discourse for any subject. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists". In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.

Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them—language talking about language, exemplified in how the American Psychiatric Association's DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry.[10]