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Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 17 June, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY Discourse analysis comparative study

An article by Maria Stube et al. (2003) explores the contributions that five different approaches to discourse analysis can make to interpreting and understanding the same piece of data. Conversation analysis, interactional sociolinguistics, politeness theory, critical discourse analysis, and discursive psychology are the approaches chosen for comparison. The data is a nine-minute audio recording of a spontaneous workplace interaction. The analyses are compared, and the theoretical and methodological implications of the different approaches are discussed.

The authors conclude as follows.

Although there are substantial areas of overlap, as we have seen, there are also a number of significant differences in emphasis or perspective and some tensions between the five different approaches to discourse analysis presented here. First, each framework takes a slightly different approach to the place of extra-textual context in the analysis, ranging from the strong version of CA which claims not to make use of any information outside the local interactional context, through to weaker versions of CA, IS and politeness theory, which did admit contextual and socio-cultural information to a greater or lesser extent, and then to CDA and discursive psychology which also included a focus on the broader socio-political context and existing social discourses, particularly those relating to power.

Second, there are differences in the level of detail with which linguistic, paralinguistic and discourse features are analysed. CA works primarily within a micro-analytic framework. IS and politeness theory operate at this level too, but are also concerned with identifying more generalizable patterns (indexicality and socio-cultural norms in the case of IS, superstrategies in the case of politeness theory). CDA and discursive psychology both attend to the 'big picture' in order to identify the constructs which provide the underlying logic for the specific discourse strategies that are used in an interaction, but CDA in particular can also, and often does, accommodate a much more fine-grained analysis of relevant excerpts.

A third difference concerns the degree to which an interaction is seen and/or analysed as a joint construction, as opposed to the more traditional view of communication as a simple 'transmission' of information or intent. Politeness theory fits most obviously into the latter category, while CA and IS take a strong and weak social constructionist approach respectively. The other approaches fall somewhere in the middle. The contrast along this dimension is also reflected in different sets of assumptions about intentionality and inferencing.

Each approach therefore provides a slightly different lens with which to examine the same interaction, highlighting different aspects or dimensions of its key features. These are not necessarily in conflict with one another (though in some cases the analyses and/or the theoretical assumptions underlying them are difficult to reconcile); rather, they are complementary in many ways, with each approach capable of generating its own useful insights into what is going on in the interaction, with the proviso that the framework adopted needs to be a good match for the research questions being asked. Hence, while the exercise we have engaged in clearly presents many challenges, we hope this article has demonstrated the value of analysing one text from a range of perspectives, and the insights to be gained by applying a range of different theoretical and methodological approaches to the same piece of discourse.



Return to Conversation analysis: recording (Section

Return to Conversation analysis: recording (Section 6.4.4)

Return to Discursive psychology (Section 6.5.4)

Return to Interactional sociolinguistics (Section 6.6)

Return to Critical discourse analysis (Section 6.9)