What is Discourse And Culture

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How can we then construct a culturally pluralist theory of discourse? Further, once such a theory is adopted, how can we uphold the multicultural perspective and at the same time keep the dialogue between diverse theoretical discourses critical and productive? In order to find a conceptual tool for the job, I shall draw on a range of critical insights from cultural studies. These currents highlight the diversities and interconnections, power and dynamic that saturate contemporary culture, including discourse, its quintessential medium and embodiment. From these, it becomes clear that it is neither possible, nor desirable, to formulate, ‘from above’, a universalist theory or, ‘from below’, a particularist theory. So, instead of continuing to tackle the issue from the binary, universal–particular standpoint, I propose that we theorize discourse from in between cultures.
To take an in-between-cultural stance on (discourse) theoretical articulation
is not to describe or explain anything from any representationalist and universalist point of view. Rather, as a theory-conceptual strategy, the in-between-cultural stance places culture at the heart of understanding and critique of discourse, ordinary and disciplinary alike. It also creates an opportunity for cultural-political intervention. In this way, the individual theorist will be able to draw attention to the special, complex and all-important question of cultural relationship and common cultural fate, whether it regards East and West, West and Rest, North and South, America and the Third World, or white and nonwhite. The researcher will also be able to construct, not certain or true knowledge, but a culturally dialogical, creative, double vision. Most important of all perhaps, the theorist will be in a position to find and formulate innovative values and cultural-political objectives in their intellectual work.

The universalist discourse


Especially since the 1990s, discourse studies has been one of the fastest growing intellectual movements and has now established itself firmly within the human and social disciplines. More importantly, its ideas and techniques have found their way into most of the other disciplines, ranging from psychology, sociology, anthropology, economics and history to philosophy, and often act as the cutting edge that challenges the basic foundations of these disciplines. The sheer deluge of textbooks and handbooks on discourse studies is testimony to the breathtaking achievements and the signs are that the market will continue to grow. Success stories are many, including discourse analysis, critical linguistics, critical discourse analysis and discursive psychology, whose models are being consumed and applied around the globe.
This universal image of discourse is in keeping with an implicit, rationalist assumption about scientific discourse and ultimately the scientist as well. That is, the scientific discourse user is dispassionate, impersonal and neutral, whose identity as ordinary person and as member of some social, cultural community is irrelevant to scientific discourse. Their scientific discourse, in turn, proceeds from universal reason and evidence and is therefore objective and more or less accurate. To crown it all, the powerful business of international publishing, globalized marketing, transnational and transcontinental conferences and travels, and the World Wide Web reinforce, consolidate and amplify the universalist discourse.
Universalism in discourse scholarship is not isolated thought and action; it is bound up with the broader Western modernist intellectual trend, especially that in the cognitive sciences. For example, in universal grammar, language is understood to be a set of universal cognitive mechanisms for human speech. In cross-cultural semantics, human languages are assumed to be governed by universal concepts. In cross/intercultural communication theory, too, competent speakers share a common language and their misunderstandings are caused merely by culturally variable expressions. It is important to note, too, that theoretical formulations such as these are proffered, not as reflecting the writers’ own (anglophone) language and Weltanchauung, but as universal representations.


At the back of universalism, of course, is what might be called aculturalism:
they are two sides of the same coin in discourse studies, only the latter is more implicit in the universalist discourse. After all, the fact that universalism is widely accepted in language studies has at least logically to do with an exclusionist notion of culture. To thoroughly understand the universalist discourse, then, it is important to examine the other overshadowed term of the dichotomy.
Various critical approaches in the human and social sciences have found the sort of view of culture described above flawed. For one thing, the notion of culture as objective, primordial, homogeneous, relative and irrational is not a universal one, but a western, historical construction (as alluded to above); it is one among many other potential and real constructions at that. For another, since the notion of culture, which has been used to distinguish truth, objectivity and science, is itself culturally penetrated, the validity of the latter notions becomes questionable. It creates false foundations for truths, objectivity and science.

Resounding silences: peculiarity, whiteness and exclusion

First, there is a set of (inter)textual features of the disciplinary discourse that are seen but unnoticed. One concerns the culture-specific origins of discourse studies. Here the concepts, theories and methods stem from the reactions to formal linguistics which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in Western Europe and North America (for example, text linguistics, functional grammar, conversation analysis, pragmatics). In its current boom, discourse studies assimilates more, largely Anglo- America-dominated, social sciences (such as philosophy, literary criticism, history, psychology and sociology). It is now a standard expectation that Western, but not non-Western, intellectual traditions are referenced (think of de Saussure, Wittgenstein, Austin, Goffman, Chomsky, Halliday, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas and so on).
Second, there is an important contextual property of the disciplinary discourse that has seemed to be smoothed over. Discourse studies itself acknowledges the importance of context, for example the identity of the speaker, in understanding language use. But at the level of its own disciplinary discourse, paradoxically, it would seem irrelevant to ask or to speak about who, in the international academic arena, can and do discourse analysis, publish in it and control the communication system. Here the context of the author/speaker and the larger institutional and cultural order and so on is usually presumed to have little to do with the ‘discourse’ itself that is theorized or the ‘methods’ that are used. But were we to pause and think who the producers are of the theory and methods, hence the master text/handbooks, in discourse analysis, then it would become clear that whiteness is not only a sign of cultural power, but also a condition of our current discipline. In his There Ain’t No Black in the Union Jack (1987), Gilroy insists that ‘race’ must be analysed at the heart of contemporary intellectual work (see also Stratton and Ang 1996; Gilroy 1992; Hall 1999). Then, the silence over colour in professional discourse studies should be broken, too.
Third, when white, Anglo-American Western discourse studies universalizes and markets itself globally, discourses in other languages, in other cultures, in other parts of the world, intellectual and everyday alike, are marginalized, repressed or excluded. Here I am thinking especially of those in non-white, non-Western and Third World cultures (for example, Dissanayake 1988; Gumperz and Levinson 1996; Heisey 2000; Kincaid 1987; Shen 1999; Silverstein and Urban 1996). ‘Discourse’, as envisioned in the ‘integrated’ and multidisciplinary version, may not be a relevant topic, or even a recognizable notion, in other cultural intellectual traditions and everyday life. The toolkit and template proffered for discourse analysis, consequently, may not generate locally useful or even meaningful results. As has been shown (for example, Nguˇgıˇ 1986; Pennycook 1998), the predominance of the British/American English language, which is required of discourse studies and indeed of any scientific discourse the world over, a result of British colonialism, will only overshadow other local cultural experiences and realities.

Critical studies of culture

In this section, I shall consider some critical insights from cultural studies which will lead us to a notion of culture as saturating the entire social life, all acts, facts and artefacts, the professional domain of discourse research included, and not just discourse as object. If this is true, then we shall have to create a new way of thinking and speaking about discourse, beyond the universalist discourse. In the following, I shall first describe these ideas on culture developed in cultural studies as well as linguistic anthropology and then spell out accordingly a new way to construe discourse.

Cultural studies: culture as saturation of social life

Cultural studies (CS) as an intellectual project, since its inception with the founding of the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) in Birmingham, UK, in 1964, has been growing steadily, spreading first to North America, then Australia and finally much of the rest of the world. It has its origins in a variety of human and social sciences and to some extent overlaps in topic and approach with them. Dissatisfied with the exclusionary notion of ‘high culture’ and its consequences, CS attempts to involve the whole way of contemporary life as its object of enquiry by adopting a populist and more democratic notion of culture (Hall 1996a, 1999; Hoggart 1958; Williams 1981). Thus, culture, in the words of Williams (1976: 90), is defined as ‘a particular way of life, whether of a people, a period or a group’, where the way of life is understood as primarily a process of constructing and acting upon reality. Here, culture is not seen as in harmony, but rather from a left-wing, Marxist perspective, as characterized by social division and asymmetry of power. Consequently, CS chooses as its objective to change the existing ways of life (CCCS 1982; Hall 1977; Hoggart 1958). Specifically, it attempts to address the ‘central, urgent, and disturbing questions of a society’ (Hall 1996a: 337), in the interests of the repressed and underprivileged groups of people. Its alliances with social movements such as feminism and anti-racism are typical manifestations of this political motive. Thus, CS is a new, political project with the ‘deadly seriousness of intellectual work’ (Hall 1999: 108).
Second, CS’s understanding of culture stresses social practice (Williams 1981: 64–50), a notion also endorsed by Geertz (1973).3 That is, culture does not consist in some fixed and essential structure. Rather, human activity has a pivotal role in producing, maintaining and transforming it. People and things are cultural, but they are so only because they are always involved in the carrying out of practical tasks in life. People create, reproduce, change and utilize cultural reality – symbols, beliefs, facts, or whatever – by performing various forms of social action. That also implies that all reality, be it self, identity, race, gender, or whatever, is a cultural construction.
Third, the social action that forms, sustains and develops culture is accomplished through use of various symbol systems or symbolic action more generally. People use various sorts of tools and methods – such as art, music, science, religion and linguistic communication – to construct and act upon experience or reality; all the devices that people use, all the representations they produce and all the actions they perform become symbolic, that is, expressing meanings and being assigned meanings.
Fourth, CS’s definition emphasizes that culture is patterned and diversified (as is the social practice that makes it up). Culture is patterned in that it can be seen as a collective property of groups of people in particular types of context and that it can guide individual action (see below). It is diversified, however, in that culture, as patterned ways of constructing reality and acting upon it, may not match one another. Cultures may have their own and so different ways of looking at the world or, better, worlds, and different ways of acting upon them. Different cultures may even be irreconcilable, because cultures have the intrinsic spirit or force to reinvent and refashion themselves (Taylor 1999).
Finally, culture, as collective patterns of thinking, speaking and acting, is not independent of individual persons and subgroups acting to reproduce, sustain and transform it. Culture on the one hand and the person and subgroups on the other are dialectically linked: the former guides the latter in social practice and at the same time is reproduced, maintained and changed by the latter. Further, there is also a possible multiplicity and dynamics of subject positions and ways of meaning articulation to recreate culture and identity (Butler 1992). Consequently, culture is not stable or homogeneous, but dynamic and creative. A new generation in a culture, for example, does not merely passively acquire cultures through the authority of parents and the educational system, but, as a socio-genetic human developmental process (Valsiner 1989), may refashion cultural landscapes.

Post-colonialism and diasporicism: culture as history and hybridity

Post-colonialism, on the one hand, is a broad intellectual current that proceeds from the view that the present world order or condition is part and continuation of the historical, Europe-initiated, colonialism and subsequently neocolonialism or, more broadly, imperialism (Harrison 2003; Said 1993; Young 2001). The central feature that runs through this historical imperial process is the domination, repression and discrimination by the American/European West against the Rest. Accordingly, post-colonialism insists on a political intellectual strategy to deconstruct, subvert or neutralize the hierarchical and hegemonic practices and relationships existing between the ‘centre’ and ‘periphery’, the ‘core’ and ‘exterior’, the colonizer and the (de)colonized, and so on, by relating these repressive practices and relationships to that brutal historical context.4
A set of relations between post-colonialism and diasporicism is in order. First, post-colonialism and diasporicism are intellectual currents or projects born out of and so in keeping with CS’s rethinking about culture. Whilst the notion of culture is more general, post-colonialism and diasporicism are more particular. The former provides a pluralist and oppositional way of thinking about human conditions and practices, the latter are concerned with their specific historical and geographical conditions. Second, just as post-coloniality and diaspora as historical conditions are linked by colonialism, so the intellectual projects around them, post-colonialism and diasporicism, share a common political commitment, namely to combat cultural imperialism. However, they are different in that whilst post-colonialism emphasizes power difference and struggle, diasporicism emphasizes cultural interconnection and pluralism (Stratton and Ang 1996: 384–5). Still other positions of enunciation may be found or formulated, for example feminism and post-communism, but to redress universalism and its theoretical deficiencies and political consequences the present proposed ones are particularly relevant.

Culture as discourse

Finally, let me consider how culture is related to discourse. If culture permeates the whole ways of life of groups of people and if it is itself constituted in social semiotic practice (Geertz 1973; Shneider 1976), then discourse, the most pervasive and quintessential part of such practice, is culturally saturated, too. Other semiotic activities, such as art, music and sport, are doubtless an important part of culture, but their meaning, value and emotional charge would be overshadowed if discourse were not mobilized to describe, explain, sustain, promote, sensationalize and coordinate them. Similarly, it would be hard to imagine how science, religion, education or other such symbolic activities can proceed and succeed without discourses to embody, maintain and execute them. Conventional and new media, too, which now literally inundate people’s lives, would lose their functionality without discourses to partake of them. Indeed, people spend most of their daily, and hourly, life, reading, writing, speaking or listening to each other. As McQuail (2000: 93) puts it, ‘Perhaps the most general and essential attribute of culture is communication, since cultures could not develop, survive, extend and generally succeed without communication’. Similarly, Duranti and Goodwin (1992: 2–3) have expressed the centrality of discourse in the organization of culture vociferously when they say, ‘it would be blatantly absurd to propose that one could provide a comprehensive analysis of human social organization without paying close attention to the details of how human beings employ language to build the social and cultural worlds that they inhabit’. So Barker and Galasinski insist (2001: 4), ‘To understand culture is to explore how meaning is produced symbolically through the signifying practices of language within material and institutional contexts’.

Theorizing from in-between cultures

The new cultural insights described above imply, first of all, that in the international academic world the construction of any discourse theory, my own as well as those of colleagues, cannot be natural, impartial or free from (imperial) cultural power. Therefore, the theorist must go beyond ambitions of grand narratives and attend to local, particular, especially hitherto marginalized, forms of discourses. These include not only ordinary discourses, but also the discourses of intellectual traditions.
Second, the discourse theorist must take ‘race’, ethnicity and culture, hence racism, seriously in theory construction. These properties must not be treated as if they belong only to other ordinary people; they exist at the core of the elite, disciplinary profession itself (for racisms in other social sciences see Gilroy 1992; Hall 1999; Said 1978, 1993; van Dijk 1993b).
Third, culturally different theories must genuinely interact with each other, not from the ‘centre’ to the ‘periphery’ or the other way around, but on an equal footing, not from fixed positions but with an open and critical mind, not merely to enrich local understanding but to integrate global perspectives as well. Thus, theorists must formulate their theory in such a way as to include local and global perspectives and to be open to intercultural negotiation and dialogue.

A pluralist account of discourse

That brings me, finally, to theory. From the above formulated stance, it will be clear that the version of discourse that I shall be sketching out here will have to do with the specific topics of interest I choose and the cultural political objectives I favour. That also means that it will bear the mark of personal intervention vis-à-vis wider culture and that it is not exhaustive or conclusive but open and developing. The properties of discourse I shall specify here are obviously interlocked but for the sake of exposition I will deal with them separately.

Discourse as cultural political construction

The interstitial space between cultures, it can be seen, first, that what ‘discourse’ consists in is not something essential, pre-given, screaming for our attention. It does not have a fixed identity or boundary. It does have not such objective structures, processes and strategies as structuralist models tell us. Potentially, there can be any number of descriptions and any (bit of) discourse can be interesting. Any particular choice of discourse is then not a natural object or topic of enquiry. It is a meaningful and motivated semiotic phenomenon par excellence. Consequently, the definition of discourse(s), including the present one, is suggestive and subject to negotiation and contest.

Discourse as cultural ways of speaking

Recent advances in the language-oriented approaches to culture, especially linguistic anthropology (Gumperz and Levinson 1996; Lucy 1992; Lutz 1988; Sherzer 1987; Urban 1991), provide further weight for understanding discourse as diversified. Here, as elsewhere in language studies, the assumption of linguistic universals, with the emergence of cognitive sciences, had until recently been dominant and languages and hence cultures were studied largely as variable systems of something more general. But especially with the new developments in the study of the reformulated linguistic relativity hypothesis, it is argued that meaning is not encapsulated in grammar and lexicon (think of the meaning of ‘Will you bring back this book tomorrow?’). There are many (re)sources of meaning-making; contextual features of language use, including the characteristics of the speaker/hearer, their interests and desires, strategies of interpretation, power relationships, can all become part of cultural meaning-making practice. The cultural structuring of contexts, with which text and talk are indissolubly bound up, makes a universal notion of language (or discourse for that matter) untenable.

Discourse as cultural power struggle

In the postmodern, post-colonial and post-communist discorder at the threshold of the twenty-first century, discursive antagonism and struggle have intensified and saturate every aspect of contemporary human culture. The US and British governments’ discourse of justifying their war in Iraq is confronted everywhere in the world by discourses of justice and peace. Against the discourse of global economy, including that of ‘business going south/east’, there is a discourse of anti-global capitalism. In opposition to the discourse of keeping jobs and man’s interest, there is a discourse in many parts of the world in favour of the environment, sustainability and the future of mankind. Apart from such voiced/heard discourses, it should be recognized, too, that there will be many other or alternative discourses to the existing ones out there which have been silenced, ignored or otherwise repressed.

Discourse as culturally dynamic

Discourse studies is typically concerned with structures and functions of linguistic activity at a given point or relatively short period in time. Rarely does it consider discourse in relation to cultural transformation through large spaces of time (cf. Fairclough 19926). In particular there has been relatively little attention paid to how change might come from within discourses and hence from the speaking individuals and communities of the discourses. From the in-between cultural standpoint (especially the post-colonialist perspective), we cannot possibly understand the power struggle between culturally diverse discourses in general and in particular the anti-imperialist discourses, for example from within the West and the rest of the world, without taking into account the immanent moral rationality of discourse and its speakers. The same principle applies to the rise of the feminist discourse and the anti-racist discourse amongst certain social and scholarly groups and the resulting transformation of societal discourses. It is the distinctly human ethical reflexivity or critical consciousness that leads to the abandonment of culture-specific less ‘good’, ‘right’, ‘free’ discourses and the adoption of better ones. The prophetic discourses produced by such avant-garde thinkers and authors as Frantz Fanon of Algeria, Lu Xun of China, Maxim Gorky of Russia and Paulo Freire of Brazil who stood up against their time are multicultural cases in point.

The goals of CAD

So, finally, I want to make explicit the cultural political objective, or cultural politics, of CAD. My account of discourse above has highlighted diversity, power struggle and critical consciousness as the central characteristics of contemporary discourse. More broadly, our new global culture, as I described in the Introduction, is characterized by a changed (dis)order: increasing interconnections confounded by growing antagonism and resistance, so much so that the basic existence of many of the world’s cultures and populations is under threat and erosion (see also Appadurai 1996; Bauman 1998; Huntington 1998). This changed global cultural context requires an urgent, new purpose in discourse and cultural research. Accordingly, I propose that cultural coexistence and common cultural prosperity be the ultimate objective of our discourse research, CAD.


In conclusion, let me stress that the notion of discourse that I have outlined here is neither purely western nor purely eastern, let alone being universal. It is supposed to be a product of personal intervention from within a particular space between western and eastern cultures. It reflects personal experience and initiative; it is connected with perceived global cultural conditions. As a scholar in discourse and cultural studies, I have travelled through eastern and western educational and intellectual systems (in China, the Netherlands, Singapore and the UK), lived across the encompassing cultures and seen cultural domination, discrimination and resistance. This personal cultural trajectory has doubtless helped shape the vision of discourse being unfolded here.
Shi-xu. (2005). A Cultural Approach to Discourse. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

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