The Theory of "Theory"

You want a theoretical perspective? Oh dear. It must be pointed out that when some people talk about "theory", this topic is all that they mean. As such, much (probably most, on a purely quantitative basis) of the writing on the subject constitutes the largest body of self-serving, obscurantist, pretentious bovine excrement to sully academic discourse since the gnostics or the alchemists (hence the basic joke in Eco's Foucault's Pendulum — Eco himself being one of the saner denizens of this swamp). 

I make no apology for being rude about this topic. Its insights are often banal, when anyone can tell what they are. It has sapped the life-blood from the humanities and the social sciences for a quarter of a century. It has led to whole areas of scholarship being treated with contempt by scholars in other areas.... Enough!

I have discussed the much less pretentious notion of "frame of reference" in another paper. If you must have an introduction to "discourse" which is reasonably comprehensible, you've got problems, for reasons which may become apparent later.

Here is an article drafted for the International Encyclopaedia of the Sociology of Education by Allan Luke of the University of Queensland (no date). It is almost comprehensible, and even touches the ground at some points.

This is one of those horrible seemingly simple statements which say so much as to lead to total disorientation, like, "In Java, everything is an object." [The discourse here is programming rather than geography, or political polemic.]
But for our purposes, a discourse is a way, pretty much any way, of talking about things. The choice of a discourse draws attention to what the speakers (or writers) think is important about the subject — or in the hands of critical commentators, what they are allowed to think is important about it.

Take the following much condensed examples of conversation: 

On Gramsci on the excellent infed.org siteResponse 1 uses the discourse of "economic reality". It is a powerful and pervasive discourse in many areas of life, nowadays, not merely in academe. Indeed, it has reached the status of what the Italian political theorist Gramsci called "ideological hegemony": it is so dominant that when it is trotted out in discussion, the only response is Eric Morecambe's catch-phrase, "There's no answer to that!"

A hegemonic discourse is one which has become so embedded in a culture that it appears silly to ask "Why?" about its assumptions. It is capable not only of determining answers, but also the questions which can be asked.

In discussion, playing a hegemonic card can trump (in the bridge, rather than flatulence, sense [or discourse]) all other cards. Much humour, including the crudest double-entendre comes from playing around with discourses. 

Response 2 appeals to "academic purity". It is pretty weak nowadays. Whether that is a "good thing" or not depends on your "point of view" or "standpoint" — both of which are colloquial ways of referring to a preferred discourse. (You see—it doesn't have to be difficult—which is precisely why these emperor's tailors have to try to make it difficult...)

Response 3 is interesting, because it acknowledges the supremacy of the "economic reality" argument. It starts off on a "developmental" or even "liberal education" agenda: teaching people something because it will "do them good" —but it moves on to assert that "they will lap it up" meaning that it will also get bums on seats. That is the "clincher" of the argument, but it is not in the same discourse as the initial claim. Discourses can drift, and arguments may be re-cast in a different form to tune in to the language of power.

Indeed, it is in the exploration of the links between language and power that discourse analysis may have something to say. Some forms of discourse may be thus "privileged", in the sense that using them identifies with and may gain the ear of influential social groups, such as appealing to economic justifications for academic decisions.

Some social groups do not get a hearing in society because their habitual forms of discourse are not privileged, not recognised as legitimate or even "sensible" by those who control the media and exercise power. Thus a major task of the women's movement in the 'seventies and later was to break through a credibility barrier (even among other women) so that their voice and their arguments, could be heard. At about the same time, however, the discourse of the "New Left" was acceptable, in a way which it could not be under "New Labour".

Various ethnic groups have the same problem; and it is interesting that despite Americans asking in bewilderment, "How can they hate us so much?" after September 11 2001, they often do not seem to be able to hear the answers from the Islamic world. Right or wrong, we can argue with positions with which we disagree, under the umbrella of a shared discourse: but without the discourse, we cannot even hear them.

"Common sense", from this perspective, is just what it says. It is "common": it shares the discourse and hence the priorities of the rest of the community to whom it is addressed. 

Discourses have different "ranges of convenience", and are articulated within different language codes. The cynical discourse which gets a cheap laugh at the expense of the government in a saloon bar is not the one which would actually yield any solutions to real problems were the wise guy really the Prime Minister.Douglas M (1973) Natural Symbols London; Penguin The discourses which bind us to our community may well be those which equip us least to receive messages from outside it — such as from Islamists. See Douglas (1973) for a fascinating anthropological exploration of this theme.

So what?

The literature on "critical reflection" and "perspective transformation" in adult education makes it clear that it is achieved by the learner stepping outside her or his habitual discourse or frame of reference, and reflecting on her past and prior learning in a new way. (See Moon, 1999 for an accessible account relating this to "reflective practice")

The tools for thought we are examining, even simple ones such as analogies, have the potential to promote such change (or of course also to reinforce existing "common sense").

To tie this in with my other concerns: such challenging of one's habitual framework of thought can be experienced as much as loss, as liberation.

The best and most accessible account of the influence of the ideas of post-modernists, post-structuralists etc. can be found in chapter 4 of Francis Wheen's both well-informed and entertaining How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered the World London; Fourth Estate, 2004.

To reference this page copy and paste the text below:

Atherton J S (2013) Doceo; [On-line: UK] retrieved from

Original material by James Atherton: last up-dated overall 10 February 2013

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