Discourse as a Constraint

This chapter will explain how to uncover implicit content of discourses about public issues of concern to your research project.  Debates and documents on public issues are often presented in language tropes that purport to be neutral or objective.  Yet, upon critical examination, the language used masks a multiplicity of interests, values, assumptions, and agendas of actors. Thus, you will learn what discourse is all about in relation to your project and the various ways of looking at the content of any document relevant to your research project to grasp the implicit and symbolic content of discourse about public issues.  You will also learn how to discern decisions that matter, which are embedded in a given document and the steps you have to take when researching discourse on public issues.

Understanding Key Terms

A. Discourse

  • Discourse as used in this chapter is understood in an instrumental sense, i.e., in ways that contribute to understanding of the influential intentions and values of actors driving their deliberations and decisions-making on public issues.
  • It signifies the ways that public issues are spoken and written about.
  • It also denotes the modes of argumentation employed by actors in determining or attempting to determine outcomes of public issues.

B. Symbolic Communication

  • Symbolic communication means the images and image-evoking words or phrases that convey meaning in the absence of specific information, e.g., the word ‘slum’ gives rise to images of broken panes of glasses, garbage in streets, lawlessness, crowding, and abject poverty. Another example is the phrase ‘death stars’ in the context of early discussions of Canadian satellite communication, which conveyed the death of the conventional broadcasting regulation in the face of advancing technologies that made it no longer feasible.

C. Markers

  • Markers as used in this chapter signify the signs that clearly show the hidden or symbolic content of a document and the intentions and interests of its actors.
  • You will learn about the following nine markers:

I. Style and Format

  • The manner in which a document is written and presented and includes notions of genre i.e., the type or sort or kind or category; narrative i.e., the story line or sequence of events; aesthetic perspective, i.e., the artistic viewpoint or visual beauty, etc.
  • A government report looks like a government report because it is written in a particular style and follows a particular format while an academic paper in the discipline of economics is immediately recognizable to Economists because of its style and format.
  • Documents or reports for government officials are usually lengthy, with as much statistical and other data as are necessary to convey the message. In most cases there will be a bullet-point executive summary and a list of recommendations. Also provided is a list of people consulted. The format and style of the report is informed by the assumption that few, if anyone, will read the whole document carefully.

II. Insider Language

  • Insider language refers to jargon, acronyms, and specialized language used by those who share common experiences or reference points, e.g., those who work or deal with an organisation such as the United Nations (UN).
  • A UN document is usually full of jargon and acronyms. It is impenetrable or incomprehensible to anyone outside the UN. Even the numbering of the document has unique genre whose significance cannot be understood by an outsider.
  • Terms and words used in UN documents, e.g., “rapporteur” or “human rights” or “disability” have specific meaning and will have been fiercely debated in the relevant UN Committees until a definition acceptable to all participants is agreed. An outsider to the internal workings of the UN will not appreciate the nuance and the many layers of meaning that become attached to such word in UN documents.

III. Credibility and Authority

  • Credibility refers to assertions about the facts of a situation, which can be based on references to science, religious faith, personal experiences or anecdotes.
  • Authority, by contrast, refers to the actors deemed to speak credibly in presenting information.
  • The credibility and authority of a document are interrelated. Let us, for example, consider three actors reports: government, an environmental group, and media in that order.
  • The credibility of a government report will depend on the information provided about how other governments have responded to the same situation and reached the same conclusions. The authority of the report derives from the statistical data provided; statistical data are authoritative in their own right.
  • In addition, government reports are likely to indicate that the important actors were spoken to and that their views were taken into account in preparing the report.
  • The credibility of advocacy group’s environmental report is guaranteed by the values it professes and the reputation of the group. The authority of the experts quoted in the report will also enhance its credibility. The group’s authority is established by the size of the audience it can command, the media coverage it garners, its success in fund-raising, and the number of its members; these and other factors enhances its authority.
  • The media establish the credibility of a story and the authority of those who provide it using specific techniques. They reference spokespeople deemed to know about the matter they discuss; they present all argument as if balanced, i.e., ensure that both sides are heard. In this way, the media combat bias and retain their credibility and authority as reliable sources of information.

IV. The Public Interest and General Public

  • The public interest and the general public are rhetorical devices used to persuade an audience that what is being proposed is for the good of all.
  • The public is the centre of attention in all discourses about public issues, even when actors know that the general public are inattentive or unlikely to respond to information and arguments presented.
  • The public interest – there is no consensus about the meaning of what constitutes the public interest. But in legislation mandating regulation, there is almost always a reference to the public interest.
  • The meaning of the public interest is determined through the deliberative and adjudicative processes of the regulation, the courts, and the legislators.
  • The general public is not one entity. Actors know that the general public is made up of an assortment of many different publics, distinguished or differentiated by experience, identity, interests, beliefs, and predilections.
  • When actors appeal to the general public, to convey their message or information, they are simply saying that whatever is being argued, e.g., the importance of the environment or business in driving economic and social well-being for everyone should be the view point of everyone without distinction.

V. Information versus Belief

  • All discourse fall somewhere along the information-belief continuum or scale.
  • Information may be a set of data, materials, evidence, reports, and knowledge that is produced from scientific studies and from personal experiences.
  • Information is open-ended, contingent, and inconclusive. It is subject to change on the basis of new data, observations, scientific research etc.
  • Information can be sound and reliable; it may also be unreliable. Reliability or unreliability of information may depend or be contingent upon its sources.
  • Belief by contrast may refer to faith, principles, creed, or conviction; or values or worldviews or perspectives. Beliefs may be, for example, expressed or articulated as deep personal convictions, political perspectives, and religiosity, i.e., excessively or sentimentally religious.


I am confused. How can I draw the distinction between information and belief on the continuum?


Consider the debates about abortion and the degree to which globalization has affected the powers of the nation-state. The abortion debate is so polarized in terms of viewpoints – there are as many viewpoints are there are protagonists – but all participants claim to argue on the basis of principle and their convictions. Thus, the debate falls close to the belief end of the continuum or scale. The debate on the degree to which globalization impacts or affects the powers of the nation-state, by contrast, is animated by various types of data or evidence whether scientifically produced or the media-based, both print and electronic media. Therefore, it may be said to be debate based primarily on information.


Are there debates that fall anywhere on the continuum?


Yes, scientific debates fall anywhere on the continuum. The debate on climate change, for example, has now taken both information-based and belief-based aspects and characteristics. Originally, discussions about climate change were animated by scientific research that produced the information about observed changes in the climate. Now, the debate is no longer informed by scientific data or evidence alone but principles and convictions of the various protagonists involved, whether scientist or not. And there is little likelihood that new scientific evidence will change the views of those engaged in the discourse about this particular public issue.

VI. Good Reasons

  • Good reasons refer to the rationales of actors, i.e., the justifications, grounds, bases, and foundations, and even motivations of why actors say what they say.
  • The rationales may include information that the actors consider to be sound and the principles they consider to be important.
  • Therefore, even when what actors say may appear contradictory in relation what they do or irrational in relation to known truths, they will have good reason for saying what they say.


I am lost. How can I know that a given actor has good reasons for what they are saying when it is contradictory to what they do or irrational in the face of known facts?


 Consider the scenario of a government that says promoting women’s rights is a key priority; indeed, its officials, for example, believe that abuse of women is a problem.  But in practice, the government enacts policies that do the opposite, e.g., withdrawing funding from groups that help abused women. Their rationale for withdrawing funding for groups that support abused women is that abuse is better dealt with through criminal law and victim’s rights. Moreover, government should focus on those things that fall properly within the provenance of the State not those in citizens’ bedrooms. At a superficial level, it would appear contradictory that a government that professes to protect and promote women’s rights would withdraw funding from groups that help abused women. But when its good reasons for acting the way it did are taken into account, it is less so. Conclusion: what appears to be contradictory between actors’ professed values and actions is less so when their own good reasons are taken into account.

VII. Keywords

  • Keywords are terms in widespread use that are taken-for-granted as reliable descriptors of situations and events in today’s discourse about public issues.
  • The term is borrowed from Raymond Williams, a renowned Welsh cultural critic and Marxist academic, who developed an analysis of keywords in his book, Keywords: a Vocabulary of Culture and Society (Fontana: 1976/1983).
  • Key words orient everyone to the same set of issues and perspectives, making particular ways of thinking or perspective seem natural.


What is the difference between “keyword” in the ‘Williams sense’ and “keyword” in the sense of ‘Google search’?


A keyword in the ‘William sense’ is ‘a socially prominent word that is capable of bearing interlocking yet sometimes contradictory and commonly contested contemporary meaning’ (The Keyword Project).  Examples of keywords in this sense and used in today’s discourse about public issues include command and control (referring to regulation) and deficits (referring to bad government policies). Actors tend to use these words as a way of orienting their listeners to whatever they have to say. Other examples of keywords are art, culture, industry, media or society. Keywords such as art, culture, and industry have, in Canada today different slightly different things than in the past. Instead of talking about art and culture as a distinct public good, supporters of art and culture now talk about cultural industries, creating yet another key word. By contrast, keyword in the sense of a Google search or any other electronic search engines or software, is a reference to target words in a searchable database or web page.

VIII. Essentially Contested Concepts

  • An essentially contested concept is a terminology adapted from William Connolly’s work, The Terms of Political Discourse (Princeton University Press: 1975/1993).
  • In its most basic meaning, essentially contested concepts are those where actors or a group of actors defend their own usage of the concept as correct while other actors will contend that an alternative usage is indeed the correct one.
  • Thus, essentially contested concepts are words or concepts whose definition is bound up in and central to highly contested philosophical or political theories.
  • Essentially contested concepts are rhetorical devices and are often used by actors as if they had a commonly accepted definition and meanings.
  • Examples of essentially contested concepts are justice, democracy, rule of law, and citizenship.
  • Let us take a look at democracy. The use of the term implies a good system of government. Some States use the term to describe themselves, e.g., the German Democratic Republic (former East Germany), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), The Democratic Republic of the Congo, DRC (formerly Zaire). Here the different actors presenting very different viewpoints use the term democracy to describe the political system there are purportedly promoting. Thus, democracy is used to cast a favourable light upon anything associated with its use.

IX. Ideographs

  • Ideographs are single words that serve as proxy terms for whole ways of thinking, ideologies, dogmas etc. The term is adapted from Michael McGee.
  • Ideographs allow speakers to convey a message without worrying about disagreement or rejection by others engaged in the discourse.
  • Class is one example of an ideograph. It stands for a complex analysis of social relations and announces that this analysis is called for. A community of speakers, Marxist in particular, coalesce around it and each knows what is being actually said or contested.
  • Command and control is another ideograph; it provides a way for understanding the proper relations between the State and society.
  • The environment can function as an ideograph when it implies an approach, values, and premises that are not spelt out. It could mean something different in various theories about the relationship between humans and nature.


2. Ways of Understanding Discourse About Public Issues

There are a number of ways or methodologies, some sophisticated, and others less so, for studying and understanding discourse about public issues.

A. Discourse Analysis

  • A theory-based method of studying discourse understood, in the case of the academic literature, in the broadest sense rather than the instrumental understanding used in this chapter.
  • The goal of discourse analysis is to dissect documents to find the many layers of meaning buried within them.
  • It is to explore their social ramifications; the way that documents support or determine social and power relations.
  • Debates about discourse analysis are impossible to understand without extensive background in the field. They are tightly bound to particular theorists and there is little agreement among the various theorists, e.g., Foucault versus Bourdieu.
  • The theories relied upon in discourse analysis are complicated and subject to much debate.
  • The complex theories and research methods attached to discourse analysis will not be considered in this chapter.

B. Content Analysis

  • Content analysis is a way of studying the content and biases within any body of written material.
  • Content analysis is not a theory but a method. It is exceptionally time consuming but at its best, it uncovers hidden layers of meaning; at its worst, it involves a large investment of resources to identify biases that are obvious to the tutored eye.
  • It shows the preoccupations, premises, and biases that slipped into any utterance, perhaps without the person speaking knowing.
  • Content analysis does not deal with the deeper significance of language; it does not deal with discourse as understood by the theorists of discourse analysis.
  • It depends on coding, counting, and statistical analysis.
  • A content analysis identifies the main preoccupations and values of the speakers, say, in a collection of government documents.
  • Through a content analysis of a document purporting to be about sustainability, you might find out that it does not deal with sustainability as an environmental group might understand the term.

C. Ethnographical Approaches

  • Ethnographic approaches to understanding discourse are concerned with how speakers and listeners together create a meaningful bond with each other and how they come to common understandings of whatever is being said.
  • Thus, an ethnographic study that looked at the housing market is in trouble would query what speakers and audiences understood by ‘housing’ as well as ‘trouble’; it may query how the issue of housing is being framed, i.e., how housing is being set up to be talked about; it may query why housing was chosen as the focus of attention as opposed to jobs or stock market.
  • An ethnographic study would ask questions about the intended audiences; which audience is paramount in the minds of the speakers; how such an audience comes into being; and query the debates in motion when this statement was uttered.
  • An ethnographic study would go beyond the actors’ motives to examine the understandings in the minds of those who produced and/or encountered documents.
  • An ethnographic study would pay careful attention to the context within which the discourse took place. This would include the mental landscape of those who might hear the statement, landscapes that reflected to some, extent, the political ethos of the day.

D. Symbols, Images, and Metaphors

  • Politicians as one of the key actors in discourse about public issues rely heavily on symbols, images, and metaphors to communicate their intentions and desired outcomes on public issues. In this sense, politics may be said to be a form of symbolic communication.
  • Words and images used symbolically have a profound impact on politics-driven discourse on public issues.
  • Symbolic communication serves as a means of gaining adherents to viewpoints that otherwise might well be disputed. Symbols override debate, making rational argument seem irrelevant.
  • Thus, symbolic communication is a strategic tool that allows politicians to achieve strategic purposes not only of influencing outcomes but also fashioning common bonds around people where otherwise they are absent.
  • Symbolic communication stifles rationale debate about the fate of pubic issues and discourse in such contexts moves quickly towards the far side of the belief end of the information-belief continuum.

E. Audiences

I. Audience in general

  • The word audience conjures a variety of images, e.g., a discrete group of people sitting on hard chairs in a room listening to whatever is being said; television watching individuals spread across the country in millions of homes; the general public; and a social media community of producers, for example.
  • These audiences possibly share one thing in common: they are inattentive to public issues most of the time and do not read the vast majority of documents produced on public issues.
  • This chapter is not, however, concerned by these audiences. Rather, by audience in this chapter is meant those who can be induced to pay attention, with the possibility that they will become engaged, respond, and even take action. Audience, conceptualised in this way, is a radical idea.
  • Discourse, in this sense of audience, plays a crucial role in inducing people to pay attention to public issues; it plays a role in the creation of audiences.
  • Discourse therefore establishes the sense that people have something in common with each other; a common bond and understanding of a particular public issue.


I don’t understand. How can discourse create audiences through common bonding of people?


Consider this scenario about a public issue such as a heavy traffic problem in a given community and how to resolve it, say, by installing one-way streets. Someone or some people would have to organize the residents of this community to implement the solution. But with some residents holding different views about the size of the community while others are inattentive to what this community is all about or preoccupied with other aspects of their lives or easy access to their own cars, the people trying to organize the residents to solve a traffic problem with the installation of one-way streets have a daunting challenge before them.

Before the people organizing the residents can successfully promote the idea of installing one-way streets, they need to get the residents of the community to think of themselves as having something in common with each other, something more important than their individual interests, namely, the need for quiet streets or neighbourhood. To achieve this, they simply need to convince some residents of the community to buy into the notion of neighbourhood and the benefit of quiet streets to all.

II. Intended Audience and importance of discourse in fashioning audiences

  • By intended audience in this chapter, is meant the goals of those who want to create audiences through their discourse.
  • In this sense, intended audience in the discourse about public issues are the people who are being induced to pay attention.
  • In practice, however, the intended audiences of the documents are not what they appear. For instance, a document addressed to the general public may, in fact, be designed to induce only government officials to pay attention or may be an inducement only to insiders – those already members of a group or organization.
  • To think of discourse as fashioning audiences allows you to focus on:
    • the actors involved, their stated or unstated assumptions and intentions as reflected in the discourse of the documents they produce;
    • the rhetorical strategies employed in the discourse, paying particular attention to the role of symbolic communication and metaphors;
    • the way ideas are made to see factual, sound, and persuasive within the discourse, i.e., be alert to the ways that credibility and authority are established and good reasons;
    • matters of inclusion and exclusion, i.e., insider language and ideographs.
  • In addition, you must pay attention to how common bonds are established through discourse, i.e., keywords, ideographs, and insider language.
  • Also, focus on how:
    • disagreements are papered over or made irrelevant through discourse, paying particular attention to essentially contested concepts, symbolic communication, etc.;
    • beliefs, values, and principles plus moral judgments are brought to bear on discourse by paying attention to essentially contested concepts, keywords, and the information-belief continuum.

F. The Information-Belief Continuum

  • When a discourse about a public issue leans heavily towards the information end of the continuum, it is a hard sell in the context of fiercely contested issues. Its conclusions might lend support to one view or the other but these conclusions could be overturned or revised in response to new information.
  • But when a discourse about public issue leans towards the belief end of the continuum, it becomes an exchange of fixed positions rather than a conversation.
  • And when discourse becomes an exchange of fixed positions rather than a conversation, the actors hope that their beliefs, principles, and values will be the most attractive. The actors are unlikely to be convinced by those who hold other beliefs, principles, and values.
  • When actors hear differing views or encounter information that seems to undermine their beliefs, principles, and values, this is likely to strengthen rather than weaken their commitment to their own conclusions.
  • Discourse that is skewed towards the belief end of the continuum becomes stale and predicable because new information or the viewpoints expressed by others is unlikely to alter existing beliefs and may even strengthen them.
  • A famous sociological study done in 1956 examined the Armageddon beliefs of a group whose prophesies failed to materialize. The new information that the world did not end not only failed to change those beliefs of those who were awaiting the end of the world but also strengthened them.

3. Steps in researching Discourse

Having understood some of the key terms and ways of understanding discourse about public issues, you now need to know the steps you will have to take when researching discourse. Fifteen steps have been identified and each is presented under subheadings labelled A to O.

A. Identify Body of Materials

  • Your first step should be to identify the body of materials that will serve as the exemplar or standard of relevant discourse.
  • You have considerable latitude or freedom about which documents or interactions you choose. A single document, every your notes from a single community meeting, can be very informative about discourse.
  • Having a complete collection of documents provides a rich picture but the disadvantage of having many documents is that the amount of work put into it is not commensurate with the kind of research on a public issue that you are undertaking.

B. Record Reasons for Choosing Exemplars

  • In your second step, you have to record the reasons you chose a particular exemplar or segment of discourse as illustrative of the whole.
  • Recording the reasons allows you to explain your decisions about how much material and which material was chosen and this helps establish the credibility of your findings.

C. Read Materials

  • Your third step involves reading the material you have identified in an ordinary way. Here, reading is not much different from identifying issues and arguments in any document.
  • Jot down impressions and observations and take notes of useful quotes.
  • Your goal in this is to capture the rational aspects of the discourse, i.e., the observations, viewpoints, and agendas being advance by actors and institutions in their attempt to influence or bring about particular outcomes.
  • Read the documents more closely, taking each marker in turn and reading them with this in mind, identifying points of controversy, taking notes and selecting quotes to support what you find in the documents.
  • Remember that the markers are simply ways of identifying, in a fairly systematic way, what is implicit in the documents, the content of the documents provided in its subtext, symbols, metaphors, style, etc.

D. Look for Markers of Style and Format

  • Your fourth step involves looking for the manner that a document is written and the way that ideas are presented within a document. Both provide information about the intended audience of the document.
  • Compare documents at hand and others that you already have in your possession.
  • Use table of contents and the formats of documents, e.g., a government document, to discern message and intended audience in document you are examining.
  • If you find an academic article dealing with a similar topic, a comparison will tell you whether the document you are examining was for an academic audience.
  • Scientists follow fairly precise formats, although variations exist within disciplines. This allows you to identify whether a document that contains scientific material is really addressed to a scientific audience. Sometimes, it is not.

E. Look for Markers of Insider Language

  • In your fifth step, look for markers for insider language.
  • There are many forms of insider language – from words and initials to the level of complexity in the presentation of ideas and arguments, cadence of the speakers, and the dialects and gestures used.
  • All these indicate who is expected to be included in and to understand the subtleties of the discourse, i.e., who is considered an insider.
  • Begin by making a list of the jargons, acronyms, and specialized language within the document you are analysing. In so doing, ask whether the ordinary person would understand these words and acronyms without the use of a glossary or set of definitions.
  • Decipher your own insider language. As a researcher with accumulated background knowledge and certain principles close to your heart, you too speak in specialised language. You might not be consciously aware of this but asking ordinary people what they understand from a word, sentence or document can be helpful and revealing.
  • In attempting to decode the hidden meaning in the complexity of vocabulary and cadence in the discourse about the public issues of interest to you presented in the document, consider, for example, whether:
    • this is the way ordinary people on the bus speak;
    • a first-year college student would understand the subtleties of what is being said;
    • an international student, say from Ghana, would grasp the subtleties and find the discourse comfortable enough to participate in.
  • Some good markers for an intended audience made up of those who are insiders include, newsletters, brochures, statements to the press, listserves, face pages, and websites.
  • These markers are prepared by insiders for other insiders and serve to cement common bonds by providing evidence that such a bond exits.
  • Many groups and organisations rely on newsletters and brochures; consider whether the intended audience of most groups, most of the time, is their own members.

F. Focus on Markers of Credibility and Authority

  • In the fifth step identify the makers of credibility and authority.
  • Those with authority are easier to identify – they are usually the spokespeople or experts consulted.
  • Citations, bibliography, and references might also reveal to you those with authority.
  • Credibility is harder to assess. But you can surmount the challenge by asking pertinent questions such as:
    • on what basis a claim made in the document should be considered to be factual or true?
    • are the actors relying on background experience, anecdotes and conventional wisdom; received truths from religion, politics or ideology, the views of groups they belong to, studies they themselves have done, publications of others they have come across, the media?
  • Your task here is not about judging whether something is true, but rather identifying how those who provide the information attempt to gain credibility for what they are claiming.

G. Identify Markers of Symbolic Communication

  • The seventh step involves identifying markers of symbolic communication.
  • Look for words that conjure images, rhetorical phrases meant to be suggestive of something other than the words immediately convey.
  • Metaphors in particular, are an essential element of symbolic content because they conjure images by making implicit comparisons between one phenomenon and the other although such images have no necessary relationship to the information content of a document.
  • In some cases there is no information in the document except that conveyed by the symbolic content, metaphors, et cetera.
  • Thus, with markers of symbolic communication, just about any meaning can be read into the documents for just about any purpose.

H. Locate Markers of ‘Public Interest’ and ‘General Public’

  • In the eighth step locate markers of “public interest” and “general public”.
  • This may be identified through intermediaries, well-known spokespeople, and the mass media.
  • The use of intermediaries drains the subtleties from arguments in debates and renders debates less amenable to resolution or change based on new information.

I. Identify Markers related to Information-Belief Continuum

  • The ninth step is identifying markers related to the information-belief continuum.
  • You should note that a document that leans more towards the belief end of the continuum is less likely to be altered by new information.
  • Similarly, the more a document leans toward the information end of the continuum the less likely will it withstand challenge or be considered true.

J. Identify Markers of Good Reason

  • In step ten identify markers of good reason.
  • As you examine a document, do not discount information and principles that you consider unconvincing or even abhorrent because they seem irrational.
  • Remember that everyone has reasons for the arguments they present, the information they consider to be sound, and for the principles they consider to be important. Actors have good reason for saying what they say.
  • All reasons, however, are not equally good, credible or worthy of adoption. What you have to determine is why seemingly irrational arguments, based clearly on questionable information or unsound principles, carry weight and find strong proponents.
  • The answer lies in identifying the good reasons that underwrite any document.
  • Good reasons imply that arguments are made in good faith yet in discourse about public issues, actors sometimes can lie, use facts strategically, exaggerate and employ rhetoric.


That is confusing. If actors can lie or exaggerate things, how then can one ever find the good reasons behind what actors say?


 Don’t worry. In such contexts, look beyond the document at hand; interrogate the unstated or implicit assumptions or goals that motivate actors to create documents in the first place. The good reasons may lie with the intended audience. In the controversy over healthcare in the United State, for example, actors for and against the reforms made all kinds of statements that had no factual basis. Behind the empty rhetoric and even lies, however, lay good reasons for actors’ fabrication of facts.

K. Identify Markers that are keywords

  • The eleventh step focuses on keywords.
  • Make a list of the keywords you find while reading a document.
  • Keywords appear in all kinds of documents, including the news media.

L. Identify Markers of Essentially Contested Concepts

  • In the twelfth step focus on markers that are essentially contested concepts.
  • Essentially contested concepts are excellent markers for the substantive issues underlying debate or controversy.
  • Identify each essentially contested concept in the document you are examining and then query the meaning attached to the concept by various protagonists.
  • Then investigate the political or philosophical framework that lies behind each protagonist’s use of it.
  • By following these steps, you are unpacking each essentially contested concept in a document and will learn what the debate is really all about, appreciate the significant differences among protagonists, and why any hope of finding common ground is illusory.
  • Note the rhetorical strategies being employed and in particular the use of a common word as if it had a single definition as means of assigning moral weight to the actual perspective of each protagonist.

M. Identify Markers that are Ideographs

  • The thirteenth step is about markers that are ideographs.
  • Make a list of ideographs you identify in a document.
  • It is hard to identify ideograph, however. First, actors who use ideographs in their documents assume that their readers will know what they mean by such words.
  • Second, other actors will significantly omit details of the analysis in their documents, thereby denying readers like you cues that would help them grasp the meaning of words used;
  • Third, outsiders use ideographs as if they were ordinary words with ordinary range of definitions and as a result are easily taken in or misled by those proffering perspectives that they do not appreciate.
  • Fourth, test yourself with two examples to see if you can easily identify an ideograph:
    • “Environment”: you will not see the “environment” as an ideograph, if you do not appreciate the deep disagreements about the best way to conceive of the environment; indeed you may not probe the various perspectives that animate these disagreements;
    • “Liberal”: if you unconsciously use the word “liberal” as an ideograph, you fail to grasp the deep divisions of opinion among liberals.
  • The best way to proceed in identifying ideograph is to circle possible ideographs in a document and then ask a few people what they mean by these terms.

N. Create a Field Diary

  • In the fourteenth step, you have to witness the discourse in person.
  • Create a field diary. For more on this aspect, see Chapter 5.
  • You need to see how language or symbolic communication is being used to know what it is intended to mean.

O. Conduct Interviews

  • The last step involves interviewing.
  • The type of interviews in this step is not meant for gathering information about what happened and why.
  • The interviews here help you to explore what was meant by particular statements, seen from the point of view of both those making them and those who received the information.
  • Make interview notes; these become part of the documentary record of what you are analysing.


Case Studies

Setting the Stage for the digital economy in www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca

From May 10 to July 13, 2010, the Canadian government welcomed Canadians to provide input into its yet-to-be-drafted ‘digital economy’ strategy. My research examined how this issue was mediated via the www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca website. In particular, I wanted to chart how the term ‘digital economy’ was constructed and repeated throughout an online public consultation process.

Admittedly, my motives were somewhat critical from the beginning. As a web designer and communications student, I suspected that any online consultation process could use software code to maintain a stage elevating dominant actors and their conceptions of reality. My core interest would thus lie in charting how well the current Canadian government cued the visitors to the site towards a particular agenda in an e-consultation space.

By the end of my project, I came to realize that researching discourse was anything but a lock-step procedure. Although discourse analysts generally admit that multiple layers of meaning frame even the most obvious of situations, I had to keep this project manageable and focus my analysis down. In my own case, I noticed that the website repeated certain thematic categories to classify content into a series of streams. My research challenged this classification system by disassembling the term ‘digital economy’ and its rhetorical applications.

I begin by discussing my document set, delving into examples that justified my own prior conclusions concerning the production of discourse in an online consultation space. The first sections of my work concerned legitimacy.  They discuss how the federal government used its resources to justify action at both domestic and international levels. The final section briefly described how the online consultation space can mirror definition via software code, discussing individual agency within a highly regulated software environment.

Finding a core set of documents proved to be my first struggle. Far too often, Internet researchers conceive of websites as monolithic entities to be dissected in their entirety. Analyzing www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca’s menu bar helped me overcome this mindset. The menu presented a map of the website’s supporting documents and led me to the definition-style texts that would help me to piece together context. In my case, the consultation paper entitled Improving Canada’s Digital Advantage – Strategies for Sustainable Prosperity – Consultation Paper on a Digital Economy Strategy for Canada (“Digital Advantage”) seemed to be at the centre of the website. It was placed directly above the ‘Idea Forums’ (a message board archiving participants’ postings) and the ‘Submissions’ area (a space for more formal submissions by actors with the resources to compose such documents). Scanning the Digital Advantage consultation paper indicated that it both defined the issue and provided relevant background information that stressing immediate action.

I became suspect of the paper’s structuring potential when I noticed that its structuring themes (a “Capacity to Innovate Using Technologies” [business management], “Building a World-Class Digital Infrastructure”, “Growing the information and Communications Technology Industry” [financing], and “Digital Media: Creating Canada’s Content Advantage” and “Building Digital Skills for Tomorrow”) also organized sub-sections repeated in  www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca’s Resource Area, Submissions Area, and Innovation Forums. In my own case, I realized that I had the beginnings of a research project when I had my ‘in’ to power through design.

Using structure itself as a discourse marker was too broad for any useful analysis. I got around this by identifying instances where the term ‘digital economy’ was used possessively. Digital Advantage quickly glossed over this essentially contested keyword, defining ‘digital economy’ as “the term used to describe the network of suppliers and users of digital content and technologies that enable everyday life.” I realized at this point that I would have to unpack precisely what ‘digital economy’ meant to an inner circle of users. A word of warning: I initially looked for background texts dealing with the ‘network society’ and ‘information capitalism’ for background context. In practice, these theories were highly distracting: their one-size-fits-all grand narratives distracted me from analyzing my unique context.

The first phase of my analysis involved a survey of the political actors who initiated the consultation process. More specifically, I wanted some sense of how a defining Government Minister’s ‘ethos’ could be used to stress the decision to act. Even before defining the ‘digital economy’, the print and online versions of Digital Advantage, both featured three separate Government Minister’s messages stressing action.

Although I suspected that each Minister’s symbolic authority had been used to officiate the issue, it also appeared that amongst the three Ministers (Industry, Human Resources and Skills Development, and Canadian Heritage and Official Languages), power was not shared equally. Firstly, the Minister of Industry’s message came before his two peers, but this was not enough proof to justify an imbalance. However, unlike the Minister of Industry, both of his counterparts had overarching a thematic area placed inconspicuously at the top of their pages – effectively confining their expert status. Conversely, the Minister of Industry’s message lacked this element, offering this actor unhindered mobility throughout the process as a de facto generalist.

Keeping in mind that the offline consultation paper had been ‘remediated’ (converted from one medium to another) into a website, I also searched for differences between the two mediations. Doing so provided me with an opportunity to take advantage of any discrepancies in terms of flow. To my interest, the website’s introductory ‘Statement from Minister’ tackled Ministerial ownership a little more transparently than its paper counterpart. Although this website message lacks an author attached to its first person narrative, the language discussing Canada’s “economic and competitive future” suggested that it had originated from the Minister of Industry. The print version of Digital Advantage verified this logic: an ‘edition page’ establishes that Industry Canada had taken the lead in organizing the initiative. It further indicated that accessible versions of the text could be accessed with the aid of Industry Canada’s Communications and Marketing Branch staff, and, that an online version of the document was ‘hosted’ in the Publications folder of Industry Canada’s website. What emerged then is a picture of a highly symbolic set of inter-ministerial relations that were amplified through the medium.

At this point, I had established that power could be partially exposed through the language of ownership, but I also felt sheltered within this one website. Examining the Canadian Treasury Board’s web standards site helped me situate the digital economy initiative as part of a larger network of government mediated ‘at’ www.gc.ca. The Treasury Board of Canada Secretariat’s web standards guidelines stressed the need to regulate a corporate identity, as to “assist the public in recognizing, accessing and assessing the policies, programs, services and initiatives of the Government of Canada”. I surmised that the ‘Common Look and Feel Standards for the Internet’ was therefore a tool to protect the ethos of the present day government  in its leasing’ of Canadians’ institutional resources.

The ‘Statement from Minister’ web page is also particularly noteworthy in that introduces an online environment which nominalizes time. For this nominalization to happen, a verb is ‘frozen’ into a passive noun. The effect of this nominalization is that the word is both stripped of an owner and is used to prevent critical readers from using chronological time to chart progress (E.g., strategizing is nominalized into strategy). On the Statement page, the user is reminded that “the work [of creating a digital economy strategy] is underway”.  This is done despite the fact that the publication consultation process ended almost two years ago (at the time of writing).

I would argue that wrapping up (or communicating that the larger consultation process has ended) is not important to the narrative of continuous action repeated throughout www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca.  Instead, the website is used to promote a steady stream of policy initiatives that solidify the power of policy makers to chart a larger economic action plan. It does so in the economic language of dollars and cents.  This constant sense of incompleteness is hardly surprising; the original consultation paper also maintained a constant economic flow by stringing together a sequence of funding announcements. Similarly, even though the public-facing consultations have ended and Canada lacks a strategy, the site is regularly updated with press releases for initiatives touching on any of Digital Advantage’s five themes.

Up until this point I have overlooked the issue of globalization. Indeed, there is no denying that an Internet-enabled digital economy is global in scope, but how does Digital Advantage link to international actors? On the one hand, the website’s ‘Resources Area’ links to OECD documents that stress the importance of e-commerce standards. However, what Digital Advantage does not explicitly state that Canada is tackling the issue as a member of the OECD. A common interest between OECD members to promote the ‘Internet Economy’ goes entirely unmentioned. Instead, the OECD is made into a neutral provider of information within Digital Advantage, providing information and impressive statistics sanitized of value that produce an apparent need to act.  Recognizing that the OECD does not submit any original documents to the consultation space, I would suggest that it occupies an undisclosed position of power within the process.

The question of how Canada fares in this international space is not only avoided in the Digital Advantage paper, but also in the site’s ‘Resources’ section. Although the website-only version of the Minister’s Message cautions us that “other” countries have taken from 6-18 months to develop their own strategies, the self-reflexivity ends here. The confessional tone of the document suggests that Canada lacks a coherent strategy and that its advantage (read: economic privilege) is at risk, but it also fails to compare Canada’s progress alongside our economic rivals. There is no discussion of new ministerial positions such as Australia’s Minister for Broadband, Communication and the Digital Economy. These were a result of that nation’s Digital Economy strategy. In sum, the consultation paper shelters readers from international influences, creating a ‘made in Canada’ narrative that entirely avoids a larger debate of ministerial reform.

Prior to this point, I have discussed the challenges of defining the digital economy into being, all while overlooking the consultation features of the website. It is time to consider how a dominant discourse repeats its influence at a structural level by cueing ‘talk’. On the one hand, we can characterize  www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca as a space that steers process along and synchronizes understanding through a common stock of resources. Of its seven sections, only two (‘Idea Forums’ and ‘Submissions’) provide spaces for users to upload content to the website. The rest provide additional information such as press releases, a consultation paper, reports and links to industry groups. Particularly noteworthy, only one of these sections, ‘Idea Forums’, permit users to openly comment on their own contributions to the consultation process and reverse a transmitter-receiver flow.

The ‘Idea Forums’ features a number of user posting that respond to such questions as “Should Canada focus on increasing innovation in some key sectors or focus on providing the foundation for innovation across the economy?” and “What can we do to ensure that labour market entrants have digital skills?” However, these contributions also differ from the more formal submission papers formatted by the likes of Engineers Canada, Xerox Canada and Friends of Canadian Broadcasting. Although the more formal submissions could have been placed into multiple themes and could have increased chance of reappearing throughout the website, forum postings were limited to only one thematic area. The ‘Frequently Asked Questions’ page justifies this structural decision, stating it “is necessary to facilitate the online conversation.” In practice, such a design choice, while enabling ‘talk’, reproduces Digital Advantage’s five themes exponentially with each posting.

Conversely, it could also be argued that the forums represent a dialogical space that permits agents to create their own structure by introducing hyperlinks into their postings. Although this is the case, a series of prominently placed yellow notice boxes at the top of each thread remind us that all forum links are unofficial. As much as users are given a feature to practice agency and direct others’ attention with links, administrators respond to the destabilizing potential of this tool by downplaying its importance. Similarly, users become further distanced from one another, even when commenting on the same post. A lack of a ‘quotation’ feature presents a space in which one cannot directly respond to another poster. It would take minimal skill to copy and paste a direct quote, but again, this is an unofficial use of the software space. What emerges is a struggle in which participants compete with administrators to share a proverbial spotlight.

Having reached the end of this reflection, I have made a case for the structuring potential of an online consultation process using www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca as my vehicle of choice. I cannot stress enough that this website’s software space is but one technology making possible a much larger network of institutional spaces thrust along by political dogmas. In hindsight, my research design prevented me from describing the role of struggle and resistance within the public-facing archives of the Digital Economy Strategy consultation process. Should a Digital Economy Strategy ever come to fruition, it would prove interesting to undertake a qualitative analysis of how well ‘feedback’ solicited using www.digitaleconomy.gc.ca had been incorporated into such a document.

James Loney


The Policy Slant of Canada’s Early Satellite Policy

My background is in the field of history and social studies of science and technology. I originally became interested in policy discourse when doing a reading seminar for my MA. It was around 2000, and I was looking at different legal viewpoints of how the internet should be regulated. As a relatively new system, legal scholars were engaged in a lively debate about whether the internet was a completely revolutionary technology that could not be regulated like communications technologies of the past, or whether it was a comparable system and should be regulated accordingly.

When doing my research, I came across one paper that would influence me greatly. It was a dissertation looking at the internet and its applicability to the Communications Decency Act in the United States. Scott Lybarger, the author, argued that when the US Supreme Course determined the constitutional validity of the Communications Decency Act, its decision was largely based on their adoption of the conduit metaphor for the Internet, likening the technology to previous systems like television, radio and print, and suggesting that the Act violated free speech laws because they regarded internet accessibility as more similar to print than television or radio.

Lybarger noted that this was not the only option for the Supreme Court;  It could have chosen to conceptualize the internet as a space, subject to regulation via zoning laws, and by doing so, might have reached an entirely different decision. However, by utilizing a metaphor already used to describe communications systems of the past, the Supreme Court effectively based its decision on previous conceptions of older technologies.

I became very interested in exploring how technologies are described in the realm of law and intended to do my PhD on the issue of internet regulation. I wanted to do a comparative policy analysis by looking at both the internet and the introduction of early satellites in Canada. It appeared that there were many similarities between the two systems: both were hybrid technologies, new and unfamiliar to early policy makers. Regulation could go in a number of different ways.  Canada was also the first country to have its own satellite system, which meant that in many ways, it was a trailblazer in the field.

As these things tend to go however, I soon discovered a comparative analysis would have to wait. It became evident to me that the satellite story was so rich with issues of rhetoric, power and choice, not to mention the fact that there were an overwhelming number of documents to try and find and focus on.  I decided to focus my attention on exclusively on discourse analysis related to the advent of Canada’s first domestic communication satellite system.

I looked at the introduction of domestic communications satellites in Canada from 1966-1970, which included the formation of the country’s first satellite corporation, Telesat Canada. I closely examined how language tropes like metaphors and analogies were used to describe satellites in a variety of documents including corporate reports, legislative debates, committee hearings, and cabinet meetings before the advent of Telesat Canada in 1968. I wanted to see how satellites were conceived of by policy makers and how these conception had affected key decisions related to technical make-up, cost, regulation and ownership.

My research could be classified within the field of post-positivist discourse analysis studies in public policy. While there are a number of disciplines in the field itself  (i.e. hermeneutics, critique, deconstruction), post-positivists generally reject a rational model of public policy making, where it is assumed that policy is created through an objective framework based on empirical data and observation. Instead, there is a belief that policy outcomes are often determined by threads of argumentation, persuasion and rhetoric,.  These threads are more ideological than logical in structure, and more anecdotal than scientific in their basis. Even more specifically, my own work was a case study in rhetorical analysis, a method used to explore how the use of language tropes like metaphors and analogies are used in policy narratives, including their use in persuading specific audiences in specific contexts to accept or reject proposed explanations or undertake recommended actions.

As a historian of technology, I was particularly interested how rhetoric was used to stabilize and close controversial debates over this new technological system. In the policy arena, metaphors and analogies may be used to describe a complex technology in order to make it more accessible to parties who need to quickly grasp the issues and problems surrounding it. Of course, many of these metaphors are presented by powerful political and business interests who often have the ability to impose their definitions of a new technology onto other parties that are not as influential or do not have access to the resources necessary to make their voices heard.

One source that I found invaluable for my study was Deborah Stone’s book Policy Paradox: The Art of Political Decision Making. Stone claims that all policy making is inherently a struggle over ideas, and that language plays a key role in political reasoning and the art of persuasion. She pays particular attention to the importance of metaphors, arguing that metaphors are abundant in policy language and represent implied comparisons. To analogize in metaphors is to select one feature of something, assert a likeness on the basis of that feature, and ignore all other features. In politics, metaphors are thus used to help gain political control and may result in concrete policy initiatives.

I examined technical discourse in the Telesat policy debates, and determined why certain regulatory and policy choices were made about the new system and the goals and reasoning behind such choices. Satellite technology had been conceptualized in different ways as evidenced in language tropes used by policy makers, and these conceptualizations, in turn, influenced the decision making process. For example, despite public predictions of their revolutionary potential and obvious technical differences, the rhetoric in the Standing Committee and Parliamentary debates showed powerful industry actors like the telephone industry (which saw satellites as competition to their existing microwave systems) and their political allies using particular metaphors to gain control over the new technology by defining it within an already existing technological landscape. They often depicted satellites as nothing more than transponders, microwave towers, relay systems, cables or even telephone poles in the sky. All of this was done to try and persuade the government that satellites were nothing new and that it would be in the country’s best interest to let them have control over the new system.

Ultimately, what I found was that the choices made about Canada’s domestic communications satellites were very much bound up in the ways that this technology was conceived of and talked about, and that the many of the decisions pertaining to the new system ultimately proved to be unsuccessful. As such, the viability of this new and promising technology was cast into doubt, and Canada’s much vaunted leadership in the communications field was squandered.


Once you have read this chapter, you should be able to: 

  1. Understand discourse about public issues and the various terms associated with it.
  2. Identify and locate the various markers of discourse and how to differentiate them.
  3. Locate and identify core documents on discourse about public issues relevant to your research project.
  4. Perform research steps required to interrogate and analyse discourse about public issues relevant to your research project.




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