Kevin A. Whitehead
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Communication. Please check back later for the full article.
In the wake of what has been called “the discursive turn” in the social sciences, research at the intersection of language and communication with race and racism has shifted, from being largely dominated by quantitative and experimental methods, to include qualitative and particularly discursive approaches. While the term “discursive” potentially encompasses a wide range of modes of discourse analysis, discursive approaches share a focus on language use as social action, and as a constitutive feature of actions, events, and situations, rather than merely as a passive means of describing or transmitting information about them. When applied to the study of race and racism, such approaches have examined ways in which language functions to construct, maintain, and legitimate as well as subvert or resist racial and/or racist ideologies and social structures.
Research in these areas has made use of a range of empirical materials, including “elite” discourse (media texts, parliamentary debates, academic texts, etc.), individual interviews, group interviews or focus groups, text-based online interactions, and “naturally occurring” talk-in-interaction, from conversational and institutional settings. Specific topics examined in these studies include the construction and uses of racial subjectivities, identities, and categories; features of racist discourse(s) and their intersection with power and domination; “new” racisms, including “colorblind racism”; the production and management of accusations and denials of racism, particularly in contexts characterized by norms against racism and/or prejudice; and contestations of the nature and meanings of racism. While offering important contributions to consideration of the links between “broad” race-related social structures and their situated production and reproduction through language, the centrality of language use for these approaches has resulted in challenges relating to theorizing the relationship between discourse and materiality, and addressing non-verbal or embodied aspects of action with respect to race and racism.
Nathan A. Crick
Poststructuralism represents a set of attitudes and a style of critique that developed in critical response to the growth and identification of the logic of structural relations that underlie social institutions—whether they exist in terms of politics, economics, education, medicine, literature, or the sciences. Poststructuralism should therefore not be thought of as a distinct philosophy that exists separately as its own “structure”—a proposition that would undermine its most fundamental attitudes. Rather, poststructuralism should be thought of as developing or arising only in response to pre-existing structures and, as a set of attitudes, helping us better understand, interpret, and alter our social environment by calling established meanings into question, revealing the points of ambiguity and indeterminacy inherent in any system, rejecting the rationalistic piety that all systems are internally coherent and circle around an unchanging center, showing how discourses are carriers of power capable of turning us into subjects, and placing upon us the burden of ethical responsibility that accompanies the acceptance of freedom.
Although poststructuralism by its very nature as a set of attitudes denies any attempt at comprehensive definition, this essay examines three of the major postructuralist thinkers in order to relate their thought to the study of communication. First, following Derrida, poststructuralist thought invites a critical deconstruction of any discourse that presents itself as completely coherent, centered, and rational. Poststructuralist approaches thus do not argue against a position by harnessing counterarguments drawing on a different set of principles. Rather, it deconstructs a discourse by occupying it and exposing the gaps, contradictions, paradoxes, and deferments, thus revealing its established hierarchies, binaries, logical conclusions, and principles to be far more loosely structured and poly-vocal than its advocates wish to present them. Second, following Barthes, poststructuralism refuses to locate any single point of origin of any text that can ground its meaning—particularly by pointing to some ground of the author. Although not denying that writers exist, Barthes refuses to identify the meaning of a text with the author’s biography and intentions, instead inviting multiple interpretations from the perspective of individual readers who encounter the text as a unique event. Therefore, just as discourses do not have a unified structure, neither do individual texts or the authors that produce them. Lastly, following Fouacult, poststructuralism invites an inquiry into how discourses, texts, and acts of communication are always implicated in relations of power that act upon possible actions. Following the first two propositions, poststructuralism does not analyze these relations of power as completely structured and determinate, however. Power relations are always within a dynamic relationship with acts of resistance, thereby constantly leaving space for freedom and possibility.