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Discursive Approaches to Race and Racism  

Kevin A. Whitehead

In the wake of what has been called the “discursive turn” or “linguistic turn” in the social sciences, research at the intersection of language and communication and race and racism 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 as merely 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” texts and talk (media texts, parliamentary debates, academic texts, etc.), individual interviews, focus groups and group discussions, “naturally occurring” talk-in-interaction from conversational and institutional settings, and text-based online interactions. Although these different data types should not be seen as strictly mutually exclusive, each of them serves to foreground particular features of racial or racist discourse(s), thus facilitating or constraining particular sorts of discourse analytic findings. Thus, different data sources respectively tend to foreground ideological features of racial discourse(s) and their intersection with power and domination, including examination of “new” racisms and the production and management of accusations and denials of racism; discursive processes involved in the construction and uses of racial subjectivities and identities; interactional processes through which prejudice and racism are constructed and contested; and the everyday interactional reproduction of systems of racial categories, independently of whether the talk in which they occur can or should be considered “racist.”



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, post-structuralism 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 post-structuralism 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, post-structuralist thought invites a critical deconstruction of any discourse that presents itself as completely coherent, centered, and rational. Post-structuralist 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.


Sara Ahmed’s Critical Phenomenology of Communication  

Rachel Stonecipher

Sara Ahmed is a feminist philosopher specializing in how the cultural politics of language use and discourse mediate social and embodied encounters with difference. She has published field-shaping contributions to queer and feminist theory, critical race and postcolonial theory, affect and emotion studies, and phenomenology. Since the publication of Differences that Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism in 1998, her work has epitomized the value of contemporary feminist cultural studies to speak to and against the masculinist traditions of continental philosophy. Unequivocally inserting feminist politics into the rarified air of academic theory, it crosses the sexist boundary which corrals feminist thought into the category of “studies” while opposing it to male-authored philosophy—the latter automatically authorized to speak on the social and material “Real.” In doing so, her work sits squarely within discourse-analytical traditions that seek to expose how various epistemic scenes – activism, the media, and academia, to name a few -- sediment false authority on such issues as happiness, utility, and the good. Moreover, in contesting New Materialism’s search for some monist “matter” beneath experience, she traces how those linguistic moves impose insidiously singular concepts of what social “reality” is, and how it unfolds, for real people. As a field, communication studies concerns itself centrally with matters of social influence, scale, and power, such as the electoral effects of political speech, or the ability of a message to morph as it reaches new audiences. Turning a critical eye upon the (re)production of cultural norms and social structure through interpersonal and institutional encounters, Ahmed’s oeuvre explores the discursive logics and speech acts that sediment or transform the social meanings of race, gender, and other differences.