Pragmatics and Discourse Studies

Federico Navarro federicodanielnavarro at YAHOO.COM.AR
Tue Mar 25 16:09:38 UTC 2008

  Dear Teun and list members,
  I have read your analysis of the relations between pragmatics and discourse studies with great interest. I think your main claim (pragmatics as one specific subfield of discourse studies) can be tracked back in other papers of yours (e.g., “The study of discourse” (1997)) and I basically agree with you. In any case, it’s a difficult topic that many papers tend to skip (or simply describe, often confusingly) and thus I believe we should examine it in depth, as you do.
  Now, I’d like to know your opinion about two related issues. First, I wonder if the disciplinary relations between pragmatics and discourse studies aren’t also determined by non-theoretical parameters. This is obviously true of any discipline, but I’m referring here to a particularly influential institutional picture. I feel that pragmatics might (just might) be better established institutionally (in terms of congresses, periodical publications, degree subjects) than discourse studies or discourse analysis as such. Therefore, to explain the scope of pragmatics (at least, as a “label”) we should probably take institutional factors into account as well. 
  This might explain the paradox you pointed out: “At the international congress of pragmatics, many if not most papers are on discourse and conversation”. That is, the label “pragmatics” is here in fact used as an umbrella term, not because of theoretical reasons but (probably) because of institutional ones.
  Secondly, the fact that pragmatic interests are to a certain extent better clear-cut (despite being heterogeneous) than discourse interests could explain its institutional impact and strength.
  I’m not quite sure about these two hypotheses, but I’d really like to know what you and other members of the list think about it.
  All the best,
  Federico Navarro
  University of Buenos Aires

"Teun A. van Dijk" <teun at DISCOURSES.ORG> escribió:

Here is a summary of how I see the relations between pragmatics and discourse studies. 

1. As areas of research both pragmatics and discourse studies (as I prefer to call what is often called 'discourse analysis') have emerged more or less at the same time in the 1960s, in both cases at the margin of, and in reaction against, formal sentence grammars, and similar limitation in other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences. 

2. Thus, pragmatics extended grammar and linguistics (then limited to syntax and -- a little bit of -- semantics) with a third main component, that of the study of language use as action, beginning with the work on speech acts by Austin and Searle, and later in various other directions interested in actual language use in context and communication, such as the study of conversational postulates, maxims and implicatures by Grice, and on politeness by Brown and Levinson. In a broad sense these developments correspond to the field of the third main domain of semiotics as defined by Charles Morris in the 1930s: Syntax as the study of the relations of signs among themselves (structure), semantics as the study of the relation between signs and the world (meaning, reference), and pragmatics as the study of the relations between signs and their users (use, action). Of course, this is only a very rough correspondence, because also sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics, which
 emerged at the same time in the 1960s, are also studies of language use, interested in the relations between 'signs' (utterances, expressions, etc.) and their users. In sum, pragmatics is quite heterogeneous (speech acts, implicatures, conversational postulates and politeness, among some of its major domains of research, are very different objects of research) but they all have to do with actual language use, action, interaction and appropriateness of language use rather than with abstract (syntactic) well-formedness or structure, or with (semantic) meaningfulness or reference. In this sense, pragmatics overlaps with conversation analysis as well as with (other) discourse studies, both also studying forms of language use and interaction. 

3. Discourse Studies (DS) also extended the then (1960s) current structuralist and generative grammars, by emphasizing, first of all, that the unit or object of language use should not be based on isolated (invented) sentences, but on real, natural instances of text or talk. It did so, in linguistics, for instance by examining the way sequences of propositions (meanings of discourse) were coherent, both locally, as well as globally. At the same time sociolinguistics (especially Labov) was interested in everyday storytelling and other speech activities (e.g., the study of ritual insults of African American youths in the USA). Semiotics in France developed the study of the structural analysis of stories, whereas the 'new rhetoric' and other disciplines started the more systematic study of argumentation, and linguistically oriented literary studies advocated the study of style, overlapping with the study of social style (as one aspect of language variation) in
 sociolinguistics. As one of the first in these many directions of discourse studies, that is, already at the beginning of the 1960s, the work of Dell Hymes in anthropology emphasized the need for the study of complete communicative events in their cultural contexts.  Micro-sociology, and especially ethnomethodology, interested in interaction of everyday life, more specifically focused on the study of mundane conversation, and later more generally on talk-in-interaction (also in institutional settings). And cognitive psychology extended the then current psycholinguistic study of the comprehension of sentences to the broader field of discourse processing (production and comprehension), the representation (storage, recall, etc.) of discourse in memory and the crucial role of knowledge in these processes. 

4. In other words, all major disciplines of the humanities and social sciences were involved in the early development of Discourse Studies as a "cross-discipline" between 1964 and 1974. In sum, like pragmatics also DS is interested in many different aspects of language use, but its unified object of analysis is language use as actual, naturally ocurring text or talk. At first this object was studied mostly in more formal terms (semantic, interactional, narrative, argumentative, etc., structures) and later also in a more cognitive perspective (actual processing of discourse), a social perspective (as social interaction and as constitutive of social organization) and a cultural perspective (as culturally variable language use and communicative events in cultural contexts). 

5. From this very succinct -- and hence incomplete -- summary of the developments of pragmatics and Discurse Studies, we may conclude the following:

(a) They are overlapping cross-disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, both interested in the study of naturally occurring language use, and especially in the study of text and talk as social interaction. At the international congress of pragmatics, many if not most papers are on discourse and conversation. 
(b) Pragmatics especially advocated the extension of grammar and other formal approaches limited to syntax and semantics, with a third 'pragmatic' component studying language use as (speech) acts, interaction and relations between language users. Discourse Studies also advocated an extension of grammar and linguistics, but initially especially for the very object of study: not isolated sentences, but discourse. Both pragmatics and DS are interested in naturally occurring language use, that is, in text and talk. 
(c) Discourse Studies is broader than pragmatics because it sees pragmatics as just one (major) area of discourse studies. DS is also interested in the formal study of discourse syntax, in discourse semantics (coherence, topic-comment., focus, presupposition, etc.), in genres, narrative and argumentation structures, as well as the cognitive processing and mental representation as well as the situatedness of discourse in society. DS also features a more critical approach specifically interested in the study of the role of discourse in the (re) production of social power and power abuse, for instance in sexism, racism and other forms of social domination and inequality.

6. The development of new (cross) disciplines is of course hardly very systematic. Hence the many overlaps between pragmatics and Discourse Studies. After the early 1970s these developments also overlapped with developments in (e.g. interactional) sociolinguistics (the work of Gumperz et al), psycholinguistics, linguistic anthropology, and later in social psychology ("discursive psychology") and communication studies. In other words we thus have a very broad discipline of "language use, interaction or discourse", with many different aspects, dimensions, levels or topics of resaerch, each with different (formal, descriptive, empirical, etc.) methods - and extending far beyond the original mother disciplines of linguistics, sociology, anthropology and psychology.

6. My personal perspective on the links between discourse studies and pragmatics is that 'pragmatic' should strictly speaking be used only for studies of language use as acts, action or interaction, as a third component besides syntax as the study of form/structure of discourse, of semantics as the study of meaning (intension) and reference (extension). Each of these three main levels of the study of language use or discourse then may first have a more formal, abstract, normative dimension (as is the case for generative and formal grammars, formal semantics, philosophical speech act analysis, conversation analysis, argumentation analysis, etc. -- often making structures explicit in terms of rules). Each of these levels of discourse study also has a more 'empirical' dimension in the analysis of actual text and talk of actual language users (mental processing, mental models) as members of social groups and communities, and in socially situated interaction within institutions
 and social structures. In these studies text and talk are examined rather in the more dynamic terms of moves and strategies (politeness, self-presentation and impression management, persuasion, manipulation, etc.), the influence of discourse, the exercise of power, and the constitution and reproduction of the social order. This last dimension would also need to make explicit the nature of context, as well as the relations between discourse or language use with such context. We thus have the following schema:

       LOCAL: discourse syntax, pronouns, word-worder, style
       GLOBAL: formats, schemas: narrative, argumentative, conversational
       LOCAL/MICRO: sequential coherence, topic-comment, focus, presupposition
       GLOBAL/MACRO: global coherence, discourse topics
       LOCAL: speech acts sequences; interaction: turn-taking, side sequences
       GLOBAL: speech/discourse activities: parliamentary debates, political campaigns, teaching a class, etc. 

Each of these levels then has a more formal, normative dimension as well as a more empirical (cognitive, and socioculturally situated, contextual) dimension studying actual language users (and their identities, roles, relations, goals and knowledge) in socially situated interaction. 

This is a schema of the organization of (sub) disciplines, and not of actual research projects and topics, which may combine different levels and dimensions. Thus one may study such different things as presuppositions, fallacies, storytelling, racist discourse, and a host of other topics at the levels of form (formats), meaning and (inter) action, and both in more formal or more empirical and contextualized (laboratory, field, situation) studies. 

Although this is a simplification and in a way a reduction, this schematic view of the relation of pragmatics with respect to discourse studies may clarify a bit what otherwise may be seen as an extremely complex collection of more or less overlapping approaches. 

There are now many introductions to (and handbooks of) both pragmatics and discourse studies that detail much of what has been said above. 


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