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Discursively constructed realities: exploring and extending the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse

About: Reiner Keller, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, Wolf J. Schünemann (dir.), The sociology of knowledge approach to discourse. Investigating the politics of knowledge and meaning-making, Londres, Routledge, 2018.
Simon Smith
The sociology of knowledge approach to discourse
Reiner Keller, Anna-Katharina Hornidge, Wolf J. Schünemann (dir.), The sociology of knowledge approach to discourse. Investigating the politics of knowledge and meaning-making, Londres, Routledge, coll. « Routledge advances in sociology », 2018, 300 p., ISBN : 9781138048720.
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Texte intégral

1This book has the ambition of providing an ‘exemplar’ or ‘reader’ (in the words of Adele Clarke, author of the Foreword) for a German approach to discourse analytical sociology that emerged in the early 2000s and has since spread internationally, based on the foundational work of Reiner Keller. The sixteen other authors – whom we might designate as ‘adopters’ or ‘developers’ of the Sociology of Knowledge Approach to Discourse (SKAD), working in a range of social science fields – describe how they used SKAD to generate research questions, which of its analytical categories they applied and how their analyses and presentations were inspired by SKAD. The first three chapters provide a thorough conceptual and genealogical introduction to the ‘theory-methodology-methods package’ (p. 27) that SKAD constitutes, Keller and Clarke’s chapter 3 usefully situating SKAD in the historiography of interpretive inquiry with special reference to German, French and American contexts, showing its affinity with grounded theory, symbolic interactionism, Foucauldian discourse research and pragmatist philosophy, while also stressing a certain distance from post-textual cultural turns in the social sciences and humanities. In the book’s closing chapter, Luther and Schünemann present solutions for data visualisation that aim to avoid purely static representations and automated analysis, supporting instead the inductive, intuitive, interpretive and reflexive approaches involved in SKAD analysis. Meanwhile, the very presentation of these tools in the form of a book chapter tends to counteract the intended appeal to reflexivity, collaboration and exploration. Unfortunately, the reader would need a hands-on experience of their Entity Mapper tool to properly appreciate its potential.

Positioning SKAD in the sociological tradition of discourse analysis

2Keller’s central claim for SKAD is that it ‘establishes a research programme which is interested in the social relations of knowledge and the social politics of knowledge as they are manifest in the discursive construction, transformation, stabilisation and destruction of realities. It therefore supplies research with a theory of its object (discourses) and the conditions for existence of such an object. It further provides a reflexive methodology of interpretation which accounts for its basic condition of producing a discourse about discourses. And it offers various methods or strategies for sampling and analysing data and telling a story about an object of inquiry’ (p. 74-75).

3In addition to Keller’s own claim, it is useful for the newcomer to note some of the advantages identified by the other contributors as they reflect on their own SKAD applications and developments: ‘for the analysis of politics [… it] bring the actors back into focus […] sensitive to the actor or speaker positions in a given discursive formation’ (Schünemann, p. 94); it helps ‘render transparent strategic manoeuvrings and shifts in […] policy’ (Hornidge and Nadav Feuer, p. 146); ‘by distinguishing between actors and speakers [SKAD] may identify silent or silenced voices’ (Zhang and McGhee, p. 164); it favours ‘a more differentiated perspective on human self-relations’ with recourse to ‘discursively constructed storylines and subject positions’ (Bosančić, p. 198); its ‘self-reflexivity’ works against processes of reification of social realities, making it a suitable method to support an emancipatory research agenda informed by queer or post-colonial theory (Küppers, p. 217).

4The point that is repeatedly stressed is that SKAD is less about knowledge than about processes of knowing and their social relations and politics, understood in line with Foucault’s concept regimes of power/knowledge. Anchored in a pragmatic and social constructivist sociology, it nevertheless shifts our analytical attention (partially) from the social construction to the discursive construction of reality, where discourse is, among other things, ‘a heuristic device for ordering and analysing data, a necessary hypothetical assumption in order to start research.’ (p. 19) Discourse is carried by dispositifs, understood with Foucault once again, meaning that it has a materiality (‘a material manifestation and circulation of knowledge’ in Schünemann’s words (p. 94)) and a dual infrastructure of discursive production (the means of discoursing as a social practice) and intervention (the effects and products of discourse). But we are also invited to read Gusfield again and understand discourses as processes frozen in time and (Keller adds) ‘thawed, from time to time’ (p. 89). Hence, SKAD appreciates the trajectory of discourses towards a projected, but often never attained, and sometimes reversible ‘climax’ (Hornidge and Nadav Feuer, p. 143) – i.e. the dynamics of fixing and unfixing discourses as social facts.

  • 1 It is a pity the book lacks an index, since it would be useful for the reader to be able to go back (...)

5In Keller’s second chapter, we find a complete enumeration of SKAD’s conceptual and methodological tools – bearing in mind that SKAD does not provide so much a firm set of research procedures than a broad frame suggesting specific types of research questions (p. 28-29). It furnishes an ‘interpretive analytics’ based on the principle of co-constructing answers to these questions ‘with the help of data’ (p. 30) in a process of continual interpretation. Keller proceeds to describe an array of conceptual tools that help organise this interpretive work - utterances/statements, social actors, speakers and their positions, subject positions and subjectification, discursive fields and coalitions, practices, and the above-mentioned dispositifs of production and intervention. The inclination towards discourse as practice opens out onto an interpretive repertoire ‘by which a discourse performs its symbolic structuring of the world’ (p. 32) through what are called interpretive schemes, argumentation clusters, classifications, phenomenal structures and narrative structures or plots. Elements of this repertoire are taken up selectively in the book’s empirical chapters1.

Different applications and ways of working with SKAD

6One of the features of the book is a diversity of approach. A typical weakness of multi-author volumes here becomes a potential strength, since diversity promises to subject SKAD to a useful test of applicability and to demonstrate to potential users a broad range of fields in which it can be applied. There are at least four main axes of variation.

7Firstly, some chapters – e.g. 4, 7, 8 and 9 – are written as ‘guided tours’ of SKAD or ‘methodological reflections’ on fieldwork and analysis, retrospective stories of historical research processes/programmes showing how they were conceived and carried out; others – e.g. 5, 6, 11, 12 and 13 – are more like research papers, where the data and results are foregrounded and the methods and theory become instrumental to the investigation of a topic/issue. SKAD, one could say, is the main protagonist of the former chapters and the helper in the latter. As a reader unfamiliar with SKAD (although doing discourse analysis which shares many of the same principles), I found the methodological reflections more helpful: in most of the other chapters, the authors’ presentation of SKAD was too brief or too opaque to fully appreciate how (much) it had informed their research. We can see the kinds of interpretations SKAD enables and the type of discursive practices people working in the SKAD tradition themselves perform, but too little of the actual working.

8Secondly, some chapters are ‘SKAD projects’ (von Unger, Scott and Odukoya, p. 180), others explore the compatibility of projects conceived independently with the principles of SKAD, re-examining data from a SKAD perspective, while Bosančić’s chapter is framed, as already mentioned, as ‘grounded’ in SKAD while trying to ‘extend’ it, always within an interpretive paradigm.

  • 2 It is symptomatic that Keller has for several years collaborated with Francis Chateauraynaud, with (...)

9A third line of variation is between studies that used SKAD to explore discursive conflict over matters of concern (e.g. chapters 4, 5, 11 and 13) and studies interested in reconstructing the historical emergence of a (dominant) discourse (e.g. chapters 6, 7, 9 and 12). The former kind of study demonstrates SKAD’s use value to scholars concerned with the construction of public problems and controversies2: focusing on the definitional struggles between actors/speakers, it treats discursive practice as fundamentally performative and is interested in the use of discourse for various strategic ends in the context of collective/conflictual ‘meaning making’. Hornidge and Nadav Feuer exemplify the latter approach with their use of the biological/biographical metaphor ‘climax’ to describe the phase of discursive production when discourses have become (provisionally) social and institutional facts. This permits an interesting reflection on the related methodological problem of project scoping (delimiting the field to be investigated) in response to the range of different discourse trajectories one can encounter.

  • 3 Van Eemeren Frans H., Grootendorst Rob, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation. The pragma-dialectica (...)

10Finally, in the different chapters we meet discourses that are more or less public and more or less specialised. Keller touches on this distinction with the observation that public discourses are held together not ‘by a discipline or religious world view’ but ‘by the performance of particular definitions of a situation’ (p. 23). There is an affinity here with pragma-dialectics3 insofar as SKAD treats public situations as capable of imposing an exigency to convince an audience (every argument implies and often anticipates a counter-argument) and recognises how a precondition for successful argumentation is usually the acceptance of certain unexpressed premises inherent in the situation as a specific type of discursive event. Hence one of SKAD’s central tenets is that discourses perform interpellation of some kind. Different contributors, however, deal with this in different ways: while Küppers ‘forces the analysis to remain on the level of interpellation or allocation’ by studying the allocation of subject positions to discourse protagonists (sex workers) in media discourse (p. 205), Bosančić, interested in how living individuals actually respond to interpellations contained in subject positions, proposes a (natural) extension of the SKAD framework in his study of the self-positioning of semi-skilled workers – an extension he describes as a move from the meso-level of institutions to the micro-level of individual actors’ self-relations (p. 189-190). It could equally be seen as a reduction in the publicness of discursive practice. One of the questions left hanging is how different degrees of publicness affect the applicability of SKAD or the design of a SKAD project.

From discursive to narrative and communicative construction

11The range of heuristic, methodological and theoretical implications raised in and by the different chapters of this book is too broad to cover in the space of this commentary, so I will focus on two that resonate with my own research interests: SKAD’s forays into narrative analysis and its insistence on combining discourse analysis with ethnography in ways that foreground the communicative and translational processes implicated in discourse.

Narrative structures in the SKAD repertoire: a script-story dialectic

  • 4 Bruner Jerome, ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1991, p. 1-21.
  • 5 Bres Jacques, La narrativité, Louvain-la-Neuve, Duculot, 1994. Adam Jean-Michel, ‘Une alternative a (...)

12One of the most intriguing, if rather open-ended affordances of SKAD is its consideration of narrative structures in discourse: it is an approach that recognises how reality is not just discursively but narratively constructed4. This is notable because narrative analysis is too often hived off from sociological applications of discourse analysis or relegated to a secondary effect. The exact place of narrativity in SKAD analyses would nonetheless benefit from more precise specification – here it could take a lead from post-structural narratology5.

  • 6 Smith Simon, ‘Narrativity discovered and narrativity uncovered: narration and narrativisation in re (...)
  • 7 Narrativity (as illustrated in Keller’s own empirically-focused chapter on public discourses on was (...)
  • 8 Labov William, ‘Some further steps in narrative analysis’, Journal of narrative and life history, 7 (...)
  • 9 Baroni Raphaël, ‘Le rôle des scripts dans le récit’, Poétique, 129, 2002, p. 105-126.
  • 10 Maingueneau Dominique, Les termes clés de l’analyse du discours, Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 94.
  • 11 Bruner, op cit.
  • 12 Bres, op cit.

13When Keller talks about narrative structures, he is concerned with discursive structures that privilege certain dimensions of narrativity while extending their applicability to forms of temporalisation that it is arguably more appropriate to treat as non-narrative. SKAD focuses on composition and intrigue rather than on linguistic instrumentation (on what I have called narration rather than narrativisation6); likewise it focuses on the dialogical or conversational dimension inherent in the interactive situation of storytelling7 (and so important to Labov8) rather than on the internal dimension of events. Narrative structures are structures which form a sort of shell that encompasses the other elements of an interpretive repertoire and sequences them in a more or less coherent arrangement so that ‘the discourse can address an audience’ (p. 34). But with this encompassing shell, SKAD is, I think, concerned with a broader phenomenon - with how syntagmatic configurations can envelop paradigmatic and pragmatic ones, and with various ways of modelling or integrating temporal sequences in discursive practice for purposes of meaning making and argumentation/persuasion. These temporal sequences can, as Baroni has shown9, be narrative (a ‘mise en intrigue’ as Keller puts it, citing Ricoeur) or non-narrative: scripts, schemas, scenarios, routines or procedural descriptions – various designations for stereotypical sequences of actions10 – that carry discursive power and permit interpretive hypotheses because they are accepted as authoritative accounts of how things are done or should be done. Conceptualising subjectification, for example – how actors accept or resist ‘the interpellation processes that discourses perform’ (p. 36) – is aided if a distinction is maintained between scripts and stories, the tension between which is often integral to meaning making because it furnishes openings for various shapes and shades of discursive transgression11. We should talk about narrative structures, Bres proposes, only in those cases when meaning making proceeds polemically from situations where human actors are in conflict with each other or the world12, which includes being in conflict with scripts.

14In fact, Zhang and McGhee’s study (chapter 8) of the discursive (mis)interpretation of policy texts by Communist Party officials charged with their implementation in China is a good illustration of how SKAD already works, effectively, with such a script-story dialectic. Contrary to the assumption that state socialism relies particularly strongly on conformity to texts as scripts, they find that local officials actually enjoy considerable scope for discretion. Seeking a tool to keep the focus on the ‘dispositifs used to tackle problems’, and focusing a great deal on how researchers ‘constructed the scene’ (p. 161) to enable participants to tell their stories (or their truths), they used SKAD to reconstruct a chain of discursive reinterpretations in a multi-level governance system, exploiting its dialectical conception (positioning and being positioned) of the relationship between discursive production and social roles (p. 152). It became a tool for ‘paradigmatic exposition’ of the relationship between official state policy and local problematisations as captured in research situations, where discursive practices were treated successively as confirmatory, subjectifying and translational. The scripts themselves constitute temporally-configured discursive structures; narrative structures – if we accept Bres’s proposition – appear at the point where speakers enter into conflict with the scripts.

Dispositif ethnography: a double translation between texts and conversations

  • 13 Taylor James, Cooren François, Giroux Nicole, Robichaud Daniel, ‘The Communicational Basis of Organ (...)

15As for the ethnographic imperative, the combination of textual analysis with ethnographic inquiry is regarded as ideal if not essential in order to fully understand the functioning of infrastructures of discursive production and discursive intervention. The case is made most directly and forcefully by Elliker in chapter 14, who claims that discourses should be studied a/ in relation to ‘other relevant processes that co-structure the environment in which discourses operate’ (p. 270) and b/ ‘in sites which are not the main sites of serious speech acts and discursive meaning making’ (p. 259). Elliker takes Keller’s to-and-fro between utterances and texts, combines it with Knoblauch’s focused ethnography, and sets up a methodological but also ontological dialectic in which the focus is on the making of contributions to discourses, on the one hand, and the (always locally mediated) intervention of institutionalised discourses in concrete fields of practice, on the other. There is a strong affinity here with communicative constitution of organisation (CCO) theory since these SKAD iterations are reminiscent of the ‘text-conversation cycle’ through which, in CCO theory, social structuring occurs in organisational forms of life: ‘As people collectively produce an interpretation they leave their actions open to interpretation... The interpretive activities constitute, in our language, a conversation, while the subject matter and goal of its interpretations are text... Each modality enfolds the other. It is in this dialectic of conversation and text that the organizing occurs.’13

  • 14 Keller Reiner, Die Untersuchung von Dispositiven. Überlegungen zur fokussierten Diskursethnographie (...)
  • 15 Cooren François, ‘Communication Theory at the Center: Ventriloquism and the Communicative Constitut (...)
  • 16 Cooren François, Bencherki Nicolas, Chaput Mathieu, Vásquez Consuelo, ‘The communicative constituti (...)
  • 17 Cooren François, Sandler Sergeiy, ‘Polyphony, Ventriloquism, and Constitution: In Dialogue with Bak (...)

16When operationalised in the form of a ‘dispositif ethnography’ (p. 258) paying heed to ‘the interplay between situated contexts and practices with discourses [and the] constitution of contexts through discourses’14, a similar double translation between texts and conversations is precisely what the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse sets out to investigate. In this sense it is not only a discursive construction of reality but also a communicative constitution of reality that SKAD operationalises: ‘Advocating a communicative constitution of reality does not amount to falling into some degenerate form of constructivism (or even solipsism). It means, on the contrary, that, for instance, preoccupations, realities, and situations get expressed and translated in what we say or write. And these expressions, animations or translations can, of course, always be questioned and negotiated on the terra firma of interaction’15. SKAD could interest researchers working in this tradition as a means of illuminating these animations and translations, while some of the techniques used by organisational sociologists – e.g. the use of video cameras as ‘a way to record an interaction as exhaustively and richly as possible’16 and hence ‘unfold the folded voices’ (the ideologies, norms, concerns, statuses, etc.) in a text17 – could inspire SKAD researchers in their contextual explorations of discourse worlds.

17If one of this book’s aims was to stimulate further developments and extensions of SKAD, I suggest that dialogues with postclassical narratology and communication-based organisation theory would prove especially fertile.

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Notes

1 It is a pity the book lacks an index, since it would be useful for the reader to be able to go back and compare how different authors mobilise individual concepts.

2 It is symptomatic that Keller has for several years collaborated with Francis Chateauraynaud, with whose argumentative sociology of controversies SKAD shares many commonalities. Chateauraynaud Francis, Debaz Josquin, ‘Prospero over the ocean #1. The challenges of a semantic and argumentative approach of corpus in the era of “big data”’, Socio-informatique et argumentation, 2018: https://socioargu.hypotheses.org/5469.

3 Van Eemeren Frans H., Grootendorst Rob, A Systematic Theory of Argumentation. The pragma-dialectical approach, Cambridge University Press, 2004.

4 Bruner Jerome, ‘The Narrative Construction of Reality’, Critical Inquiry, 18(1), 1991, p. 1-21.

5 Bres Jacques, La narrativité, Louvain-la-Neuve, Duculot, 1994. Adam Jean-Michel, ‘Une alternative au “tout narratif”: les gradients de narrativité, Recherches en communication, 7, 1997, p. 11-36. Revaz Françoise, Pahud Stéphanie, Baroni Raphaël, ‘Classer les “récits” médiatiques: entre narrations ponctuelles et narrations sérielles’, in Chraïbi Aboubakr (dir.), Classer les récits. Théories et pratiques, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2007, p. 59-82.

6 Smith Simon, ‘Narrativity discovered and narrativity uncovered: narration and narrativisation in related political discourse’, Slovo a slovesnost, 80(2), 2019, p. 83-104.

7 Narrativity (as illustrated in Keller’s own empirically-focused chapter on public discourses on waste) is also about the story the researcher comes to tell about their object of inquiry.

8 Labov William, ‘Some further steps in narrative analysis’, Journal of narrative and life history, 7(1-4), 1997, p. 395-415.

9 Baroni Raphaël, ‘Le rôle des scripts dans le récit’, Poétique, 129, 2002, p. 105-126.

10 Maingueneau Dominique, Les termes clés de l’analyse du discours, Paris, Seuil, 1996, p. 94.

11 Bruner, op cit.

12 Bres, op cit.

13 Taylor James, Cooren François, Giroux Nicole, Robichaud Daniel, ‘The Communicational Basis of Organization: Between the Conversation and the Text’, Communication Theory, 6(1), 1996, p. 4.

14 Keller Reiner, Die Untersuchung von Dispositiven. Überlegungen zur fokussierten Diskursethnographie der wissenssoziologischen Diskursanalyse. Forschungsgespräch “Diskursethnographie”, St. Gallen, 2016, p. 9 (extract translated by Florian Elliker).

15 Cooren François, ‘Communication Theory at the Center: Ventriloquism and the Communicative Constitution of Reality’, Journal of Communication, 62, 2012, p. 12.

16 Cooren François, Bencherki Nicolas, Chaput Mathieu, Vásquez Consuelo, ‘The communicative constitution of strategy-making: exploring fleeting moments of strategy’, in Golsorkhi Damon, Rouleau Linda, Seidl David, Vaara Eero (dir.), The Cambridge Handbook of Strategy as Practice, 2nd edition, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015, p. 365-388.

17 Cooren François, Sandler Sergeiy, ‘Polyphony, Ventriloquism, and Constitution: In Dialogue with Bakhtin’, Communication Theory, 24, 2015, p. 225-244.

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Simon Smith, « Discursively constructed realities: exploring and extending the sociology of knowledge approach to discourse », Lectures [En ligne], Les notes critiques, 2019, mis en ligne le 23 mai 2019, consulté le 20 août 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lectures/34700

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Rédacteur

Simon Smith

A researcher at the Institute of Sociological Studies at Charles University, Prague, he leads a team investigating Narrative construction of crisis and institutions in party politics and public policies (https://www.narratingcrisis.com/). Based on ethnographic work and discourse analysis of online discussion at two Slovak newspapers he wrote the book Discussing the News: The Uneasy Alliance of Participatory Journalists and the Critical Public (Palgrave, 2017).

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