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Review of  Discourse Studies. An Introductory Textbook


Reviewer: Patrick McConvell
Book Title: Discourse Studies. An Introductory Textbook
Book Author: Jan Renkema
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Book Announcement: 5.398

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Renkema, Jan (1993) Discourse Studies: an Introductory
Textbook. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins. pp. 224.
Hfl. 45. pb.

Reviewed by Patrick McConvell, Northern Territory University,
Darwin, Australia

Renkema's book has the kind of structure that could make it
very useful as a text for teaching courses on discourse
analysis. It has 17 short chapters, grouped into four parts:
"General Orientation"; "Basic phenomena"; "Specific discourse
types" - with chapters on interaction (conversation analysis),
narration and argumentation; and "Production and perception".
Each chapter has good annotations about further reading and
plenty of discussion questions. The book is light on the
"core" linguistic side - grammatical expression of discourse
structure - which may be an advantage for those wishing to
teach courses to non-specialists, and to undergraduates
lacking a solid background in grammar. Some of the topics
covered e.g. on the reading and writing processes, will be of
interest particularly to education students; other recently
appearing textbooks on discourse studies like Hatch (1992) are
also geared to this market.

The distinctive contribution of Renkema's book as compared to
other good introductions to Discourse Analysis (e.g. Brown and
Yule 1983; Coulthard 1977/1985 - the latter strangely not
referred to in Renkema's book) is its introduction of a
continental European perspective, particular Dutch and German
works, extending from the basic communication model of
Buehler, to the work of Teun van Dijk and colleagues, the
influential philosophical theories of Habermas, and other work
of German scholars less generally known in the English-
speaking world. Not that Anglo-American work is neglected:
Speech Act theory and its influence is well covered, and used,
along with Buehler's Organon framework, as a foundation for
treatment of other issues, for instance.

"Discourse" is the most overworked word in the vocabulary of
the humanities and social sciences today. In an increasing
range of disciplines writers lean towards the French
philosophers and literary analysts of "discourses" who either
ignore or reject approaches grounded in linguistics in favour
of looser hermeneutic approaches. Renkema, however, only
refers to "French discourse theorists" once, in relation to
the concept of "intertextuality" and gives no references
(p.42) - an excusable omission given the wide field to be
covered.

In the German-Dutch schools of discourse studies "science" is
not yet a dirty word, but the practical and ethical dimensions
of the study of discourse are perhaps closer to the heart of
the field, as with Habermas' emphasis on communication failure
in modern society, rather than added, if at all, as an
afterthought as in most Anglo-American work. Chomsky's
dichotomous practice - doing formal syntax independently of
discourse while in his "other life" doing informal "discourse
analysis" of bias in American media, is symbolic of the gap
which exists in the Anglo-American approach. It is unfortunate
that Renkema decided to leave out of the book, along with
approaches to discourse arising from cognitive linguistics,
the contributions of the German-Dutch schools on discourse and
ideology, media bias, and racism "because the focus... is not
on the relationship between form and function [of verbal
communication]"(p.203), the latter being the aim of discourse
studies in Renkema's definition (p.1). It is difficult to see
how this very broad definition of the field excludes this
work.

Deprived of the chance to use these applications to illustrate
theories, the presentation occasionally becomes excessively
formal (without however incorporating enough linguistic
substance to please a linguist) and quite difficult to follow.
For instance the presentation of the model of discourse
processing of Kintsch and van Dijk (e.g. van Dijk and Kintsch
1983) in Chapter 16 is dependent on prior understanding of
"propositional analysis" presented in Chapter 6. Chapter 6,
although clearly intended by its position heading Part 2 on
"Basic Phenomena" to provide a foundation for much that
follows, I found the most opaque in the book. In the
introductory section of the chapter (p.53) we are told that
the sentence (1) has "approximately the same meaning" as
sentence (3) and that both "refer to a butcher who sells
steak".

(1) This butcher sells only steak.
(3) If only this butcher sold steak!

After happily reading through the first five chapters of the
book, this was a hard morsel to chew. "Propositional analysis"
is said to derive from the field of philosophy and logic
(p.54) yet there are many differences from standard logical
notation here which readers unfamiliar with this type of
analysis will find baffling, and which are not explained. A
number of shortcomings of the analysis are conceded including
that "there are hardly any criteria which could be given to
test the accuracy of the analysis" and that "[p]roblems are
always encountered when discourse is analyzed which has not
been generated for this purpose" (p.56), leaving the
impression that other developments grounded in this type of
analysis must be shaky. Van Dijk's own presentations of his
theories of discourse (e.g. 1977) do not proceed in this way
but begin with more standard formal semantics.

Another criticism of the book would be the lack of a broad
cross-cultural approach to discourse incorporating
anthropological approaches to discourse and cross-cultural
critiques of Speech Act theory and Politeness theory.

Renkema's textbook is a good survey of most aspects of the
discourse analysis field, which will be useful in a range of
courses. It introduces the German-Dutch tradition more fully
than other widely available texts do, but the selection of the
aspects of this work presented and flaws in the presentation
of some of the theories do detract from the impact which this
valuable work could make.

References

Brown, Gillian and George Yule (1983) Discourse Analysis.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Coulthard, Malcolm (1977 2nd edition 1985) An Introduction to
Discourse Analysis. London: Longman.
van Dijk, Teun (1977) Text and Context: explorations in the
semantics and pragmatics of discourse. London:Longman.
van Dijk, Teun and Walter Kintsch (1983) Strategies of
Discourse Comprehension. New York:Academic Press.
Hatch, Evelyn (1992) Discourse and language education.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


 
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