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Review of  How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit

Reviewer: Mariza Georgalou
Book Title: How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit
Book Author: James Paul Gee
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 22.2189

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AUTHOR: James Paul Gee
TITLE: How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit
PUBLISHER: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
YEAR: 2010

Mariza Georgalou, Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster


It goes without saying that discourse -- especially within the last twenty years
or so -- has acquired enormous significance due to two concurrent developments
(cf. Jaworski and Coupland 2006: 3-6). On the one hand, there is a shift in
epistemology whereby language plays an instrumental role in how knowledge is
theorized and construed. On the other hand, the mission of linguistics, which is
to explore knowledge-making processes, has been broadened to include social
issues in addition to just describing grammatical phenomena. Counting in the
marketization of language deriving from the rise of capitalist economies along
with the rapid growth in communications media, we can easily deduce why
discourse analysis (henceforth DA) has become an almost autonomous scientific
area of academic study.

''How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit'' is a follow-up to Gee's seminal ''An
Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method (1st ed. 1999; 2nd ed.
2005). Yet, it should be highlighted right from the beginning that despite being
supplementary to each other, these books can also function independently, in the
sense that the first one elucidates the necessary theoretical background,
whereas the most recent one is more practically-oriented with a view to inviting
readers to engage in their own DA, implementing a proposed set of ''how-to''

Integrating principles from applied linguistics, education, anthropology,
psychology and communication, Gee has conceived a unique approach according to
which DA is the study of language-in-use, that is, how language is deployed not
just to say things but also to do things in the social, cultural and political
arenas. In the present work, his research programme is demystified in four units
by dint of 27 tools -- namely specific questions to ask of data -- for doing DA.
Let us unfold them one by one.

In unit 1, ''Language and Context'', the author defines 'context' as:

''[T]he physical setting in which the communication takes place and everything in
it; the basics, eye gaze, gestures and movements of those present; what has
previously been said and done by those involved in the communication; any shared
knowledge those involved have, including shared cultural knowledge''.

Having the definition above as a point of departure, Gee introduces the first
six tools.

TOOL 1: THE DEIXIS TOOL = How deictic expressions (personal pronouns, time and
space adverbials) tie speech and writing to context.

TOOL 2: THE FILL IN TOOL = Knowledge, assumptions and inferences that
listeners/readers have to bring to communication.

TOOL 3: THE MAKING STRANGE TOOL = In any communication, listeners/readers should
try to act as if they were outsiders.

TOOL 4: THE SUBJECT TOOL = How subjects are chosen and what speakers/writers
choose to say about them.

TOOL 5: THE INTONATION TOOL = How a speaker's pitch contour contributes to the
meaning of an utterance.

TOOL 6: THE FRAME PROBLEM TOOL = Discourse analysts should make allowances for
all aspects of context they regard as relevant to the meaning of the data.

Unit 2, ''Saying, Doing, and Designing'', looks at how language, apart from being
used to convey information, can perform different functions and create
circumstances in the world. The toolkit here includes the following:

TOOL 7: THE DOING AND NOT JUST SAYING TOOL = Attention should not only be paid
to what speakers/writers say but also what they try to do.

TOOL 8: THE VOCABULARY TOOL = The types of words that are being used (content
words; function words; informal words in everyday texts; formal words in
specialist contexts, etc.).

TOOL 9: WHY THIS WAY AND NOT THAT WAY TOOL = Why speakers/writers build and
design their messages in a certain way and not in some other way.

TOOL 10: THE INTEGRATION TOOL = How clauses are integrated or packaged into
utterances or sentences.

TOOL 11: THE TOPIC AND THEMES TOOL = What the topic and theme is in a sentence
(unmarked if it is usual; marked if it is unusual).

TOOL 12: THE STANZA TOOL = Look for groups of idea units and how they cluster
into larger chunks of information.

Unit 3, ''Building Things in the World'', starts by paying tribute to the
reflexive property of context to shape language but also be shaped by it. The
relevant tool for exploring the property at hand says:

TOOL 13: THE CONTEXT IS REFLEXIVE TOOL = What speakers/writers say/write and how
they replicate, transform or change content either consciously or unconsciously.

Harking back to the definition of context, Gee argues that that our worlds are
built and rebuilt not only via language but in consonance with other actions,
interactions, non-linguistic symbol systems, objects, tools, technologies, ways
of thinking, valuing, feeling and believing. He says that whenever we speak or
write, we constantly cement seven areas of reality: 1) significance, 2)
activities, 3) identities, 4) relationships, 5) politics, 6) connections, and 7)
sign systems and knowledge. The next tools are inextricably entwined with these
seven building tasks of language:

TOOL 14: THE SIGNIFICANCE BUILDING TOOL = How lexical and grammatical devices
strengthen or lessen significance (what is chosen to be foregrounded).

TOOL 15: THE ACTIVITIES BUILDING TOOL = What activities are built or enacted by
communication, what social groups, institutions or cultures support and set
norms for these activities.

TOOL 16: THE IDENTITIES BUILDING TOOL = Ask what socially recognizable
identity/identities the speaker/writer tries to enact or get others to
recognize; how the speaker/writer positions others and what identities he or she
invites them to take up.

TOOL 17: RELATIONSHIPS BUILDING TOOL = How lexical and grammatical nuances build
and sustain relationships among the speaker/writer, other people, social groups,
cultures and institutions.

TOOL 18: THE POLITICS BUILDING TOOL = How lexical and grammatical devices are
employed to build social goods and a viewpoint on how social goods are or should
be distributed in society.

TOOL 19: THE CONNECTIONS BUILDING TOOL = How words and grammar are used to
connect or disconnect things or ignore connections between things. Such
connections are fashioned by means of cohesive devices (pronouns, determiners
and quantifiers, substitution, ellipsis, lexical cohesion, conjunction,
adjunctive adverbs).

Tools 20 and 22, then, come as indispensable corollaries.

TOOL 20: THE COHESION TOOL = How cohesion works in text to connect pieces of
information and in what ways.

and grammar privilege or denigrate specific sign systems (languages, dialects,
images and other semiotic artefacts).

TOOL 22: THE TOPIC FLOW OR TOPIC CHANGING TOOLS = The topics of main clauses,
the ways they are linked to each other to create (or not create) a chain; how
speakers/writers signal they have switched topic.

In unit 4, ''Theoretical Tools'', Gee draws on theories from cognitive psychology,
sociolinguistics, literary criticism, psychological anthropology, cultural
anthropology, cultural psychology and philosophy to present his last discourse
analytical tools.

TOOL 23: THE SITUATED MEANING TOOL = Specific meanings that listeners/readers
attribute to words/phrases given the context and how the context is constructed.
Shared experiences and background knowledge are seen as a prerequisite.

TOOL 24: THE SOCIAL LANGUAGES TOOL = How words and grammatical structures can
signal and enact a given social language, that is to say styles or varieties of
a language that are associated with a particular social identity. The
communication may blend two or more social languages or switch between two or
more. Conversely, a social language can be composed by words and phrases from
more than one language.

TOOL 25: THE INTERTEXTUALITY TOOL = How lexical and grammatical items can be
used to quote, refer to or allude to other ''texts'' or other styles of language.

TOOL 26: THE FIGURED WORLDS TOOL = What figured worlds (namely the unconscious
and taken-for-granted pictures of a simplified world that capture what is
considered to be typical or normal) the words and phrases of the communication
assume and in turn invite listeners/readers to assume.

TOOL 27: THE BIG ''D'' DISCOURSE TOOL = How the speaker/listener manipulates
language and ways of acting, interacting, thinking, believing, valuing, feeling,
dressing and using various objects, tools and technologies to enact particular
social identities and engage in social activities.

This tool is the compendium of Gee's famous distinction between ''discourse'' with
a little ''d'' and ''discourse'' with a capital ''D''. The former refers solely to
language-in-use whereas the latter implies language plus ''other stuff'', such as
beliefs, ideas, emotions, means, places and so on.

As Gee concludes, irrespective of whether they are going to be adopted
separately or in combination with one another, these 27 tools must abide by the
respective demands of one's study. What is more, a valid discourse analysis
needs to be governed by four quintessential elements:

1) Convergence = The analysis should offer persuasive answers to many or all of
the questions arising from the set of the 27 tools.

2) Agreement = ''Native speakers'' of the social languages in the data and
''members'' of the Discourses implicated in the data should agree with the analysis.

3) Coverage = The analysis should be applicable to related sorts of data.

4) Linguistic details = The analysis should be tied tightly to details of
linguistic structure.


''How to do Discourse Analysis: A Toolkit'' should not be seen as a mere textbook
for undergraduate students in linguistics, but as an essential guide highly
recommended to researchers in social sciences and a range of professions dealing
with written, spoken or multimodal texts. Put more broadly, it addresses all
those who endorse Gee's (2005) statement that ''we are creatures of language''. A
commendable feature of the book is that it assumes no prior exposure to
linguistics since it offers a neat theory of language-in-use rife with lengthy
analyses and a systematic method of research.

More precisely, the author applies his DA approach to both speech and writing,
recognizing them as two different systems of communication with equal status
(cf. Sifianou 2001: 25). Interestingly, all 27 tools can also be utilized for
the analysis of static and moving images, paintings, videogames, ads, films,
music -- multimodal texts by and large. And although the toolkit was devised
with English data in mind, it may be adjusted and applied to any given language.

In order to get readers involved in their own DA, Gee offers copious textual
samples touching upon various social, institutional and educational issues. The
book is also fortified by grammar interludes, based on Hallidayan systemic
functional grammar (Halliday 1994; Halliday and Hasan 1985), which explain
fundamental structures from scratch. Furthermore, at the end of each section,
there are lists with further reading suggestions for those who wish to plumb
discourse mechanics.

Notwithstanding, all these theoretical tenets and practical tasks would be of no
value at all if it was not for Gee's refreshing honesty; from the very first
pages, he posits that no one theory is universally right or applicable. DA is an
empirical enterprise and therefore being wrong in our hypothesis is not a crime.
On the contrary, if our claims are clear and interesting enough to be tested, it
is conducive to further inquiry as well as further evidence gathering. In Gee's
words: ''The purpose [of this book] has not been to get you to stop here and
believe me. It is to prepare you to read further, confront other perspectives
and reflect on your own views'' (p. 186).

DA is not an endeavour destined to suffocate within the boundaries of
linguistics. It is, above all, a human task that challenges us to think deeply
about the meanings we attach to other people's words in order to make ourselves
better and the world a more humane place (cf. Gee 2005).


Gee, J. P. (2005) An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method. 2nd
ed. London: Routledge.

Halliday, M.A.K. (1994) Introduction to Functional Grammar. 2nd ed. London:
Edward Arnold.

Halliday, M.A.K. and Hasan, R. (1985) Language, Context, and Text: Aspects of
Language in a Social-semiotic Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Jaworski, A. and Coupland, N. (2006) ''Introduction: Perspectives on Discourse
Analysis''. In A. Jaworski and N. Coupland (eds.) The Discourse Reader. 2nd ed.
London: Routledge. 1-38.

Sifianou, M. (2001) Discourse Analysis: An Introduction. Athens: Leader Books.

Mariza Georgalou is a graduate of the Faculty of English Studies, Department of Language and Linguistics, University of Athens, Greece (2005). She holds an MA (with Honours) in Language Studies from Lancaster University, UK (2006), where she is currently a PhD student in linguistics. Her areas of interest include [new] media discourse, [critical] discourse analysis, social semiotics, digital literacies and online ethnography. She works as a copy editor at the technology magazine PC Magazine (Greek edition).

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