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Review of  An Introduction to Discourse Analysis

Reviewer: Michael Schwartz
Book Title: An Introduction to Discourse Analysis
Book Author: James Paul Gee
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 25.4371

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


James Gee’s fourth edition of “An Introduction to Discourse Analysis: Theory and Method” (2014) was much anticipated for those who are familiar with his earlier editions. Intended as a textbook for upper undergraduate, graduate students, and scholars across a wide variety of disciplines, including linguistics, sociology, communication, education, and anthropology who are interested in learning about discourse analysis and how it can inform and enrich their disciplines, Gee attempts to condense, simplify, and make accessible and applicable a large and often abstract body of work from multiple fields of inquiry that claim discourse analysis. Furthermore, Gee, as in the previous three editions, argues throughout for essentially a bottom up approach to the analysis of language-in-use, “situated meaning” rather than the traditional top-down conception of language, which embodies a belief that humans are merely players in an a priori system of language as promulgated by the proponents of Chomsky (1965). For this, Gee is to be commended. His clear and simple examples of how the words “coffee” or “burrito” can mean quite different things when situated in context demonstrate how much meaning, by both producer and receiver of language, depends on the everyday situations and experiences of humans. Furthermore, that Gee includes in the theory and method of discourse analysis not just orthographic or spoken forms of language but also multimodal forms, such as pictures, art, architecture, music, and historical documents, is an important contribution to doing and understanding discourse analysis and how it can empower humans with knowledge about communication and interactions.

The book is largely a reprint of the third edition with only two entirely new chapters, “What is Discourse Analysis” -- Chapter 2 and “Conclusion- Proactive Design”- Chapter 14. The book is divided into 4 sections, plus a Glossary and Index: 1) Introduction and Defining Discourse Analysis, 2) Theory and Definitions, 3) Application, and 4) Conclusion.

Section 1 includes the Introduction and Chapter 2: “What is Discourse Analysis” in which Gee defines his interpretation of discourse analysis (DA) and lays the groundwork for the rest of the book, providing the historical context for and the various applications for DA across disciplines.

Chapters 3 through 8, mostly untouched from the 3rd edition, define and describe the various tools and methods that researchers can and do draw on when conducting research through a DA lens. Chapter 3: “Building Tasks” presents Gee’s vision of the things that we use language for in order to accomplish day-to-day activities. “We use language to build things in the world, to engage in world building, and to keep the social world going” (p. 31). Chapter 4: “Tools of Inquiry and Discourses“ extends Gee’s 7 building tasks by defining and describing the necessary linguistic tools needed to dismantle the complex building tasks inherent in any text (spoken or written) into manageable and analyzable parts, which can then be reassembled in a way that provides a richer, more contextualized and more nuanced interpretation of any given stretch of language.

Chapter 5: “Social Languages, Conversations, and Intertextuality” and Chapter 6: “Form-Function Correlations, Situated Meanings, and Figured Worlds” continue with a sharpened focus on the tools of inquiry. I particularly find his description of the different aspects of grammar “the traditional set of units” and the “conventions” that are used to “create patterns” (p. 67) in Chapter 5 to be useful, clear, and empowering, adding, as do his other tasks and tools, to his argument that communication and meaning are co-constructed via people and the social context in which any specific interaction occurs. Likewise, in chapter 6, Gee’s explanation of “figured worlds” is particularly insightful as this concept, to me, is a central goal of DA work: trying to understand how a particular person or a group of people filter the words, phrases, sentences, and/or images they encounter in any given text to construe their unique meaning of that text or interaction. Seemingly, Gee agrees as he devotes an entire chapter, Chapter 7, to the concept of Figured Worlds. Figured worlds are historically grounded and layered according to a person’s individual experiences as well as the experiences of the local and larger communities in which the person participates. “A figured world is a picture of a simplified world that captures what is taken to be typical or normal. What is taken to be typical or normal, of course, varies by context and by people’s social and cultural group” (p. 89).

Chapters 9: “Discourse Analysis” and 10: “Processing and Organizing Language” begin pulling the previous seven chapters together with more robust, yet scaffolded, analyses of DA at work. Gee does an excellent job of demonstrating the analytical power of the tools of inquiry. Throughout these chapters, Gee frequently reminds readers of these various tools as he takes readers step-by-step through a text to demonstrate how the building blocks and tools of inquiry work together to unpack a text within a larger Big “D” Discourse. As is true for any empirical work, validity is a major concern that researchers and scholars must address. It is perhaps of greater importance to qualitative researchers because of the overall disposition of those grounded in quantitative methods to assume DA simply means interpreting another’s words, or “...that they are just the analyst’s opinion” (p. 141). This is where Gee takes readers back to the tools of inquiry and suggests that the more tools that a DA researcher uses to “triangulate” the analysis, the greater the validity of the analysis. In other words, the tools of inquiry can be employed for doing DA analysis work, as well as to verify the interpretation. While Gee’s treatment of validity is good, it is also somewhat disappointing. Given the importance of validity, it is a wonder why there are only a total of two pages or 11 paragraphs devoted to this important topic. The fact that the discussion comes at the end of chapter 10, before the three Sample DA chapters, suggests that the need to address validity is almost an afterthought, doing little to highlight its significance.

In chapters 11, 12, and 13, the Sample Discourse Analyses chapters, Gee attempts to apply how his theory of DA, using his building tasks and tools of inquiry, can be used to extrapolate an interpretation of a particular stretch of text. These chapters are provided with good intentions, yet in the previous two editions, I found these chapters to be too abstract to be of use. This continues to be the case in the 4th edition.It might be better to pair each sample with a particular set of tasks and tools at the ends of the chapters 4, 5, and 6. At times, Gee does refer readers to the sample chapters at the end of the book, but I think these references would be more effective with specific page numbers and targeted questions to help the reader begin to do discourse analysis with the tools of inquiry. However, I think there’s a larger issue at play here: one that speaks to the overall dilemma DA perpetually struggles with. Regardless of how much context and how many “figured world” layers are added, more can always be provided and that “more” always seems needed to finally provide the epiphany that is sought. Thus the three sample chapters do help and Gee is to be commended for attempting the difficult task of demonstrating the applicability of his tasks and tools in such a limited space.

Chapter 14 is a welcome addition, and probably the best chapter in the book. In summarizing the overarching argument of the book, Gee introduces his alternative to the traditional view of how meaning is constructed through words and images. Rather than mentally storing images, words and their meanings in our brains for recall in interaction, meaning is co-constructed and situated in what Gee calls “a proactive design theory.” Gee defines a proactive design theory as “... any use of semiotic resources (whether words or any other sorts of signs) is ... always and everywhere situated. By this [it] is meant that the meaning of any word or phrase (or other sort of sign) is not a general or generic meaning or concept, but is actively ‘assembled on the spot’ on the ground of practice” (p. 214). In other words, proactive design recognizes the creative nature of any and all interactions; and words and images, while sometimes used in predictable ways, may also be used in novel, unique, and unexpected ways, stretching the boundaries of their associated exemplars, or more common iterations.

The fourth edition also has a companion website (, which promises to be a welcome supplement to the text. At the time this review was written, it contained four tabs: Questions, Glossary, Journal Articles, and Feedback. Currently the Questions tab provides brief descriptions of frequently asked questions, such as, “What is syntax, what is discourse analysis, and what is the relationship of discourse analysis to ethnography?” Linked to question 3, “what is ‘basic’ or ‘literal’ meaning” is a useful PDF of exercises that take students step-by-step through the process of analyzing text in context, giving students practice with the concept of situated meaning in increasingly more complex texts, both written and oral. Hopefully, additional PDFs and links will be provided to supplement the remaining ten FAQs. The glossary tab is also quite useful and user friendly. A list of the terms Gee uses in the text is provided, and simply clicking on a term reveals a brief definition/description of the term. The journal tab currently only lists three of Gee’s many journal articles, which are dated at this point: 1999, 2003, and 2009.


There are a few things about the text that deserve to be called into question, some of which are the responsibility of the author, though others are more the responsibility of the editor and publisher. At times I find Gee’s writing style to be annoying. He attempts to set a conversational tone with the reader, as if we were sitting around the fireplace in his personal study, contemplating the situated meaning of humanity’s great questions. Yet, the parenthetical, extended nominalizations, and intrasentential sidebars, though well intended, are distracting at times. Chapter 14 is my favorite chapter in this edition. In addition to introducing the concept of “proactive design theory,” the chapter flows with lucidness and clarity. I attribute this to Gee’s straightforward language and the reduction of his conversational style sidebars.

I must also take issue with Gee’s conflation of discourse analysis and conversation analysis. This is perhaps the biggest fault with Gee’s approach to DA. Like Gee, I tend to think of DA, rooted in sociology and anthropology, as the umbrella framework that supports and informs a host of sub-genres including but not limited to narrative analysis, critical discourse analysis (CDA), speech act theory, corpus linguistics, and conversational analysis (CA). Gee states, “Discourse is the sequence of sentences. It is the ways in which sentences connect and related to each other across time in speech or writing. As we speak or write we choose what words and phrases we will put into or ‘package into’ sentences” (p. 18). To me, this is the work of CA researchers, who specifically and adamantly claim that they are interested in understanding the internal architecture of conversation (Grice, 1975; Lerner, 2004; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974; Schegloff, Koshik, Jacoby, & Olsher, 2002; Seedhouse, 2004); whereas DA, which may rely on the work of CA, is driven by understanding how “why that now” is understood and acted upon in socially situated contexts. Gee gets away with conflating these two related but very distinct methods of inquiry through his disclaimer in the introduction, “No set of research tools and no theory belong to a single person, no matter how much academic styles and our own egos sometimes tempt us to write that way. I have freely begged, borrowed, and patched together. If there is any quality to my work it is primarily in the ‘taste’ with which I have raided others’ stores and in the way I have adapted and mixed together the ingredients and, thereby, made the soup” (p. 11). Yet, I would like for him to at least acknowledge CA as a legitimate and historically grounded research method that is driven by specific questions quite distinct from those that DA analysts ask.

The fourth edition, like the third, is often promoted with Gee’s companion text, “How To Do Discourse Analysis: A Tool Kit.” It would be nice if the links to the two texts were made more intentional, such as references to particular chapters or sections from the “How To” text to the Introduction text. Providing a Discussion and Problems section at the end of each chapter in the Introduction to DA text and linking these directly to sections in the How To do DA text would make the companion texts truly companions.

Finally, I have some notes to the editor. Throughout the book, there are numerous and frequent typographical errors, missing, additional, or incorrectly used words, making it not only annoying but also difficult at times to maintain cohesiveness. More careful proofreading and copy editing would be a much-appreciated improvement, particularly for a text that is intended to be an introduction for beginning researchers. Careless editing sends a message that attention to detail is unimportant, a direct contradiction to the message that Gee himself iterates when doing any kind of research, DA or not.


Chomsky, N. (1965). “Aspects of the theory of syntax”. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Gee, J. P. (2014). “An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method (4th ed.)”. New York, USA: Routledge, Taylor, and Francis Group.

Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. “Syntax and semantics”, 3, 41-58.

Lerner, G. H. (Ed.). (2004). “Conversation analysis: Studies from the first generation”. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn taking for conversation. “Language”, 50(4), 696-735.

Schegloff, E., Koshik, I., Jacoby, S., & Olsher, D. (2002). Conversation analysis and applied linguistics. Annual review of applied linguistics, 22, 3-31.

Seedhouse, P. (2004). Conversational analysis methodology. In P. Seedhouse (Ed.), The interactional architecture of the language classroom: A conversational analysis perspective (pp. 1-54). Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Michael Schwartz is currently an Assistant Professor in the MA-TESL program at St. Cloud State University in St. Cloud Minnesota, USA and the Director of the Intensive English Center. He teaches courses in Discourse Analysis and World Englishes. His interests include second language acquisition, second language writing, and international education. He earned his Ph. D. in Educational Linguistics from the University of New Mexico.

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