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Review of  How to do Discourse Analysis

Reviewer: Sibo Chen
Book Title: How to do Discourse Analysis
Book Author: James Paul Gee
Publisher: Routledge (Taylor and Francis)
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Discipline of Linguistics
Issue Number: 25.4900

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


It is evident that Discourse Analysis (henceforth DA) has enjoyed enormous growth in recent decades, as indicated by the swift increase of publications, conferences, and graduate programs in this field. Within less than 50 years, DA has not only acquired the integrity and significance of a well-established discipline, but also extended the conventional boundaries of linguistics to other disciplines such as communication, sociology, and political science (Bhatia, Flowerdew & Jones, 2008). The prevalence of DA, however, has also created numerous misunderstandings about this discipline, especially among young undergraduates who have just started their linguistic journeys. Meanwhile, there seems to be a common dilemma for many DA instructors: despite the abundance of DA textbooks in the market, most of them are essentially writing about “what is DA” rather than “how to do DA”. As a result, many undergraduates complete a DA course with general knowledge of DA, but still don’t know how to conduct effective DA research.

Given the above dilemma, it is heartening to see the publication of the updated edition of “How to do discourse analysis: A toolkit”. As the author of one of the best-known DA textbooks, James Paul Gee offers a practical how-to guide in this book for advanced undergraduate and graduate students working in DA-related fields. As Gee explains the motivation of this book himself: “this book, while it has explanation and examples, does leave a lot for readers to do and does give detailed instructions of a ‘how to’ sort” (p. 1). For this reason, the book is not organized in the traditional chapter-based format: apart from the brief Introduction and Conclusion, the book is organized around 28 “tools” for doing DA, and these tools were categorized into four units.


The introduction introduces the book’s general aims and salient features. Gee highlights a very important distinction within DA: some DA approaches are tied closely to the study of grammar whereas others concentrate on ideas, issues, and themes expressed in talks and writings. This grammar/content distinction is probably the most significant factor dividing the DA research community, and it explains why DA is merely regarded as a research method in the eyes of social scientists. However, as Gee points out: “no one theory is universally right or universally applicable. Each theory offers tools which work better for some kinds of data than they do for others” (p.1). It is evident that Gee is trying to unify the grammar/content distinction by putting their various approaches within the same “toolbox”, but his efforts only achieve partial success (see Evaluation section for detailed explanations).

Unit 1: Language and Context

This Unit focuses on the issue of linguistic context and offers several tools for analyzing pragmatic factors (e.g. assumptions, implicatures, intonations). The Unit starts with an overview of language acquisition, with a particular focus on acquisition speed and clarity issues. Then, it moves into the discussion of linguistic context and how it influences the meanings of our communications. It should be noted that the “context” is defined as follows, following the tradition of “grammatical DA analysis”:

''[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’' (p.12).

Based upon the definition above, this Unit offers the following “tools” for deciphering pragmatic information embedded in talks and writings:

Tool #1 (The Deixis Tool): For any communication, ask how the deictics are being used to tie what is said to context and to make assumptions about what listeners already know or can figure out.

Tool #2 (The Fill in Tool): For any communication, ask what knowledge, assumptions and inferences listeners/readers must bring to bear for clear and understandable communications.

Tool #3 (The Making Strange Tool): For any communication, ask what aspects are “strange” if someone is an “outsider” of that communication.

Tool #4 (The Subject Tool): For any communication, ask how the subjects are chosen and why speakers/writers choose them.

Tool #5 (The Intonation Tool): For any communication, ask how a speaker’s intonation contour contributes to the meaning of an utterance.

Tool #6 (The Frame Tool): Always double-check for missing aspects after analyzing contextual information. DA should consider all aspects of context relevant to the meaning of the data.

Unit 2: Saying, Doing, and Designing

This Unit follows the theoretical framework of “speech act” (Austin, 1975; Searle, 1979) and looks at how language, apart from conveying information, can perform different functions and build structures/meanings in the world. In contrast to the container/conduit view of language, Gee offers a “building/designing view”: “in order to do things with language (including informing), we use grammar to build and design structures and meanings” (p. 56). The “tools” discussed in this unit include:

Tool #7 (The Doing and Not Just Saying Tool): For any communication, ask not just what the speaker is saying, but what he/she is trying to do.

Tool #8 (The Vocabulary Tool): For any communication, ask what types of words are being used and the purposes behind such usage.

Tool #9 (The Why This Way and Not That Way Tool): For any communication, ask what types of grammatical structures are being used and why speakers/writers build their messages in this way but not in some other ways.

Tool #10 (The Integration Tool): For any communication, ask how the clauses are integrated or packaged into utterances or sentences.

Tool #11 (The Topic and Theme Tool): For any communication, ask what the topic and theme is for each clause. When the theme is not the subject/topic, ask why such choice is made.

Tool #12 (The Stanza Tool): For any communication (that is long enough), look for groups of ideas and how they cluster into larger blocks of information.

Unit 3: Building Things in the World

This Unit revisits the topic of context from a reflexive perspective and discusses how language contributes to building and rebuilding our worlds. Gee lists seven major building tasks achieved by the combination of language-in-use and other non-verbal tools: Significance, Activities, Identities, Relationships, Politics (the distribution of social goods), Connections, and Sign Systems/Knowledge (pp. 95-98). The “tools” for analyzing these building tasks are as follows:

Tool #13 (The Context is Reflexive Tool): when analyzing the context of discourse, ask how the speakers/writers create or shape the relevant context, and whether the replication, transformation, or change of content is achieved consciously or unconsciously.

Tool #14 (The Significance Building Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices are being used to build up or lessen the significance of certain things.

Tool #15 (The Activities Building Tool): For any communication, ask what activity/practice this communication is building or enacting.

Tool #16 (The Identities Building Tool): For any communication, ask what socially recognizable identities the speaker is trying to enact or to get others to recognize.

Tool #17 (The Relationships Building Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices are being used to build, sustain, or change social relationships.

Tool #18 (The Politics Building Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices are being used to construct what counts as a social good and to distribute this good to, or withhold it from, others.

Tool #19 (The Connections Building Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices connect or disconnect things.

Tool #20 (The Cohesion Tool): For any communication, ask how the cohesion works in the text to connect pieces of information and in what ways.

Tool #21 (Systems and Knowledge Building Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices are being used to privilege or de-privilege specific sign systems or knowledge.

Tool #22 (The Topic Flow or Topic Chaining Tool): For any communication, ask what the topics are of all main clauses and how these topics are linked to each other.

Unit 4: Theoretical Tools

In the final Unit, Gee brings DA out of the boundaries of linguistics and discusses it from the perspective of cultural/psychological anthropology, history, literary criticism, sociolinguistics, philosophy, and cognitive/cultural psychology. The final six “tools” discussed here are:

Tool #23 (The Situated Meaning Tool): For any communication, ask the situated meanings of its words and phrases.

Tool #24 (Social Languages Tool): For any communication, ask how it uses words and grammatical devices to signal and enact a given social language.

Tool #25 (The Intertextuality Tool): For any communication, ask how the words and grammatical devices are used for interacting with (quoting, referring to, or alluding to) other texts.

Tool #26 (Figured World Tool): For any communication, ask what prototypical stories/worlds the communication is assuming and indicating.

Tool #27 (The Big “D” Discourse Tool): For any communication, ask how the speaker/listener manipulates language and other semiotic devices to enact particular social identities and social activities.

Tool #28 (The Big “C” Conversation Tool): For any communication, ask what historical or social issues and discussions are assumed to be known by the readers/listeners.


In the conclusion, Gee emphasizes that the 28 “tools” have no particular order and their applications must be conditioned by the demands of the research. Gee further offers his essential criteria for “valid” DA:

Convergence: A Valid DA should be able to offer persuasive answers to many or all of the questions raised by the 28 “tools”.

Agreement: A valid DA should be able to convince “native speakers” of the data and “members” of the analyzed discourses.

Coverage: A valid DA should be applicable to related sorts of data.

Linguistic Details: A valid DA should be tightly tied to details of linguistic structure.


Compared with the 1st edition, the 2nd edition of How to do discourse analysis: A toolkit has added one more tool (Tool #28) and added many classical references in its recommended readings (Gee provides comments for many key texts, which is extremely helpful for DA beginners). Overall, this book is not a stand-alone textbook for undergraduate and even graduate students. To achieve the best outcome from reading this book, readers ought to have some basic knowledge of linguistics as well as DA. As a result, it is ideal to use this book as complementary reading with other DA textbooks, such as Gee (2011) and Johnstone (2008).

Gee’s purpose of summarizing essential DA methods in the book is well-achieved, and the series of study questions and suggestions can be a great help for DA instructors looking for effective in-class assignments. Meanwhile, the book’s Appendix offers a summary of the 28 “tools”, which also makes the book an ideal resource book for anyone interested in applying DA in their own research.

Unfortunately, the current version also has some minor limitations, which might be addressed in future editions. First, although Gee discusses the grammar/content divide in DA in the Introduction, throughout the book it becomes clear that Gee’s primary focus is DA on the “grammatical” side. It would be welcome to see more DA methods on the “content” side (e.g. methods used in critical discourse analysis), as this would further increase the book’s readership outside the conventional linguistic community. Second, most of the discourse examples in the book are utterances, and more examples of written texts would be preferred. Third, the book’s recommended readings are offered in the end of each section. It would be convenient if a complete reading list was given in the appendix, along with the “tool” list. Finally, considering that the book is not meant to be a main text for DA courses, the price of the book (list price: $32.95) is a bit high, especially given the number of digital books which have hit the textbook market in recent years.

Nonetheless, overall the book is an ideal companion to any DA textbook, and it is a substantive resource for anyone looking for DA readings.


Austin, J. L. (1975). “How to do things with words”. Second Edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bhatia, V. K., Flowerdew, J., & Jones, R. H. (2008). Approaches to discourse analysis. In V. K. Bhatia, J. Flowerdew & R. H. Jones (eds.). “Advances in discourse studies” (pp. 1-18). New York: Routledge.

Gee, J. P. (2011). “An introduction to discourse analysis: Theory and method”. New York: Routledge.

Johnstone, B. (2008). “Discourse analysis”. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Searle, J. (1979). Expression and meanings: Studies in the theory of speech acts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sibo Chen is a PHD student in the School of Communication, Simon Fraser University. He received his MA in Applied Linguistics from the Department of Linguistics, University of Victoria, Canada. His major research interests are language and communication, discourse analysis, and genre theories.

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