Discourse Analysis and International Relations: What for?

1. Introduction

Since the 1990s, the application of Discourse Analytical Approaches (DAAs) has boomed in International Relations (IR). DAAs posit that ‘things’ – “objects, subjects, states, living beings, and material structures – are given meaning and endowed with a particular identity” through language (Hansen, 2006: 18). Accordingly, discourses are seen as an inescapable medium through which we make sense and reproduce reality. By and large, IR DAAs take a critical stance in theorising. The contestation of the neutrality of science and the objective character of the social world informs a criticism to both empiricism and positivism (Ashley and Walkers, 1990). Accordingly, diverse DAAs have criticised ways in which “dominant forms of representations in IR participate in and serve to reproduce the very realities they claim only to explain” (Laffey, 2000: 429).

With few exceptions, the Italian political science tradition remained indifferent to the blossoming of DAAs in IR. Overall, both DAA’s ‘interpretive, non-causal epistemology’ (Kratochwil, 1988: 277) and its commitment to critical theorising help explain the little attention that discourse analysis has received in the Italian political science scene. Admittedly, for long and with few exceptions, Italy has remained as a ‘no-costructivist land’ (Lucarelli and Menotti, 2002) and Italian political scientists have tended to adopt an ‘excessively positivistic, anti-normative bias within political science’ (Capano and Verzichelli, 2008: 27).

Hoping to sparkle greater dynamism in the Italian political science debates, this contribution aims at shedding light on DAAs’ different research agendas and to explain how the application of discourse analytical approaches can enrich political analyses. It proceeds by reviewing the main theoretical assumptions of Social Constructivism, Post-structuralism and Critical Theories. It argues that the linguistic turn in IR can help enquire issues of identity, processes of norm-making and relations of power. Finally, the contribution gives some examples of ‘DAA at work’ as applied to the European Union (EU). The conclusions retrace the key points.

2. Theoretical and methodological diversity and discourse analysis

Although discourse analysis has been defined as ‘an emerging research program, engaging a community of scholars’ (Milliken, 1999: 226), discourse analysis is characterized by a plurality of disciplinary, theoretical and methodological approaches marked by internal heterogeneity (Laffey and Weldes, 2004). Constructivist, Post-structuralist, and critical IR scholars have largely drawn on discourse analytical methods in the pursuit of different research agendas. Simplifying, constructivist scholars have mainly focused on identity, norms and institutions and Post-structuralists, neo-Gramscian and critical scholars explored the nexus between Knowledge/Power (Foucault, 1980) and focused on power struggles and the emergence and resilience of hegemonic discourses.

Among different constructivist variants (Checkel, 2007), interpretative constructivism emphasises the intersubjective process which underpins common norms and defines social structures. In constructivist accounts, social norms have ‘communicative, rather than merely referential functions’, ones that ‘guide, inspire, rationalise, justify, express mutual expectations’ (Kratochwil and Ruggie, 1986: 769; 767). Through discursive interactions agents endogenously construct social reality. In turn, the structural context contributes at re-shaping agents’ preferences and identities (Guzzini, 2000). To explain dynamics of discursive interactions, constructivists largely refer to Habermas’ distinction between communicative and strategic action: the latter type is oriented to gain hegemony in discursive practices, the former strives to gain recognition and build consensus. Accordingly, discursive processes sustaining the making of common norms seldom rely on authoritative interpretation (Kratochwil, 1988: 276). The focus on consensus-building, rather than power, explains the ideational character of interpretative constructivism vis-à-vis other DAAs.

In contrast to this tendency, Post-structuralism promises a thoroughly framework to enquire ‘subtle methods of power’ (Joseph, 2010: 226). The objects of social enquiry are ‘power relations, bodies, forces, and ourselves as ‘objects of discourse’’ (Brass, 2000: 316). Discourses provide horizons of understanding; they establish rules, limits and markers of individuals’ identity, together with their location in both the social system and the discursive field. The coterminous and mutually re-enforceable relationship between knowledge and power assumes, therefore, a central position in poststructuralist DAAs.

In post-structuralist accounts, language constitutes the very entry point to reality. The centrality of language in the process of co-constitution of subjects and the social order brings post-structuralists about denying the ‘genealogy of the duality’ of structure and agency. Yet, this point divides post-structuralist and constructivist from more critical approaches. Neo-Gramscian and critical approaches to IR strive to retrieve the material basis of hegemony and implicitly recognise the foundational character of the structure over agents.

A materially-informed perspective on discourse does not deny the process of social construction of both signifiers and signified, but posits that this process is engineered by interests and arbitrated by power contests. Echoing Gramsci, critical DAAs aim at enquiring and deconstructing hegemonic discourses, where the multifaceted concept of hegemony refers to a – mainly unquestioned – ‘structure of values and understandings’ (Cox, 1997: 517) that underpins a given social system.

As follows, the foundations of such constructions are material rather than ideational. In this light, a critical research agenda aims at linking ideas, ‘understood as intersubjective meanings as well as collective images of world order, material capabilities, referring to accumulated resources; and institutions, which are amalgams of the previous two elements and means of stabilising a particular order’ (Cox, 1981: 136).

The level of the context and the level of the text are treated as separate, discrete, units of analysis, in that ‘macro-notions such as group or institutional power and dominance, as well as social inequality, do not directly relate to micro-notions such as text, talk or communicative interaction’ (Van Dijk, 1993: 250-1). The methods of analysis focus on discursive strategies, such as referential/nomination; predication; argumentation; framing and discourse representation, mitigation or intensification of discursive patterns.

3. Applying discourse analysis to the EU

DAAs offer promising avenues to study the EU. The unprecedented levels of inter-state cooperation, transfer of policy competences and institutionalisation that characterised European integration since its inception have posed an incredible challenge to IR scholars. This challenge encompasses the analysis of the three facets of political analysis: politics, that is, the sphere of power, in the sense of ability to influence other decisions (Lasswell and Kaplan, 1950: 5); policy, the acts of policy and decision-making processes; and polity, the political community subject to a given political system. And yet, when it comes to research agendas and theoretical and methodological standpoints, it is hard to find a single, clear-cut, way of applying discourse analysis to the EU.

Epstein suggests that a focus on subject-positions within a discourse, rather than subjectivities allows constructivist DAAs to focus on what one ‘says and does’, and ‘travel across levels of analysis […]’ (2011: 16). Accordingly, scholars progressively worked on interspersed discursive constructs such as myths (Della Sala, 2010) and public philosophies (Jørgensen, 2014). Taking steps from the European External Action Service (EEAS) communication strategy, Jørgensen widens the EU’s discursive field in including the relationship between foreign policy elites and the public in the construction of foreign policy paradigms (Jørgensen, 2014). The focus on public philosophies, mythologies and discursive sharewares allows Jørgensen to widen the analytical perspective ‘from one characterizing the predominant (vertical) mode of analysis to a horizontal, transnational perspective on the politics of European diplomacy’ (2014: 90).

In analyzing the EU, post-structuralists generally acknowledge that beyond the EU policy-making field, discourses over European governance are articulated in wider semantic fields, which includes the member states’ internally heterogeneous polities. Following the layered structure of the EU discourse, the focus of post-structuralist DAAs with regard to European integration varies widely.

Some post-structuralist scholars focus on engines of discourse, such as articulations or discursive struggles, rather than on ‘speaking subjects’. By following ‘discursive struggles’ Diez (2014) retraces the producers of utterances on three level, the level of the individual discourse participants; the level of collective discursive positions; and the level of the overall discourse. In a slightly different fashion, Rogers explores the nexus between strategic context and culture, which allowed the EU to stand out as a ‘locus of identification’ (2009: 849) and ‘a focal point for the realisation’ (2009: 834) of different projects promoted by discourse coalitions.

This posture generally recalls one of locating the speaking subjects in a wider discursive field. Yet, in some empirical analyses, the Copenhagen School narrowed down the scope of the analysis to the particular national contexts. Waever suggested relying on the distinction among discursive fields to unfold discursive productions in and of Europe. The first layer is a ‘state-nation core concept’; the second, ‘the relational position’ of states ‘vis-à-vis Europe’ and the third expresses ‘the kind of Europe which is promoted through discourses’ (2004: 39). In this perspective, Larsen (2014) focused on ways in which the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs articulates its state identity with the EU. The analysis of ‘national articulation of actorness’ allows Larsen to explore changes in discourse across geographical and thematic areas, whereas in some areas the national and EU’s and national identities are interwoven and in others more loosely connected.

Overall, discourse analysis allows grasping the dynamic context which underpins changes in policy ideas (Schmidt, 2011; Morin and Carta, 2014). Contrary to the idea that it is possible to disentangle normative, value-oriented components from strategic thinking, interest-oriented components in the making of the political discourses, DAAs contend that ideas embedded in discourses are not tied up to a single philosophical core, but are the result of a sort of bricolage, ‘where bits and pieces of the existing ideational and institutional legacy are put together in new forms leading to significant political transformation’ (Cartensen, 2011: 147).

Studying discourses is thus a way of following the evolution of prevalent political ideas and accounting for change. Taking the steps from the analysis of the prevailing economic discourses in Europe, Morin and Carta noticed that, in Europe, domestic and foreign economic policy discourses alike have tended to emphasize a distinctive European brand of liberalism (2014: 11). Despite the resilience of this discourse, several authors noted a discontinuous, but steady process of change in institutional discourses, whereby, “depending on their favored terminology, Europe has moved from a ‘managed globalization’ to a ‘Global Europe’ discourse, from a ‘Ricardian’ to a ‘clash of capitalisms’ phase, from a ‘market-correcting’ to a ‘market-enabling’ approach, from a ‘neo-mercantilist’ to ‘embedded neo-liberal’ hegemony, or from a ‘neoliberalism 2.0’ to a ‘neoliberalism 3.0’ ideology” (2014: 12). By analyzing 990 press releases published by DG Trade from January 2003 to December 2011, totaling 494,426 occurrences of 12,252 different word forms, Morin and Carta have retraced patterns of both continuity and change in DG Trade communication (see figures below, Morin and Carta, 2014: 12).

Increasingly used semantic fields in DG Trade press releases.

Figure 1. Increasingly used semantic fields in DG Trade press releases.

Less frequently used semantic fields in DG Trade press releases.

Figure 2. Less frequently used semantic fields in DG Trade press releases.

In the same fashion, taking a critical approach, Orbie and De Ville noted that, despite the EU’s Commission ‘surprisingly resilient free trade agenda’ (2014: 95), trade policy discourse at the EU’s level has been slightly re-articulated following four main stages between 2008-2012. In a first instance, the discourse on protectionism followed a defensive path, clustered around the adagio “beware of protectionism”. By mid-2009, institutional discourses started highlight the positive role of trade in ‘fostering economic growth’. This re-articulation of the Commission’s discourse corresponded to a wave of cautious optimism occurred in the summer 2009, when policy-makers had the impression that global economy was undergoing a more positive momentum. This optimism, however, faded away in 2010, when problems with bailing out Greece arose. This momentum was accompanied with a changed institutional rhetoric: from ‘financial/economic crisis’ to ‘euro/sovereign debt’ crisis, a rhetorical construction which importantly shifted the blame from the ‘market’ to the ‘state’. By 2011, therefore, the Commission prescribed further trade liberalisation as a means to preserve the social model. In a final stage, since the summer 2011, following the rising interest rates on Spanish and Italian bonds, the Commission tailored its discourse around the need to loosen monetary policies of the ECB. In parallel, DG Trade adopted a rhetoric aimed ‘not to persuade third countries such as China, Brazil and India to install strict market-correcting social standards as is the case in some EU member states, but to liberalise their public procurement markets to the same extent as the EU’ (Orbie and De Ville, 2014: 104). The thoroughly analysis of texts allows the authors to unfold resilient patterns of neo-liberal discourse and to unmask the exclusion of any possible alternative.

4. Conclusion: Discourse Analysis and the ‘what for’ question

This short essay has tried to sum up the theoretical richness that characterises IR DAAs and to address the famous ‘what for’ question. It has argued that, by retracing the link between language and social reality, discourse analysis can help researchers tackle with questions related to identity, emergence of social norms and strategies to achieve and maintain power and hegemony in a social context.

When tackling with identity issues, most DAAs tend to assume a non-fondationalist approach and deny that the real self of social actors can be accessed. On the contrary, by expanding the analysis to a wider discursive field and focusing on discursive positions in the production of meanings, DAAs help grasp the social context that co-constitutes individual identities. When focusing on power, DAAs explore the binary relationship between power and resistance and dig into the social processes that underpin the emergence of widely accepted interpretations of social facts. Post-structuralist DAAs tend to inlay the analysis of discourses into their wider societal contexts. This move allows them to follow the dynamic dialectic between consolidation and contestation of hegemonic meanings.

Finally, when analysing hegemony, DAAs complement the analysis of material elements of powers – such as the military and the economic – with an attention to immaterial sources of power, that is, techniques through which hegemony is achieved by consent, rather than coercion. This brief contribution, however, constitutes all but an appetiser in a rich menu: all it takes to whet the reader’s appetite!


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