In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Codes and Cultural Discourse Analysis

  • Introduction
  • Intellectual Background
  • Journals

Communication Codes and Cultural Discourse Analysis
Donal Carbaugh
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 November 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 November 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0014


The concept of code is used in this body of work to identify a system of beliefs and values that is immanent in communication practices. The concept has its roots in the works of Basil Bernstein, who explored patterns of communication among social classes in Britain. Bernstein formulated the idea to account for variation in communication practice, and it is that commitment to variability or diversity, along with others, such as distinctiveness and membership, which grounds the idea of speech code, or communication code, as it is used here. Cultural Discourse Analysis is a methodology for examining codes, and has been developed within this intellectual tradition. According to Gerry Philipsen, a pioneer and seminal figure in such study, cultural communication is the realization of a code in a communal conversation. The theory of cultural communication and of cultural discourse focuses on distinctive means of communication that are used in specific contexts, and the meanings of those practices to participants who use them. The methodology employed in this type of analysis is rigorously based on five analytically different yet complementary modes of analysis; these involve four nonoptional modes of theoretical, descriptive, interpretive, and comparative analyses. A fifth mode is also valuable at times, and it involves critical study.

Intellectual Background

The study of codes and cultural discourse derives from diverse intellectual traditions. Chief among these are the ethnography of communication and sociolinguistics. From this tradition, especially from the works of Basil Bernstein (e.g., Bernstein 1972), the concept of code has been appropriated and developed. Also from this tradition has been drawn the importance of studying language-in-use in contexts of everyday living, as a part of sociocultural life, especially as developed in the ethnography of communication by Dell Hymes. The idea that language is intimately linked to sociocultural life was presented in Hymes 1972 and elaborately advanced in the culture theory of Geertz 1973, which presents studies of culture as meaning-making practices, with these practices immanent in the flow of socially situated discourses. Schneider 1976 presents an influential work theorizing culture as a system of symbols and meanings, thus requiring a kind of interpretive research for understanding the meanings embodied in symbols. In the tradition of hermeneutic phenomenology, Gadamer 1977 emphasizes the importance of language in creating the horizons of our realities, each horizon with its own prejudices but also with its own ways of thinking as well as fusing among others. The works annotated here therefore provide a useful intellectual background in the study of codes and cultural discourses.

  • Bernstein, Basil. 1972. A sociolinguistic approach to socialization; with some reference to educability. In Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Edited by John Joseph Gumperz and Dell H. Hymes, 465–497. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

    Bernstein discusses the concept of code as a patterned process of social action. He introduces coding activities people may use when conducting their social lives and identifies two types that he calls elaborated and restricted. He illustrates how each varies along dimensions of open to closed processing, and personal to positional roles. The concept is linked to variability in communication processes with the variations marking aspects of social and cultural lives.

  • Gadamer, Hans Georg. 1977. Philosophical hermeneutics. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

    Gadamer’s writings draw attention to the way linguistic dynamics are associated with and indeed constitute person’s views of the world. This book provides a deep introduction to Gadamer’s views and the role of hermeneutics in interpreting linguistic dynamics. The work demonstrates how a referential view of language is insufficient to understand the role of language in its constitution and construction of social life.

  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The interpretation of cultures: Selected essays. New York: Basic Books.

    This is a classic work of Geertz’s that includes his conception of culture as a semiotic “web,” consisting of symbols, symbolic forms, and meanings. His approach is explicated in the first chapter on “thick description,” with his celebrated essay on the Balinese cockfight following, along with comparative culture studies of Balinese, Javanese, and Moroccan notions of personhood. This is a must-read for all who explore culture and discourse.

  • Hymes, Dell H. 1972. Models of the interaction of language and social life. In Directions in sociolinguistics: The ethnography of communication. Edited by John Joseph Gumperz and Dell H. Hymes, 35–71. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

    This is the classic work that explicates Hymes’s proposal for ethnographies of communication. Hymes proposes social units—such as speech event, speech situation, speech community, and ways of speaking—for such study. Several components are presented for analyzing the units through the memorable SPEAKING device, each being identified by the first letter of the device, setting, participants, ends, act sequences, key, instruments, norms, and genres.

  • Schneider, David. 1976. Notes toward a theory of culture. In Meaning in anthropology. Edited by Keith H. Basso and Henry A. Selby, 197–220. Albuquerque: Univ. of New Mexico Press.

    Schneider’s essay presents his theory of culture as a system of symbols and meanings that has generative and regnant functions. While culture provides a system of definitions, concepts, and premises, Schneider distinguishes this system from a normative one, which, he argues, formulates patterns for action and conduct. Culture sets the stage, norms instruct one in what to do. The essay provides clarity to a discussion of these central concepts and is provocative for readers interested in theories of culture, norms, discourse, and society.

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