In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Childhood as Discourse

  • Introduction
  • Foundational Works
  • Guide Books and Textbooks
  • Reference Works
  • Cultural Studies and Contemporary Ideology Critique

Childhood Studies Childhood as Discourse
Patrick Ryan
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0166


Outside of pediatric medical science, positivistic developmental psychology, or econometrics and demography, childhood researchers highly value and often practice reading childhood as discourse, as a body of representational practice. Unfortunately, “discourse” is a concept whose bibliographic handling is susceptible to two errors: (a) the mistake of using overwrought theoretical distinctions that do not reflect the thick empirical nature of studying childhood as discourse, and (b) the futility of lumping most of the critical study of childhood into one meta-category. In response to this difficulty, this bibliography will pay little attention to whether writers offered an allegiance to discourse analysis as such. Instead, it identifies works that have significantly contributed to our ability to read childhood as discourse. After outlining the foundational works, guides, and invaluable tools of reference for discourse research, this bibliography is organized around the conclusion that our ability to read childhood as discourse stems from three fruitful pathways: the history of language, ideas, and knowledge; literary and art criticism; and cultural studies and contemporary ideology critique.

Foundational Works

Discourse emerged in Late Middle English as a word for reasoned thought and developed two primary uses in modern English: (1) naming formal treatments of a subject, and (2) the process of communicating or conversing. 20th-century scholars inverted these uses by applying the word to things not said, but necessary for any statement to make sense. The term invokes a way of reading that explores Saussure’s distinction between any utterance (text or parole) and the structures that make utterance possible and sensible (discourse or langue). Discourse is not adequately defined as language in-use or text read in-context; these definitions muddle the text-discourse relation. As H. G. Widdowson put it in Discourse Analysis, texts are “the perceptible traces of [discourse, but discourse is] not itself open to direct perception” (p. 6–7). The text-discourse relation can be unpacked by working through three corresponding terms: the unconscious, ideology, and discourse. Each of these concepts encourages a reading of texts for sources, operations, and consequences outside their manifest content, presumed authorial intent, or immediate reception. Whereas concepts of ideology and the unconscious encourage analysts to read text in terms of either group (class) conflict or individual mental complexes, a discursive perspective rejects both. Textual activity is not merely superstructure grounded in a nonsemiotic psychic, economic, or sociobiological base. We say only that every text is an instantiation of discourse, and that discourse is the collective name for the conditions of possibility for texts to exist. This is why Foucault called “discourse” a structure of thought and practice that remained implicit and operated as if it were the unconsciousness of knowledge, “not of persons but of the things said.” His use of the Freudian terms was designed to distinguish discourse from the unconsciousness of subjects or authors. The idea of discourse demands analysis, but unlike Christian biblical hermeneutics, psychoanalysis, or Marxian ideology critique, it accepts no anchor point outside the vicissitudes of human history. It rejects an essence or origin located in psychic complexes, class conflicts, or some other base principle—like the will of God. The writers cited in this section made foundational contributions to the practice of reading texts as instantiations of discourse, and have helped us recognize and confront the fact that the formal contents of texts do not adequately explain what is being said or done, or how it shapes who we are or might become.

  • Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Translated by Annette Lavers. London: Vintage, 1993.

    A collection of essays first published in 1957. Argues that our most mundane sensibilities do not come to us unmediated by discourse. Includes analysis of toys, milk, soap, plastic, the brain, and many other ordinary ideas.

  • Benveniste, Émile. Problems of General Linguistics. Translated by Mary E. Meek. Coral Gables, FL: University of Miami Press, 1973.

    Provided an influential definition of discourse as an extra-linguistic structure; discourse analysis begins where the competence of linguistic science ends. First published 1966.

  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power. Edited by John B. Thompson. Translated by Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991.

    Assembles Bourdieu’s writings on the politics of language, influential for various forms of ideology critique. Language is presented as a resource or a conduit by which subjects pursue their interests and display competence.

  • Derrida, Jacques. Writing and Difference. Translated by Alan Bass. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978.

    A collection of Derrida’s early essays. It includes “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences” (1966). This lecture utilized the concept of bricolage (working with what is at hand) to describe linguistic activity as a kind of play without an origin or end. It challenged the idea that movements within systems of signs or cultures are determined by an identifiable set of central commitments.

  • Fish, Stanley. Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980.

    While maintaining the central importance of close reading for literary criticism, Fish insists that texts operate rather than mean. Meaning is something that is produced by interpretive communities, or the readers’ (collective/shared) responses.

  • Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. New York: Pantheon, 1970.

    First published in French in 1966, this text offers a stunning history of biology, economics, and philology as structured by corresponding shifts in the discursive formation (or episteme) of modernity. This shift created Man as a self-reflexive subject—that is, a subject who takes the self as an object of knowledge. One might read modern childhood as one of the important products of this discursive re-formation.

  • Foucault, Michel. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Translated by Alan Sheridan. New York: Pantheon, 1977.

    First published in French in 1975, this study made at least two seminal contributions to the study of discourse and power-knowledge. First, it demonstrated that the organization of space, time, and bodies could produce subjectivity itself. Second, this located power within the production of self-monitoring awareness, and provided an alternative to the liberal view of power as a prohibitive force extending from competing agents.

  • Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1962.

    An important work in the philosophy and history of science, and a helpful place to begin building an understanding of key concepts such as: paradigm, commensurability, normal science, etc.

  • Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Edited by Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: Philosophical Library, 1959.

    First published 1916. Compiled and refined notes from lectures offered at the University of Geneva from 1906 to 1911, this is the seminal work for structural linguistics. Saussure argues that signifiers are not representations of things, but are grounded only by their relationships to each other.

  • White, Hayden. Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978.

    An accessible companion to White’s masterpiece, Metahistory (1973). Here, he argues that history cannot be constructed by an appeal to evidence prior to the prefiguring force of plot structures. Thus the dominant narrative prefigures the sorts of claims that will be available within any discourse.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.