In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographic Methods: Discourse Analysis

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Methodology and Methods of Discourse Analysis

Geography Geographic Methods: Discourse Analysis
Annika Mattissek
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0179


In the social sciences in general and geography in particular, the popularity of the concept of discourse is closely linked to the philosophical approaches and epistemological shifts associated with “post-structuralism” and the cultural and linguistic turns. Very broadly speaking, discourse analysis is concerned with the constitution of knowledge on the one hand and power relations, subjectivities, and identities on the other. Discourse analysts argue that social realities—what people believe to be true or false and what norms, values, and understandings of the world they act upon—are not objectively given but subject to symbolic-linguistic representations. Discourse theories understand social realities and truths as contingent and unstable and always dependent on the context and position from which meanings are produced. In many cultural and social sciences, the term discourse has been used to promote post-positivist research agendas that challenge established concepts and various taken-for-granted essentialisms, such as cultural and gender differences, political representation, or historic development. In geography, important concepts that have been understood as discursively constructed include the nation-state, spatial identities and spatial differences, and nature and the environment as well as geopolitics. In addition to these conceptual impulses, and with reference to linguistic terminologies, discourse can also be understood as a communicative macro-unit that is constituted in a semiotic space (oral, written, visual). In this latter understanding, specific discourses exist on different topics. In geography, as in most other disciplines, theoretical and empirical uses and understandings of discourse oscillate between these two poles (discourse as theoretical perspective versus discourse as an empirical, communicative entity). However, the two understandings give rise to somewhat different, albeit often overlapping, approaches: firstly, theoretically informed perspectives that use the post-positivist, post-structuralist thinking of discourse theories to address empirical questions in a way that is critical of all forms of abstract causality, objective representation, determinism (social and natural), and the idea of autonomous and self-transparent subjects; and secondly, empirical studies that use the term discourse to denote empirical entities (such as the immigration discourse, the sustainability discourse, etc.). These latter studies often refer to discourses in order to legitimate and explain their methodic approaches, for example, the use of text-centered and linguistic methods. The first understanding and use of discourse show some overlaps with approaches and findings discussed in other entries within Oxford Bibliographies in Geography, for example, “Postmodernism and Poststructuralism.” For the most part, this article focuses on writings explicitly using the term “discourse,” albeit in somewhat different ways.

General Overviews

Geographers draw on a variety of different discourse theories and apply the concept in very diverse empirical fields. Despite this variety of geographic discourse studies, most of them share some core ideas that usually build on works of Michel Foucault and other post-structuralist thinkers. Despite this shared reference and many common research interests and overlapping debates, discourse studies differ in their respective foci between academic contexts (Angermüller 2015, Mattissek and Glasze 2016). Within Anglophone geography, most overviews on discourse studies and discourse analysis are published in textbooks, dictionaries, and anthologies dealing with theoretical and methodical issues (Cresswell 2009, Dittmer 2010, Wylie 2014). These texts provide a concise overview on the foundations of geographic discourse studies, distinguishing them, among others, from linguistic approaches. Against the background of a strong neo-Marxist theoretical tradition within Anglophone geography, the main theoretical line of division identified within these works is usually between structuralist and post-structuralist approaches of discourse analysis (Dittmer 2010, Lees 2004). In German-language social sciences, a lively interdisciplinary network has evolved since around 2000 that is explicitly working on theories and methods of discourse analysis. For the social sciences more generally, Keller 2012; Wrana, et al. 2014; and Angermüller, et al. 2014 provide overviews on different theoretical traditions and methodological and methodical approaches. For geographic discourse studies, the anthology Glasze and Mattissek 2009 discusses theoretical approaches as well as methodical strategies and implementations.

  • Angermüller, Johannes. Why There Is No Poststructuralism in France: The Making of an Intellectual Generation. London and New York: Bloomsbury Studies in Continental Philosophy, 2015.

    Drawing on Bourdieu’s concepts of cultural capital and the academic field, the book explains why the label “post-structuralist,” often used in the Anglophone and German academic worlds to describe French thinkers such as Foucault, Lacan, and Derrida, does not exist in France.

  • Angermüller, Johannes, Martin Nonhoff, Eva Herschinger, et al. Diskursforschung: Ein interdisziplinäres Handbuch. 2 vols. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript, 2014.

    This two-volume handbook on interdisciplinary discourse studies provides a systematic and comprehensive overview on this field of research. The first volume discusses theoretical and methodological developments and debates. The second volume presents a wide variety of methodical approaches and demonstrates their respective foci, strengths, and blind spots through exemplary analyses of neoliberal academic reforms in Germany.

  • Cresswell, Tim. “Discourse.” In D–E. Vol. 3 of International Encyclopedia of Human Geography. Edited by Rob Kitchin and Nigel Thrift, 211–214. Amsterdam and Boston: Elsevier, 2009.

    Provides an accessible explanation of the term discourse in the Foucauldian sense, distinguishing it from other understandings of discourse, such as spoken and written language.

  • Dittmer, Jason. “Textual and Discourse Analysis.” In The SAGE Handbook of Qualitative Geography. Edited by Dydia DeLyser, Steve Herbert, Stuart Aitken, Mike Crang, and Linda McDowell, 274–286. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2010.

    DOI: 10.4135/9780857021090.n17

    Introduces the concept of discourse, identifying two distinct strands of thought within discourse analysis: structuralist and post-structuralist thinking. In a second step, methodological and methodical strategies to interact with textual data on both the microscale of textual analysis and the meso- and macroscale of discourse analysis are discussed. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Glasze, Georg, and Annika Mattissek, eds. Handbuch Diskurs und Raum: Theorien und Methoden für die Humangeographie sowie die Sozial- und Kulturwissenschaftliche Raumforschung. Bielefeld, Germany: transcript, 2009.

    Gives an overview on a diverse range of different theoretical as well as methodical approaches to discourse analysis and discusses their implications for geographical research agendas.

  • Keller, Reiner. Doing Discourse Research: An Introduction for Social Scientists. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2012.

    This easily accessible introduction outlines the main assumptions and foundations of different discourse theoretical approaches and offers practical research strategies for doing discourse analyses in the social sciences.

  • Lees, Loretta. “Urban Geography: Discourse Analysis and Urban Research.” Progress in Human Geography 28.1 (1 February 2004): 101–107.

    DOI: 10.1191/0309132504ph473pr

    The text contributes to theoretical as well as methodical clarifications in the field of discourse studies by differentiating between two distinct theoretical strands (structuralist and post-structuralist) and by calling for greater clarity with respect to how analyses proceed methodically.

  • Mattissek, Annika, and Georg Glasze. “Discourse Analysis in German-Language Human Geography: Integrating Theory and Method.” Social & Cultural Geography 17.1 (2 January 2016): 39–51.

    DOI: 10.1080/14649365.2014.961532

    In this contribution, the authors outline differences between discourse analytical research in the Anglophone and German-language communities and discuss possible reasons for these differences.

  • Wrana, Daniel, Alexander Ziem, Martin Reisigl, Martin Nonhoff, and Johannes Angermüller, eds. DiskursNetz: Wörterbuch der interdisziplinären Diskursforschung. Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2014.

    Based on a collaborative, multiauthor writing and reviewing process, this dictionary of interdisciplinary research studies provides clarification and orientation in the diverse terminological jungle of discourse research.

  • Wylie, John. “Poststructuralist Approaches: Deconstruction and Discourse Analysis.” In Approaches to Human Geography: Philosophies, Theories, People and Practices. Edited by Stuart C. Aitken and Gill Valentine, 298–310. London and Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2014.

    Introduces the core ideas of post-structuralism and discourse analysis and provides methodological guidance for their application.

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