Cultural Innovations in Discourse Research


Contemporary international scholarship on language, communication and discourse has seemed to continue to confine its topics, questions and orientations to ‘micro’ , abstract, or otherwise culturally restricted, domains of interest, often at the expense of real societal and cultural problems and concerns, especially those of the marginalized cultures and communities. Going through the majority of journals and books in the field, one cannot help being overwhelmed by how much is being written in the last two decades or so on ‘linguistic/discursive/semiotic features/strategies/rules’ of doing this or that, or ‘constructions’ of this or that, or the ‘identity’ of this or that. But any practically-minded, innovation-oriented and culturally-critical social science intellectual would have to ask what theoretical advance such academic productions are making, or what societal application they are having at all?

Topics, questions and issues of social research are not culturally independent, or intellectually neutral, but reflect particular cultural, social, professional conditions, needs and interests. The enquiry after pure knowledge, truth/lie, rational reason or evidence, individual self, for example, has never been the universal principle of human academic endeavors (see below). Rather, such is reflexive of particular cultural realities and intellectual traditions. In the case of the current mainstream scholarship on language, communication and discourse, objects of research often come from Anglo-American or some European cultures and realities, or otherwise, the types of research question and so principles of research interest usually emanate from the Western cosmopolitan institutions. This propensity is further consolidated and perpetuated by the academic traditions of scholars and students living in affluent societies, far removed from the realities and conditions of Asia, Africa, Latin America and other (under)developing societies. It is therefore hard, quite understandably, for the former to imagine the real issues and concerns of the latter. This is not to smooth over the fact that there are subjugated topics and approaches within the Western academic community, too, and the imbalance requires attention. But what needs much more, and more urgent, attention is the most desolate issues of dire poverty, lack of (clean) water, war atrocities, national subjugation, economic dependence, environmental disasters, etc. in the Global South, the inequality, prejudice and hegemony existing in the various domains of the international relations, and so aspirations of many developing societies and regions for peace, socio-economic, sustainable development, self-determination and national unity and diversity.

It is imperative therefore to break free now from the shackles of conventional, familiar (types of) research topics and questions and set out to engage with culturally new, practical and urgent issues and concerns of especially internationally or globally marginalized and disadvantaged communities and societies—that is, issues and concerns from their own perspectives. It may be pointed out at this juncture that practically-, other than theoretically-, driven research may often lead to genuine innovation by helping correct old-fashioned and over-simplistic theory and methods.

In the spirit of promoting research for human cultural equality and common prosperity—an uphill struggle for sure, let me suggest below some possible research topics and issues in discourse/communication/semiotics research. The list is inspired by many disciplines, ranging from cultural studies, postcolonial studies, development studies, communication studies, critical linguistics/discourse analysis, to political science, etc. but grows especially out of the recognition of the needs and aspirations of developing societies of the non-West/East/Global South.

Discourses of development About eighty percent of the world’s populations are living in developing and under-developing countries and regions, whose conditions are characterized by low-income and poverty, lack of education and medical care, scarcity of financial and technical resources, poor infrastructure, short life expectancy, amongst others, but, at the same time, common aspirations for achieving faster socio-economic development. Much more effort is called for then from scholars and students from both developing and developed societies than the current case is, to analyze, assess, aid and advise the discourses of development.

Discourses of change With de-colonization and globalization, huge and swift change is taking place around the world but especially outside the West. Because the mainstream scholarship remains largely entrenched in Westcentric frameworks of understanding and evaluation, especially developing societies have a special need to assess their own changes and to inform and converse with the rest of the world about these changes. Scholars and students of discourse can account for the changes from the point of view of language and communication.

Discourses of professions/institutions To help with development in particular and improvement of human wellbeing more generally, we should endeavour to research into the language and communication in various professions, trades and institutions, ranging from politics, economy, media, law, health care, to education, in order to help enhance relevant professionalism, tradesmanship and institutional functions Researchers can investigate for example into the flow of information and communication, audience reception, needs and thoughts of the public, clients, etc. and, furthermore, suggest new forms of discourse that can raise the level of their societal relevance and efficiency.

Discourses of sovereignty In the current world disorder, many countries feel/are threatened with foreign interference, domination or national disintegration or are subjected to foreign aggression and expansion and aspire to achieve national unity, independence and self-determination. Discourse scholarship may be mobilized to confront linguistic communication practicing or legitimating foreign interference and aggression and guide or facilitate discourses of national freedom and self-determination.

Discourses of peace/war As human societies enter into the new millennium, there have been, not fewer, but more, and not smaller, but deadlier, wars, whether in the Middle East, or Iraq, Afghanistan, or further afield, between foreign troupes and the local people. Researchers can deal with the human fundamental need for freedom from violence and fear by confronting discourses of war head-long and supplying practicable and substantive models for the discourse of peace.

Discourses of ethnicity The issue of ethnicity has been one of the deepest concerns in most societies around the world today and often takes the form of ethnic tensions, racial discrimination, or otherwise, aspirations for ethnic unity and diversity. Researchers of language and communication should take up the challenging task of examining how ethnic friction arises in and through linguistic communication and shedding light on how new forms of discourse may help with ethnic inclusion and attainment of ethnic harmony.

Discourses of (in)equality The inequality between rich and poor, powerful and powerless, urban and rural, different genders, cultures and regions, etc. and hence also equality and justice, are important issues where discourse studies can play a part, too. But because these are ubiquitous, current discourse research should concentrate first and foremost on the most desolate discourses of inequality and injustice, as well as the practical ways in which new discourses can be forged.

Discourses of crisis In our increasingly divided and risk-prone world, we are faced more than ever before with crises, or threats of crisis, of various kinds, ranging from economic, environmental, health to humanitarian spheres. Discourse scholars can and should make use of their expertise to critique and guide the reading of discourses of crisis and the production of informative and preventative discourses over crisis.

Discourses of climate change No period in human history requires more and urgent attention to the protection of the environment than now. Destruction of forestry, pollution of waters, emission of carbon dioxide, tsunami and landslides, etc. can all be approached from the viewpoint of discourse, whether it comes to the question of human awareness, description and evaluation of environmental issues, or defenses or critiques of malpractices in nature conservation and environmental protection.

Discourses of intra/inter-cultural relations With the accelerated pace of globalization, inter-dependence and divisiveness, relations amongst diverse human cultures, hence issues of tension and harmony, call for urgent attention. Scholars and students of discourse can address these issues from the point of view of how conflicts are created, maintained, intensified or reduced and how ethnic and cultural harmony and solidarity achieved through forms of language and communication.

In this proposal for change in discourse research topics, I would like to call on especially young scholars of the new millennium, especially those from the non-Western/developing/Global-Southern societies and regions, to take a leading role in exploring culturally new topics which may not only help resolving genuine societal and cultural problems, but also lead to innovation in theory and methods themselves.

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