Extreme right-wing discourse often refers to the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 Extreme right-wing discourse often refers to the Allied bombing of Dresden in 1945 BE&W

The term “discourse,” nowadays elevated to the status of a buzzword, appears in many different contexts in public life and conveys varying meanings. But this process may turn it into a meaningless phrase (or may have already done so). So what is discourse analysis all about?

Łukasz Kumięga

Author: Łukasz Kumięga 
Institute of Applied Linguistics, University of Warsaw
e-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Dr. Łukasz Kumięga deals with critical discourse studies, media discourse analysis, and intercultural communication. His research interest focuses on political extremism in Germany and Poland.

The term “discourse,” nowadays elevated to the status of a buzzword, appears in many different contexts in public life and conveys varying meanings. But this process may turn it into a meaningless phrase (or may have already done so). So what is discourse analysis all about? The word “discourse” is formally defined by Webster’s as a “verbal interchange of ideas” or a “formal, orderly, usually extended expression of thought” on a given subject. The Latin discursus stems from discurrere, which means to run off in different directions, to dash around, to discuss. More colloquially and intuitively, the word “discourse” is widely used in English to describe various types of less formal discussions and debates, orderly or not. This less formal usage is also making headway in Polish, for instance, as a vogue word in politics – as exemplified by Polish Justice Minister Marek Biernacki’s somewhat recent statement, complaining that “discourse between the ruling parties and members of the public has broken down” (an interview for onet.pl and Tygodnik Powszechny from 27 May 2013). But its scientific use, the term “discourse” carries somewhat more meaning. On the one hand, here, too, it is also used rather intuitively to refer to a wide range of segments or fields of public life that attract the interest of sociolinguistic researchers – such as media discourse, legal discourse, political discourse, feminist discourse, etc. But on the other hand, researchers have come to see discourse as a crucial concept underlying various analytical models in linguistics and politics, as well as sociology and cultural studies in the broad sense. Nevertheless, actually summing up this crucial notion of “discourse” in a concise way poses a major challenge, given the multitude of what are sometimes contradictory approaches.


A diversity of approaches

Conceptual frameworks for discourse studies often draw upon the work of Michel Foucault, Pierre Bourdieu, and Jürgen Habermas. Even so, various academic disciplines also tend to borrow the term “discourse” and propose more detailed definitions for their own research purposes. Linguistics “proper,” for example, uses the notion of discourse to broaden its field of interest, somewhat in opposition to the field of text linguistics, while sociology and political science treat it as a tool for highlighting the communication-related aspects of the social reality.


Such a diversity of approaches also gives rise to varying analytical methods in terms of both microanalysis (focusing on individual language units and examining them in a broader social context) and macroanalysis (seeking broader mechanisms for shaping the social reality). In addition, there are also many interdisciplinary approaches to discourse studies, which attempt to creatively combine micro- and macroanalytical methods.


Likewise, different discourse researchers choose different topics and subjects for their projects: some prefer topics that are (politically) rather neutral while others remain preoccupied with more controversial issues (political extremism, anti-Semitism, etc.). Such divergences also stem from different underlying research goals: some focus on descriptive studies while others adopt a more critical approach, treating both discourse analysis and the research programs formulated on its basis not as scientific projects per se but as mechanisms for critical reflection on the social reality. Consequently, the former see discourse as a corpus of texts situated within a given social context while the latter treat it as an element of power, something that impacts on the emergence of various social disparities and, by the same token, opens the way for various strategies for preventing or consolidating such disparities.


Given such a plethora of different research approaches, every empirical study and every paper devoted to discourse (including this article) should clearly and explicitly situate itself within a specific research tradition. The remainder of this article presents an overview of the post-Foucauldian approach, then exemplifies it in the context of a specific empirical analysis (cf. Kumięga 2013).


Three definitions

The post-Foucauldian approach to discourse, based on the theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault, itself constitutes a somewhat heterogeneous tradition. Interestingly, its treatment as a separate research approach in its own right has mainly flourished in German-speaking countries. Many academic disciplines such as political science and pedagogy successfully employ it for the purpose of empirical analyses, whereas sociology and linguistics have developed integrated theoretical and analytical models: Foucauldian discourse analysis and sociological discourse analysis. Somewhere between these two approaches lies critical discourse analysis, which adopts an interdisciplinary approach to the Foucauldian concept of discourse and highlights the significance of power in discourse. Although each of these three major trends focuses on different aspects of discourse studies, what they have in common is the underlying epistemological conviction that every branch of knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is shaped by cultural, historical, and social processes.


To shed more light on this apt yet perhaps seemingly rather trivial observation, let us stress that discourse researchers share a conviction that the reality surrounding us is shaped by the (social) negotiations of events. Consequently, discourse analysis attempts to reconstruct the semantic systems typical of various social fields (including the rules governing their development). It also points out to the negotiability of such meanings (witness, for instance, the recent public debate on in vitro fertility treatment funding in Poland, which revolved around the definition of the word “fetus”). It determines prevalent meanings in a given time and space, showing how they emerge, how they are called into question, and what social and political mechanisms are used to reinforce alternative attempts to interpret certain aspects of the social reality. Importantly, it also identifies the strategic moment of the emergence of such interpretations by seeking links between knowledge as a social product and power.


The three major trends in post-Foucauldian discourse analysis differ fundamentally in how they define the notion of discourse. Linguists see discourse as a virtual corpus of texts that meet a given thematic or semantic criterion. Such a definition largely follows from efforts to extend the scope of linguistic research by another, higher-order linguistic unit (discourse) in order to analyze semantic systems not only within individual texts but also at the supratextual level. Sociologists, in turn, regard discourse not as a text corpus but as the practice of speech or a communicative event. Sociological discourse analyses is therefore aimed not at microanalyzing text corpora but at reconstructing patterns, practices, and rules that govern the development of social meanings. This is why sociologists treat text corpora as mere traces or even consequences of social processes, which are the proper subject of sociological discourse analysis.


But irrespective of such differences in the interpretation of the word “discourse” and numerous other disparities, post-Foucauldian discourse analysis is certainly very powerful as a research tool. Attempts to formulate multilayered discourse analyses have recently become popular, incorporating both the microanalytical approach present in linguistics and the macroanalytical approach typical of sociology. What follows is one example of such an analysis, in the context of a project examining political extremism in Germany.


T-shirt “Terror”

Movements colloquially referred to as “neo-Nazis,” “neo-fascists” or, to use the terminology of public and scientific institutions, as “the extreme right,” are intuitively associated with direct appeals to national socialism, nationalist and xenophobic attitudes, and anti-Semitism. What makes this issue interesting from the perspective of discourse analysis is a strategic shift in meaning-construal that has occurred in extreme right-wing groups in Germany in recent years – discourse studies attempt to recreate, interpret, and explain the emergence of such new semantic systems. The examples used in this research are drawn from personal observations of demonstrations staged by extreme right-wing groups in Germany, chiefly focusing on the types of clothing worn (the dresscode observed by the protestors) and the graphics and inscriptions displayed on them. Such elements, despite perhaps being seemingly insignificant, offer important signs of changes occurring in extreme right-wing groups.


Below is an interesting T-shirt slogan, spotted while observing one such extreme right-wing demonstration, that aptly illustrates numerous discourse-related mechanisms (contents cited verbatim):


U.S.A Terror Tour Around the World

1945 Dresden

1945 Hiroshima

1945 Nagasaki

1965 Vietnam

1987 Iran

1991 Irak

2001 Afghanistan

2003 Irak

Fuck the U.S.A.


Anti-American sentiment is nothing new in the discourse of the far right. Until recently, however, it manifested themselves chiefly in two fields: culture (criticism of American expansionism and Europe’s adoption of the American way of life) and politics (anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist sentiments).


The slogan in question is a rather characteristic, and above all strategic example of efforts to portray the United States as a political enemy. From the microlinguistic perspective, several elements are worthy of note. One fundamental issue involves stigmatizing the United States as engaging in a “terror tour,” thus discrediting the country as a politically unacceptable party to conflicts. The slogan provides further attests to the “terrorist” nature of the United States by listing examples of such activity. The focal point is the phrase “Dresden 1945,” which refers to the bombing of the city during WWII, an event often raised in the discourse of right-wing extremists. In democratic discourses, the bombing of Dresden is conceptualized as one of the stages of Germany’s liberation from the Nazi regime, irrespective of certain doubts about both the military and ethical justification for the bombing. Here, using the phrase “Dresden 1945” to exemplify the United States’ “terror tour” serves as a linguistic tool for generating what we may call semantic competition (a notion used in the German literature to describe publicly-fought rivalries between competing interpretations).

In democratic discourses, the bombing of Dresden is conceptualized as one of the stages of the liberation of Germany from the Nazi regime, even though there are questions about its military and ethical justification. Photo: BE&W


The logic inherent in this semantic competition is characteristic of the discourse of extreme right-wing groups in four respects. First of all, it negates the prevalent “liberation context” of the bombing of Dresden (a process referred to in discourse terminology as decontextualization). Secondly, it brings into sharp focus the controversy surrounding the US operation back in 1945 by conceptualizing the bombing of Dresden as an example of US “terror” (through recontextualization, defined as introducing a discourse element into a different context, with an attendant change of meaning). Thirdly, it explains the rationale behind the new context of the word “terror” by drawing a simplified comparison between the bombing of Dresden and other US military operations that (importantly) have sparked off public controversy in democratic debates. Fourthly, it is strategically consistent with critical opinions about the bombing of Dresden as well as about other controversial military actions on the part of the United States, thus illustrating a kind of strategic instrumentalization of critical public debates about US policies in democratic discourses.


Also important here are the pacifist attitudes implicitly invoked by the slogan. Such sentiments might appear illogical, since one important element of extreme right-wing discourse is historical revisionism (especially in the context of WWII). This could be again explained as instrumentalization, aimed at justifying and strengthening the aforementioned semantic rivalry.


Curiously enough, the discourse of right-wing extremism nowadays often includes appeals for pacifism, both implicitly and explicitly (for example, annual demonstrations in Dortmund are organized under the banner of Antikriegstag, or anti-war day). Generally, such a phenomenon of adopting or transposing elements from politically opposing discourses (pacifism is an important element of the identity of various leftist groups) has recently become typical of extreme right-wing groups, manifesting itself at different levels of discourse (logos of certain far right groups purposefully use elements associated with anti-fascist organizations). Such reasoning reveals the semantic “usurpation” of elements important to the identity of other groups, such as anti-fascist organizations, as a strategy for undermining their identity and ideology. In discourse-analysis terminology this is referred to as interdiscursivity, the analysis of which aims to reconstruct the effects produced by the relations that a given discourse has to other discourses.


Another interesting phenomenon aptly illustrated by the slogan in question is rapid proliferation of English loanwords used in the discourse of right-wing extremists. Again, this may appear rather illogical, given that the slogan is anti-American in nature. But this reveals another important characteristic of far-right groups, namely its adoption of various elements from the discourses of pop culture and various subcultures in the broad sense, which is completely at odds with the common stereotype of a neo-Nazi. Words borrowed from English are just one example. Participants of radical right-wing demonstrations tend to wear such brands as Nike, Adidas, and Puma and use graffiti as one of the ways to express their political views.


Order in chaos

The above overview prompts the conclusion that extreme right-wing discourse in Germany is a multivocal phenomenon. Most researchers see this trend as a sign of ideological weakness on the part of extreme right groups, which leads to gradual divisions and the emergence of various factions, whose views are often mutually exclusive. A gradual shift away from “hardcore” extremist topics, such as direct appeals to national socialism and anti-Semitism, is often explained as a sign that such groups are beginning to normalize. By drawing upon Foucauldian ideas, one could propose an alternative interpretation of such heteroglossia, instead treating modern right-wing extremism in Germany as a heterogeneous network consisting of many elements that are nevertheless linked together and remain subordinate to a clearly defined strategy. In other words, right-wing extremism in Germany is here perceived as a dynamic, heterogeneous, and multivocal phenomenon that pursues at least two strategic objectives. One could be described as aimed at meeting the needs of and mobilizing various strata of “social capital” (hence the presence of elements adopted from the discourses of democracy, popular culture, various subcultures, and politically opposing groups). The other objective involves attempting to create a new form of discourse on the far right, one that will create the impression of a commonly accepted and increasingly normal political group, which in turn explains its intentional efforts to fit into democratic discourse. But this also means that any shift away from a explicitly right-wing identity will be merely outwardly-addressed or strategic in nature.


To paraphrase the words of a classic, this article has offered some reflection on the disorderly notion of discourse. As we have seen, in the contemporary media and in politics the word “discourse” is chiefly understood as synonymous to “dialogue” and “discussion”. In science, on the other hand, discourse is an object of study (for example political discourse) and also, or maybe above all, a research approach in and of itself (like for instance post-Foucauldian discourse analysis, which has been briefly described herein).


Further reading:

Duszak A., Fairclough N. (red., 2008). Krytyczna analiza Dyskursu. Interdyscyplinarne podejście do komunikacji społecznej [Critical Discourse Analysis: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Social Communication]. Kraków: Universitas.
Kumięga Ł. (2013): Rechtsextremistischer Straßendiskurs in Deutschland [Extremist Rightwing Street Discourse in Germany]. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Kumięga Ł., Nowicka M. (2012): Dyskurs o badaniach nad dyskursem w Niemczech [On Discourse Analysis in Germany]. Oblicza komunikacji 5/2012. 129-154.

© Academia nr 2 (38) 2013

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