Discourse. A term which had its earliest uses in linguistics and literary study but which, by extension, and through the influence of developments in semiotics and poststructuralism and the work of Michel Foucault in particular, has come to have a wide application in the humanities and cultural studies. In linguistics, discourse is used to refer to utterances beyond the unit of the sentence and to passages of dialogue. In literary study, the term was used in American new criticism to distinguish between literary genres and to affirm the superiority of 'poetic discourse' and an associated set of aesthetic and social values. Structuralism which challenged the evaluative assumptions of this paradigm, at the same time as it influenced many other fields, argued that meaning or signification is created in and through language. The concept of discourse in its later uses derived from this source, but with a more precise and contextualizing force than in its previous structuralist uses.

Discourse is now generally used to designate the forms of representation, conventions and habits of language use producing specific fields of culturally and historically located meanings. Michel Foucault's early writings ('The Order of Discourse', 1971; The Archaeology of Krlowledge, 1972) were especially influential in this. Foucault's work gave the terms 'discursive practices' and 'discursive formation' to the analysis of the kinds of statement associated with particular institutions and their ways of establishing orders of truth, or what is accepted as 'reality' in a given society. An established 'discursive formation' is in fact defined by the contradictory discourses it contains and this tolerance Foucault understands as a sign of stability rather than as it would be understood in Marxism, for example—of conflict and potential change. Thus characterized, a given 'discursive formation' will give definition to a particular historical moment or episteme. 'Discursive formations' do nevertheless display a hierarchical arrangement and are understood as reinforcing certain already established identities or subjectivities (in matters of sexuality, status, or class, for example). These dominant discourses are understood as in turn reinforced by existing systems of law, education and the media. Evidently this is a generally pessimistic scenario although some recognition is given to the role individuals and pressures within institutions themselves may have in modifying a pattern of dominant meanings.

The implication of Foucault's work is that members of a society, including its intellectuals, are implicated in discourse and in the discursive regimes or systems of power and regulation which give them their livelihoods and definition. There is no place to stand outside such systems. At the same time, since discourse and power are anonymous and without centre or single agency, the political role of the critical intellectual is unclear. Foucault's own work offers a model of the intellectual as historian of modes of thought; as a self-effacing cultural analyst rather than prophet, judge or polemicist. This style of work has been influential upon new historicism. Nevertheless, his studies of how forms of knowledge come about and come to govern truth and identities can be seen as fundamentally questioning. In this guise, accompanied by the concepts of ideology and hegemony, his theory has been given a more interventionist turn in cultural materialism and in specific arguments on penal reform, health care and sexuality.

In its general use, the term discourse has gained a more dispersed currency than the above might suggest. Both in academic work and elsewhere it can be used variously to denote the modes of thought and vocabularies characterizing institutions, domains of culture or cultural practices (law, medicine, the BBC, information technology, cinema, haute couture, skateboarding, wine tasting); an intellectual mode or tendency (psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, postmodernism); to distinguish different fields of study (theory, philosophy, sociology, literary, film or media study); or to identify the language of different social groups or occasions (the language of management and workers, interviews, weddings, a cup final). [Brooker, 1999]