Discourse analysis is a method combining linguistics – the study of language – with social and cultural studies. It has been used in a variety of disciplines in the humanities and social studies including anthropology, education and psychology. Discourse analysis differs from the semiotic approach, as Semiotics explore meaning construction related to signs and their codes, while discourse analysis is more concerned with the socio-psychological characteristics of different practices or people. However, both approaches involve qualitative research. According to Gillian Rose, there are two kinds of discourse analysis. In this post I will focus on discourse analysis I, which pays “more attention to the notion of discourse as articulated through various kinds of visual images and verbal than it does to the practices entailed by specific discourses” (Rose, 2001, p.140).
What is discourse?
To understand this methodology we first have to define the specific meaning of the word discourse. The notion of discourse has been used as theoretical concept to analyse certain phenomena and observations in our world. Rose elaborates on the interpretation of French philosopher Michel Foucault, as his work on discourse has been particularly influential. Discourse refers to particular knowledge about the world which shapes how we understand the world and the way we act on the basis of that understanding. Discourses can be articulated through visual and verbal images and texts, and also through the practices those languages permit (Rose, 2001, p.136). Intertextuality plays a crucial role, since there is a huge diversity of forms through which a discourse can be articulated. The meaning of a text does not only depend on the text itself, but also on meanings carried by other texts and images. One has to note that the notion of text in this context does not only refer to written characters, but to complex media objects and practices constructed through social conventions.
Foucault was in particular concerned with power relations. He claims that not only power is everywhere in society, but also socially produced discourse. According to him, it is a form of discipline that produces human subjects. The sense we have of ourself and the world we live in is made through the operation of discourse. Foucault focuses on the question of how power works in institutions, such as prisons, hospitals or schools, and through technologies of surveillance and discipline. However, he does not suggest that the dominance of certain discourses increased because they are located in socially powerful institutions. He rather suggests that their discourses claim absolute truth, which increases their power. The most powerful discourses therefore depend on the assumptions that their knowledge is true (Rose, 2001, p.138).
Discourse Analysis of Starbucks
Discourse analysis I therefore addresses questions of power and knowledge while paying attention to texts, and to their social production and effect. It serves as theoretical framework which explores socially constructed concepts and objects are created and maintained. To explain how the method works in practice, I will use Charlene Elliot’s analysis of Starbucks to reflect on the concept of discourse and discourse analysis.
Elliot analyses the contemporary global marketing of coffee by using Starbucks as a case study to present how the company constructs packages and presents coffee, while imposing symbolic meaning onto the coffee bean. By looking at the specific linguistics Starbucks uses to describe their coffee beans, Elliott follows the method of a discourse analysis. The author claims that Starbucks plays with geographic recombination by using racialised rhetoric. The coffee beans named “exotic”, “wild”, or “smooth” do not only imply sexuality. The characteristics can also be related to Orientalism, which focuses on the notion that Muslim lands in Africa and Asia are supposed to be primitive and mysterious. The Orientalist discourse describes not only the viewing and representing, but also the dominating of Eastern countries initiated by the West.
Furthermore Starbucks changes the regime of truth, by conditioning meaning and making the consumer believe in the authenticity and quality of the brand. The company creates a new world of coffee, disregarding actual geographical places. They blend and recombine countries and cities to create coffee labels that sound appealing to the consumer. Where the coffee bean actually comes from only plays a minor role in this philosophy, as the names are arranged according to taste and not according to a map. Consumers are not expected to find any of these new places on the map, however, they consume them symbolically. The focus lays on foreign beans and Starbucks choses names such as “Colombia Narino Supremo” or “Brazil Ipanema Bourbon” to heighten the coffee’s appeal. Elliot claims that consumers are drawn to buy Starbucks coffee due to the fancy labeling of different coffee beans and because coffee drinkers now “order a place in a cup” (Elliot, 2001, p.376). The West and East distinction promoted by Starbucks helps to re-establish this common idea of West versus East and therefore maintains this regime of truth. To summarise, the method of discourse analysis helps to investigate how Starbucks engages in discursive strategies to alter the meaning embodied by coffee, by producing new concepts and objects.
Rose, G. (2001). Visual methodologies: An introduction to researching with visual materials. London: Sage. (Chapter 6: Discourse Analysis I)
Elliott, C. (2001). “Consuming caffeine: The discourse of Starbucks and coffee” In: Consumption, Markets and Culture, 4(4), pp. 369-382.