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Discourse Dynamics Approach

Complex systems theory is not primarily a theory of language use, and to apply the theory in a practical way to discourse analysis requires an enhanced framework and approach. The application to discourse discussed here was developed from Cameron’s work on metaphor in educational contexts (2003) and reconciliation discourse (2011). The analysis shows how metaphor, rather than being a static resource that speakers drew from when speaking with one another, reflected a host of dynamic and shifting discoursal factors. Having developed a model of metaphor analysis built on discourse dynamics, the model was subsequently expanded to discourse analysis more generally as the discourse dynamics approach (DDA) (Cameron, 2015; Cameron & Maslen, 2010).

In the DDA, interaction is seen as a complex system. Connectedness and dynamism are central to this approach, with an emphasis placed on perspectives that take into account these two features of discourse when doing analysis and making claims about how and why interaction is the way that it is. Cameron’s analysis of metaphor use shows that what people think and say is directly connected to the various other things that are happening in and around them as they interact with others. In addition, each individual’s production of language is not independent of those with whom they are interacting. The work of conversation analysts has shown that people speak and think together, and emerging conversations are coproduced by speakers.

This coproduction of language can, as the example of the prayer meeting shows, feel supernatural and ineffable, because the interaction leads to emergent behaviors that are not the result of one individual’s central planning. The dynamic nature of the systems and their openness to change also means that unexpected and novel outcomes may occur that are not predictable. This is true of both the reconciliation discourse that Cameron analyzed and the interaction at a prayer meeting. What develops in each system of interaction is not limited to a closed set of outcomes.

Cameron (2015, p. 31) refers to complex systems theory as a “supra-theory”, and for this reason, DDA does not imply that there is one “method” for doing discourse analysis. Indeed, many of the different discourse analytic methods that have been proposed include some engagement with dynamism and connectedness, and complex systems theory places a further focus on mapping connections. The implication of a complex systems theory approach is that connections between components and their effects on the emergent behavior of the system signify the need for different methods that will be appropriate at different times depending on the trajectory of the system and the various components that are present. Because no two systems are the same and trajectories depend on spatiotemporal components, no two interactions will be exactly the same, and the tools that are useful for explaining one system may not be useful for explaining others.

Although there isn’t a single method that could be considered the complex systems approach to discourse analysis, Cameron’s DDA provides a framework for doing discourse analysis that allows analysts to map connections among different components in the system, drawing connections between local discourse dynamics and emerging discourse patterns. Cameron (2015) outlines the steps of analysis as follows:

  • 1. Start from interaction: e.g. face-to-face talk, use of texts, situated discourse.
  • 2. Interpret an instance of the interaction—a literacy event, a conversation, a task—as a trajectory of a complex dynamic system.
  • 3. Unpack the elements, connections, and dynamics of the system.
  • 4. Investigate the detail with appropriate tools.
  • 5. Make every decision with moral/ethical responsibility.
  • (p. 43)

The focus is not on language and how it is processed in the mind, but rather interaction, so the use of language is the starting point. In this model, language is a process that individuals engage in when they interact with others, and, importantly, that interaction cannot be understood without considering the trajectory of the interaction. The DDA therefore avoids using constructed sentences to discuss how language is processed, and it exclusively requires real-world discourse for analysis.

To analyze the trajectory of the system, the method requires identifying and analyzing the connected and dynamic nature of those components in the system, including the speakers as agents and the spatiotemporal fields of interaction. This analysis considers the affordances, or action possibilities, in each of the fields in which the interaction occurs. Of course, the components in any given system are countless, and when “unpacking” the components, connections, and dynamics, the analyst must make choices about which components are essential for understanding the system’s trajectory over time.

After having considered the different components of the system and their connections with one another, the analyst can then begin to make informed choices about which tools are needed to understand the systems trajectory. These will differ depending on the system, so there can be no single complex systems theory method for analysis, because different components may be influential in each system. In thinking about the prayer meeting, different elements might be important for the analysis, depending on how the meeting develops. For example, if the group includes participants praying in both English and Spanish, with different languages being used at different times, a focus on code-switching or translanguaging might be appropriate. If, however, the group only prays in Spanish and there is a focus in the prayers on group membership (e.g., who is or is not a real Christian), then the tools of membership categorization analysis might be more useful.

Finally, Cameron includes the imperative to make decisions with “moral/eth- ical responsibility”.This focus on ethics in analysis is perhaps unique in the cognitive approaches to language use analysis considered so far.The decision to focus on one point of the system and to include and exclude a component as worthwhile for analysis of discourse is always a moral decision that must be made while taking into account the consequences of representing a complex interaction in a static way, which is inevitable in discourse analysis. Particularly for researchers working in religious language, it is essential that they make explicit their own biases, ideologies, and choices.

In the process of unpacking the connections between components in the system, the DDA requires thinking about emergence on different scales in each interaction. This is because within complex systems, the connections between components can be associated with temporal relationships, with one component affecting the behaviors of components in the future, and with their nested qualify, with patterns on micro levels affecting macro-level patterns and vice versa.

To consider the relationships between components and understand the connections between them in the system’s trajectory, the DDA isolates five levels at which discourse, and particularly spoken interaction, might be analyzed.

Level 0 is the preconditions of any interaction, the starting point of a conversation or a lecture or a prayer group meeting. This includes all the factors— social, cultural, personal, etc.—that exist before an interaction takes place.

Once an interaction begins, a timescale of milliseconds (Level 1) could be analyzed to follow the micro-aspects of interaction that can affect how a conversation develops. This might include changes in intonation, a change in facial expression, or the start of an interruption, all of which can be observed on close analysis.

The next scale, Level 2, includes the minute-by-minute engagement of speakers. These interactions can be seen as units in themselves.

Level 3 represents single discourse events, like conversations, classes, religious services.

Finally, Level 4 is where the patterns and regularities in individual interactions accumulate to become the preconditions for new interactions.

(Cameron, 2015, pp. 44—45)

Level 0 of the interaction can include a range of different components that can be both implicit and explicit, depending on the structure of the interaction. The awareness of preconditions may also vary, depending on the context of the interaction and past experience of contexts like the ones being encountered.The prayer meeting considered in this chapter would reflect participants’ expectations and understandings of prayer meetings and how they should occur.These expectations might be personal, or they might be collective, with shared cultural, denominational, and social factors influencing how the prayer meeting starts.

The Level 1 timescale is often not the focus of discourse analysts working on interaction, but understanding the role of moment-to-moment production and processing of language is important for thinking about the cognitive processes of each individual and how the reactions of others affect the trajectory of the system. Many will have the experience of saying something to a partner or family member that you immediately regret as you see their face fall from a smile to a frown.The physical reactions to what others say, that one might not even be aware of until after they occur, play an important role in how interactions develop and can be mapped even at this very fine-grained level.

Next, at Level 2, the typical level of analysis, researchers focus on the interaction between speakers over time, looking at word choice, turn taking, and the development of narratives in turns in conversations. The particular focus will depend on the analyst’s research questions and interest.

The whole of the interactions and patterns can be delineated as structures themselves, the Level 3 of discourse. Because the beginning and ending of the prayer meeting can be delineated, with regular patterns that can be identified as separate from other structures of discourse events, a prayer meeting can be understood as different from a university class.

Finally, Level 4 feeds into the interactions that come afterward. The awareness of patterns can, again, be related to different levels of explicit knowledge. When students complete a class at university, they generally are not aware of the gradual development of their expectations about how a class should run, but they are still agents in that system. The same might occur in prayer meetings that develop in various ways and with different groups meeting in different places at different times.

Importantly, the DDA insists on an empirical basis for identifying patterns and regularities. It argues for, if not equal consideration of all levels of discourse, the need to keep the levels in mind when considering how and why certain interactions follow the course they do. It also emphasizes the need to engage in analysis with an open mind, avoiding overreliance on preconceptions and common-sense understandings.

 
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