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Understanding Discourse

There are as many definitions of 'discourse' as there are of 'religion', ranging from the historical 'act of conversation' to postmodern theorisations about ontology. In one of the few analytical reviews of the use of 'discourse' in the study of religion, Engler (2006) makes a distinction between cultural studies and linguistic approaches to discourse. In Engler's schema (echoed by Moberg 2013) cultural studies approaches focus on how 'discourse shapes or constitutes the subject, in opposition to the view that language is simply a tool used by autonomous subjects' (2006: 517). Engler uses McCutcheon's (2003) discussion on 'Sui Generis religion' as a prime example of a Foucault-inspired cultural studies approach in the study of religion. Linguistic approaches in turn - with considerably less impact on the field - focus instead on empirical study of texts both on micro and macro levels (Engler 2006).

The aim of CDA is to bridge these two approaches. Norman Fairclough, the main proponent of CDA (whom I will draw upon most in my own discussion), combines Foucault's ideas with what is referred to as 'functional linguistics', creating a powerful tool for the close analysis of texts (Fairclough 1992). The theoretical underpinnings and methodological implications of CDA are crystallised in two properties that discourse is said to have: it is both constitutive and functional.

Discourse is constitutive, because it does not simply reflect or represent things 'out there', but 'constructs' or 'constitutes' them (Fairclough 1992: 3). According to Fairclough (1992), the three things that are constituted in discourse are (1) social identities or 'subject positions'; (2) social relationships; and (3) systems of knowledge and belief. These, of course, are continuously overlapping, but the distinction provides a useful analytical focus. In the sociology of religion, the 'cult controversies' provide a good example of the constitutive nature of discourse: how can it be that the same religious beliefs and practices are to some the way to salvation and to others deviant, harmful and evil? The answer is in the different discourses that the adherents, on the one hand, and the anti-cult movement, on the other, employ. It is not that either side is consciously telling lies (although sometimes that happens as well), but rather that 'while people may tell the truth, and nothing but the truth, it is impossible for anyone to tell the whole truth. Everyone (more or less consciously) selects what is to be included or excluded from their picture of reality according to a number of criteria - one criterion being what is relevant to their interests' (Barker 2011: 200, emphasis in original). Although not explicitly using a discourse analytical framework, the sociology of new religious movements has been a forerunner in analysing religion (in this case 'cults') as a discursive construction (e.g. Beckford 1985; Richardson 1997).

Discourse has a second characteristic closely connected to Barker's observation about the interests of social actors. In addition to being constitutive, discourse is also functional (Fairclough 1992; Potter and Wetherell 1987: 32-3). It is important to note that this use of the term function does not refer to functionalist ideas about society - ideas which in many ways inspired constructionist critiques, which in turn have been an inspiration for discourse analysis (see Hjelm 2014). Instead, discourse is seen as a form of social practice, contributing both to the reproduction of society and to social change (Fairclough 1992; Potter 1996: 105). Edwards and Potter (1992) talk about the 'action orientation' of discourse, that is, how things are done with discourse - closely echoing the perhaps better known idea of performativity' as discussed by Butler (1990) and others. Again, the discourse of the anti-cult movement is thick with not only constructions of cults, but also descriptions of the ways cult members can be 'cured' and practical policy recommendations on how the influence of cults can be prevented. This 'cult discourse' both constructs cults as a social problem and also offers practical avenues of action to dealing with the problem (see Hjelm 2011a).

 
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