During the last decades discourse analytic approaches became more and more frequent not only in the field of sociology, linguistics and communication and media studies, but in their intersections as well. As we also employ discourse analysis (DA) based approaches in several of our research projects, our interest in its scientific interpretation is self-evident. Thus, we carried out a systematic scoping review to see the nature and complexity of the interpretation and use of DA. Given that social media offer a relatively new yet inexhaustibly rich resource for discourse analysts, we have narrowed down our research to scientific publications that analysed social media texts with the help of discourse analysis.
DA is a complex approach – both a theoretical concept and a methodology – which makes it possible to capture not only the linguistic characteristics of given texts, but also their socially constructive and socially constructed features. Thus, we developed a three-level scale to tackle the DA-related complexity of the collected articles. At one end of the scale there are those research papers where discourse appears only as a label for the textual material gathered, without further indication of any DA theories or methodologies. The other end, however, refers to those research projects, which applied DA both in their theoretical and methodological frameworks, providing complex discourse analytical investigations of social media texts.
If we look at those articles, which used ‘discourse’ only as a textual data type, we can see, that they did not mention either any DA schools, or methods. Accordingly, in these articles discourse seems to be a synonym of text or textual data.
Moving further on our scale, the next category contains those articles, which applied DA either as a theoretical or as a methodological frame, but not both together.
As a part of this category, those publications, which refer to DA as a theoretical framework, but do not elaborate it in their methods, represent only a small share of the corpus (6%). In these articles, while the theoretical considerations related to DA are explained in detail, the process of the analysis seems to be treated as self-explanatory. From a critical point of view, this could be a sign of using DA as a ‘fashionable’ token-expression for textual-analysis, without real commitment to any actual DA methodology.
The bigger part of this category indicates those publications, which present DA as a methodological concept, a tool to analyse the collected social media corpus, but without framing it theoretically with discourse theories. Regarding the methodological details, in general they provide a very nuanced account of the sampling procedure, then a somewhat schematic description of their DA process. This typically starts with a coding phase, then is followed by classifying emergent patterns, which are identified as themes or discourses or narratives.
The last group of articles interpreted DA both as a theoretical concept and a method of analysis. The articles in this group are rather diverse in terms of how elaborately they examine discourse theories: from 1–5 sentences to several pages. The research projects also show a great variety in whether DA theory is used in them as the exclusive theoretical backbone of the research, or in a complementary manner to interpret their results or theoretically ground their methods.
All in all, discourse analytic research approaches to social media content seem to be on the rise. Socially and scholarly valuable, carefully executed research projects have already been made, which could serve as a good ground for further research as well. Nonetheless, there may be some aspects in which a narrower gold standard could be helpful for both researchers and the academic perception of DA. First, transparency in all aspects: defining what the authors mean by discourse, and exactly how they analyse it.
The lack of transparency in this aspect could be problematic as it undermines the validity of DA approaches, since neither can their methods be evaluated academically, nor is it clear whether they had a systematic approach.
Second, not relying on any kind of DA theory in the articles affects the evaluation of the projects as well as the academic field. That is to say, when not acknowledging the role of discourse in constructing social reality, the publications merely suggest that representations may affect some people’s opinions on specific matters, or that social media portrayal matters just for the sake of portrayal.