Discourse analysis has me thinking about serial killers. Before I can explain why I’m mentioning violent murderers, though, I have to explain discourse analysis. Tatyana Bondarouk and Huub Ruel’s article “Discourse Analysis: Making Complex Methodology Simple” describes discourse analysis as a methodology with origins in hermeneutics. They outline the hermeneutical belief that “interpretations give a meaning to a text within a framework of the interpreter’s experiences” (which reminds me a lot of reader response theory) and explain the “hermeneutic circle [which] is continually open for re-interpretation” (which reminds me of grounded theory).
In addition to explaining the theoretical roots of discourse analysis, the authors also include detailed descriptions of each step of their process, complete with tables and charts. Admittedly, I had to reread some of the charts a few times before I could make sense of them, but I did appreciate having some concrete examples of how exactly discourse analysis could be applied to research.
As they explain their research process, the authors describe conducting informal interviews in which the interviewer is an active participant. Here’s where I started to think about serial killers. There’s this great show on Netflix called Mindhunter about two FBI agents who interview notorious serial killers during the 1970s. As they attempt to perfect and streamline the interview process, the agents clash with a psychologist who wants them to be the “speaking questionnaires” that Bondarouk and Ruel describe.
The FBI agents, however, are more active in the interview process—they use the same “snowballing technique” as Bondarouk and Ruel by asking new questions based on what they’ve learned from previous killers; they use informal language to get the killers more comfortable; and they ask “provocative questions” to elicit authentic, unfiltered responses. They even perform rudimentary “member checks” by re-visiting specific killers and asking for clarification on certain topics.
In these interviews, the FBI agents engage in what James Gee describes as “Discourses, with a capital ‘D.’” In his article “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics,” Gee describes Discourse as not just language use, but as “ways of being in the world” (526). The way the FBI agents in Mindhunter speak and act when they return to the conservative Bureau sharply contrasts the casual, offensive, and violent language they use to connect with serial killers; they utilize different Discourses in different contexts.
Gee explains that these different Discourses are ways of communicating that, like a foreign language, cannot be learned in a classroom, but must be acquired through experience. His discussion of the conflict and tension that arises as people attempt to balance their “primary Discourse”—or their “original and home-based sense of identity”—with their “secondary Discourses”—i.e., the ways of communicating they learn in the “public sphere” (Gee 527)—reminds me of the literature I analyzed for my undergraduate thesis; I studied texts by Latino authors that use code-switching to reveal the challenges of balancing two different cultural identities. One of the works I explicated was “Bilingual Blues” by Gustavo Pérez Firmat, which is a short poem that clearly articulates the speaker’s struggles to balance his primary Discourse as a Cuban with his secondary Discourse as an immigrant in the United States.
Not only does straddling these different Discourses cause personal and emotional strife, but, as Gee explains, it can also affect a person’s social status. The author compares “dominant Discourses,” which are considered mainstream and prestigious, to “nondominant Discourses,” and he explains that it’s difficult for those engaged in nondominant Discourses to gain prestige and power because it’s impossible to learn a new Discourse unless you’ve experienced it. This discussion of gatekeeping in dominant Discourses reminds me of Patrick Hartwell’s article “Grammar, Grammars, and the Teaching of Grammar” (on which I gave a presentation last semester). Hartwell’s article explains how grammar is a Discourse that can’t be taught through explicit instruction, so it’s one of many barriers keeping marginalized people from opening the gates to the world of wealth, prestige, and power.