Discourse analysis is the study of how humans communicate with each other through language and other means of symbolic expression. While it takes into account language’s formal structure, or linguistics, analysts of written, spoken and gestured language are primarily studying the psychology of human interaction. The assumption is that, insofar as the basic tool of language is universal, its utility must also have universal principles. For example, the call-and-answer of a social greeting is believed to be a pattern that is innate, perhaps a biological imperative. There are several discourse analysis methods, but they share a difficulty in common, which is the requirement to study samples in natural context.
The first theories of human discourse arose from analysis of written translations of foreign languages. Among them is the theory of transformational grammar which posits that language has deep structures about the relation between its semantics — words, phrases and other expressions with discreet meaning. The grammar of a specific language is a surface structure representing transformations of the fundamental, universal relationships. Within this framework, discourse analysis methods include graphically mapping the transformation in relationships and creating computational rules for their grammatical changes. It is a useful method in understanding the creation and evolution of “natural languages,” including sublanguages such as the complex jargon of some professions.
Transformational grammar was especially advanced by the work of American linguist and cognitive psychologist Noam Chomsky. It is one of the dominant theoretical models for analyzing text and written communication, particularly with language translation. For other fields of study such as early developmental psychology where correct syntax and grammar are increasingly accurate representations of thought, spoken discourse analysis methods also employ the transformational, sometimes called generative, grammar framework.
Many fields in the social sciences, such as anthropology, international relations and media studies, may be more interested in understanding discourse as a social interaction. They may use different theoretical frameworks and corresponding discourse analysis methods. For example, so-called critical discourse analysis proposes that language is fundamentally a tool of social power, and its methods typically scale human conversations onto parameters such as inequality and dominance. Interactional sociolinguists propose that language is deeply cultural, and that determining degree of shared context in discourse is essential to its analysis.
Some fields of study, such as conversation analysis and discursive psychology, study the structure of discourse itself — the sequential patterns of verbal interaction — and its influence on the course of a social relationship. They include apparently universal language phenomena as taking turns at talk, intoning declaratively or propositionally, and interjecting with guttural expressions. Statistical correlations of a conversation’s timing and patterns with people’s feelings at its conclusion are some of its analysis methods.