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What Are the Functions of Discourse?

Wanda Marie Thibodeaux
Wanda Marie Thibodeaux

Communicating general information, establishing roles and power hierarchies, putting regulations into practice, guiding what others should do, and stabilizing both identity and society all are functions of discourse. Collectively, these functions are present throughout all groups and cultures in some way. They explain why communication is so vital to everyday life.

One of the primary functions of discourse is to communicate general information. For example, discourse helps people find out historical facts, prices, where a venue is located or even the steps they need to take to complete a project. This type of information can help a person make decisions or broaden their perspective on the world.

Woman holding a book
Woman holding a book

Discourse also serves to establish roles and a recognizable power hierarchy. In a family, for instance, if a parent is always telling their child he can succeed or looks good, the parent's role would be "encourager." Outsiders would be able to analyze the parent's language to conclude that this role was present, which gives clues as to the overall functioning and interaction of the family members. In the same way, if a soldier in the army gives commands, it is clear that the soldier has or is establishing a certain degree of authority.

Understanding that discourse helps establish roles and power hierarchies, creating or maintaining rules and order is also one of the functions of discourse. People discuss what should or should not happen, communicating what they believe and expect. Based on the collective philosophy of a group, representatives put laws or unwritten standards in place and enforce them through legal or social means. Discourse also can help diffuse tense situations when they occur.

Directing behavior happens through discourse as well. Often, those with greater authority are able to direct behavior with relative ease, such as if a teacher tells students to get out their textbooks. Sometimes people direct behavior in a collaborative way, however, often using questions instead of commands to show respect. For example, a husband might ask his wife if she wants him to pick up something from the store on the way home, and she would dictate the items to purchase. This function is a leading principle behind any guidance provided within behavioral therapies and often helps improve efficiency in tasks or development.

Related functions of discourse are communicating identity and creating a sense of belonging and social stability. When people engage in discourse, they are able to make comparisons to each other and learn what they like and don't like. They can find people with the same interests and create bonds that keep the society functioning collectively, feeling like part of a larger whole.

Individually, all the functions of discourse are important, but taken together, they explain much of what people do and how relationships form. This is why discourse functions are of such interest to linguists, sociologists and other professionals. By studying discourse, people can learn how to mold both themselves and each other into a different ideal.

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