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It's an expression from the field of media criticism, and was influenced by two important theorists of communication-- Michel Foucault and Stuart Hall. A "discourse" is a particular way of talking about a subject-- it contains meanings that are understood by groups of people or by a particular culture. For example, there is a "discourse" about illegal immigrants, or a "discourse" about mental illness. The discourse contains particular ideological beliefs. A "dominant discourse" is created by those in power, and it becomes the accepted way of looking at (or speaking about) the subject, since it is repeated so much. During the war in Iraq, there was a dominant discourse about patriotism, created by the president and his administration and disseminated through the media. People who dissented from that discourse were criticized and called unpatriotic.
Dominant discourse is the spoken, written, and behavioral expectations that we all share within a cultural grouping. That makes it normative, meaning that this is based on our expectations as a social group. Because norms are often out-of-awareness, this also makes these normative expectations out-of-awareness, leading to many unstated assumptions.
Dominant discourse is this collection of expectations we take for granted. It embodies socialization by the dominant or decision-making group. Dominant discourse gives us the prevailing "accepted" rules of everyday living as practiced by our decision-makers. Dominant discourse rarely includes the perspective of the Other, the non-power holding Other.
Post modernism and critical theory are the theoretical approaches that insist upon including the perspective of the Other.
Two examples of major conflicts associated with challenges to discourse are the Civil Rights Movement and the Holocaust. In both these cases, the dominant discourse involved discrimination against a particular group of people. Those in power during both these periods used open propaganda, as well as scare tactics, to assert and maintain dominance through the general population. A more general example of conflict related to dominant discourse is war of any type, although conflicts do not always escalate to the point of physical violence.Here are some pitfalls that arise from dominant discourses:
Even though the clearest examples of dominant discourse arguably come from associated conflict, social norms can be positive for a society on some levels. One benefit of dominant discourse is that it provides one or more points of commonality between members of a society. This can help members of the society develop a sense of normalcy, as they have some predictability in terms of what they are supposed to do and say in different situations. It also provides people with a sense of belonging, because they are able to see that others are acting or speaking in the same way.
Dominant discourse is variable, meaning that discourses on different topics do not always come from the same individual or groups. For example, a church may provide a standard for prayer or preparing a funeral, while a health organization may provide standards for patient care and interaction. This means that changes to one dominant discourse don't always directly impact other discourses. In fact, members of society may remain ignorant to some dominant discourses unless they are in some way directly associated with certain groups, such as the general public being relatively unfamiliar with the meaning of many medical and legal terms.
May He Yawn in Good Faith? tells the story on which this analysis is based.So, a few questions, after pondering this...
Martha Minow approaches the issues of how communication is affected by difference and privileging in Making All the Difference: Inclusion,Exclusion and American Law. Cornell University Press, Ithaca, 1990. She blames some of the difficulty on our hearing each other on five unstated assumptions we make about "differences."
(1) We assume that differences are "intrinsic." That somehow Kornblum's yawn was telling about Kornblum himself, and particularly, Kornblum as an American.
(2) We assume that that "the norm need not be stated." That simply everyone knows what a yawn means, particularly when an American Ambassador yawns at a vice president of the German Parliament.
(3) We assume that "the observer can see without a perspective." That what the vice president of the German Parliament saw was what "there was" to be seen. That the infamous yawn felt to the ambassador as it looked to the vice president.
(4) We assume that "other perspectives are irrelevant." That we don't need to know the perceptions or the context in which the ambassador's yawn occurred. We don't need to hear the ambassador's story.
(5) We assume that the "status quo is natural, uncoerced, and good." That there are no other competing theories, no world tensions, no illness, no overloaded schedules, nothing but the here and now with no competing claims on our attention, our energy, our fervor. (Minow, op. cit., at pp. 50-78)
Minow argues that the fact that these assumptions go unstated means that they underlie much of our communication without our even being aware of the extent to which they interfere in our good faith hearing of one another's validity claims. We need to state our assumptions, bring them to the discourse table, so that we can identify the miscommunication that derails our efforts at community.