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2 Social Emergence and Discourse: Conceptualizing Discourse as a Mechanism

2 Social Emergence and Discourse: Conceptualizing Discourse as a Mechanism

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Discourse as a Causal Mechanism

According to a critical realist understanding, discourse is both meaningful and causally efficacious. It is present in both the identification and

production of social events. While on the one hand, we always need some

kind of discursive interpretation to identify an event, on the other, it is

necessary simultaneously to clarify discursive causal powers and their

effects (Fairclough, Jessop, and Sayer 2004, 29). What is of interest here

is the performative potential of discourse, and the real effects that it has

on the social world—including social relations, practices, and orders.

Particular meanings, ideas, or ways of thinking can all produce social

change. According to this, discourses can act as causes in effecting such

change, though the effectiveness of discourses “depends on their practical

adequacy, on how they relate to the constraints and opportunities of the

context in which they are proposed” (Sayer 2000, 25).

So if discourse has an actual effect on social events and phenomena, we

need to examine it in a way that accounts for this effectiveness. In order to

connect discourse to its role in the initiation of events or the emergence

of social entities, it is necessary to allow for discourses having a significant

impact (Banta 2012). While acknowledging the play of difference, discourses also need to be treated as causal—in order to account for them

being responsible for patterns and processes in the social world. Based on

a critical realist understanding of causation, it is possible to promote such

an argument through recognizing that a cause is whatever is responsible

for producing change. To attribute causal efficacy to discourse in this way

is also consistent with stressing its performative potential as compared to

its representational aspect (Sayer 2000).

To recap, when addressing causation critical realists ask what produced,

created, or enabled a particular social phenomenon or event. Rather than

the relations between two separated events, it is the nature of the objects

and those relations themselves that are of interest (see Danermark et al.

2002; Sayer 1992). When something is able to make a difference, to produce a change, it is real, though entities can be real in different ways.

Hence a mechanism can be any real entity, whether material, social, or

ideal in nature. Mechanisms are the processes that make something work,

that are responsible for particular actions, reaction, or outcomes—they are

also the aspect of an entity’s relations and structure by virtue of which it

has a certain power (see Bunge 1999; Wight 2004).



On the basis of critical realist ontology, I understand discourse (seen

as ideally real) as a causal mechanism. As such, discourse is relationally connected to various other mechanisms too, and can be differentiated from those that are to be found in the extra-discursive realm (see

also Banta 2012, 379). In contributing to the constitution of social

relations and order, discourse takes on a central role in processes of

social emergence. Bhaskar argues in a similar way that among a multiplicity of mechanisms, “discourse is a case of an efficacious mechanism

which operates on the world and is embedded in the world, and the

world impacts on discourse” (Laclau and Bhaskar 1998, 12). In order

to reveal discourse as a causal mechanism, the intransitive–transitive distinction is relevant again. As ideally real entities, discourses exist in the

transitive domain—so that we could, for example, account for changing (transitive) discourses about a relatively unchanging (intransitive)

social phenomenon. The stress on “relatively” is important here in that

it emphasizes that critical realism does not assume that intransitive entities are fixed or incapable of change. Discourses can themselves become

entities to be analyzed (see Fleetwood 2004).

Discourses that are subject to analysis are therefore intransitive, inasmuch as they are studied as causal objects. Although we make sense of

the world through discourse (transitive objects that are shaped by many

different agents and their actions over time), at any particular point in

time, this discourse is relatively intransitive to either those who study it or

who are even directly affected by it (Banta 2012, 390). Once a particular

discourse has been institutionalized across time and space, it becomes an

element of social structure—so that it is “ontologically prior to individual

human agency, and therefore constrain its capacity to change the underlying conditions of action” (Rees and Gatenby 2014, 137). This argumentation should not be misunderstood as an essentialization that fixes

a meaningful object to its referent (see Sects. 2.2 and 4.1). Moreover,

discourse is just one causal mechanism alongside many others, so that

when we seek a causal explanation for a particular phenomenon this does

not mean that we need to find the one ultimate or initial cause. A critical

realist account of causation incorporates an awareness that causes can be

multiple, and that causal processes can be ongoing. While some causal

powers may become permanent ones, though not necessarily exercised

all the time, others can only be maintained by regular enactment (Sayer

2000, 95). The critical realist concept of causal powers accounts for such

differences and diversity.



As Banta concludes, “[g]iven differentiation through emergence and a

view of causality as dispositional properties, the possibility is opened for

the causal analysis of discourse as we analytically separate it from other

entities” (2012, 391). Making this separation is of course the most difficult part, especially in concrete research. While critical realists stress the

importance of studying discourse in relation to extra-discursive entities,

most of them recognize that the boundaries between discursive and extradiscursive elements are not always clear-cut (e.g. Sims-Schouten and Riley

2014; Thompson and Harley 2012).

In particular, those who aim to consider both dimensions in concrete

analyses find fault with missing systematic methods and the “lack of conceptual resources by which discourses can be causally connected to a wider

realm of extra-discursive (and also discursive) practices” (Banta 2012,

386). As previously argued, both the discursive and the extra-discursive

encompass real entities and phenomena; the former ideally real and the

latter socially real (Fleetwood 2004). Social structures, embodied factors,

or particular social histories are real, but do not reside purely in the discursive realm—so they can be said to be extra-discursive. In the end, how

these distinctions are made comes down to the individual research focus

and question at hand.

In any case, to study discourse as a mechanism that interacts with other

ones in the constituting of the social, we need certain tools to do so. CDA

seems to be the most promising perspective from which to study discourse

as a causal mechanism, because it regards discourse as standing in a dialectical relationship to other non- or extra-discursive forms of social practice

(see Banta 2012). The aim of tracing this dialectical relationship over time

is to find out what effect discourse has on a social phenomenon or event

by studying that discourse in its broader social context. As Reed argues,

“from a realist perspective discourses become generative mechanisms or

structures that can only be known through their contingent effects in

particular socio-historical contexts” (2000, 528). Before introducing the

main features of CDA in more detail, I want to first clarify how discourse

relates to both context and other social practices.


Discourse, Context, and Social Practices

While CDA approaches based on critical realism emphasize the necessity of putting discursive processes into context, it is not always obvious what is exactly meant by this. Also, the notion of context is not as



clear within discursive views as it might be in its commonsense meaning

(see van Dijk 1997). At first glance, we might think of the circumstances,

the specific event or situation, or the general environment in which a discursive action takes place. In this way, context seems to condition discourse to a certain degree and serves as its background. Context in CDA is

crucial because it accounts for the social and historical aspects of analysis,

in contrast to more abstract discourse analysis. As a form of social practice, discourse is in a dialectical relationship between a discursive event or

action on the one hand and the situation and social structures that frame

it on the other (Fairclough and Wodak 1997, 258). The context in which

discursive practice is situated thus comprises the interface between discourse and social structure.

Context features vary according to the way in which a researcher

defines context, what kind of research methodology they implement, and

how they collect the data for their analysis. They could, for instance, refer

to culture, society, and ideology, or to the participants, their roles, and

the purposes behind a particular discursive action—as well as the properties of a discursive setting such as time and space (see van Dijk 1997, 11;

Wodak and Meyer 2009a, 21). Situating discursive processes into context means to locate them within their dialectical relations with “persons

(hence minds, intentions, desires, bodies), social relations, and the material world—locating them within the practical engagement of embodied

and socially organized persons with the material world” (Fairclough,

Jessop, and Sayer 2004, 27).

In this regard, context is commonly associated with the extra-discursive

conditions and entities that secure the effectivity of discourse. SimsSchouten et al., for example, treat factors that include embodiment, physical spaces, and institutional structures as “having extra-discursive ontology

and understood as producing a context in which certain discursive constructions are more easily enabled or disenabled than alternative constructions” (2007, 103). The texts that are studied as the products of discursive

practice therefore need to be regarded in relation to their extra-discursive


To do this, Halliday (Halliday and Hasan 1989) differentiates between

the context of situation and the context of culture that together constitute

the non-discursive environment of any text. The former has three components, namely the “field of discourse” (the activity as such within which

language plays a part), the “tenor of discourse” (the actors of discourse

and their interacting roles), and the “mode of discourse” (the parts with



specific functions of language)—which correspond to ideational, interpersonal, and textual meanings, respectively. While the context of situation

represents the immediate environment of any text, the context of culture is seen as the broader background to it. The features of this broader

context determine how the text is interpreted in its context of situation.

The relationship between text and context is a dialectical one, wherein

“the text creates the context as much as the context creates the text,” as

Halliday argues, so that “‘[m]eaning’ arises from the friction between the

two” (Halliday and Hasan 1989, 47).

CDA approaches draw on these considerations by Halliday and distinguish between the immediate situational or textual dimensions of context

and the broader sociopolitical or historical dimensions of context (e.g.

Fairclough 2001a; Reisigl and Wodak 2009; Wodak 2011). Given that discourse is seen as part of social practice, it is not enough to focus either on

analyzing text alone or just on its processes of production and interpretation. Rather, what is required is “analyzing the relationship between texts,

processes, and their social conditions, both the immediate conditions of

the situational context and the more remote conditions of institutional

and social structures” (Fairclough 2001a, 21).

There is of course an ambiguity between the terms of discourse and practice. But this ambiguity is accurate, according to Fairclough (2001a, 23),

inasmuch as it stresses the social nature of discourse and practice and suggests that there are necessary social conventions and preconditions for

action. While discourse (as an abstract noun) refers to language use conceived as social practice, discourse practice is the production, distribution, and consumption of a text—which means that the latter mediates the

relation between text and social practice (see Fairclough 2010). To analyze discourse in relation to other practices, Chouliaraki and Fairclough

(1999, 61) define four “moments” of practice: material activity (including

material aspects or physical acts), social relations and processes (adhering

to institutions and power relations), mental phenomena (comprise values,

beliefs, etc.), and discourse. In some cases, as Fairclough argues, social

practices “may be wholly constituted by the discursive practice, while in

others it may involve a mixture of discursive and non-discursive practice”

(1992, 71).

As already argued, it is, however, difficult to analytically distinguish the

discursive from the extra-discursive. Usually, it is the particular research

focus and question that should determine how this problem is handled.

The causal discourse of interest here is regional institutional discourse.



It can be differentiated from other social relations of institution building,

such as rule creation, enforcement and compliance, or, more generally,

from social relations of regional integration—such as interdependence,

intraregional trade, financial transactions, or security-building measures.

Of course, these relations can be said to have discursive aspects but they

also need to be considered in their extra-discursive sense “as a relatively

regularized ‘competent performance’” (Banta 2012, 394)—described

through, for example, operative infrastructure, the level of commodity

exchange, (the reduction of) tariff and trade barriers, or the like.

The aim is thus to identify discourse as one moment in the broader

network of social practice, “either discourse as part of the activity, or discourse in the reflexive construction of the practice, or both,” and to specify the relationship between those different moments (Chouliaraki and

Fairclough 1999, 61). In so doing, the complexity of social practices is

analytically divided up in such a way as to help illuminate how discourse

has an effect on the production, reproduction, and transformation of

social phenomena—thereby studying it as a mechanism. By stressing the

dialectical relationship between the discursive and extra-discursive dimensions of social practice, CDA provides a method that enables us to investigate not only discursive constructions themselves but also their influence

on the discursive practices that constitute social order—as well as their

effects on extra-discursive elements.


Main Features of CDA: How to Study Discourse

A critical realist version of CDA adopts a stratified view of ontology and

regards the relationship between (abstract) social structures and (concrete) social events as mediated by social practices (see Chouliaraki and

Fairclough 1999; Fairclough 2010, in particular, Chaps. 9 and 13).

Discourse in the sense of meaning making is an element of the social process that is dialectically related to other elements. This means that social

practices or events are partly discursive in that they internalize discourse,

but are not reducible to it. The relations between them are dialectical

in the sense of being different but not discrete (Harvey 1996). In this

regard, CDA is concerned with two dialectical relations: those between

social structures and events (thereby considering the relationship between

structure and agency [action, strategy]) and those between discursive and

other elements (see Fairclough 2010, 232).

Discourse relates in three main ways to other elements of social

practice and to events, and figures in three corresponding discursive



categories: genre, discourse, and style (Fairclough 2010).6 As a facet of

action discourse figures in genres that are specific ways of acting and interacting. Activities and the way people that act together in particular fields

are associated with distinctive sets of genres, such as editorials or reports in

newspapers, lecturing at universities or debating, or negotiating and consulting in the politic realm. Discourses are representations of social practices

(which include themselves) and the material world, and thus relate as the

construal or representation of aspects of the world to other elements of

social practice. Commonly, they can be associated with different perspectives or positions within social groups, for instance, different political discourses (liberal, conservative, etc.), and how those groups relate to each

other. Discourses constitute different visions of specific fields (such as that

of government) from a certain perspective. In the constitution of identities,

discourse figures in styles that are particular ways of being in their discursive

form. Styles are, for example, being a “manager” or being a “leader,” and

accordingly include the developing of a particular discursive style of managing or leading a company or a party, for example. While discourses as

representations have a purely discursive character, genres and styles incorporate both discursive and non-discursive features (Fairclough 2010, 358).

A relatively stable articulation of genres, discourses, and styles constitutes an order of discourse, which is a social structuring of linguistic/discursive variation or difference. According to this, an order of discourse is

the discursive aspect of a social order as a network of social practices that

constitute a particular social field, institution, or organization (Fairclough

2010, 265, 504). By way of example, the political order of discourse is

constituted as a comparatively stable articulation of political speech,

debate, and negotiations (genres), of conservative, social-democratic, and

similar discourses, and of various styles of political leadership. To analyze

genres, discourses, and styles, then, CDA looks at texts, which are the

discursive elements of social events (Fairclough 2010, 359). They are,

so to say, the “linguistic products” of discursive processes and comprise

not only written texts but also verbal interactions. Texts are contextualized in relation to both other elements of social events and to other social

practices, and correspondingly draw on particular orders of discourse, its

genres, discourses, and styles.

I have argued that language is a significant component of the social

in general, social interaction in particular, and thus of social emergence.

The elements of CDA outlined above imply that each dimension of a

social process has a linguistic or discursive facet to it. While languages

are among the abstract social structures that define certain possibilities,



networks of social practice figure in orders of discourse—with texts being

elements of social events. Accordingly, discourse analysis is concerned with

the relations between social processes (including texts), with social practices (including orders of discourse), and with social structures (including

linguistic systems)—but also with the relationship between discourse and

other social elements more generally. Given that structures and processes

have different properties, rather than focusing either on ongoing change in

social interactions or developments in structure the relationship between

both is in fact to be addressed (see Fairclough 2010, 294, 363–365).

Given that discourse is regarded as causally efficacious, actual social

events and phenomena can be explained partly in discursive terms—with

changes in the social world understood partly through the effects of discourse (Jessop 2004). This discursive dimension is dialectically related to

other social elements that need to be analytically discerned. The focus

on the interaction of discursive and extra-discursive elements in the constitution and reproduction of the social is therefore a core concern of

CDA (Fairclough 2007). Another is to show the connections between

language, power, and ideology inherent in social interactions (Wodak and

Meyer 2009a), such as how discourse contributes to the production and

reproduction of power relations or how discursive practice impacts on

power relations—that is, its ideological effects. The latter are understood

in terms of representations that remain largely unchallenged by people in

society, and that have an almost “neutral” character in that they contribute to the (re)producing and transformation of dominant relations (see

Fairclough 2010; Wodak and Meyer 2009a).

Based on these key features and assumptions of CDA, there are several research issues that can be addressed when studying the role of discourse in the constitution and reproduction of the social. Fairclough

(2007, 2010) suggests four broad research issues for analyzing discourse

and social change, namely, the problems of emergence, hegemony,

recontextualization, and operationalization. Emergence refers to the

question of how and where discourses emerge and develop. Fairclough

approaches the problem of emergence on the basis of the basic principle

that “nothing comes out of nothing,” (2010, 367) which means that new

discourses emerge through their relations and connections with already

existing discourses. The question of the processes of emergence behind

new discourses is tackled by considering how they are constituted as articulations of (elements of) prior discourses. Hegemony considers how and

where discourses achieve hegemonic status.7 Emergent discourses might



be selected by social groups to be incorporated into their strategies within

processes of hegemonic struggle. Hegemony further addresses how discourses figure within confrontations between different strategies, and how

a new hegemonic discourse arises (Fairclough 2010, 368).

Recontextualization refers to the significant dimension of social change

and transformation regarding how and where—and how extensively—practices, strategies, and corresponding hegemonic discourses move from one

context to another and the way they are rearticulated therein.8 This comprises

the structural and scalar dissemination of emergent hegemonic discourses,

for example, how they are internalized within particular organizations or

taken up by particular governments, or how they spread across the boundaries between local, regional, national, or international scales (see Fairclough

2010, 368–369). Operationalization considers to what extent discourses

have an impact on the social world by asking how and under what conditions discourses are transformed into social elements, and by addressing the

complex relationship between discursive and social practice. This includes

the enactment of discourses in new ways of acting and interacting (e.g. the

transformation of discourses into genres), their inculcation into new ways of

being and new identities (e.g. changes in styles), and the materialization of

discourses in new ways of structuring and organizing space (e.g. modifications to or the introduction of design) (Fairclough 2010, 369–370).

With regard to concrete analysis, each of the research objects entails

a different procedure for the selection and analysis of data. Concerning

the emergence of discourses, it is, for example, important to locate them

within previous discourses, to analyze how they are constituted through

the articulations and elements of such prior discourses, and to specify

the relations between the articulations of the various discourses that

emerge within a new nodal one. Relations of contestation between one

emergent discourse and other potential nodal discourses are the focus

in researching emergent hegemony. How discourses are recontextualized can be studied by comparing texts in different social fields or how

they are articulated in conjunction with other discourses that already

exist within a given context. In order to research how discourses are

operationalized and realized within the social reality, it is helpful to

consult insider perspectives in particular organizations, regions, and so

on, so as to gain additional information and contextual knowledge (see

Fairclough 2010, 508–509).

As argued before, any concrete analysis of discourse needs to account

for complexity—in that it is interlinked with other discourses, practices,



and actions. Here, the concepts of intertextuality and interdiscursivity are

crucial because they particularly address the issue of studying text in context (see Reisigl and Wodak 2009; Wodak and Weiss 2005). Texts cannot

be regarded as isolated; they are related to other both past and present

texts and events, which are characterized as intertextuality in CDA so as to

capture aspects of history and change (Fairclough 1992, 102). Moreover,

texts draw on and combine a possible range of discourses, genres, and

styles that are interconnected and overlap with each other in different

ways—this is referred to as interdiscursivity (Fairclough 2010, 94, 421).

These concepts allow for a historical view to be taken on how a particular text is part of intertextual and interdiscursive chains, or of networks

of texts and events. Exploring such chains is useful to understand particular discursive events and the associated situations of hegemonic struggle

and/or changes in power relations, because they point to the productivity

of texts and their transformative potentials. Power relations or a relatively

stable hegemony can constrain and limit discursive practices. One integral

part of related struggles is, therefore, how particular arguments, themes,

or speech acts are recontextualized along the competing interest lines

through which new hegemonic discourses might emerge (see Fairclough

1992, 2010). Emergence and recontextualization are thus closely interconnected, given that the emergence of new discourses includes relations to

(certain elements of) already existing discourses that have become recontextualized. Discourses emerge through what Fairclough (2010, 367) calls the

“reweaving” of relations between existing discourses. This reweaving can be

identified by analyzing texts as processes, or the texturing of texts. Texturing

refers here to the textual moment of producing social life and the creativity

of the making of texts in generating meanings, through the combination of

existing discourses and new articulations (Fairclough 2010, 174).

Whether a particular discourse becomes hegemonic or not partly depends

on how it has been incorporated into a successful strategy. A strategy refers

to “a (more or less intentional) plan of practices, including discursive practices, adopted to achieve a particular social, political, psychological or linguistic goal” (Wodak 2011, 40). Strategies play a mediating role with regard

to the relationship between change within social interactions and texts, and

change in social structures (Fairclough 2010, 366). An integral discursive

part of strategies are the imaginaries that represent how something might,

could, or should be and that picture a possible and intended reality by projecting particular ways of acting or being. Imaginaries work as a form of discursive simplification of complex political, economic, and/or social relations

and provide discursive frames for construing and constructing events and



their attendant contexts (see Jessop 2002, 2004). As Schmidt (2008a, 311)

argues, what makes a discourse successful then encompasses what actually

makes successful ideas (e.g. relevance to the problem, adequacy, applicability, appropriateness, and resonance), so that discourse contributes to the

success or failure of ideas that are formulated within strategies by how it

articulates their content.

Concerning my research focus on emergence, I find it interesting that—relating to the research objects discussed above—Fairclough

(2010) factors the emergence of discourses into his analysis. However,

it seems to me that all four research objects mentioned are somewhat

interrelated and overlap in several regards (e.g. “emergent hegemony,”

“emergent hegemonic discourses,” etc. are spoken of). It is indeed very

likely that a particular research question will involve a combination of

some or even all four of these issues (see also Fairclough 2010, 370). As

argued throughout this work, emergence is an ongoing process rather

than something that is ever completed or finished. Hegemonic struggles

and recontextualizations are thus an integral part of social emergence processes. Furthermore, researching operationalization as a contingent and

dialectical process is a crucial linkage to the non-discursive structures and

mechanisms of emergence. It evaluates how discourses are enacted, inculcated, and materialized—the shift from emergent hegemonic discourses as

representations and imaginaries to them having transformative effects on

social reality—and accounts for the complex relation between discursive

and social practices. As they are interrelated, I hence argue that analyzing

social emergence needs to include all four elements.

So far I have addressed the question of how we can include discourse in

the study of social emergence mostly in the abstract. In the following section,

therefore, I will now translate it back into the concrete case of emergent institutions in the international system. This is done by discussing how discourse

can be best integrated into the study of emergent regional institutions.




Discourse, as argued above, plays a central role in processes of social emergence occurring within the international system. Language is the main

form of social interaction among actors and thus contributes to the production, reproduction, and transformation of the structure and order of

the system. I identified discourse as one central element of the complexity

of social practices, one that has causal effects on phenomena and events in

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2 Social Emergence and Discourse: Conceptualizing Discourse as a Mechanism

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