Part Two: Culture and Contexts

13 Discourse, Institutions, and Power


Discourses, institutions and the social power relations and intra-group tensions and agreements they represent are all very interesting in their own right.  But now might be a good time to link this back to communication studies.  Why should we care about discourses and institutions?  Firstly, discourses and the institutions that produce and propagate them reflect the flow of power and control in society – most of the discourses that we are exposed to reflect the dominant position in society, and conflict between discourses, such as with smoking in the second half of the 20th century, reveal underlying social tensions between those dominant discourses and new and emerging discourses.  So looking at discourse and institutions reveals for us who may speak, who might be silenced, and why certain groups, activities or relationships are framed in particular ways – so why might one group frame an individual to be a terrorist and another a freedom fighter could be revealed by understanding the institutional context of the speakers.

Secondly, institutions shape the communicative process.  The media, particularly the commercial media, operates within institutional restrictions such as policy, copyright, and broadcast practice.  Certain types of language and even types of signs are encouraged within particular institutional contexts, and other types are not.  So discourses shape our communication and the types of texts we send, and how we understand the texts and messages we receive – we never communicate in a vacuum, we always bring to bear on our communications our context, our social norms, and our prior experiences.

Finally, an understanding of the discourses and their institutions that are active in a society helps us to come to terms with how communication is operating on a macro-level – so not just looking at individual texts or individual moments of communication, but communication as a whole.  A good example is a classroom.  If we were to look at a classroom in this way, you would need to think about the wider institution of education, the relationships and expectations it has in regard to teachers and students, and dominant discourses about knowledge and learning.  Looking at the classroom this way helps to unpack the classroom-as-institution, and makes clearer the privileges and power it fosters.  For example, who can speak and who must listen in a classroom is tied to these institutional relationship and supported by discourses of education that are so deeply engrained in us that many of us do not question it until we see other types of educational institutions and the types of discourses they support.


  1. What are some current discourses within the Australian, New Zealand and Pacific Regions?
  2. Identify the signs and language employed in those debates and consider whether or not they are unique to the particular discourse or institution.
  3. Then identify who is ‘speaking’, and who is not, and consider this information in terms of the discourse and institutional contexts.


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