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An enouncement (l’énoncé, “the statement”) is not a unit of semiotic signs, but an abstract construct that allows the signs to assign and communicate specific, repeatable relations to, between, and among objects, subjects, and statements. Hence, a discourse is composed of semiotic sequences (relations among signs) between and among objects, subjects, and statements. The term discursive formation conceptually describes the regular communications (written and spoken) that produce such discourses. As a philosopher, Foucault applied the discursive formation in the analyses of large bodies of knowledge, such as political economy and natural history.
In the first sense-usage (semantics and discourse analysis), the word discourse is studied in corpus linguistics. In the second sense (the codified language of a field of enquiry), and in the third sense (a statement, un énoncé), the analyses of discourse are effected in the intellectual traditions that investigate and determine the relations among language and structure and agency, as in the fields of sociology, feminist studies, anthropology, ethnography, cultural studies, literary theory, and the philosophy of science. Moreover, because discourses are bodies of text meant to communicate specific data, information, and knowledge, there exist internal relations within a given discourse, and external relations among discourses, because a discourse does not exist in isolation (per se), but in relation to other discourses, which are determined and established by means of interdiscourse and interdiscursivity. Hence, within a field of intellectual enquiry, the practitioners occasionally debate “What is” and “What is not” discourse, according to the conceptual meanings (denotation and connotation) used in the given field of study.
In the humanities and in the social sciences, the term discourse describes a formal way of thinking that can be expressed through language, a social boundary that defines what can be said about a specific topic; as Judith Butler said, “the limits of acceptable speech”, the limits of possible truth.
Discourses are seen to affect our views on all things; it is not possible to avoid discourse. For example, two notably distinct discourses can be used about various guerrilla movements describing them either as "freedom fighters" or "terrorists". In other words, the chosen discourse provides the vocabulary, expressions and perhaps also the style needed to communicate.
Discourses are embedded in different rhetorical genres and metagenres that constrain and enable them. That is language talking about language, for instance the American Psychiatric Association's DSMIV manual tells which terms have to be used in talking about mental health, thereby mediating meanings and dictating practices of the professionals of psychology and psychiatry.
Discourse is closely linked to different theories of power and state, at least as long as defining discourses is seen to mean defining reality itself. This conception of discourse is largely derived from the work of French philosopher Michel Foucault (see below).
Modern theorists were focused on achieving progress and believed in the existence of natural and social laws which could be used universally to develop knowledge and thus a better understanding of society. Modernist theorists were preoccupied with obtaining the truth and reality and sought to develop theories which contained certainty and predictability. Modernist theorists therefore viewed discourse as being relative to talking or way of talking and understood discourse to be functional. Discourse and language transformations are ascribed to progress or the need to develop new or more “accurate” words to describe new discoveries, understandings, or areas of interest. In modern times, language and discourse are dissociated from power and ideology and instead conceptualized as “natural” products of common sense usage or progress. Modernism further gave rise to the liberal discourses of rights, equality, freedom, and justice; however, this rhetoric masked substantive inequality and failed to account for differences, according to Regnier.
Structuralist theorists, such as Ferdinand de Saussure and Jacques Lacan, argue that all human actions and social formations are related to language and can be understood as systems of related elements. This means that the “…individual elements of a system only have significance when considered in relation to the structure as a whole, and that structures are to be understood as self-contained, self-regulated, and self-transforming entities.”  In other words, it is the structure itself that determines the significance, meaning and function of the individual elements of a system. Structuralism has made an important contribution to our understanding of language and social systems. Saussure’s theory of language highlights the decisive role of meaning and signification in structuring human life more generally.
Following the perceived limitations of the modern era, emerged postmodern theory. Postmodern theorists rejected modernist claims that there was one theoretical approach that explained all aspects of society. Rather, postmodernist theorists were interested in examining the variety of experience of individuals and groups and emphasized differences over similarities and common experiences.
In contrast to modern theory, postmodern theory is more fluid and allows for individual differences as it rejected the notion of social laws. Postmodern theorists shifted away from truth seeking and instead sought answers for how truths are produced and sustained. Postmodernists contended that truth and knowledge is plural, contextual, and historically produced through discourses. Postmodern researchers therefore embarked on analyzing discourses such as texts, language, policies and practices.
French social theorist Michel Foucault developed a notion of discourse in his early work, especially the Archaeology of knowledge (1972). In Discursive Struggles Within Social Welfare: Restaging Teen Motherhood, Iara Lessa summarizes Foucault's definition of discourse as “systems of thoughts composed of ideas, attitudes, courses of action, beliefs and practices that systematically construct the subjects and the worlds of which they speak." Foucault traces the role of discourses in wider social processes of legitimating and power, emphasizing the construction of current truths, how they are maintained and what power relations they carry with them.” Foucault later theorized that discourse is a medium through which power relations produce speaking subjects. Foucault (1977, 1980) argued that power and knowledge are inter-related and therefore every human relationship is a struggle and negotiation of power. Foucault further stated that power is always present and can both produce and constrain the truth. Discourse according to Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) is related to power as it operates by rules of exclusion. Discourse therefore is controlled by objects, what can be spoken of; ritual, where and how one may speak; and the privileged, who may speak. Coining the phrases power-knowledge Foucault (1980) stated knowledge was both the creator of power and creation of power. An object becomes a "node within a network." In his work, The Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault uses the example of a book to illustrate a node within a network. A book is not made up of individual words on a page, each of which has meaning, but rather "is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences." The meaning of that book is connected to a larger, over-arching web of knowledge and ideas to which it relates.
Feminists have explored the complex relationships that exist among power, ideology, language and discourse. Feminist theory talks about "doing gender" and/or "performing gender". It is suggested that gender is a property, not of persons themselves but of the behaviours to which members of a society ascribe a gendering meaning. “Being a man/woman involves appropriating gendered behaviours and making them part of the self that an individual presents to others. Repeated over time, these behaviours may be internalized as "me"—that is, gender does not feel like a performance or an accomplishment to the actor, it just feels like her or his "natural" way of behaving." Feminist theorists have attempted to recover the subject and "subjectivity." Chris Weedon, one of the best known scholars working in the feminist poststructuralist tradition, has sought to integrate individual experience and social power in a theory of subjectivity. Weedon defines subjectivity as "the conscious and unconscious thoughts and emotions of the individual, her sense of herself, and her ways of understanding her relation to the world. Judith Butler, also another well known post structuralist feminist scholar, explains that the performativity of gender offers an important contribution to the conceptual understanding of processes of subversion. She argues that subversion occurs through the enactment of an identity that is repeated in directions that go back and forth which then results in the displacement of the original goals of dominant forms of power.