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Discourse analysis as a method for understanding urban governance

Engagements at the Maputo Learning Lab March 2017


The FRACTAL project aims to advance scientific knowledge about regional climate and to enhance the integration of this knowledge into urban decision making, and thus enable climate-resilient development pathways in cities. The project is thus facing a complex context where environmental systems and societal systems interact. The greater the complexity, the more problem perspectives or frames there are. Discourse analysis allows us to make sense of this large number of perspectives.

One component of the project is directed at increasing understanding of the diversity of urban governance arrangements across southern Africa, particularly in the domains of water, energy and food security to understand decision-making processes. This work looks at the various actors involved; their discourses and their policy mandates; the policies and plans for governing the city; the decision-making processes; the resources available; the projects and programmes and the physical elements of the context, and at how these together and in relation lead to local outcomes of these policy-making processes on the ground.

This briefing note is an introduction to the concepts and methods of discourse analysis, with a focus on argumentative discourse analysis, and outlines its application to better understand urban governance within the FRACTAL focal cities.

*Download the full publication from the right-hand column. A summary of the key messages from the briefing note are provided below. See the full text for more details.

Defining Discourse and Discourse Analysis

There are many definitions of discourse and it means different things in different disciplines. A simple definition of discourse might be:

Discourse is a way of talking about and understanding the world, or an aspect of it.

  • Several discourses generally exist in any given context. There is complexity, in terms of language used and meanings thereof, in the way in which an issue can be understood.
  • There are discourses operating at a macro level in society that structure the ways in which political, economic, cultural, social and environmental issues are identified and dealt with.

Argumentative discourse analysis is one of several types of discourse analysis and relates to settings and contexts where the reasoning of stakeholders is used to motivate for their interests.

  • Argumentative processes take place in discussions and meetings as actors position themselves and argue about a controversial issue.
  • In this way the discussions can be seen to be ‘political’ as one actor or a group of actors seek to be dominant so that the discourse they are using to frame the issue will dominate the decision making and hence policy-making.
  • Dominant discourses make a significant impact on the outcomes of policy on the ground when it is implemented.

Methods and Tools

Discourse analysis is a method to analyse what language does: the politics of meaning that arises using language, the way in which it affects people’s understanding and cognition, and the way in which it distributes power to some actors and less to others.

The task of the discourse analysis in the FRACTAL project, applied with a focus on argumentative discourse analysis, is:

  • to explain how a given actor (organisation or person) secures the reproduction of his/her discursive position (or manages to alter this) in the context of a disagreement or debate.
  • to uncover how dominant discourses embedded in the policies which apply to southern African cities.

The FRACTAL discourse analysis includes both the analysis of:

  • the discourses that are evident in the oral discussions of institutional and civil society actors (speech acts) in city meetings, or in FRACTAL dialogues;
  • policy documents (texts) of the cities of Lusaka, Maputo and Windhoek which reveal the underlying discourses which dominate policy.

The oral analysis

The oral analysis involves observing the verbal engagement of actors in a dialogue, workshop or meeting through a discourse analysis lens.

  • In FRACTAL, this will include the City Learning Labs and Dialogues organised as part of the project, as well as other relevant dialogues and meetings where these are relevant.
  • The analysis requires one to be present to observe the verbal engagement through a discourse analysis lens, prompted by a pre-established framework and related categories, such as: dominant/counter discourses; storylines; actors; rules and conventions; positioning; method of arguing; strategic strategies; style of argument; and social effect.

The policy document analysis

The policy document analysis involves a process that starts with the selection of documents for analysis.

  • For FRACTAL these will be documents relating to ‘burning issues’ that emerge and are prioritised by stakeholders in each of the cities.
  • These documents will be read and analysed (coded) according to a set of themes, sub-themes and related keywords.


  • An understanding of the dominant discourses in the city, both those applied orally through current speech acts and those already institutionalised through text in policy documents, provides a macro framework within which city decsion-making is situated.
  • Unpacking discourses, and how language is used, will build an understanding of the planning and implementation discourses into which climate change is and will be integrated.
  • Knowledge of the discourses will contribute to defining the governance arrangements in each city, which will potentially provide an understanding of where and how climate information is best introduced.

This working paper was written by Dianne Scott (Senior Researcher, African Centre for Cities, University of Cape Town) and Katinka Lund Waagsaether (Researcher Climate, Systems Analysis Group, University of Cape Town).

Suggested citation

Scott, D., and Waagsaether., K.T (2018) Discourse analysis as a method for understanding urban governance. FRACTAL Concept Note #2. University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

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