Using Discourse Analysis to Assess Narrative Change: Humanistic Methods

The humanities offer a useful suite of methods for evaluating and contributing to the work of narrative change.

By Sowmya Ramanathan, PhD


Large-scale social movements are the collective embodiment of the need to change the status quo in order to bring about a more inclusive and equitable future for all. In challenging the status quo, social movements aim to shift political, cultural, and social narratives away from dominant narratives that reinforce long standing patterns of inequity and harm.

According to the Narrative Initiative, “narratives shape who we are, what we value, and what we aspire to become.” Social movements aim to harness this defining power by using narratives to help inspire and to shape a different vision for the future that is based on a collective imagining of what might be possible. Social movements “develop a frame or narrative based on shared values, that maintain a link with a real and broad base in the community, and that build for a long-term transformation in power (Pastor and Ortiz, 2009).”  

In addition to exposing the shortcomings of the country’s legal and political mechanisms, social movements use narratives to stress and counter, for example, the debilitating effects of racism, austerity politics, or unregulated economic advancement for the wealthiest. Examples include Occupy Wall Street’s critique of socioeconomic disparity and income inequality, the popularization of #MeToo and the work of women and sexual minorities to challenge patriarchal discipline and protect bodily autonomy, and the struggle against structural and interpersonal racism spearheaded by the Movement for Black Lives. 

Social change actors can benefit from the study of narrative change efforts that are part of social movements and that occur beyond the scope of changes in specific legislation or policies. Precisely because narrative change takes place outside of the law or politics, it is essential to tune into the languages, stories, and “informal” systems—in other words, discourses—spearheaded by communities and cultural agents to produce shifts in how we understand justice, equity, and possibility. If we can register the discursive shifts spearheaded by artists, writers, educators, funders, and other social actors, the knowledge gained can help to create social justice strategies that acknowledge complex lived experiences, address diverse needs, and bolster the strength of communities. 

This article explores how discourse analysis can produce insights from the interdisciplinary, multisensorial, and less-structured worlds represented in arts and literature, popular music, and the language of social protest.

It explores different modes of approaching discourse analysis, focusing particularly on how the humanities can assist in evaluating narratives across a wide variety of spheres: from political or economic, to social and cultural. It outlines key humanistic methods that can be used to evaluate sociocultural narrative and the possibilities of narrative change, and ends with a hypothetical case study in the context of a real-life philanthropic effort that focused on narrative change. 

What is discourse?

While discourse analysis refers to a multi-method approach to understanding narrative that helps us to tease apart its political, social, and cultural intricacies, it is first helpful to define the meaning of discourse itself. According to French philosopher Michel Foucault in his 1972 book The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, “discourse” refers to any process of constituting knowledge, but what is not immediately obvious from his definition is how this process occurs. 

At a basic level, the term discourse refers to language itself, which comprises and informs what we know and hence the reason “speech”, “talk” and “chat” appear as synonyms for discourse in many thesauruses. 

Discourse also refers to the social and institutional practices that uphold and reaffirm our knowledge systems, which is why it can also stand in for “debate”, “consultation” or “conference”, all collective processes. In this sense, “discourse” cannot be reduced to a simple question of “language” or “viewpoint”, because it encompasses an entire system of relationships that implicates many actors and interactions–individual, institutional, political, cultural, social, and even bodily or sensory. 

Why is discourse analysis useful?

With the right tools, discourse analysis can help social change efforts to:

  • Integrate the insights of historical relations of power, cultural and social narratives, into organizing strategies and methods
  • Use discourse as a window to understand different mindsets within contemporary social politics and thereby, the (im)possibilities of the present context within lived experiences
  • Integrate online activism and discussions around social justice into concrete insights within the policy and nonprofit world, to then theorize pragmatic solutions and strategies for change
  • Balance both the imaginative and realistic or pragmatic sides of social change work.

What is required to conduct a discourse analysis?

To analyze discourse, it is necessary to compile a large, representative archive that can grasp the multifaceted relations a particular discourse connects. To go about this, discursive analysts first need to specify their scope of inquiry using concepts, ideas, or categories of interest. Then, they compile an archive that includes documents, images, videos, and other records of information that can speak to the diverse, intersecting, and sometimes contradictory nature of the issue they are researching.  

What are methods for assessing narrative change using discourse analysis?

Discourse analysis can use a variety of more traditional quantitative and qualitative research methods, as well as some emergent methods. While quantitative researchers and methods can help us construct an idea of who, when, and how often or how long, qualitative discourse analysis can provide more granular details regarding the previous questions, as well as more pointed information as to how and why

For a broader overview of approaches for evaluating narrative change, ORS Impact offers Measuring Narrative Change: Understanding Progress and Navigating Complexity, and Spitfire Strategies offers the Narrative Research Methodologies Field Guide that was commissioned by the Narrative Initiative. These resources discuss the importance of narrative and offer a useful look at traditional and emergent strategies.

Resources on evaluating narrative change

Among traditional methods are the academic literature review, behavioral science, cultural models research, field testing, interviews, language analysis, market and political research, neuroscience, participatory action research, and surveys, all of which can assess narrative at different levels and with diverse implications. Emergent methods include: big listening, layered social and language analysis on big social media data, narrative analysis, and Topos TalkBack testing. They use varied data collection and interpretation methods to assess conversations that happen in spaces like the internet.

The focus of this brief is on the possibilities of humanistic methods for discourse analysis. However, collaborative methodologies coupled with an interdisciplinary and diverse research team can greatly improve the utility of discourse analysis. 

Which methods from the humanities are useful for studying narrative change?

Humanities are the disciplines that study aspects of society and culture. Several of these disciplines and the related methods used within them can be useful for examining narrative change. 

Art history

Using interdisciplinary methods to examine their objects of study, art historians focus on formal elements of a work of art such as shape, color, composition, or texture; biographical or historical interpretations; or iconography, symbols, or motifs that may carry specific meanings. Art historical methodologies can help to answer questions about the historical importance of artistic forms, histories of artistic practice, or the communicative, social, or civic functions of art.

Cultural studies

Within cultural studies, researchers ask questions about how culture, politics, and history are woven together in complex dynamics that implicate and often reproduce relations of power in society. Through a dialogue between varied critical approaches—some examples include critical race theory, feminist theory, post-structuralist theory, communication studies, film/video studies, and even museum studies—these methods illuminate how cultural forms and practices are embedded within our political systems. They can also identify forms of agency that pose challenges to the status quo. 

Linguistic and literary analysis

Linguistic analysis can provide insights on how language acquires meaning within context, or in other words, how it holds weight in social settings. Humanistic methods that apply semiotic, literary, and cultural readings of an array of textual, visual, and other artistic artifacts can illuminate diverse patterns in sociocultural attitudes and behaviors.  

Political ecology and anthropology

Political ecologists and anthropologists use discourse analysis alongside a range of other methods to study the co-production of nature and society as co-implicated entities. They map and assess broad social ecologies of diverse, interdependent actors, examine the power relations embedded within these networks, and pose questions about ethics and sustainability. 


The field of philosophy includes varied methods—some of which include skepticism, empiricism, pragmatics, common-sense or intuition, phenomenology, and genealogy—that explore how knowledge is produced, the nature of existence, and how we experience the world. Philosophers can be essential to identifying patterns in our knowledge systems and limitations in how we imagine reality and what is possible. 

Visual Studies

Visual research methods consider a range of visual objects—from photography, video, film, drawings, maps—to ponder how these artifacts produce and represent knowledge, as well as how they impact their viewers to see, think, or feel. 

What is an example of how discourse analysis can be used to assess narratives? 

This section offers a hypothetical case of how we might apply discourse analysis to examine narratives and narrative change in the context of a philanthropy-funded social change effort. We use the example of the Art for Justice Fund (A4J), a six-year initiative established by philanthropist and arts patron Agnes Gund as part of the broader movement to end mass incarceration by disrupting the policies and processes that contribute to the high prison population in the US.

A4J, which sunsetted in mid-2023, supported both policy advocacy and the role of art and artists to center justice reallocation and the repeal of excessive prison sentences in the US, and to fight for racial justice. Over six years, A4J made 457 grants totaling over $127 million to over 400 artists (many who were formerly incarcerated), criminal justice reform advocates, and other organizations aligned around the goal of ending mass incarceration, using narrative as a key tool for change. 

A4J’s policy-focused mission was linked closely to its work to invest in art and to promote sustained cultural impact. Assessing A4J’s practices and location within the larger sociocultural narrative around racial justice calls for a diverse team of discursive analysts from different disciplinary and methodological backgrounds to assess A4J’s policy and advocacy strategies and sociocultural interventions. 

Assessing Policy Advocacy 

A4J used both advocacy and art to build political will and work towards transformative justice to end mass incarceration. Social scientific methods of analysis are necessary for assessing the role of A4J as a policy agent in the political arena. However, social science and humanistic methods can complement each other, especially when considering broader aspects of discourse in the ecosystem, such as popular narrative and creative expression. For this reason, humanistic methods can be employed to study A4J’s strategy as a cultural agent.

Supporting Grantees, the Communicators of Tomorrow

Linguistic Analysis, Visual Studies, and Art History

Through a deeper understanding of the context behind certain artistic decisions, several methods could be used to help deepen knowledge of how creative workers harnessed language—visual, literary, musical, performative, and more—to communicate valuable insights about justice, equity, and social change. In relation to the work of A4J’s grantees, linguistic analysis, visual studies, and art history could be used to understand the effects of creative messaging, as well as the strategic value of joy, shock, anger, sadness, nostalgia, and other emotions evoked by artwork. 

As the Fund declared, artists and creative practitioners are some of the most effective communicators in social movements, and such methods may offer knowledge about how artistic discourse worked in tandem with a broader communicative strategy to impact diverse social justice conversations.

Linguistic analysis, visual studies, and art historical methods could be used to analyze the work done with artists like Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts, for example, who spearheaded an exhibition called The Redaction at the MoMa PS1 in New York City. As seen below, Kaphar and Dwayne skillfully superimposed poetry and portraiture to comment on the difficulty of navigating bail reform in the U.S., challenging the notion that the justice system is easy, impartial, and fair.

The Redaction, Titus Kaphar and Reginald Dwayne Betts (2019)

From a linguistic and visual studies perspective, this project could offer a glimpse of the centrality of aesthetics to challenging assumptions, in this case, the ease of navigating the justice system, as well as the impact of emotions like frustration and sadness that may come from witnessing the artwork. In paying close attention to Kaphar and Dwayne’s work, analysts could also cite the importance of collaboration between artists to produce interdisciplinary forms—in this case, the use of poetry and portraiture together—that strengthen the impact of messaging around mass incarceration and racial justice. These insights could be critical in the search for emerging voices, to inform messaging and communication style, and to erode silos between social justice work and creative or imaginative professions.

Capturing A4J’s Civic and Pedagogical Role

Cultural Studies

Cultural studies methods applied to a varied sample of political, institutional, and cultural artifacts could aid in assessing how the larger sociopolitical context interacted with A4J’s social justice strategies. Such a sample could consider:

  • Key racial justice legislation and its sociolinguistic framing concepts of “race”, “identity”, “criminality”, and other important categories in the fight for racial justice. 
  • News media’s reporting on race, incarceration, police violence, bail reform, and other important movements toward abolition. In addition, the sample could include academic, scholarly, political or creative writings of experts from multidisciplinary backgrounds on the politics of race in the U.S. 
  • Rhetorical analysis of grassroots organizing and advocacy messaging to end mass incarceration. 

Through a thorough examination utilizing cultural studies methods, it would be possible to: 

  • Contextualize A4J’s role within the larger history and political struggle in the U.S. to build on insights from civil rights organizing 
  • Understand the distances between legislation or policy and the lived needs for historically disadvantaged populations. 

A cultural studies approach to discourse could note how A4J actively and explicitly acknowledged the legacy of slavery in the U.S. as entangled within the modern-day prison system, espousing a bold, decolonial rhetoric in the fight for racial justice. Insights about the need to acknowledge history’s present-day implications could be valuable for fine-tuning future messaging and collaboration in the racial justice space. 

Cultural studies analysts could also study the effectiveness of strategies that encouraged creativity and imaginative problem solving within communities, such as A4J’s establishment of an artists-in-residency program in Philadelphia in tandem with the district attorney’s office. This initiative provided a perfect example of how the Fund’s work took art as a starting point to forge connections between artists of color, offer pedagogical support, and bolster art’s potential to inspire political action. An in-depth analysis utilizing cultural studies methods could illuminate strategies for bridging connections between art, pedagogy, and action, as well as how to grow efforts in these areas to produce lasting impacts.  

Assessing A4J’s Location Within the Broader Social Justice Ecology

Political Ecology and Anthropology

Political and social ecologists, using interdisciplinary methods, are skilled in addressing how a specific organization fits within a larger sociopolitical ecology, or in other words, within a map of interdependent actors working toward a common cause. Jesse Krimes, an A4J grantee and one actor within a larger ecology of racial justice work in the U.S., notes that one of his challenges as an artist is to promote his work beyond those who already agree with the ideas proposed. By extension, all contemporary artistic, creative, and social justice efforts are faced with the challenge of how to break beyond the echo chamber and ensure that their interventions have an impact in diverse spaces. Using interdisciplinary methods, political and social ecologists are skilled at examining organizational discourse—or in other words, practices—to address areas of strength, as well as areas in which growth can happen by forging surprising and productive alliances.   

In the case of A4J, analysts could note the organization’s location within the larger social justice narrative by mapping the connections mobilized by its funding strategies. As mentioned before, A4J did not solely limit its funding to individual creative workers (e.g., Valeria Luiselli, Paul Rucker), but it also supported museums (e.g., MoMA, Brooklyn Museum), social justice focused media outlets (e.g., Allied Media Projects, Futuro Media Group), foundations (e.g., Borealis Philanthropy), social justice nonprofits (e.g., ACLU), innovation and research firms (e.g., Impact Justice), advocates and public defenders (e.g., Zealous), and environmental justice organizations (e.g., Dream Corps).

Observing A4J’s funding strategy as a kind of ecological map could offer a visual glimpse of the diversity of grantees, the range of geographies funded, and the intersectional funding strategy that forged partnerships and cross-sector collaborations. Political ecologists and anthropologists could analyze organizational discursive practices to identify the critical links between diverse sectors of social justice work, make critical insights about potential areas for growth, and develop strategies to reach beyond the pernicious echo chamber.

Conclusion: What is the role of the Humanities?

This brief explored how social justice can understand and engage with narrative change, utilizing the methods and insights from humanistic research and thought. These methods enable us to identify a change effort’s place within a larger social movement, its strengths as a catalyst of artistic and cultural narrative, and the potential for growth and fine-tuning of strategy and alliances. 

The role that humanistic research plays as a counterpart to the social and hard sciences is to enhance our understanding of numerical data, frame conclusions that capture the complexity of lived experiences, and formulate pragmatic solutions to bolster justice-oriented work. As prominent humanist and Latin American Studies expert Doris Sommer (2014) asserts, humanism’s ability to grapple with the subtle messaging of creative expression has profound effects on civic engagement and the efficacy of communication.

Sommer sees the humanities as the tools to engage with arts and creativity, detect narrative’s subtle changes, and identify the civic possibilities of the present as imagined by people and communities. For social change actors, these are necessary tools for strengthening the political and ethical commitments of social justice work, developing impactful strategies, and building a more equitable future. 

About the Author

Sowmya Ramanathan is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Hispanic Studies at the College of William & Mary. She is a scholar of Latin American art, literature, and aesthetics as products and catalysts of sustainable, equitable social change. Her research has taken her to Chile and Cuba in the search for meaningful connections between social and political movements within and beyond the United States. Sowmya holds a Bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in Sociology and Spanish and Portuguese and received her Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese from Princeton University.