Discourse is a word that causes much confusion - but it shouldn't! A discourse is any stretch of language used for the act of communicating (rather than an artificial stretch made up for, say, the act of studying, for example, to demonstrate how grammar works).
Discourseanalysis means looking at aspects of a stretch of language, for example its style - and this includes its social, cultural, historical and contextual aspects as revealed by aspects of the user's stylistic choices.
Grammar is only useful to allow an analysis of syntax and morphology up to the level of the sentence.
Discourseanalysis allows a commentary on a whole stretch of text.
A discourse might be a conversation, a discussion, a letter, a novel, a newspaperarticle, or whatever - discourses are everyday and everywhere and have been in existence since language began. We can usefully label individual discourses: 'the discourse of early 21st century broadsheet newspapers', for example; 'the discourse of 19th century working men and women'; 'medical discourse'; 'doctor-patient discourse', and so on.
The key point about discourse is that it is an example of reallanguage used by people in some or other socialcircumstance (even if there is but one person - as when we think or talk to ourselves!)
Commenting on the social circumstances of a text means taking account of aspects of its context. This is a key aspect of all English language courses!
Of course, we all have the ability to create discourses. When we speak, we know how to combine phonemes into words (or when we write, we combine morphemes into words); we then combine these words to make phrases, the phrases combine to make clauses, and the clauses make sentences on their own or combine to make longer sentences. Finally, we join sentences to make a text which is what forms our discourse - a discourse that we have instilled with certain stylistic elements that we have deemed suitable for whatever genre,context, purpose and audience we need to address.
When analysing a text, it can be fascinating (and gain many extra marks because of its subtlety) to dig deeper than the surface meaning of the words to try to reveal interesting cultural, societal or contextual aspects of the text's creator. To make this clearer, you can imagine that our own society is far more liberal-minded than, say, the society of a century ago. This aspect will show up in the texts written in these periods through a variety of aspects including word choice and grammar. Similarly, aspects of socialhierarchy and socialpoweralways manifest themselves within texts. Imagine a conversation between a patient and a doctor, for example - again, discourse analysis seeks to reveal this.
You should have recognised by now that an important aspect of discourseanalysis is pragmatics.
Another important aspect of discourse analysis is discourse structure.
An important part of discourseanalysis is to determine what is called orders of discourse. In any discourse, it is clear that speakers or readers are rarely 'on equal terms'. Usually there is a hierarchy of power or a power relationship involved, wherein one participant - through language choices - can 'position' the other participant in a less powerful position. An analysis of men and women in conversation has revealed many ways in which apparently innocent uses of language create a power relationship between the participants.
Discourse structure is the study of how we combine sentences into longer passages to create a fluent discourse. To be effective, a discourse needs to be clear, coherent and meaningful. Discourse analysis sets out to uncover the linguistic and other means by which sentences are linked.