Discursive Fields


Discursive fields “consist of competing ways of giving meaning to the world and of organizing social institutions and processes” (Weedon, 1987, p.34). Michel Foucault is the originator of this concept. Discursive fields can be conceptualized as a series of discrete but over-lapping discourses and practices, shaped by institutions and disciplines, slowly changing over time. They are broader than individual discourses, and make sense of some aspect/s of the social world and are viewed as “truth.” A particular discursive field frames meaning and understanding in a specific way that both reflects structures but also can resist institutional influences and social control. The discursive field adopted by a person at any given moment allows the possibility of only certain things to be thought, felt, and acted on, structuring an individual’s way of being in the world. Those discursive fields about practice that a worker utilizes provide alternate interpretations for understanding what “help” is and result in actualizing certain forms of help while rejecting others. Specific discursive fields result in the construction of what is taken as ethical behaviour for that practitioner.


For example, a worker might adopt two interrelated discourses in a particular field.

  1. She might view a young single mother as “an irresponsible child,” a baby having babies.
  2. A second espoused discourse for this worker might be the professional codes of ethics and specifically the principle of fostering autonomy in clients.

This discursive field would explain the construction of an ethical dilemma for this particular practitioner under these conditions.  Should she promote the service user’s autonomy based on her acceptance of the principle of supporting independence? Or should she take a more paternalistic and interventionist stance given her assessment of the need to provide the missing structure that she perceives was the “cause” of this immaturity? However, another worker, her colleague, might not subscribe to the discourse of lone young mothers as irresponsible children.


Discursive fields shape workers’ understandings of their clients, the nature of the work, and their responsibilities. They can diverge dramatically from practitioner to practitioner. Consequently, discursive fields both contribute to the construction of what is taken as ethically problematic and precede the utilization of codes for guidance around the resolving of ethical conflicts. Furthermore, the power practitioners exercise (or resist) is inextricably linked to discursive fields. Therefore to understand the forces at play in both the construction and resolution of ethical dilemmas, discursive fields need to be investigated. The worker in the above example might not understand why her colleague does not have an ethical dilemma in this situation. When they explore their discursive fields, the worker might discover that the other professional does not adopt the discourse of these young women as irresponsible and therefore has no conflict about seeking the path of supporting autonomy, opening the way for discussion about the discourses that frame their understanding of the service users and their work.

Other analytical tools: Ethical TrespassMoral DistressPreferred and Actualized Selves.