The Rosetta Stone meets Foucault: Understanding social media via discourse analysis

Ray Poynter
Vision Critical


When the Rosetta Stone, which dates back to ancient Egypt and the rein of the Ptolemies, was re-discovered in 1799 it provided an invaluable clue in deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone contains a decree from Ptolemy V, with the decree repeated in three different scripts (Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, demotic script, and Ancient Greek). Understanding the message in one language helped understand its transcription in other languages/scripts. One can see the Rosetta Stone as a model of structuralism (in the sense of Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure), where language was seen as a static system of interconnected units – the modern equivalent being the tourist’s phrasebook.

Michel Foucault was French social theorist and philosopher who in the second half of the 20th century, along with a number of other innovative thinkers (many of them French, such as Levi-Strauss and Barthes) challenged models of thinking. This upheaval in traditional thinking produced an approach that has been labelled by some as post-modern and post-structuralist. Foucault developed a type of discourse analysis that focused not on the words used by individuals, but on language at a macro level, looking at how language was involved in the creation of meaning and power, and how power was involved in the creation of language.