This is a trendy term, used in popular discussions, but there is a more technical sense in which it is used too, as we shall see. In normal discussions, it means we are going to take an argument to bits and see how it works, challenge its assumptions, question its findings and so on. Since all arguments are socially contructed, the argument goes, it should be possible to decontruct them. No problems -- in fact you could see all the techniques we suggest here as decontructionist in this general sense. However to really push the idea you need a French philsosopher...
Derrida has been a terribly influential philosopher in his particular field, and in literary analysis. I am going to link him initially with Adorno because I am simply going to take one tiny bit of his work. Adorno and Derrida do not really belong together in any sense except they are both steeped in reading the classics of German philosophy (and both have a really difficult style, with very elaborate sentences, word play, and frequent references to philosophers I have not read, often in Latin, Greek and German). However, Derrida is associated with a word that lots of people have heard -- deconstruction.
I am going to use him here to support the view that concepts never simply apply to objects in the real world, and that philosophers, scientists and writers have to force them to do so. Adorno focuses on how objects are simplified and domesticated through the various rituals of science, from operationalism to laboratory procedure (and we might add statistical analysis using standard formulae). We can start to understand how Derrida might fit by suggesting that he works the other way around, on theory.
Theory, even well-developed philosophical theories, are riddled with a number of assumptions that involve what we have called 'identity thinking'. These assumptions work not to make concepts fit reality as in Adorno,but to make concepts fit other concepts, ideas or thoughts as some sort of direct expression of them. There are several examples of this sort of assumption. My personal favourite is Derrida's close analysis of Freud's work on dreams showing that the language of dreams does not directly tap into material swirling around in the unconscious. This is often assumed when people think that Freud is arguing that dreams just symbolise unconscious desires in a predictable properly coded way -- that every time you dream of a fireplace it is a symbol of female genitals, for example. Instead, the Unconscious assembles the materials which appear in dreams in a much more primitive and less regular fashion, making simple coding unreliable.
However , classic semiotics (which you may come across) is a more relevant example, possibly. It begins by saying that the sign actually contains two elements -- signifier and signified -- which are intimately related. Derrida wants to criticise the apparent unity between these two, though , and to argue that quite a good deal of creative work is involved in making them fit together perfectly. I am not saying that the gap between signifier and signified is a simple gap, like the one between a label and the object you are goiung to stick the label on, but there is a kind of gap nonetheless. This creative work has a general name -- 'writing'. It is suppressed or repressed in the philosophical work of semioticians (and just about everyone else) . The relation between signifier and signified, the meaning of the sign, is just immediately given or present. It is usually just announced before the real work of analysis starts - the relations between signs. Derrida wants to go back a stage though.
These assumptions of immediate presence are deeply grounded in the whole tradition of Western philosophy, and much of Derrida's work involves a detailed reading of the classics by Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Freud and others to show how these assumptions work to simplify matters at crucial stages. This work, roughly speaking, is what Derrida means by deconstruction. It involves rooting around in the collective unconsciousness of philosophy and philosophers to force them to reflect on what they would rather not reflect about -- bits that actually negate what they are arguing, that remain completely outside the sceheme of things.
To do full deconstruction in the Derrida sense requires an awful lot of care, deep reading and experience. It would be quite time-consuming, and probably not really worth the effort for our purposes, because it will be relatively easy to detect 'writing' in ordinary language statements anyway. Only in philosophy does it become difficult to winkle out this repressed activity. If we want to criticise just policy, I suppose we can get a few simple points from Derrida instead:
1. We should recognise that concepts cannot simply be glued onto objects in one direction, nor thoughts or ideas in the other. Nothing fits perfectly. There is a work of adjustment required. Many of us can notice the step between general theoretical analysis and actual the 'application' of this theory to specific cases. Som,etimes it causes a moment's paniuc or uncertainty because we can't immdeiately see why the analysis has taken the turn it has. But this is not the place to give up and think the author knows best -- it may be the site of some suppressed 'writing'.
2. If we read carefully, and once we have got a bit of experience, we can start to see hints or traces of how this work of adjustment has operated behind the scenes. There will be contradictions or slightly different uses of terms. There will be adjustments, including shifting definitions of key terms. There will be dilemmas on or just beneath the surface of the most confident statement. These will include how general terms are actually applied to specific cases. Alternatives will be suppressed.
In both cases, then, a substantial amount of critical work can be done to open up the text and recover what has been glossed over.