Skip to content Skip to footer

Discourse Analysis and Constructionist Approaches: Theoretical Background


This chapter is structured in terms of questions and answers. There are several reasons for adopting this format.  First, people often consult a handbook to find the answers to questions so the format may simplify this task.  Second, most constructionist approaches place a considerable emphasis on dialogue and question-answer sequences are dialogue in one of its most prototypical forms.  Third, constructionist researchers have been at the forefront of moves to rethink the literary forms in which social science is presented.  

I shall start with some general questions about constructionism and its place in psychology, and then I shall move on to focus on issues of method and analysis.  I shall concentrate upon general principles and arguments, however, this is not intended to be a how-to-do-it chapter.  Chapter 11, by  Rosalind Gill, provides a more fleshed-out example of a particular style of constructionist research.  

What is constructionism?

On the face of it this seems like a sensible question with which to start.  What could be wrong with give a broad characterisation, offering a compact definition, and then going on to describe constructionism in detail?  The problem is that this would be a profoundly anticonstructionist approach to this question.  It would imply that there is a simple thing — constructionism that can be neutrally and objectively described and defined.  This would be a realist account of constructionism.  That is, it would do precisely the thing that constructionism rejects.  Instead of seeing constructionism as a simple describable thing, another approach would be to consider the way constructionism is itself constructed: how it is described differently, perhaps, in methods handbooks or theoretical overviews, by psychologists and sociologists; how different perspectives are treated as constructionist, and what is taken to hang on this ascription.  However, I do not intent to attempt this ambitious enterprise here.

Having cautioned against treating definitions realistically, they can nevertheless be a useful ladder to better understanding.  Here is a definition of social constructionism from John Shotter and Ken Gergen’s important series of books with a constructionist theme:

[Social constructionism] has given voice to range of new topics, such as the social construction of personal identities; the role of power in the social making of meanings; rhetoric and narrative in establishing sciences; the centrality of everyday activities; remembering and forgetting as socially constituted activities; reflexivity in method and theorizing.  The common thread underlying all these topics is a concern with the processes by which human abilities, experiences, commonsense and scientific knowledge are both produced in, and reproduce, human communities
(Shotter and Gergen, 1994: p. i)

The quote implies a unity, but listing also shows mix and match of different theoretical perspectives.  

Elsewhere Ken Gergen (1994) identifies five basic assumptions for a social constructionist science:

  1. The terms by which we account for the world and ourselves are not dictated by the stipulted objects of such accounts.  (1994: 49)
  2. The terms and forms by which we achieve understanding of the world and ourselves are social artifacts, products of historically and culturally situated interchanges among people.  (1994: 49)
  3. The degree to which a given account of the world or self is sustained across time is not dependent on the objective validity of the account but on the vicissitudes of social process.  (1994:51)
  4. Language derives its significance in human affairs from the way in which it functions within patterns of relationship.  (1994: 52)
  5. To appraise existing forms of discourse is to evaluate patterns of cultural life; such evaluations give voice to other cultural enclaves.  (1994: 53)

Another way to come at the question is not to attempt a definition, but to consider the different approaches that have been commonly called constructionist (with the warning that ‘commonly called’ hides a range of complications).  

What approaches have been called constructionist?

One of the features of the approaches that have been called constructionist is that they often have often developed at the margins of disciplines, in the spaces where psychology blurs into sociology, where literary studies borders on political science, where feminism and rhetoric intersect.  A rather cursory survey of constructionist approaches can easily gather together a dozen perspectives (see Table One).  Note, however, that there are all sorts of potentially contentious features of this list and its absences.  Reviewing literature is itself a constructive and sometimes highly contentious business (Ashmore, et. al., 1995); what should count as an approach? and what is its defining reference?  

Table One: Varied Constructionist Approaches

Conversation analysisAtkinson and Heritage (1984a)
Discourse analysis Potter and Wetherell (1987)
EthnomethodologyButton (1991)
EthogenicsHarré (1992)
Feminist studiesRadke and Stam (1994)
Post-structuralismCuller (1983), Hollway (1989)
Postmodern political scienceDer Derian and Shapiro (1989)
RhetoricBillig (1987)
Reflexive ethnographyClifford and Marcus (1986)
Sociology of scientific knowledgeLatour and Woolgar (1986)
Socio-cultural PsychologyWertsch (1991)
Symbolic InteractionismHewitt (1994)

Some of these approaches — such as ethogenics — are developments specifically from within or directed at psychology.  Others — such as postmodern political science — have been carried on in almost complete isolation from the problematics of psychology.  Several of these perspectives have some psychological adherents, but have their main site of development outside the disciplinary boundaries of psychology.  

Is there an underlying unity to these approaches?

Having identified these approaches as constructionist it might seem straightforward to identify features that they share in common.  Yet it is hard to find a single characteristic central to them all.  The idea of a family resemblance gives something of a sense of the pattern.  First, they all tend to be oppositional movements of one kind or another to traditional social science positions, and in particular their realist assumptions.  Second, they all tend to stress the way mind and action are contingent on specific cultural forms.  They see minds as not having fixed essences but being built from the symbolic resources of a cultures; indeed, in some constructionisms mind is not a mental entity at all, but a discursive move: a set of stories that people tell, or different discursive practices for dealing with one another as moral and accountable (cf. Harré, 1983; Coulter, 1989).  Third, they all tend to treat discourse — variously theorized — as the central organizing principle of construction.

Leave a comment