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Discursive Psychology: Introduction

What Is Discursive Psychology?

Discursive psychology (DP) is the application of discourse analytic principles to psychological topics.  In psychology’s dominant ‘cognitivist’ paradigm, individuals build mental representations of the world on the basis of innate mental structures and perceptual experience, and talk on that basis.  The categories and content of discourse are considered to be a reflection, refracted through various kinds of error and distortion, of how the world is perceived to be.  In contrast, DP begins with discourse (talk and text), both theoretically and empirically.  Discourse is approached, not as the outcome of mental states and cognitive processes, but as a domain of action in its own right.

In DP it is the business of talk and text to define the nature of the world under description, including the mental states, perceptions, motivations, dispositions, thoughts, prejudices, and so on, of any persons involved, whether as actors in described events or as the producers and recipients of descriptions (Edwards & Potter, 1992).  Both ‘reality’ and ‘mind’ are constructed by people conceptually, in language, in the course of their performance of practical tasks (Edwards, 1997; Potter, 1996a; Potter, et al., 1993).  Because of this emphasis, shared with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, on the situated, action performative nature of talk, DP favours the analysis of records of natural interaction, or textual materials produced as part of life’s activities (newspaper reports, medical records, written testimony, etc.), rather than using experiments, surveys and interviews to generate research data.

For theoretical, methodological and empirical reasons, DP takes discourse to be central to everyday life.  Most social activity involves or is directly conducted through discourse.  Furthermore, even where activity is ‘non-verbal’ (embodiment, physical actions and their settings, etc.), its sense is often best understood through participants’ discourse. 

Discourse is the prime currency of interaction, and if we are studying persons embedded in practices, including institutional settings, then discourse will be central to that study.   Let us consider in turn three features of discourse that relate closely to how it has to be analysed: it is situated, action-oriented, and constructed.

Discourse is situated

DP focuses on discourse, which it regards as ‘situated’ in two ways.  First, it is occasioned in the conversation analytic sense of this term (see section 1 of this book).  That is, talk and texts are embedded in sequences of interaction, and in various kinds of mundane and institutional activity.  This is not a mechanical contextual determinism; talk is oriented to, but not determined by, its sequential position and setting.  Thus a ‘question’, say, sets up the normative relevance of an ‘answer’, but an answer is not inevitable or necessary, and things do not break down if it is not provided. Answers may be deferred or withheld altogether (Heritage, 1984).  Likewise, the fact that talk appears in a school or a doctor’s surgery does not mean that it must thereby be pedagogic or medical.  Rather than being made presumptively omni-relevant by the analyst, institutional activities and identities are made relevant by participants themselves, by being invoked and oriented to, or indeed subverted and ignored (Schegloff, 1997).

Second, DP considers discourse to be pervasively rhetorical (Billig, 1987, 1991).  Claims and descriptions offered in talk are often designed to counter potential alternative versions, and to resist attempts (whether actual or potential) to disqualify them as false, partial or interested (Edwards & Potter, 1992).  That is, they can have both a defensive and an offensive rhetoric (Potter, 1996a).  For example Billig (1991) argues that when people offer evaluations of something (an activity that social psychologists might call ‘expressing an attitude’), they are typically countering some other evaluation.  This means that evaluative discourse is shaped not merely by how people generally think about things, but by the contingencies of argument and the alternatives in play at the time that an evaluation is produced (cf. Pomerantz, 1984).

Analysis, therefore, takes into account the sequentially occasioned, situationally oriented, and rhetorically designed nature of discourse.  DP’s particular focus when approaching discourse in institutional settings is on how psychological matters are introduced, defined, and made relevant to the business of those settings.  Psychological themes are generally pervasive in how such settings work, as they are in mundane talk, but they are sometimes also part of an institution’s official normative goals or agenda, such as in educational and therapeutic settings, where how people think and feel are a central focus of concern.

Discourse is action-oriented

Discourse performs actions or practices of various kinds – agreements, blamings, invitations, displays of neutrality, and so on. ‘Action’ or ‘practice’ (the precise term is not meant to carry weight here) invokes the vast range of practical, technical and interpersonal tasks that people perform while doing their jobs, living their relationships, and participating in heterogeneous cultural domains.  It is central to people’s lives, and therefore central to understanding those lives.  Following the convention in conversation analysis, DP uses the notion of action-orientation to emphasize that actions are pervasively being done even in ostensibly factual, descriptive discourse, and to distance itself from a ‘speech act’ approach that assumes that some discrete set of words correspond to a discrete act.

The corollary of DP’s focus on discourse as action is its respecification of cognition. 

Instead of cognitive entities and processes being the principal analytic resource, as they are in mainstream psychological research, they are approached empirically as participants’ ways of talking.  The focus is on the way cognitions are constructed in talk, and how their implications are oriented to.  Taking ‘attitudes’ again as an example, rather than treating these as inner entities that drive behaviour, in DP attitudes are evaluations that are studied as part of discourse practices (Potter, 1996b, 1998).  Such an approach might consider the way evaluations are organized interactionally, as in Pomerantz’s (1978) study of compliments; it might consider how attitudes are interactionally produced through social psychological methods (Myers, 1998; Puchta & Potter, forthcoming); or it might consider the way negative evaluations of minority group members are turned from potentially accountable personally held ‘attitudes’ or ‘prejudices’ into more ‘safely sayable’ factual descriptions (e.g. Edwards, 2000a; Potter & Wetherell, 1988; Wetherell & Potter, 1992).

This non-cognitivist reformulation of ‘attitudes’ avoids the circularity of many social psychological studies, where evaluative discourse (in response scales) is turned into underlying cognitive entities (attitudes), which are in turn used to explain actions (involving more discourse).  It avoids the uncomfortable blurring of everyday and technical notions in the attitude and belief domain, by taking peoples’ evaluative terminology (attitude, belief, opinion, position, view, etc.) as topic rather than as a competing but less adequate theory of behaviour (cf. Edwards, 1997, on psychology and common sense in general).  It makes sense of the troubling variability in people’s evaluative talk, which stems from the fact that people produce evaluations as parts of various discourse practices and their ‘occasions’, rather than expressing pre-formed, all-purpose mental entities when asked to do so by a researcher.  It focuses attention on life as a practical realm where evaluations are part of getting things done, rather than existing as disembedded assessments waiting to be produced in moments of reflection.

Discourse is constructed

DP is constructionist in two senses.  First, it studies the way discourse itself is constructed.  Words, metaphors, idioms, rhetorical devices, descriptions, accounts, stories, and so on, are drawn on, and built, in the course of interaction and in the performance of particular actions.  For example, descriptions may be assembled in ways that present some piece of conduct as orderly and required by the circumstances, as just what anybody would have done, or else as unusual, specially motivated, and implicative of the actor’s particular psychology (Edwards, 1994, 1997).  Second, it studies the way discourse constructs versions of the world.  That is, it studies how versions of inner life, of local circumstances, of history and broader social groups and structures are produced to do particular things in interaction.  In DP, then, discourse is both constructed and constructive.

Although DP is a constructionist approach, its emphasis on the construction of versions in discourse distinguishes it from cognitive constructionisms ranging from Neisser (1967), to Moscovici (1984), to Berger and Luckmann (1966).  The essence of DP is to study construction – how versions are assembled and stabilized as factual and independent of their producer – as a discourse activity.  Whereas cognitive constructionism tends to guide the researcher away from considering people’s practices, DP’s emphasis on the construction of specific versions encourages the researcher to consider the practices that those versions are part of, and the particular work that they are performing.

At the centre of DP there is an inversion that, initially, appears counterintuitive.  In traditional psychology there is reality on the one hand, that is the setting – the ‘stimulus conditions’ that enclose actors – and there is cognition on the other, conceived as something existing and quietly computing inside the actors.  Activity is treated as something secondary, the output of this system.  DP inverts this.  Activity is treated as primary, and reality and cognition are secondary. That is, DP focuses on what people are doing, and how, in the course of their discourse practices, they produce versions of external reality and of psychological states.  It asks how people categorize and formulate the world, establishing certain particulars as relevant, characterizing its moral flavour, and it asks how people at the same time formulate a relevant ‘inner’ world of beliefs, values, emotions and dispositions, that make their actions accountable.  The notion that actions take place within a kind of playoff between an outer reality and an inner world of thoughts and experiences, is one of a range of ways that people talk and account for themselves.  DP’s task is to study how people do that, and what they do with it, rather than to adopt or reject it as our own explanatory framework.  In ethnomethodological terms mind and reality, and their interplay, are DP’s topic rather than resource (cf. Wieder, 1988).

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