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Discursive Psychology: Introduction

Discursive Psychology: Research Examples

Much of the research literature in discursive psychology has reworked standard psychological topics such as causal attribution (Antaki, 1994; Edwards & Potter, 1992, 1993); attitudes (Billig, 1987; Potter, 1996b, 1998; Potter & Wetherell, 1987); memory (Edwards et al., 1992; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Middleton & Edwards, 1990); classroom learning (Edwards, 1993; Edwards & Mercer, 1987);  prejudice (Edwards, 2000a; Gill, 1993; Speer & Potter, forthcoming; Wetherell & Potter, 1992), identity (Antaki, 1998; Edwards, 1998; Widdicombe & Wooffitt, 1995), script theory (Edwards, 1994, 1997), emotion (Edwards, 1997, 1999; Frith & Kitzinger, 1998; Harré & Parrott, 1996; Locke & Edwards, forthcoming), and violence and aggression (Auburn et al., 1999; Clarke et al., forthcoming;  McKinlay & Dunnett, 1998; Hepburn, 2000).  It has also introduced topics new to psychology, such as the relation between interaction, mental state attributions and social institutions (Edwards, 1995; te Molder, 1999), and the construction and establishment of factual accounts (Edwards & Potter, 1992; MacMillan & Edwards, 1999; Potter, 1996a; Wooffitt, 1992).

Rather than attempt to review this and other related work, we offer two brief illustrations of these strands of DP.  We focus briefly on ‘prejudice’, and then examine how talk in a counselling setting, including how relationship problems are defined, orientates to various normative and interactional requirements of that setting.

DP and Prejudice

We have noted that people construct versions of the world that attend to their factual status, to the psychology of participants in reported events, and to the current interaction in which versions are offered.  These moves are often done simultaneously (Edwards & Potter, 1992).  For example a mental state (belief, certainty, fear, doubt) may be produced as determined by the external world, which may itself be produced as known through repeated experiences (Edwards, 1994).  Another way of grounding factual claims is to offer them as reluctantly arrived at, or as counter to one’s presumptions and biases (Edwards, 2000a; Potter, 1996a).  These (and other) ways of talking counter the possibility, which may be at stake in the current interaction, that you believe what it suits you to believe, or what you believed before you looked, that your beliefs are a function of mental predisposition rather than external reality — that is, they attend rhetorically to a possible dismissal as pre-judgement, or prejudice.

Extract 1 is taken from an interview from the early 1980s (R is the interviewee; I is the interviewer) in New Zealand concerning a controversial South African rugby tour, prior to that country’s abandonment of apartheid (see Edwards, 2000a, for an extended discussion of this and other examples).

Extract 1

1. R:        Uhm (1.2) I would li:ke to see apartheid done away with

2. (1.0) but can anybody come up with a- [a (.)   

3. I:                                                                        [Mm mhm

4. R:        positive way of saying “This is how it can be done”

5. I:         Mm mhm

6. R:        It’s all very well to turn round and say “Give ’em a vote”

7. I:         Yes

8. R:        I mean the majority of them (1.0) don’t know what a vote is

9. I:         Mm mhm

R’s argument for apartheid occurs in the context (not reproduced here) of justifying his support of the controversial rugby tour.  He offers his position as one that is forced by practical realities.  The notion that the speaker might be talking out of some kind of p9. reference or liking for apartheid – that is, because of psychological disposition (prejudice) rather than worldly reality – is further countered by locating his preferences as precisely the opposite.  He would like it done away with (line 1), if only that were realistically possible.  This counter-dispositional construction is a feature of talk about sensitive and controversial issues, but it draws on a general device in factual discourse, which is making a version or conclusion factually robust by formulating it as reluctantly arrived at.  The same device is used in Extract 2.

Extract 2

1. I:         (…) d’you think there should be res- (.) restrictions

2. on immigration? 

3. (.)  

4. I:         How do you [feel about

5. R:                             [Oh yes.= There’s got to be.

6. I:         Ye[:h

7. R:            [Unfortunately,

8. I:         my[e:h

9. R:             [I would love to see the whole wor:ld y’know, 

10. jus’ where you: (.) go where you like,

R appeals to necessity in contrast to personal preference or desire, a disposition formulated as an emphatic, even extreme counter-preference (“would love”, “whole world”, line 9) for a world where people can “go where you like”.  Note the symmetrical appeal to both sides of the psychological equation, to an external known world (“there’s got to be”, line 5) that constrains a reluctant belief or opinion (line 7 “unfortunately”, line 9 “would love”).  R’s reluctance is not a free-standing indication of his attitude, but deals with the interviewer’s specific framing of the questions (both line 1 “do you think…” and line 4 “how do you feel…”), and to the possibly unwelcome inferences about him that would be available were he simply to support apartheid (cf. Antaki & Wetherell, 1999).

It is important to emphasize that this kind of analysis entails no commitment to the genuineness or falsity of R’s reluctance, preferences, nor any other mental state that might be conceptualized, managed by, or at issue in the talk.  DP analyses it all as ways of talking that can be unravelled through a detailed analysis of how specific descriptions are constructed in ways that perform discursive actions within sequential, rhetorical sequences of talk.

DP and Institutional Settings: Couple counselling

Cognitive social psychology attempts to generate social-cognitive explanations that link underlying variables to outcomes.  This effectively directs attention away from the specific structural organizations that make up any culture, such as factory production lines, doctors’ surgeries, family meal times, and so on.  In emphasizing the occasioned, action-oriented and constructed nature of discourse, DP is required to pay attention to such specifics.  In this emphasis on talk-at-work it picks up from the success of conversation analysis in productively explicating relations between discourse and social organization (Drew & Heritage, 1992).

Extract 3 indicates some potentially intricate relations between lexical selection and the situated activities that are being done. It comes from early in a couple’s first relationship counselling session, and starts with the counsellor asking about their first separation (see also Edwards, 1997; Potter, 1996a).  C is the counsellor, W the wife, and H the husband.

Extract 3

1. C:        Was that the time that you left?=

2. W:       =He left the:n that was- [ nearl ]y two years ago.

3. C:                                               [°Yeh.°]

4. W:       He walked out then. 

5. (.)

6. W:       Just (.) literally walked out.

7. (0.8)

8. C:        Okay.  So, (0.5) for me listenin:g, (.) you’ve

9. got (0.5) rich an:d, (.) complicated lives, 

10. I nee:d to get some his[tory  to  put-  ]

11. W:                                           [Yyeh. Mmm, ]

12. H:        [Mmm. (.)  Ye:h.  (.)  Oh ye:h. ]

13. W:       [Yeh. (.) That’s (.) exactly wha]t ih °um°

Let us focus on the Counsellor’s formulation of what he takes W and H to have been saying about themselves, that they have “rich and complicated lives” (line 9).  A number of analysts have observed that formulations (providing gists and upshots of what people are saying – Heritage & Watson, 1980) play an important role in counselling talk (Davis, 1986; Buttny & Jensen, 1995).  Indeed they seem to index counselling talk in much the way that Initiation-Response-Evaluation sequences suggest classroom interaction (Mehan, 1979).  So, what might such formulations be doing in counselling talk?  Let us open up some lines of investigation to illustrate DP’s approach.

First, “rich and complicated” converts a rather painful account of trouble and conflict into something positive, or at the very least interesting.  In this it may contrast with critical or anxious responses that the couple might have had from friends or relatives.  The counsellor presents himself via this formulation as neither judging nor made anxious by talk about difficult relationship problems.  Quite the reverse, “rich and complicated” looks forward to the exploration of these complexities.

Second, it is an impartial formulation, neither criticizing nor supporting either party.  This, of course, is an issue for relationship counselling where trust might easily be broken if the counsellor is seen as aligning with one party against the other.  In its particular sequential placing, following the wife’s criticisms of her husband, this turn neither disagrees nor agrees with the criticisms.  They are left on the table, as it were, for possible later discussion.  The interactional outcome of this can be seen in the couple’s joint and emphasized agreement with the formulation (lines 11-13).

Third, and less obviously perhaps, this avoidance of taking sides, and the treatment of the events as neither bad or worrying, can be part of a broader emphasis on how the couple can constructively work toward repairing their relationship.  One step will be to become more relaxed about discussing their problems and less fearful of its consequences.  Moreover,  “complicated” is a descriptive term that sets up relationship problems as a kind of puzzle that can be unravelled via counselling.  That is, it provides for the counselling which is to come, as a sensible option where the technical skills will be put to enthusiastic work sorting out complications.  These latter orientations of the formulation “rich and complicated lives”, and of its specific location in the talk, are rather speculative on their own, and with regard to just this one extract, but could be part of a larger analysis of how participants’ psychological states, personalities, dispositions, pathologies, motivations, emotions, intentions, and so on, are formulated in ways that orient to the nature and business of counselling, as an activity setting.

One interesting feature of our couple counselling materials is how people display themselves as, say, making efforts at understanding the other, or as hopelessly opposed.  Conflicting perceptions, thoughts, feelings and evaluations, for example, are produced as conflicting, at loggerheads despite all efforts, and therefore ready for, and in need of, intervention.  Opposition and impasse are not merely psychological preconditions for counselling that couples find themselves in, but are actively produced in how they talk, particularly at the outset when telling the counsellor why they have come (this being routine first session business).  The conventional notion of couples who do not properly understand each other, or who suffer from an inability to communicate, although effective as an account for relationship failure, can be a poor description of couples whose conflicting stories may be exquisitely designed to display conflict, and may be closely oriented to, and predictive of, each other’s alternative perspective.

It is a feature of counselling at work that the couple undergoing counselling make themselves available for it (or sometimes resist it), in how they talk.  Their display of mutual opposition and impasse provides for the counsellor’s even-handed, neutral treatment of them, as a couple with “rich and complicated lives” for example, and as a kind of puzzle awaiting solution.  Extract 4a is close to the start of the same couple’s first session, coming a short time after extract 3.

Extract 4a

1. C:        Whe:n:::, (.) before you moved ov↓er here, hhow was

2. the marriage.

3. (0.4)

4. W:       ↑O↓h.

5. (0.2)

6. W:       I- (.) to me: all alo:ng (.) right up to now, (0.2) my

7. marriage was rock solid.

8. (0.8)

9. W:       Rock solid.=  We had arguments like everybody else

10. had arguments, (0.4) buthh (0.2) to me there was no

11. major problems. Y’know? That’s (0.2) my way of

12. thinking but (0.4) Jimmy’s thinking is very very different.

The idea that W’s version of their marriage not only conflicts with H’s (examined below), but is produced as conflictual, making conflict hearable or visible as such, is supported by various details.  Note the use of extreme case formulations, in how W defines her version of their marriage: “all along”, “right up to now”, “rock solid”, like “everybody” else (lines 6-9).  These extreme expressions maximize W’s position, and its distance from H’s.  Pomerantz (1986) has shown how extreme formulations of this kind tend to occur when claims are being strengthened against doubt or disagreement.  They can also be used to signal the speaker’s commitment and investment in those claims (Edwards, 2000b).

Note also how W overtly acknowledges H’s opposition (lines 11-12), while attending rhetorically to what H may say; they have presumably argued about this already, of course, and H is sitting next to W ready to say his piece.  W designs her version with regard to H’s opposed version, yet to be produced, and in strong contrast to it.  Note small details such as the latching in line 9 – how W immediately attaches the disclaimer about their “arguments” to the description of extreme stability, “rock solid”.  This is rhetoric in action, orienting to H’s opposed version which, as we see in extract 4b, makes much of those “arguments” they have been having.

H’s disagreement is not far away.  As W acknowledges (extract 4a, lines 11-12) this is her version, and H’s “thinking” is “very very different”.  H’s versions of their marriage focus on its extreme lack of solidity, as evidenced by the frequency and severity of their arguments, which H upgrades to fights (extract 4b, line 19), and (not included here) in how he had actually left W a couple of times.

Extract 4b  (continuing from 4a)

1. W:      (…) but (0.4) Jimmy’s thinking is ve[ry very different.]

2. H:                                                                 [ Well   (1.0)        ]

3. Bein: (0.8) a jealous person, (0.8) u:m, (0.6) we go back-

4. (.) back to: (0.6) when we were datin’ (1.0) when we

5. were dating first (0.8) well we met in this: particular pub.

6. (1.0)

7. H:       >When we start’d datin’ we was in there,< we’d fight.

8. (0.2)

9. H:       We were at each other the who:le time.

Again H’s account does not just find itself in contrast to W’s, but is designed in ways that point up and maximize that opposition.  What W called “arguments” have become “we’d fight” (line 19), so it was both severe (fights rather than arguments) and recurrent, again deploying extreme case formulations in “every single week” (line 19) and “the whole time” (line 21).  Like W’s picture of a rock solid marriage, H’s picture of perpetual and severe conflict stems right from the start of their relationship, from when they first started dating (lines 15-18).  The extreme case formulations are important because they index both W and H going to extremes discursively, in depicting not just the nature of their relationship, but the extent of their disagreement about it (Edwards, 2000b).

H’s preface “being a jealous person…” (line 14) looks a bit strange where it is placed, but it refers to something W had said a couple of minutes previously (not included here, but see Edwards, 1997) when she identified a major problem of their marriage as H’s excessive and long-term disposition to fits of jealousy.  Its placement here, at line 14, displays H’s uptake of W’s account in extract 4a as relevant to that accusation – that theirs was an essentially solid marriage suffering from H’s being an unreasonably “jealous person” – and provides it as a preface to his own account of a marriage characterized from the start by mutual and pervasive antagonism.  The thing of special interest for DP is how mental and emotional and dispositional state descriptions such as ‘jealous’ or ‘jealous person’ figure not merely as actual psychological states, nor even as participants’ all-purpose cognitive understandings of their psychological states, but as parts of situated descriptions, to be analysed for their production at a specific point in the talk, as oriented to a particular rhetorical alternative alive in that talk, and to the counselling setting in which it occurs.

We can begin to see that these are not merely different and inconsistent accounts produced by W and H, the stuff of communication failures and misunderstandings, for instance.  They are contrasting accounts constructed precisely in opposition to an actual alternative, in that they display an orientation to that alternative and its evidential and rhetorical grounds.  They are constructed in extreme terms, maximizing differences and opposition.  We take this not merely as an indication of how opposed this couple is, but as a performance of some kind, a display for the counsellor and for counselling, of two persons at an impasse and in need of help. This kind of talk sets their problems up as counselling appropriate and counselling-ready.  It shows, in answer to the counsellor’s inquiry, why they have come.

To summarize, W’s and H’s opposed versions display the following features:

  • extremity, displaying strong commitment to a position and maximizing opposition;
  • acknowledgement, a clear orientation to the other person’s opposed version;
  • symmetry, in which the opposition is direct, counterpointed, detailed;
  • reformulation, where specific alternative descriptions are offered.

Extract 5 comes from a different couple and counsellor, again close to the start of their first session.  W is the first to respond to C’s request to tell “why you went to Relate in the first place”, and extract 5 is how she ends her account.

Extract 5

1.          W:       And then: (.) u:m: (2.8) ‘n that’s when I decided to: (.) 

2.                  uhh w- we tried to sort it out ourselves didn’t we, (0.6)

3.                         a:nd (0.7) we seemed to be going round in cir:cles.  

4. H-he: had his thoughts I had my thoughts (0.6) and

5. we just didn’t come to an agreement on anything.

6. (.)

7. W:       And that’s when we decided we ought to come (.)

8. to Relate.

In extract 5 W explicitly formulates a kind of stand-off or impasse as their reason for seeking counselling (‘Relate’ is the counselling organization).  Having tried to solve their own problems (line 2), W and H have hit an impasse, and these is are offered as explanatory precursors for now seeking help.  As in extracts 4a and 4b, W’s description of relationship troubles, whatever its basis in fact, is shaped as a motivational account for being here, as an account of troubles that is oriented to normative preconditions for counselling – they are opposed, stuck, having tried and failed to help themselves.  The expression “going round in circles” (line 3), defines their problems as relationship troubles of an idiomatically familiar kind, recurrent and unresolved.  It captures the sense of impasse that, in extracts 4a and 4b, was produced by extreme and opposed versions.  Note also the precise symmetry of “he had his thoughts I had my thoughts” (line 4), repeating the same verbal formula while at the same time defining their troubles as psychological, opposed ways of thinking.  Again, there is the use of extremity (“on anything”, line 6), emphasizing the size of the gulf between them.  Finally, there is the performative relevance or upshot of these descriptions, their availability as an answer to C’s inquiry – their reason for being here (lines 7-8).

In addition to making explicit descriptions of their relationship, the couple in extract 5 display their opposition in the way they describe and narrate events in their lives, using extreme case formulations, symmetrically opposed versions and reformulations of what each other says.  In doing so, they display an acute orientation to what the other has said or is likely to say, and an orientation to the requirements of counselling and the prospects of receiving help.  There is no space to go into that detailed choreography of versions properly here, but extract 6 illustrates how the counsellor picks up features of clients’ versions and formulates them as (in this case) directly opposed, systemic, and symmetrical.  At the same time, their problems are defined as relationship stuff, rather than a matter of individual persons and their faulty characters, and as problems of a recognizable kind, and thus potentially tractable to counselling.

Extract 6

1. C:       I’m say:in::g you come here:, (0.2) becau:se (.) >y’r

2. marriage is in a ↑mess:.<

3. (0.5)

4. C:      It was: (0.4) what you [1]referring to W would (.)

5. descri:be as rock ↑sol↓id. Then all of a sudden, 

6. you’ve [2]referring to H gone off, (0.2) the thing 

7. you fear:, (1.2) of: (.) Connie, (.) you actually wen’ 

8. off (.) and did, (0.2) be[cause of the pain-   ]

9. W:                                           [That’s another thing] (.) I 

10. used to say to myself (.) y’know, (.) ↑my husband 

11. would never have an affair because he is so: (0.2) 

12. strict and such HI:gh MOrals an’ everything else 

13. about what ↑I would do:, (0.3) he has gone o:ff and 

14. done eXACtly, (0.4) y’know, (.)

15. C:       But what’s happened is there’s a kind of vicious        

16. circle that’s going around.

Note various features of the counsellor’s interventions here.  The expression “because your marriage is in a mess” (lines 1-2) is reminiscent of the other counsellor’s “rich and complicated lives” in extract 3.  In the same way, it dissolves the two conflicting versions into a description of relationship, and avoids alignment with either party’s opposed and extreme position.  The counsellor picks up and formulates their troubles as symmetrical; H has, ironically, gone and done just what he feared W might do (lines 5-8).  W takes this as an opportunity for extrematized criticism of H; note again her use of the extreme terms “never”, “everything else”, “exactly” (lines 11-14).  The counsellor once again resists being recruited into alignment with W against H, formulating their troubles as something that has “happened” (line 15, a nicely non-agentive process rather than action verb), and glossing it as “a kind of vicious circle that’s going round” (lines 15-16; note that this is not the same counsellor and couple as in extract 5, where W also uses the expression “going round in circles”).

The counsellor’s formulation of the clients’ troubles as symmetrical, circular and systemic (relationship stuff rather than individuals) sets up those troubles as recognizable-to-counselling.  She spells that out in extract 7, in the form of an emblematic pattern of symmetrically opposed perspectives.

Extract 7

1. C:        it’s it’s what I call the Jack and Ji:ll situation, that (.)

2. Jack will say I go to the pu:b (.) because Jill nags.

3. (0.6)

4. C:        Jill will say: no:, (1.8) I only na:g because he goes

5. to the pu:b.

6. (0.5)

7. C:        And he’ll say no: I go to the pub because you nag

8. (0.2) so it’s this sort of (.) up and d[ow:n situation,

9. W:                                                               [oMm (.) that’s

10. (the way it is isn’t ito)

Extract 7 formulates a kind of generalized script or schema (see also Edwards, 1995) into which H’s and W’s pattern of conflict can be fitted, one that is potentially applicable to any number of actual relationship problems, and recognizable as such to C (line 1 “it’s what I call the…”).  Clearly the example of going to the pub and nagging is just that – an example, for a wide range of possible actual disputes.  The character names “Jack and Jill”, from the nursery rhyme, help identify them as generalized rather than actual persons.  Note also the orientation to opposed versions produced in talk; it is a pattern in which Jack and Jill say that the other nags or goes out – not that they actually do it (lines 2, 4, 7).  It is a matter of ways of seeing and understanding, a ways of seeing or patterns of talking kind of conflict, rather than the facts of the matter (how much they actually go out or nag).  This sets it up for the talking cure, for working things through in counselling.

Again, as with the term “happened” in extract 6, troubles are formulated as a nonagentive “situation” (lines 1, 8) that couples may find themselves in.  ‘Situation’ descriptions typically provide for less blaming kinds of actions by actors (Edwards & Potter, 1993).  Systemic reciprocity is again built into the relationship, via a precise symmetry; the nagging causes the going out, and the going out causes the nagging.  So the reciprocating recriminations of relationship troubles talk are transformed into a recognizable-as-standard, and potentially tractable-by-counselling, “situation”.

Discursive Psychology and Institutional Settings

In Wieder’s (1974) ethnomethodological terms, the descriptions and formulations we have looked at here are multiformulative and multiconsequential, just as they are in any kind of discourse.  They formulate the world and the identities of the participants in a range of different ways, and they have a range of practical upshots.  Our general point has been to show the value of treating discourse as occasioned (in this sequence, in counselling talk), as action-oriented (addressing a range of practical counselling tasks), and as both constructed (from particular terms and devices) and constructing (of the clients’ problems in ways that prepares them for counselling work).

Discursive psychology’s interest in institutional settings is in how the psychological is worked up and recruited for various kinds of institutional business and orientations.  Sometimes, as in schools and counselling settings, there is an obvious, official concern with matters of ‘mind’, with what people feel, think, know and understand.  But psychological matters are pervasive in all kinds of discourse and social interaction, given the general relevance of intentions, motives, thoughts, plans, memories, and so on, to life’s accountability.  We find psychological themes across a very broad range of studies of situated talk, even when those studies are concerned with ostensibly sociological rather than psychological problematics.  Examples include Pollner’s (1987) classic study of how ‘reality disjunctures’ are resolved in traffic courts; Wieder’s (1974) treatment of motives and understandings in accounts of rule-following in a half-way house; and Lynch and Bogen’s (1996) studies of the uses of ‘memory’ in the Iran-Contra hearings (cf. Edwards & Potter, 1992b).  The ways that discourse categorizes and attributes mental states, competencies, dispositions, character, emotions, motives, and so on, are part of the fabric of public accountability.  It is the project of discursive psychology to study how that works, alongside related studies of talk in mundane and institutional settings.


1 referring to W
2 referring to H

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