Relationships and communication between social groups of all kinds is an increasingly pressing topic in a globalized world in which there are conflicts of resources, religions, and ideologies. Discursive psychology’s distinct contribution is to try to understand this topic through studying how discourse works in the practical settings in which intergroup issues become live. These might include major public events such as a parliamentary debate on migration and asylum, institutional interaction such as where the police interview a suspect who has been accused of racist violence, and everyday talk, such as conversations about politics and nationality over a family meal.
A key point of this tradition of work is that social groups often do not communicate and understand one another directly; instead, social groups become live entities as they are invoked in practical settings through the telling of stories, descriptions, and other constructions in talk and texts. This means that if we are to fully understand conflict and racism we need to understand these discourse processes. That is, we need to describe the building blocks which people draw on to assemble their talk and texts as well as the practices through which the building is done in specific settings. The resources are at their simplest words (“immigrant,” “asylum seeker”), but they can also be broader explanatory units such as the “interpretative repertoires” that Potter and Wetherell describe (1987).
Discourse And Racism
A foundational study in this tradition (Wetherell & Potter 1992) studied the talk of professional members of the white majority group in New Zealand (bankers, teachers, and so on) in open-ended interviews, newspaper editorials, and parliamentary debates. These are people who had flown below the radar of traditional research on racism because of its focus on working class authoritarians, yet they are people with power in a society as they are key figures in educational and legal institutions. These people are often caught in a dilemma. They do not wish to support social changes that will transfer power, money or privileges to minority groups (Maori, Polynesian Islanders), yet they do not wish to be heard as bigoted. The study looked at the way these people managed this dilemma using a weave of symbolic resources that Billig (1992) has called the kaleidoscope of common sense.
For example, the members of the white majority group would draw on varied repertoires of culture. At times, a “culture-as-heritage” repertoire could be used to discount Maori political critique as a product of cultural dissatisfaction. At other times, majority group members would draw on a “culture-as-therapy” repertoire to represent young urban Maoris as deficient as Maoris, and in this way they undercut legitimate protests about sovereignty and land as mere psychological disturbance. What this study shows is that although culture discourses can be publicly spoken and treated as positive and sensitive to minority groups, they can nevertheless be used like more traditional racist discourse to maintain notions of natural group differences and to privilege in-group explanations of inequality over intergroup ones.
Billig (1996) has pointed out that in any social group, at a particular time in history, certain phrases or commonplaces have a taken-for-granted quality. They can be spoken with little chance of contradiction. Wetherell and Potter mapped the use of these “maxims of practical politics” across their corpus of interviews, editorials, and debates. They found recurrent uses of phrases like:
Everyone should be treated equally.
You can’t turn the clock backwards.
Injustices should be righted.
You have to live in the modern world.
You have to be practical.
Who could disagree? Who would wish to argue that you need to live in the past or strive for impracticality? Yet the study showed that in practical settings this tissue of maxims was flexibly used in arguments against radical social change and advancement for Maoris. This research highlights how hard it is for anyone who wishes to combat arguments using these resources. Attacking these commonplaces directly risks appearing to attack common sense itself !
Contact And Desegregation
Discursive psychology provides a different way in to considering classic issues of contact, segregation, and integration. Durrheim and Dixon (2005) did extensive work in postapartheid South Africa, combining observational work in public settings with interviews. In the observational studies they found that there was extensive de facto physical segregation between ethnic groups even without the legal and political framework of apartheid to support it. They interviewed members of the different groups and looked in particular at the way they explained and justified segregation. What was striking was that the white participants still drew on crude racist stereotypes, but in an oblique manner. At the same time they expressed strong support for the principle of desegregation; however, they opposed the manner of its practical implementation. These contrary conversational moves blended together progressive and traditionally racist elements. This is an example of a more general pattern identified in discursive psychological work where egalitarian social arrangements (based around race, gender or age) are strongly supported in principle while their practical implementation is criticized.
Durrheim and Dixon (2005) studied what they called the “lay ontologizing” of their research participants. This involved the justification of segregation through building specific versions of the nature of ethnic groups. Segregation was presented as an unfortunate but inevitable consequence of the basic nature of ethnic groups rather than an irrational outcome of racist thinking. In the course of particular arguments, interviewees drew on what they presented as “anthropological universals” about the way cultures operate to validate segregation. Although this work was carried out in South Africa, similar conclusions have been drawn from American work. Buttny (1999) found that US college students who watched the documentary Racism 101 about segregation and racism on campus offered a weave of accounts of segregation to make their separateness appear rational and sensible.
The Issue Of Essential Group Properties
One of the key issues for social scientists over the past 100 years has been what makes up a social group. Discursive psychologists emphasize a rather different aspect of this question. For them, a key issue is how participants construct social groups. How do they treat group members as the same and how do they accentuate differences within the group (Billig 1985)? Another key question is: how are groups treated as having some kind of natural and timeless essence? Indeed, when we talk about “intergroup communication” it is very hard to do so without assuming a notion of distinct groups that can communicate with one another.
While for social identity theorists the key issue is the cognitive salience of group memberships, for discursive psychologists the issue is how category terms are used in conversations and texts, and how they are made relevant to whatever interaction is happening (Edwards 1998). That is, how are social groups described in ways that are relevant to actions (justifying segregation, say) and how is an individual’s membership of one social group rather than another made something that is relevant to the interaction? For example, when a police officer is interrogating a suspect, when and how does the identity “Muslim” become relevant, say, or “male,” or “foreign” (for either the police officer or the suspect)? These are delicate issues to explicate. Edwards (1998) did so in a study of talk in relationship counseling sessions. He tracked the use of categories such as “girls” and “married women” through the material, and identified the way they were invoked very differently by different parties as elements in different actions.
In a different approach to this issue, Verkuyten (2003) studied the way in which Dutch interviewees (from majority and minority groups) drew on ideas about social groups that treated them as having essential and timeless properties. He found that there was a complex relationship between this kind of “essentialist” talking and other kinds of constructions that suggested changing characteristics of social groups, and changing relationships between culture and ethnicity. Speakers drew selectively on these very different ways of treating social groups as they addressed questions of assimilation, group provision, and cultural rights.
Condor (2006) has considered these issues in relationship to nations and nationalism. One important arena for intergroup communication is communication between nations. She studied vernacular constructions of nationhood in an English sample. She found that participants could construct the nation as a set of persons, as an object or a geographical location, or as some mix of these things. This mix allowed participants to manage the potential to be heard as assuming national stereotypes by making a distinction, for example, between the past national characteristics and current state structures and policies. Condor’s research in particular highlights the subtlety and sophistication of lay reasoning about social groups, while showing also, like Verkuyten, that this complexity can be used in both relatively negative and relatively progressive ways (promoting or impeding social change, for example).
One of the characteristics of much of the discursive psychological research on intergroup communication is that it has worked primarily with interview material. This has been particularly effective for uncovering ideological organizations of discourse, notably the way particular constructions of groups, say, are used to legitimize inequality or, in Billig’s (1992) metaphor, used to “settle” the populous into particular social relations. However, there is an increasing interest in exploring how these themes are played out in actual interaction.
For example, Eriksson and Aronsson (2005) studied classroom lessons in a Swedish schoolroom, where “booktalk” was used to raise cultural issues. This is a formative arena of intercultural socialization, where cultural identities are constructed through a series of more or less implicit contrasts between “us” and “others.” As a final illustration, Augoustinos et al. (2007) studied both the controversy about, and the (failed) enactment of, the Australian government’s apology to indigenous Australians for the forced removal of their children in the 1950s. They showed how the then Australian prime minister, John Howard, mobilized a range of interpretative repertoires emphasizing “togetherness,” “culture,” and “nation,” combined with a number of self-sufficient arguments about practicality, equality, and justice to develop a version of reconciliation that sustained rather than reduced existing inequalities between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians.
From a discursive psychological perspective, issues of intergroup communication are not sufficiently understood using the apparatus of social cognition, prejudice, and attitude theory. Rather, it is necessary to study both the sets of discursive resources that underpin such communication and the flexible and contradictory use of those resources in practical settings.
- Augoustinos, M., LeCouteur, A., & Fogarty, K. (2007). Apologising-in-action: On saying “sorry” to indigenous Australians. In A. Hepburn & S. Wiggins (eds.), Discursive research in practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 88 –103.
- Billig, M. (1985). Prejudice, categorization and particularization: From a perceptual to a rhetorical approach. European Journal of Social Psychology, 15, 79 –103.
- Billig, M. (1992). Talking of the royal family. London: Routledge.
- Billig, M. (1996). Arguing and thinking: A rhetorical approach to social psychology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Buttny, R. (1999). Discursive constructions of racial boundaries and self-segregation on campus. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 18, 247 – 268.
- Condor, S. (2006). Temporality and collectivity: Diversity, history and the rhetorical construction of national entitativity. British Journal of Social Psychology, 45, 657– 682.
- Durrheim, K. & Dixon, J. A. (2005). Racial encounter: The social psychology of contact and desegregation. London: Psychology Press.
- Edwards, D. (1998). The relevant thing about her: Social identity categories in use. In C. Antaki & S. Widdicombe (eds.), Identities in talk. London: Sage, pp. 15 – 33.
- Eriksson, K., & Aronsson, K. (2005). “We’re really lucky”: Co-creating “us” and “the other” in school booktalk. Discourse and Society, 16, 719 –738.
- Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology: Beyond attitudes and behavior. London: Sage.
- Verkuyten, M. (2003). Discourses about ethnic group (de-)essentialism: Oppressive and progressive aspects. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 371– 391.
- Wetherell, M., & Potter, J. (1992). Mapping the language of racism: Discourse and the legitimation of exploitation. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.