Discursive psychology examines how psychological issues are made relevant and put to use in everyday talk. Unlike traditional psychological perspectives, discursive psychology does not approach the question of what psychology comprises and explains from an analyst’s perspective. Instead the focus is on how psychological characteristics are made available, ascribed, and resisted by people themselves, as part of the social actions performed in and through talk. The step from assuming that talk reflects to looking at what talk does is paramount. Discursive psychologists analyze how direct and indirect appeals to mental states do things in the interaction, such as accusing, defending, building expertise, complaining, and complimenting. Rather than determining the truth value of what people report – by looking at what a person really wants, thinks or feels, or what the world really looks like – discursive psychology focuses on the interactional business performed with these descriptions. Limited memories may, for instance, account for a forgotten action, while displays of anger may enhance the genuineness and spontaneity of an explanation. The action-oriented approach to language makes discursive psychology radically different from cognitivist traditions in psychology that treat mental states as the source or cause of what is being said (Edwards 1997; Edwards & Potter 2005).
The book Discourse and social psychology by Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell (1987) marked the beginning of a research tradition that first emerged as a discourse based alternative for traditional social psychological work. The notion of an interpretive repertoire was coined to capture the ostensible inconsistencies in people’s accounts of mind and reality that were not explained by the classical attitude concept. The early work on repertoires has its roots in diverse disciplines such as Wittgensteinian philosophy, ethnomethodology, and poststructuralism. Its most direct origin, however, lies in the discourse analytic approach that has been developed within social studies of science.
Derek Edwards and Jonathan Potter (1992) are the founders of what is currently associated with the term discursive psychology. While still drawing from different disciplines, this tradition is increasingly influenced by the perspective and method of conversation analysis. Like conversation analysts, discursive psychologists are interested in close empirical investigation of naturally occurring data. They work from detailed transcripts of audio or video recordings, derived from a variety of “natural” settings such as phone calls between friends, adolescents’ talk, counseling sessions, or police interrogations.
Discursive psychology shares the conversation analytic focus on so-called activity sequences as the core concept for understanding what people do in interaction. Actions such as countering blame, establishing the normality of what happened, or rebutting the assumed motivated nature of what is being said are not performed on the basis of single sentences but embedded in a series of turns. The emphasis on turns and sequences rather than isolated spates of talk is both a theoretical and a methodological starting point. People use the turn-by-turn development of a conversation as a resource to make sense of the social activities that are accomplished. These publicly displayed and continuously updated understandings of what is being said and done are an important “proof procedure” for the analyst.
People also talk rhetorically, in that they routinely resist or deny actual or potential alternative versions of what is being said. Inspecting stretches of discourse for these alternative versions helps the analyst to make sense of the actions performed. It is the combination of a sequential and a rhetorical analysis, focused on people’s practical psychology, that forms the basis of discursive psychological work.
Recently, Edwards and Potter (2005) distinguished three major strands in discursive psychology that are strongly interrelated. The first strand concerns the reworking of traditional psychological topics such as attitude, causal attribution, memory, and scripts into discursive practices. The notion of a script, for example, is not approached as the expression of underlying cognitions. Scripting is studied for what it does, as a participants’ concern, such as explaining an event in scripted, dispositional terms (“he is always jealous”) instead of constructing it as a “one-off.” The second strand involves studies of how psychological terms are deployed in everyday talk (intent, motive, remembering, seeing, etc.). The phrase “I don’t know” may not simply refer to a lack of knowledge but also be used to display indifference about one’s ostensible stake precisely at the point where an accusation could be made (“she would say that, wouldn’t she?”; Potter 1996). The third strand of research focuses on psychological themes as they are drawn upon in the interaction in less overtly labeled ways. Attributions of agency and intent are typically performed not by explicit imputations but through apparently straightforward descriptions of the “world-as-it-is.”
All three areas show a salient interest in the triangular relationship between facts, interests, and accountability. A pervasive feature of participants’ discourse is the construction of reports in such a way that they avoid appearing invested or biased, thereby establishing factually robust versions of mind and world. The focus is on how talk routinely resists accusations of stake and interest, and how it therein attends to issues of agency and accountability.
Discursive psychological research has identified a variety of discursive practices in a heterogeneous set of fields, ranging from Bill Clinton’s testimony to the grand jury to racial discourse and mealtime conversation. While recent work (Hepburn & Wiggins 2007) bears a strong resemblance to conversation analytic research, there are also differences, such as the status of cognition in interaction (te Molder & Potter 2005).
- Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and cognition. London: Sage.
- Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive psychology. London: Sage.
- Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (2005). Discursive psychology, mental states and descriptions. In H. te Molder & J. Potter (eds.), Conversation and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 241–259.
- Hepburn, A., & Wiggins, S. (eds.) (2007). Discursive research in practice: New approaches to psychology and interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction. London: Sage.
- Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology: Beyond attitudes and behaviour. London: Sage.
- te Molder, H., & Potter, J. (eds.) (2005). Conversation and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.