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The Emergence of DA in Psychology

In 1987, Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour (DASP) was published by Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell. This ground-breaking book is widely recognized as introducing DA to an increasing number of disaffected social psychologists and which generated something of a ‘quiet revolution’ in the years to come (Augoustinos & Tileaga, 2012). The epistemology advocated by this book was fundamentally different from the positivist and realist epistemology of traditional social psychology. Potter and Wetherell (1987) advocated for a social constructionist and non-cognitivist epistemology (and ontology) that fundamentally reformulated topics central to social psychology: psychological constructs such as self and identity, attributions, attitudes, social categorization and prejudice were reconceptualized as discursive practices that were enacted in everyday social interaction rather than cognitive processes that took place in the internal machinations of the mind.

DASP drew on several intellectual influences, not the least of which was the social constructionist movement and its critique of traditional psychology. It also drew on philosophical linguistics and in particular Wittgenstein’s later philosophical writings (Philosophical Investigations, 1953), which emphasized the interactive and contextual nature of language. In contrast to conventional theories that theorized language to be an abstract and coherent system of names and rules, Wittgenstein viewed language as a social practice. While the former treats language as a ‘mirror of reality’, reflecting a world ‘out there’, Wittgenstein argued that words and language do not have independent objective meanings outside the context and settings in which they are actually used. Moreover, Wittgenstein challenged the view that language was merely a medium through which people expressed and communicated inner mental phenomena such as feelings and beliefs. Wittgenstein rejected the conventional and dominant understanding in both psychology and philosophy, that there are two separate and parallel systems—cognition and language— one private and the other public. Rather, Wittgenstein argued that, ‘language itself is the vehicle of thought’ (1953, p. 329).

This emphasis on language as a social practice is central to DA, which seeks to analyse empirically how language is used in everyday activities and settings by participants. The action orientation of discourse is associated with another important influence: John Austin’s speech act theory (1962). Speech act theory emphasizes how people use language ‘to do things’, to achieve certain ends. Words are not simply abstract tools used to state or describe things: they are also used to make things happen. People use language to persuade, blame, excuse and present themselves in the best possible light. Thus, language is functional, it ‘gets things done’ (Potter & Wetherell, 1987).

Another intellectual influence in DA (and one that has been central to the development of ‘Discursive Psychology’ (DP) associated with the Loughborough School) is Conversation Analysis (CA). CA is an ethnometh- odological tradition that examines ordinary conversation in its everyday natural settings. In contrast to cognitive science and sociolinguistics that treat language as an abstract system of rules and categories, CA begins with people’s actual talk in social interaction—‘talk-in-interaction , as it is commonly known. Central figures in the development of CA, such as Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson, have demonstrated through the close analysis of conversational materials that everyday conversation is orderly and demonstrates reliable regularities in its sequential turn-by-turn organization (Sacks, 1995; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). CA attends to the ways in which participants’ talk is oriented to the practical concerns of social interaction; how, for example, descriptions, accounts and categories in conversation are put together to perform very specific actions such as justifying, explaining, blaming, excusing and so on. For example, a pervasive feature of everyday talk and conversation is that participants attend to their own stake and accountability (Edwards & Potter, 1992).

Social psychology has typically treated talk-in-interaction as primarily inconsequential to social life. Moreover, as a source of data, everyday talk is viewed as ‘messy’, containing hesitations, pauses, interruptions, selfcorrections and so on. CA, however, emphasizes how such features of talk may be highly relevant in interaction, which has led to very specific requirements regarding the level of transcription recommended for recorded materials in

CA work. It is typical in CA to include details in transcripts such as the length of pauses, overlapping talk, intonation, hesitations, emphasis and volume.

Another important influence in DASP and one that remains central in critical discourse analysis (CDA, see below) is post-structuralism and in particular, the work of Michel Foucault. Despite the enormous impact and influence that Foucault’s work has had in the humanities and social sciences generally, psychology as a discipline has remained largely impervious to his prolific writings on the nature of knowledge and subjectivity. This is no surprise given the subject matter of Foucault’s writings, which challenged traditional notions of truth and knowledge (Foucault, 1972).

Foucault was interested in the historical emergence and development of various disciplines of knowledge, particularly the social sciences and how this body of ‘scientific’ knowledge exercises power by regulating the behaviour and subjectivities of individuals throughout all layers of society. Foucault argued that modern power is achieved largely through the self-regulation and selfdiscipline of individuals to behave in ways which are largely consistent with dominant discourses about what it is to be human. These discourses shape and mould our subjectivities, the people we ultimately become. For example, dominant psychological discourses about the self for a large part of the 20th century have extolled the virtues of logical, rational thought, cognitive order and consistency, emotional stability and control, moral integrity, independence and self-reliance. These humanist discourses are powerful in that they have contributed to the shaping of certain behavioural practices, modes of thought and institutional structures which function to produce people possessing these valued qualities. Moreover, institutions and practices have emerged which rehabilitate, treat and counsel those who fail to become rational, self-sufficient, capable and emotionally stable individuals. Thus, psychology, as a body of knowledge and a ‘scientifically’ legitimated discipline, shapes and prescribes what it is to be a healthy and well-adjusted individual (Rose, 1989).

Changing the Subject: Psychology, Social Regulation and Subjectivity, by Henriques, Hollway, Urwin, Venn and Walkerdine (1984, 1998), was among the first books within psychology to directly engage with Foucault’s writings on modern forms of subjectivity and psychology’s role in producing subjects and identities shaped by the dominant discourses of individualism and cognitivism. As we will see below, discursive psychologists who draw from this tradition of work, and in particular from Foucault, understand and use the term ‘discourse’ rather differently from those who use this term to refer to everyday talk and conversation. Foucault’s influence in DA, however, cannot be overestimated, especially in the development of CDA.

 
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