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Discursive psychology

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For other uses of the word, see discursive

Discursive psychology is a school of psychology developed in the 1990s by Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards at Loughborough University. It draws on the philosophy of language of the later Wittgenstein, the rhetorical approach of Michael Billig, and the conversation analysis of Harvey Sacks. Discursive psychological studies highlight the way people construct versions of 'mental', 'social' and 'material' events and processes as parts of particular practices.

Discursive psychology started with studies that offered new ways of understanding mainstream topics in social and cognitive psychology such as memory, attribution and attitudes. For example, how are accounts constructed to manage issues of attitude and motive? Edwards and Potter illustrate this with an excerpt from a rape trial.

Counsel: [referring to a club where the defendant and victim met] It’s where girls and fellas meet isn’t it?

Witness: People go there.

Note how Counsel and Witness produce competing descriptions of the place, each of which offers inferences to the jury. ‘It’s where girls and fellas meet’ gives an impression of what the clientele are expecting and wanting; while ‘people go there’ neutralizes that impression. The alternative descriptions imply different attitudes, motives and even moral status. These psychological matters are played out in the competing descriptions offered by the two parties to this interaction. This is what discursive psychology is about.

In the past few years work in discursive psychology has focused on material from real world situations such as relationship counselling, child protection helplines and neighbour disputes. It asks questions such as the following. How does a party in relationship counselling construct the problem as something that the other party needs to work on? Or how does a child protection officer working on a child protection helpline manage the possibly competing tasks of soothing a crying caller and simultaneously elicit evidence sufficient for social services to intervene to help an abused child?

It is philosophically opposed to more traditional cognitivist approaches to language.

Further reading

  • Edwards, D (1997) Discourse and Cognition. London: Sage.
  • Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive Psychology (ISBN 0803984421) London: Sage.
  • Hepburn, A. (2003). Crying: Notes on description, transcription and interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37, 251-90.
  • Potter, J. (1996). "Discourse analysis and constructionist approaches: Theoretical background". In J. T. E. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of qualitative research methods for psychology and the social sciences (pp. 125-140). Leicester: BPS Books.
  • Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  • Wood, L. & Kroger, R. (2000). Doing discourse analysis: Methods for studying action in talk and text. London: Sage Publications.
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