Professor G. Hovhannisyan
First year M.A student
29 June 2013
Discourse – defined as language use in everyday text and talk – is a dynamic form of social
practice which constructs the social world, individual selves and identity. The self is
constructed through the internalization of social dialogues. People have several, flexible
identities which are constructed on the basis of different discourses. Power functions
through the individual’s positioning in particular discursive categories. Discourse does not
give expression to pre-constituted psychological states; rather, subjective psychological
realities are constituted in discourse. Individuals’ claims about psychological states should
be treated as social, discursive activities instead of as expressions of deeper ‘essences’
behind the words.
• Discourse is best viewed not as an abstract system (the tendency in structuralism and
poststructuralist theories of discourse) but as ‘situated’ language use in the contexts in which
it takes place.
• People use discourse rhetorically in order to accomplish forms of social action in particular
contexts of interaction. Language use is, in this sense, ‘occasioned’. The focus of analysis,
then, is not on the linguistic organization of text and talk as in critical discourse analysis but
on the rhetorical organization of text and talk. The following questions are asked. What do
people do with their text and talk?
How are accounts established as solid, real and stable representations of the world? How are
people’s constructions of the world designed so that they appear as stable facts, and how do
they undermine alternative versions (‘dilemmas of stake’)?
• Language constitutes the unconscious as well as consciousness. Psychoanalytical
theory can be combined with discourse analysis in order to account for the
psychological mechanisms underpinning the ‘unsaid’ and people’s selective
investment in particular discourses from the range of available discourses.
• The understanding of the contingent nature of research knowledge leads to
reflexive consideration of issues relating to relativism and the role of the researcher
in knowledge production.
Different strands of discursive psychology
In short, the three strands can be described as follows:
• A poststructuralist perspective that builds on a theory on discourse, power and
• An interactionist perspective that builds on conversation analysis and ethno
• A synthetic perspective that unites the two first perspectives.
The differences between the three strands can be illustrated by way of the continuum.
On the right-hand side lie the approaches in which the researcher identifies abstract
discourses without examining in detail their use across different social contexts. On
the left-hand side are the approaches in which the researcher investigates details in
language use as activities in social interaction without systematically analyzing the
links between the details and broader social and cultural processes and structures. The
first perspective belongs to the right-hand side, the second perspective to the left-hand
side, and the third to the middle position. The focus in the first perspective, closest to
the more abstract conception of discourse, then, is on how people’s understandings of
the world and identities are created and changed in specific discourses and on the
social consequences of these discursive constructions.
The second perspective concentrates on the analysis of the action orientation of
text and talk in social interaction. Drawing on conversation analysis and ethno
methodology, the focus is on how social organization is produced through
speech and interaction. The researcher analyses people’s conversations as
manifestations of a world that the participants create themselves. The aim of the
researcher is to keep her/his own theoretical perspective on this world out of the
analysis, and it is considered to be an assault on the empirical material to apply
frames of understanding and explanation not thematised by the informants’
In the third perspective, a poststructuralist interest in how specific discourses
constitute subjects and objects is combined with an interactionist interest in the
ways in which people’s discourse is oriented towards social action in specific
contexts of interaction.12 Equal stress is placed on what people do with their text
and talk and on the discursive resources they deploy in these practices. The
concept of interpretative repertoire is often used instead of discourse to emphasize
that discourses are drawn on in social interaction as flexible resources.
Proponents of this synthetic perspective distance themselves from both
poststructuralist discourse analysis and conversation analysis in their
unadulterated forms. On the one hand, they criticize poststructuralist discourse
analysis for reifying discourses – treating them as things out there in the world –
and for neglecting people’s situated language use (for example, Wetherell 1998).
In poststructuralist discourse analyses of a particular domain (such as the domain
of sexuality, politics or the media), it is argued, discourses are viewed as
monolithic structures to which people are subjected, and insufficient account is
taken of the ways in which people’s talk is shaped and changed by the specific
contexts of interaction in which the talk is situated and to which it is oriented.
On the other hand, they argue that conversation analysis as practiced both in the
field of conversation analysis itself and in the purely interactionist perspective in
discursive psychology14 neglects the wider social and ideological consequences
of language use (for example, Billig 1999a, b;15 Wetherell 1998). These
consequences, it is proposed by followers of the synthetic perspective such as
Wetherell (1998) and Billig (1999b), can – and should – be explored through
application of social theory in addition to conversation analysis or discourse
This option is ruled out by conversation analysts on the grounds that the proper object of
analysis is the participants’ own meaning-making through talk-in-interaction and not the
analysts’ interpretations of that talk in terms of the wider social patterning of talk. But this
claim to produce an analysis of participants’ own understandings free from the ‘pollution’
of analytical assumptions is an expression of epistemological naivety as well as being
undesirable from the perspective of critical research, according to Billig (1999b). Although
we will refer to the first two strands in cases of disagreement between the three strands of
discursive psychology, in most of this chapter we concentrate mainly on the third
perspective, focusing on the work of Potter and Wetherell, since their approach has been
central for the development of discursive psychology in general and provides particularly
useful and widely used tools for research in communication, culture and language.
Discursive research treats discourse as
having four key characteristics:
1. Discourse is action-oriented.
2. Discourse is situated.
3. Discourse is both constructed and constructive.
4. Discourse is produced as psychological.
Seven Stages in the Execution of Discursive
Stage One: Obtaining Access and Consent
One of the features that make contemporary discursive psychology
distinctive from most other psychological methods is that it works primarily
with audio or video records of interaction happening in natural settings. This
makes the process of gaining access and consent, developing appropriate
ethics scripts, and working closely with participants in a way that sustains
and merits a strong degree of trust an integral part of the research process.
Gaining access and consent can be a challenge. And it is likely that researchers
sometimes use other forms of data generation – questionnaires, say, or open ended
interviews – because they expect that access will be refused. However, experience
shows that with the right approach and a proportionate commitment of time and
effort trust can be developed and consent can be obtained for working in the most
sensitive of sites. Initial contact is often through a key institutional member – a
medical practitioner, school teacher or parent – who can provide an authoritative
link for the researchers. A key feature of this contact is often to identify the
participants’ anxieties about the research process. These are often focused on the
possibility that the research will evaluate their practice.
Stage Two: Data Collection
In terms of data collection the main aim is to develop an archive of records of interaction in the setting
under study. There are no hard and fast rules for the size of such a collection. Even small amounts of
material can be a basis for useful research; but the more material there is and the more appropriate the
sampling then more questions will become analytically tractable and more confidence can be placed in
the research conclusions. Time and resources devoted to getting high quality recordings will pay off
handsomely when it comes to transcribing the recordings and working with them in data sessions. Solid
state recorders with good microphones and digital video cameras with large hard disc drives are both
effective. It will be important to have video records of face to face interaction. Researchers should err on
the side of collecting more recordings than planned. Digital recordings can be easily stored and they
provide an important resource for future research. Participants do the data collection themselves.
Simplicity is a key consideration – it minimizes what the participants have to learn and the effort they
have to put into the collection.
Stage Three: Data Management
Much of this is focused on systems of folders that collect together recordings in different forms,
different forms of transcript, and analytic notes. Such a system can facilitate data sharing and can assist
full backup of data and analysis. Coding and secure storage may be required depending on the
agreements with participants and the sensitivity of the materials. This is also a task for data reduction
and involves the systematic building of a particular corpus that is of a size small enough to be easily
worked with but large enough to be able to make appropriate generalizations. In the NSPCC study we
assigned a two letter code to each CPO who took part; each had their own folder. Within each folder
each call had its own folder with a memorable name. Within this folder was a high quality recording in
WAV format, but also a smaller MP3 version that could be emailed and easily backed up. Each folder
often also contained two versions of the transcript and sometimes further transcript and analytic
Stage Four: Transcription
Discourse research works continuously with both the original audio or video recordings and
the transcript. The transcript is an essential element in the research. It is common to use two
forms of transcript. A basic ‘first pass’ transcript is often generated by a transcription
service. This has just the words rendered as effectively as the service can hear them.
It allows the researcher to quickly go through a stretch of interaction and get an overall feel
for what is there and it is searchable, too.
The second form of transcription is an attempt to capture on the page features of the
delivery of talk that participants treat as relevant for understanding the activities that are
taking place. Because of the time investment in producing quality transcript there are rarely
resources for completely transcribing a full set of recordings. Various criteria can be used to
decide what to transcribe and in what order.
Stage Five: Developing Research Questions
It has been common in psychological research to stress the importance of formulating a clear research
question before starting the research. And there are often good reasons for such a rule as it can help
avoid confusion and sloppiness when doing a wide range of psychological studies, particularly when
utilizing experimental designs, questionnaires or open ended interviews. However, with discursive
research much of the discipline comes from working with a set of naturalistic materials – records of
people living their lives in a particular setting. And many of the questions formulated for more
traditional research have a causal form – what is the effect of X on Y – which is rarely appropriate for
discourse work. One of the benefits of working with naturalistic materials is that they throw up their
own challenges that lead to novel questions.
Stage Six: Analysis
In discursive psychology the analytic stage of work is often the most time consuming and
the most crucial. The different types of discursive psychology have different ways of
approaching discourse analysis. The choice of analytical techniques depends on the
theoretical frame and method. Discursive psychological analysis often uses a systematic
trawl through the materials to build a corpus of examples. When analytic understanding
has been improved it is likely that some of the cases will be dropped from the corpus and
new cases will be seen as appropriately part of the corpus.
Stage Seven: Validation
In practice there is not a clear-cut distinction between analysis and validation.
Building a successful analysis that works and is attentive to all the details of
the materials that are being studied is already a major part of validating the
1. Participants’ orientations. One of the enormous virtues of working with open ended,
naturally occurring materials is that they provide a major resource in validating findings that
is absent in most other psychological methods. That resource is the turn-by-turn nature of
interaction. Any turn of talk is oriented to what came before, and sets up an environment for
what comes next. Each turn provides, in its orientation to what came before, a display that is
central to the intelligibility of interaction. One of the limitations of most psychological
methods is that they cut across this kind of display.
2. Deviant cases. Studies of media interviews show that interviewees rarely treat interviewers
as accountable for views expressed in their questions.
3. Coherence. The accumulation of findings from different studies allows new
studies to be assessed for their coherence with what comes before.
4. Readers’ evaluation. One of the most fundamental features of discursive
psychology compared to other psychological perspectives is that its claims are
accountable to the detail of the empirical materials, and that the empirical
materials are presented in a form that allows readers, as far as possible, to make
their own checks and judgments.
I would like to acknowledge and
extend my heartfelt gratitude to
Professor G. Hovhannisyan for her
vital encouragement and support.
Most especially to my friends, And
to God, who made all things