Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

6. Conversation and discourse analysis

6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis
6.2 Conversation analysis
6.3 Genre analysis
6.4 Pragmatics
6.5 Discursive psychology

6.5.1 Introduction
6.5.2 Core principles
6.5.3 Methodology Analysis

6.5.4 Discursive psychology and conversation analysis

6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics
6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking
6.8 Critical discourse analysis
6.9 Summary and conclusion

6.5 Discursive psychology

6.5.1 Introduction

Discursive analysis involves scrutinising the way individuals construct events, by analysing language usage in writing, speech, conversation, or symbolic communication. As Potter (2010, p. 4) explained 'discursive psychology starts with discourse because discourse is the primary arena for human action, understanding and intersubjectivity'. Talking is the primary way in which people communicate, express desires or fears and come to understand the feelings of others. Unlike some other forms of discourse analysis, discursive psychology focuses on the psychological motives, attitudes, and morals that underpin conversations and interactions (Edwards & Potter, 1992; Harre, & Gillett, 1994). It uses material from real-world situations. As Potter (2010, p. 3) says:

Discursive psychology begins with psychological matters as they arise for people as they live their lives. It studies how psychological issues and objects are constructed, understood and displayed as people interact in both everyday and institutional situations?c. [It focuses] on matters that are 'psychological' for people as they act and interact in particular settings—in families, in workplaces, in schools and so on.

For example, discursive psychological studies have explored relationship counselling and asked how does a party in relationship counselling construct the problem as something that the other party needs to work on (Edwards, 1997)? Similarly, studies of child protection helplines ask 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? How does someone demonstrate that they are not prejudiced despite expressing a damning version of an entire ethnic group (Wetherell & Potter, 1992)? Discursive psychology is a major form of discourse analysis and has been developed into a very active school within British social psychology (Edwards and Potter, 1992; Potter, 1996; Hepburn and Wiggins, 2005). It represents one of the first avenues of development of discourse analysis, taking it from sociology and moving it into psychology. This shift was evident in Potter and Wetherell's (1987) book Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond attitudes and behaviour. Jonathan Potter, one of the co-authors was a student of Michael Mulkay (see Section 6.1.1) and in similar fashion to Gilbert and Mulkay's (1984) proposed a shift in the focus of sociology, Potter and Wetherell suggested a methodological shift for psychology from the study of mental states in experimental settings to investigations of discourses in everyday life.

Discursive psychology, thus intends that the text (the precise words and phrases that are used) should be the basis for all insights. However, Moss (2008) argued discursive psychologists are not adverse to utilising the work of other researchers 'to corroborate the interpretative repertoires or frameworks they apply'.


6.5.2 Core principles

According to Moss (2008), discursive psychology emphasises several core principles.

First, discursive psychology represents an attempt to derive an understanding of traditional topics, such as memory and attitudes, from human discourse and interactions.

In contrast to traditional psychology, in which talk is conceptualized as a reflection or indication of mental content, discursive psychology regards such conversation and interaction as a social action or function. That is, talk is not merely a reflection of mental events, but a means to achieve goals in a socially meaningful world. For example, the assertion that many children are obese is not an objective description of society but could be an attempt to attract funds to a specific action programme (cf. Austin, 1962).

Potter (2010, pp. 3–10), arguing that discourse is action-oriented, concurrs:

The nature and scope of 'psychology' is understood very differently in discourse analytic work compared to other approaches such as social cognition. Instead of starting with inner mental or cognitive processes, with behavioural regularities, or with neural events that are happening below and behind interaction, it starts with the public displays, constructions and orientations of participants?....Discourse is a practical medium and the primary medium for action....The fundamental point that distinguishes discourse analytic work from the mainstream psychology of language is that discourse is studied for how action is done rather than treating discourse as a pathway to putative mental objects.

Moss's second core principle is that discursive psychology conceptualises talk in itself as the focus of interest, rather than seeing talk as referring to something else that is the event of interest. In other words, discursive psychology focuses on talk not what the discourse is talking about. Potter expands on this by arguing that discourse is situated sequentially, institutionally, and rhetorically. That is 'actions are situated within the here and now of unfolding conversation. They are located in time, orienting to what has just happened and building an environment for what happens next' (Potter, 2010, p. 11). The institutional setting is important as: 'Institutions often embody special identities which are pervasively relevant?\news interviewer, therapist, patient?\such that actions will be understood in relation to those identities' (Potter, 2010, p. 11). Rhetoric serves to prioritise one set of meaning or line of argument. 'Discourse research highlights, for example, the way descriptions are built to counter actual or potential alternatives, and are organized in ways that manage actual or possible attempts to undermine them' (Potter, 2010, p. 12).

Third, discursive psychology regards variability as important. This is different from traditional psychology, which tends to downplay or eliminate variability when analysing data because they are concerned with uncovering generalities. Torode (2006) goes further and claims that 'classic social psychology saw consensus as a real resource within which strong cognitions are built. Discursive psychology sees 'consensus' as a construction, used to enhance or undermine truth claims in ordinary talk.'

Fourth, discursive psychology, according to Moss, is concerned with methodological rigour even though it deals with a close scrutiny of the specific utterances and contexts (i.e. words) rather than statistical analyses (i.e. numbers).

Context is important in discursive psychology and it is important to analyse a conversation in its context before breaking it up for closer analysis. For example, rather than simply note 'an interruption in conversation' occurred, when analysing and coding a conversation, it is important to understand how that occurred in context. As Moss (2008) states:

Codes that precede a broader analysis disregard the context of these utterances. A phrase that might seem to represent an interruption, perhaps because two individuals spoke simultaneously, might actually reflect something else. Perhaps the person who was interrupted did not discontinue. Hence, the interruption might actually reflect a form of encouragement from the other person. Accordingly, proponents of discursive psychology do not classify sentences into categories, and then combine these categories to form more abstract codes-as in grounded theory. Instead, they analyze the discourse from many perspectives to examine its constituents and to determine how the talk can accomplish various actions and goals. Hypotheses are formed and tested through the identification of patterns in both the structure and content.

Potter and Wetherell (1987) also maintained that psychology needed to be sensitive to context as people say different things in different contexts. They observed that people can say quite contradictory things (for example, about ethnic minorities people), so the idea that they have one 'attitude' must be wrong. It is important to see what each thing they say means in context. In Discourse and Social Psychology, for example, Potter and Wetherell found a white New Zealander who said these two things about Polynesian immigrants:

What I would li.. rather see is that, sure, bring them ['Polynesian immigrants'] into New Zealand, right, and train them in a skill, and encourage them to go back again.
I think that if we encouraged more Polynesians and Maoris to be skilled people, they would want to stay here, they're not as um as uh nomadic as New Zealanders are (Interviewer: Haha) so I think that would be better.

Thus, in discursive psychology, structure and content is analysed simultaneously, in an integrated fashion, rather than as segregated entities. Moss (2008) argued that 'Indeed, structure is conceptualized as a facet of content (Fairclough, 1992)'.


6.5.3 Methodology

Most discursive psychological studies are naturalistic. The raw material of discursive analysis is usually video and audio records of everyday interaction in homes or institutional settings. Potter and Wetherell (1987) argued that there is no mechanical methodology for discursive psychology but, nevertheless, suggested ten steps to guide research, although they should not be regarded as hard-and-fast rules.

The steps are:

1. Decide your research question.

2. Select your sample of data. Not a trivial decision: it flows from what your research object is and how you think it is manifested in the world of language. If you're investigating (say) 'heterosexuality', do you seek out the views of heterosexuals? Or would you get a better fix on it by talking to non-heterosexuals? What's the difference? Or, another example: if you're interested in 'conspiracy theories' you could get one classic account (e.g., the notorious 'Protocols of the Elders of Zion' fake) and subject it to close analysis, or alternatively you might collect modern examples (e.g., about the 11th September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and other US targets) and see how they are similar among themselves.

3. Collect records. You'll need fairly accurate records; your memory of what people say will not do. So you're committed to transcripts, cuttings, letters, diaries, videotapes, and so on.

4. Interviews. Potter and Wetherell liked these because they force the issue; they apply some of the rigour of traditional positivist psychology (the same questions can be asked to many people, allowing comparison). However, this introduces the researcher as a potentially disturbing or intrusive presence into the data; a significant problem, as psychologists well know. Potter and Wetherell were aware of this but sometimes appear to forget that their respondents were answering interviewers' questions. Potter later became more cautious about interviews and tended to agree with conversation analysis that it is preferable to analyse more 'naturally-occurring' talk.

5. Transcribe. Then you can go over it.

6. Coding. Do a first pass through the data and keep your eye out for anything that looks interesting (like Gilbert and Mulkay did and noticed 'error' talk). But these 'codings' are only provisional, and always qualitative. No discourse analyst would code their material for the sake of counting them up in a quantitative analysis.

7. Analyse. This is the crux of it all and there is no standard method or 'recipe'. Rather, there are a few rules of thumb: 'Why am I reading the passage this way?' 'What features produce this reading?'. Ignore nothing; anything may turn out to be significant. Specifically, look for both variability and consistency in what is said (and perhaps what is not said).

8. Go through all the data again, checking the appearance of any 'repertoires' or 'discourses' that you have started to find. According to Potter and Wetherell (1987, p 169):

It should be clear, then, that there is no analytic method, at least as understood in social psychology. Rather, there is a broad theoretical framework, which focuses attention on the constructive and functional dimensions of discourse, coupled with the reader's skill in identifying patterns of consistency and variation.

9. Validate. Look for
a) how the 'discourses' you have identified helps understand the coherence of the data
b) how the participants themselves orient to the discourses
c) new problems—what is still unexplained?
d) Fruitfulness: what it tells you; the 'aha' experience.

10. Write up. Be frank about what your argument is and how the data are to be interpreted.

Although those steps are from the late 1980s, they are still useful as a way of describing the general 'method'. Where things have changed is in step 6 and 7 as there is considerable variety and consequent debate as to what counts as coding and analysis. Arguably, these steps operate for most forms of discourse analysis not just discursive psychology.

Despite this helpful schema, discursive analysis is not just a matter of following a recipe, it relies heavily on conceptual thinking and scholarly insight that are the result of reflective thought and probing surface appearances. As Potter (2010, p. 4) later argued 'DP is an approach rather than a method'. He also suggested a six stage approach based on his study of child protection.

For simplicity the process will be broken into six stages: obtaining access and consent; data collection; transcription and data management; developing research questions; corpus building and preliminary analysis; developing and validating analysis. In practice, these stages are somewhat overlapping?\transcription, data management and question development tend to come and go at all stages of the research process.

Potter (2010) argued that even small amounts of data can be useful but that more confidence can be placed in larger appropriate samples with good recordings.

Top Analysis
The analysis phase of a discursive psychological study is usually the most complex and can be the lengthiest phase. Researchers often think that data collection takes up all the time and allow insufficient time for analysis.

Discursive psychological analysis usually starts with systematic reading of all the materials to identify a comprehensive set of examples, including the major and borderline incidents or cases. This set is usually refined down when a clearer understanding has emerged. Potter (2010, p. 25) says that this process leads to 'increasingly precise attempts to specify what is going on' and is similar to hypothesis testing in that some initial ideas cannot survive a careful exploration of the material. He provides a fairly detailed explanation of the process in an account of his child protection study CASE STUDY Crying.


6.5.4 Discursive psychology and conversation analysis

It is claimed by Paul ten Have (2005) among others that discursive psychology has moved closer to conversation analysis in approach. In an early overview by Mulkay, Potter and Yearley (1983) there are no references to conversation analysis. Potter and Wetherell (1987) make a couple of mentions of the work of conversation analysts and a later book by Potter (1996) has scattered references to Sacks and conversation analysis. In these two books, conversation analysis is viewed alongside ethnomethodology, the sociology of scientific knowledge and (post)structuralism as a theoretical or methodological resource. The insights and methods of conversation analysis are referred to more often in later discursive psychology texts (Hepburn and Potter, 2004; Hepburn and Wiggins, 2005; Potter, 2004).

This increase in references is reflected in discursive psychology’s choice of methods. In early studies the raw material for discursive psychology included written texts and interview accounts. More recent work has tended to study naturally occurring interactions, recorded and transcribed using the conversation analysis conventions.

In short, the impact of conversation analysis on discursive psychology seems to have become much stronger over the years; an impact that is not reciprocated. However there remain differences of intellectual influence and agenda; not least conversation analysis’ refusal to develop theory.

Indeed, not all those associated with discursive psychology appreciate the links with conversation analysis. Margaret Wetherell (1998), for example, criticised conversation analysis; in particular the view, espoused by Emanuel Schegloff (1997, p. 163) that any analysis of a text must analyse the text as a self-contained entity initially and then address any context issues. This is important, Schegloff maintained to avoid 'theoretical imperialism', that is, the imposition of the preconceptions and predispositions of the analyst on the text.

Wetherell (1998, p. 388) argued that the conversation analysis approach is too narrow. As she says: 'Conversation analysis alone does not offer an adequate answer to its own classic question about some piece of discourse—why this utterance here?'. Wetherell argued for a more eclectic approach, including conversation analysis alongside some post-structuralist concepts that develop a more complete picture that includes interpretative repertoires that culturally 'place' the text.

For a detailed account of a discursive psychology analysis and comparison to other discourse analysis approaches see the study by Maria Stube, et al. (2003) in CASE STUDY Discourse analysis comparative study.


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