Tipultech logo

Discursive psychology

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Discursive analysis involves scrutinizing the way individuals construct events, by analyzing language usage-in writing, speech, conversation, or symbolic communication (see Edwards & Potter, 1992;; Edwards, 1997;; Harre, & Gillett,1994). Unlike some other forms of discourse analysis, discursive psychology focuses on the psychological motives, attitudes, and morals that underpin conversations and interactions.

Discursive psychology emphasizes 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 program (cf Austin, 1962).

Second, because talk is functional, language thus shapes reality. Accordingly, talk should be conceptualized as the event of interest itself-not a means to represent another event of interest.

Third, discursive psychology neglects the inclination of traditional psychologists to eliminate variability when analyzing data-as a means to uncover generalities. Instead, variability is regarded as source of interest.

Fourth, discursive psychology, although an analysis of words rather than numbers, nevertheless espouses the importance of methodological rigor. This rigor, however, does not derive from the application of statistical analyses-but from a close scrutiny of the specific utterances and contexts.

Scholars in this field often analyze material from real encounters-neighborhood disputes, telephone help lines, relationship counseling, and so forth. For example, in the context of child protection help lines, a scholar might attempt to understand how the worker both sooths the client while uncovering evidence to ensure intervention is warranted.

Illustrations of discursive psychology


Edwards and Potter, the pioneers of discursive psychology, exemplify their position with an excerpt from a rape trial. In this trial, counsel said, while referring to the club in which the defendant and victim met "It's where girls and fellas meet, isn't it?" The witness responded "People go there".

In this instance, "It's where girls and fellas meet" emphasizes the expectations and desires of clientele at this club. The response "People go there" nullifies the impression that counsel promoted. Each of these descriptions imply divergent motives and morals.

Other analyses of discourse about rape have been undertaken (see Wood & Rennie, 1994).

"...Hollywood rape stuff. Just clear cut, you know, stalked down a street, total stranger, dragged into an alley, raped, police and the whole stuff, or somebody break into your house and. Horrifying stories. But they all seemed like these women could never doubt that they were raped...so I thought, 'Well, what a shitty experience, and terrifying, but they don't have that ambiguity, was I raped, was I not raped?'"

To understand this extract, Wood and Rennie (1994) invoke the concept of interpretative repertoires-a conversational schema or framework, which often comprise a specific set of terms, stylistic features, and key metaphors (Wetherell & Potter, 1988). Interpretative repertoires can be used to understand or evaluate actions and events (Potter & Wetherell, 1987). These interpretative repertoires are similar to scripts, like behaviors that individuals enact when they enter a restaurant (see Schank & Abelson, 1977), but not necessarily ordered in time and does not revolve around one topic, theme, or issue.

To illustrate, the previous Hollywood rape repertoire entails specific classes of protagonists-an agent and a victim who are strangers to each other-a mode of behavior-such as violence-a set of motives for each protagonist, such as power satisfaction and escape-and a specific sequence of events. During this account, the woman attempts to align her construction of events with the repertoire, and this alignment would enable her to understand the episode and justify her actions. Towards the end of this account, however, she recognizes that her experience does not align with this repertoire. Accordingly, she begins to apply a different repertoire.

"...Um, I think the whole dating situation. We were on a date, it's hard to separate the rape from the date situation, it's not like it's a stranger in the dark alley, it's someone who you are on a date with and events progress ..."

The date repertoire diverges from the rape repertoire: both parties are agents, with shared motives, with the potential for consensual sex. Nevertheless, this repertoire does not align with her construction of the experience, because force was involved, for example.

The woman might then highlight that her hypothesized repertoires were inadequate and even concede an inability to derive meaning from this event. They might then conceptualize their experience as deviant.

More subtle information can also be derived from these extracts. "You know" after the allusion to "Hollywood rape stuff" implies the woman is referring to a repertoire the interviewer is likely to understand-a repertoire that must pervade the culture.

Analysis of judges also shows reference to either rape or date repertoires. When the case diverges from a stranger rape, judges often invoke a date repertoire. They might, for example, conceptualize the parties as a unit, with reference to "the couple" and utilize words that imply consent, such as "invited" (see Coates, Bavelas, & Gibson, 1994).

Speech acts

Speech acts, which are often single sentences or utterances, are shorter units of talk than are repertoires (see Korger & Wood, 1998). For example, "Can you pass the salt?" is usually interpreted as a request, even though literally questions the ability of another person.

To analyze speech acts, scholars often examine the function of social comparisons and attributions. In the previous extract, for example, the woman compares herself to individuals in therapy groups "...these women could never doubt that they were raped" and "...they don't have that ambiguity". To understand their function, two other utterances need to be considered: "Horrifying stories. But...could never doubt that they were raped" and "Well, what a shitty experience, and terrifying, but they don't have that ambiguity." These utterances could enable the speaker to justify that her experience was terrible, because of the ambiguity, despite diverging from a typical stranger rape-as well as seek sympathy.

Grammatical features

Grammatical features in the discourse can also be examined. To illustrate, consider the following example (see Korger & Wood, 1998)

"...I went through a big period of, you know, I shouldn't have worn that top, you know, I shouldn't have let him kiss me, I shouldn't have this, you know, this, I shouldn't have done that."

"... I shouldn't have gone into that house that night. I shouldn't have, you know, 2:30 in the morning, I should have known the guy was drunk".

The allusions to "should", for example, highlight they could have acted differently and might have violated some standards of conduct. As a consequence, they are implying a level of self blame.

Other examples include the use of passive voice to reduce agency, such as "I was raped" rather than"He raped me".

History and philosophy

Discourse analysis was developed in the 1990s and has been ascribed to Jonathon Potter and Derek Edwards. Discourse analysis invokes a variety of philosophical perspectives, ranging from the philosophy of mind promoted by Ludwig Wittgenstein and Gilbert Ryle. Ryle (1949), in his book entitled the "Concept of mind", argues that language of mind versus body enables communicators to characterize the capacity of humans and other higher organisms to apply strategies, to think abstractly, and to hypothesize, for example. In other words, the workings of the mind and body are not distinct& however, mental vocabulary affords individuals with a different means to describe action. For example, motives are not mental events. Instead, each motive, such as vanity or pain, is merely a means to describe or summarize a specific set of actions in particular context.

According to Ryle, novelists, historians and journalists thus can effectively ascribe actions to motives, values, and desires. However, problems arise when philosophers ascribe these motives and values to a distinct realm of mind or soul, challenging substance dualism.

Second, discursive psychology also invokes the rhetorical approach of Michael Billig (e.g., Billig, 1976, 2005). That is, Billig highlights the use of rhetorical thinking in societal contexts. For example, he demonstrates that attitudes emerge in contexts in response to potential conflicts-and, therefore, are not individual and enduring positions on topics.

Third, discursive psychology applies the concept of ethnomethodology, promulgated by Harold Garfinkel (Garfinkel, 1967). Ethnomethodology is a descriptive study of how individuals derive meaning from the world and communicate this understanding to cultivate social order. That is, scholars in this field study the methods that members of a society deploy to generate social orders and accepted practices. Scholars apply a variety of methods to achieve this objective.

According to this approach, the meaningful, regular, and orderly nature of collectives demands constant work to achieve. Accordingly, in these contexts, individuals develop shared methods and procedures to maintain this order. Hence, social order is identical to the procedures that members of a society or collective, such as footballers, apply to manage a particular setting. In other words, social orders are generated within a specific setting or context and manifested through observable accounting practices of the group members to maintain this order.

Ethnomethodology has introduced some interesting practices into scholarly work. One approach is breaching experiment-violating a social imperative such as driving down the wrong way of road, to reveal useful insights about patterns in social settings. The results of such violations can highlight the forces that maintain accountability.In addition, scholars often consult the individuals who maintain some facet of social order, such as police, as sources of insight.

Finally, discursive psychology utilizes the principles of conversation analysis, developed by Harvey Sacks (e.g., Sacks, 1972), which studies talk during social interactions (see also Have, 1999). Conversation analysis represents an attempt to characterize the patterns and structure of interactions.

Conversation analysis has introduced a variety of practices. First, these analysts examine turn taking in conversations-in particular, the processes that minimize overlapping turns and gaps between turns. For example, scholars examine the units that correspond to a turn. In addition, they examine how turns are allocated amongst the members of a conversation. The current speak might select the next speaker, for instance. Furthermore, sequences of preliminary turns are often examined, such as "guess what"-"what"-as a precursor to some announcement. Moreover, attempts to overcome problems in understanding or hearing are explored, such as who initiates the repair and how this repair unfolds.

Standards of discursive psychology

Proponents of discursive psychology offer a variety of principles to optimize research. First, discourse should be analyzed before codes like "an interruption in conversation" is applied. 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.

Second, the structure and content is analyzed simultaneously-and integrated rather than segregated. Indeed, structure is conceptualized as a facet of content (Fairclough, 1992).

Third, all of the insights should be derived from the text-from the precise words and phrases that are used. Nevertheless, analysts might utilize the work of other researchers to corroborate the interpretative repertoires or frameworks they apply.


Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Clarendon.

Billig, M. (1976). Social Psychology and Intergroup Relations. London: Academic Press.

Billig, M. (2005). Laughter and Ridicule: toward a social critique of humour. London: Sage.

Coates, L., Bavelas, J. B., & Gibson, J. (1994). Anomalous language in sexual assault trial judgements. Discourse & Society, 5, 189-206.

Edwards, D. (1994). Script formulations: an analysis of event descriptions in conversation. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 13, 211-247.

Edwards, D. (1997). Discourse and Cognition. London: Sage.

Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive Psychology. London: Sage.

Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1993). Language and causation: A discursive model of description and attribution. Psychological Review, 100, 23-41.

Fairclough, N. (1992). Discourse and text: linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis. Discourse & Society, 3, 193-217.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.

Grice, H.P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J.L. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics: Vol. 3. Speech acts (pp. 41-58). New York: Academic Press.

Harre, R., & Gillett, G. (1994). The discursive mind. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Harre, R., & Secord, P.F. (1972). The explanation of social behaviour. Oxford: Blackwell.

Have, P. T. (1999). Doing conversation analysis. London: Sage

Korger, R. O., & Wood, L. A. (1998). The turn to discourse in social psychology. Canadian Psychology, 39, 266-279.

Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

Potter, J., & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology. London: Sage.

Sacks, H. (1972). Lectures on conversation, Vol. 2. Cambridge: Blackwell.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, H., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simple systematics for the organization of turn taking in conversation, Language, 50, 696-735.

Schank, R.C., & Abelson, R.P. (1977). Scripts, plans, goals and understanding. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Wetherell, M., & Potter, J. (1988). Discourse analysis and the identification of interpretative repertoires. In C. Antaki (Ed.), Analysing everyday explanation: A casebook of methods (pp. 168-183). London: Sage.

Wood, L.A., & Rennie, H. (1994). Formulating rape: The discursive construction of victims and villains. Discourse & Society, 5, 125-148.

Academic Scholar?
Join our team of writers.
Write a new opinion article,
a new Psyhclopedia article review
or update a current article.
Get recognition for it.

Last Update: 6/16/2016