Discursive psychology is a fairly new and obscure branch of social psychology rooted in the study of linguistics. One of the main concerns of discursive psychologists is how people “construct” their identities through speaking interactions (discourse) with others. There is a firm belief that instead of an “inner self” each person possesses many different identities that they exhibit in different situations – and all are equally as important (e.g. there is no “true self”). Although discourse can refer to both spoken interactions as well as written text, discursive psychology concerns itself wholly with spoken interactions.
Discursive psychologists are strongly opposed to biological theories of development – for instance that we are born with a personality, or that things like sexual orientation are genetic traits. Instead, it is believed that we actively build or construct identities for ourselves based upon interactions with other people. For instance, a person’s masculinity is created through social cues like a lower voice, less descriptive language and minimal focus on feelings. Remember, this is all talk – and these social cues depend heavily upon the meanings given to them by society as a whole – these meanings are referred to in discursive lingo as the "dominating discourse". The “library” from which we pull words to create for ourselves a “shy” personality or a “feminine” personality are called interpretive repertoires. Other people use these same interpretive repertoires to – you guessed it – interpret what you are saying, and understand you as a shy person (because you speak softly) or feminine (because you say “um” a lot) – and then they enforce your own construction by treating you gently so you won’t be intimidated, or by gossiping with you about the latest fashion trends (insert your personal repertoire for femininity or shyness here).
Although these markers or cues sound like awfully stereotyped behavior, discursive psychologists are quick to point out that they don’t believe that those who are feminine are born saying “umm” or “like” a lot and shy people aren’t born speaking softly and hesitatingly – these are simply markers that have been cultivated by people’s interactions. So if tomorrow everyone who was considered feminine started speaking with a low, gravelly voice and used short words with a minimum of syllables, this would become the new definition of femininity.
Research by discursive psychologists is done mainly through natural observation or through interviews. Observation would always include dialogue between people – for instance observing group work – since talk interaction is so important. After many hours of data have been collected, it is then all transcribed into notes, which are then analyzed on a word-by-word linguistic level by the researcher. Given that there could be hours of talk and that there is special notation used by the researcher, this could result in hundreds of pages of notes. Construction of identities is the main concern of the researcher. Researchers are not so concerned with body language or a person’s motivations- only what they say aloud.
Discursive Psychology is beneficial for understanding the way people use language to get a point across, and could be valuable to a clinician using talk therapy with a patient. It has also been used to analyze government propaganda and marketing techniques (one and the same, sometimes) to see meaning behind advertisements.
Some criticisms include that it is too narrow a field – discursive psychologists can spend an hour analyzing a single sentence - and there is no account for a person’s body language, genetic heritage or other factors that may affect a person’s interpretation of others. There is also no concern for motivation, which to a Freudian psychoanalyst is what it’s all about – what happened when you were three years old that caused you to rebel against your parents when you were seventeen? Some people may find this liberating because it allows us to leave the past behind altogether and instead create for ourselves new and fresh identities every day, but others see this as a denial of real human behavior.
Sources and further reading:
Bamberg, Michael, “Literacy and development as discourse, cognition or as both?”, Journal of Child Language Vol 29(2) (May 2002): 449-453
Bamberg, Michael, “Narrative Discourse And Identities”, Narratology beyond literary criticism, Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter. pp. 213-237 (2004)
Eckert, Penny ; McConnell-Ginet, Sally; ”New generalizations and explanations in language and gender research”, Language in Society 28, no. 2, Cambridge University Press; (1999): 185-201
Edwards, Derek ; Stokoe, Elizabeth H. “Discursive Psychology, Focus Group Interviews and Participants' Categories”, British Journal of Developmental Psychology 22, no. 4 (2004): 499-507
Fitch, K.; Sanders, R.; “Discursive Psychology”, Handbook of Language and Social Interaction.; Mahwah, NJ, USum Associates, (2005) 257-273;