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What Is Discursive Psychology?

By S. Berger
Updated May 23, 2024
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Discourse analysis is a way of evaluating the use of language, and when this process is used to investigate psychological themes, it is known as discursive psychology (DP). From this perspective, aspects of psychology such as attitude and memory are consciously studied and understood through interactions with people. First created in the 1990s by professors Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards, it has been a controversial subject, since some of its propositions are at odds with those accepted by many modern psychologists.

Discursive psychology assumes that underlying psychological phenomena are not revealed through interaction. These issues exist, instead, in terms of interaction. Interaction is inherently socially oriented, so conversations are treated as ways of maneuvering through a social world. Unlike conventional psychology, conversations are not necessarily indicative of an individual's mental state at the time.

The actual words spoken by an individual are not the only cues that are analyzed in DP. Intonations in speech, gestures, and other nonverbal cues are all important aspects of discourse that are analyzed and interpreted. Even the relationship between the speaker and the subject of the statement, or the speaker and the listener can influence discourse.

Sometimes, discursive psychology focuses on real-world conversations and the use of language. Situations may include disputes at the workplace, interactions during family counseling sessions, or conversations around the dinner table. Family counseling sessions, for example, may focus on how problems or issues within the family are phrased by a certain individual. Through conversation analysis, sentence phrasing may reveal how these issues are constructed as problems. An analyst may then gain insight as to whom the speaker believes responsible for existing problems.

Issues and situations may be constructed quite differently by two individuals in a situation. Phrasing a sentence in an active verb tense may show a desire or intent on the part of a speaker. Using the passive tense to describe the same situation may neutralize any implication of desire. Discursive psychology seeks to analyze these intentions in order to construct questions that will make sense of these situations.

In discursive psychology, statements are much more than simply cognitive representation of events. They reveal action and agency from the perspective of the speaker. Explanations of events are phrased in such a way that they account for alternative interpretations, as well as contingencies in interactions. The analysis of statements in terms of agency and attitude can be quite important in fields such as criminal justice and law.

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