Potter & Wetherell (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology pp. 1-93

Overall with the first 4 chapters I found 1 and 2 to be the most novel. 3 and 4 seemed to repeat some of what we have read. But I like repetition when I’m studying a new field because it helps me get into the vocabulary and mindset more quickly.

Chapter 1

I always enjoy getting a sense of the history of a subject, and I’ve always been interested in Chomsky’s political work. I got some background on Saussure and Barthes in Cultural Studies, so that was a nice review. I’d never heard of ethnomethodology, and I found the half-way house rules interesting. I wondered as I read if P&W weren’t kind of picking out the history of these concepts in a specific way. Not that I guess it matters, but I was wondering if the resemblance to DP that the theories they mention as precursors have was partially a result of the way the authors interpreted them.

As to Chomsky, it’s interesting for me to think of him as a guy who simplified language and ignored messiness: his political work, what he sometimes calls “institutional analysis,” to me holds many of the lessons of DP. He understands political language/moves with great precision. But this may be a case of me connecting something I am familiar with to DP.

P11: “It is as if one did research on the visual system using only vertical lines of stimuli, and concluded that the visual system was especially adapted for the perception of vertical lines.” One of the ideas I’ve bounced around recently is something like, “To each his [sic] own metaphor/simile/symbolism.” So here P&W are basically lambasting the work of Chomsky through a degrading simile. It’s easy to argue that reducing all visual stimuli to vertical lines is a greater reduction than reducing all speech to concocted phrases. But the point is how to undermine alternate versions, in the language of DP. My example from life were the phrases “War on Coal” and “Legalize Coal.” Hyperbole (extreme case formulation) goes a long way to rallying troops, but does little to reduce conflict or engender understanding of a situation.

P13 “Furthermore, the creativity evident in the natural language data examined up to now fall short of the unmanageable and unrestricted plenitude implied in the Chomskyian tradition. Indeed researchers have found that much natural language use is highly stereotyped and quite predictable. Far from being impossibly unique, performance data is often boringly repetitive.” Interesting for them to note how boring and predictable language use is. If this is the case, what’s the problem with drawing general conclusions? (Whether they be “gross categorizations” or “selective reading.”)

P21 “the nature of interaction does not arrive prepackaged and pre-ordained but is reproduced on each occasion. To put it another way, the participants do not passively respond to what is going on but actively produce it.” I like the agency implied by this quote. It seems kind of anti-behaviorist. But I see that it is also anti-Chomskyian. This class is helping me see that Chomsky’s work in linguistics is considered by many to be naïve, something I did not know before.

Chapter 2

p34: “Researchers who presuppose the realistic mode assume that when people describe the same event, action or belief their accounts will, broadly speaking, be consistent.” On second reading, I see this as a critique of positivism. On my first reading, however, I saw this as a kind of nutty insistence that no two accounts will ever be the same and that attempts to find similarities is bad research (or futile). I suppose this is where Derrida’s differance and other post-structural ideas are rearing their ugly head. I always make this point, but it’s preposterous to say that common human tendencies don’t exist, that nothing ever has fixed meaning. In phenomenology, this guy Idhe wrote about having two different seers–the druid and the cartesian, look at a tree. When you hear their accounts, they might sound wildly different, but with the two accounts’ similarities, you can start to get at the treeness of trees. I might mess around with the idea of a technologist and a luddite…

p35 “…we are not trying to recover events, beliefs and cognitive processes from participants’ discourse, or treat language as an indicator or signpost to some other state of affairs but looking at the analytically prior question of how discourse or accounts of these things are manufactured.” I’m ok with that, but, despite the inconsistencies (as evidenced in the accounts of Polynesians), I’m also ok with using participant discourse to recover events, beliefs and cognitive processes.

On P39 they talk about restrictions and reliability. Restrictions remind me of the philosophical term of reduction. Reduction is necessary to locate yourself and others as to what you will and will not talk about. Talking about everything is out of the question (as E&P noted, the totality of facts possible to relate in an account is infinite), so all of us must employ restriction, reduction, etc. when relaying information or picking something to study. To say that other methodologies restrict all the good stuff, and our methodology includes all the good stuff, is fine and dandy as an editorial, but to posture that one way of learning about the world is better than another makes me squeamish. Saying that one way of learning about the world suits me better, on the other hand, is unproblematical. On p. 40 they discuss the variability of talk: “…unfortunately, these phenomena are rarely treated as theoretically interesting indications of the way people deploy their language, but are generally treated as obstacles to the production of reliable research findings.” The idea of reliability comes back to the idea of ways of gaining knowledge and ways of looking at the world. Getting reliability is all about reduction/restriction. If you want something to be consistent, you have to eliminate lots of other stuff. So an ethologist, for example, has to train her research assistant to see what she sees. The new stuff that the research assistant sees must be categorized as extraneous, otherwise they couldn’t get reliability. Education, in that sense, can sometimes be a training in selective blindness.

Again they remind me of politics on page 50: “It is, of course, only sensible to adjust one’s response to a topic according to the context. However this kind of adjustment tends to be overlooked by the attitude researcher.” Kerry in 2004 was called a “waffler” to indicate that he changes his position frequently. Who wouldn’t change their position in the face of a new context or new evidence? Someone who is obstinate. I also thought of my time teaching Spanish in these two chapters. Context is everything. You can’t understand utterances without knowing what is being talked about.

Chapter 3

63: “The 2nd point to note about observation is the assumption that actions have one, intrinsic, unitary meaning. Yet even ethologists, who have based a whole science of animal behavior on observational research of various kinds, note that visually identical behaviors may be serving quite different functions, while visually dissimilar behaviors may be serving the same functions (Hinde, 1975).”

Ecological validity, in my opinion, is only relevant in animal studies. What is a human’s natural environment? Authenticity is a matter of degree. I think labels like institutional setting vs. home environment are more useful than words that imply any kind of fundamentally true environment for people. Each setting is “real.” I get annoyed when people draw differences between the world of school and the “real world.” Utterances like, “you won’t get away with that in the real world,” are often not true. There are rule-breakers in all worlds, some of them are punished and some are rewarded. [Whoops, tangent. Sorry.]

64: “The detailed studies of discourse reviewed in this book overwhelmingly indicate that the close study of documents and accounts from different sources and settings compounds rather than reduces the variability between participants’ claims and descriptions. …As we indicated in chapter 2, the solution adopted by discourse analysts is not to try and resolve the variation between accounts but to make that variation a way into analysis.” I find this quite compelling. Rather than quell the variability, use it. But this kind of infinite variety, as mentioned above, is sometimes so routine as to be boring. Is this an example of the authors contradicting themselves like the scientists? On the one hand, more accounts, more detail, compounds variability. On the other, when you look at lots of conversations you see how rule-bound talk is.

Chapter 4

75: “As Austin put it, excuses ‘help us penetrate the blinding veil of ease and obviousness that hides the mechanisms of the natural successful act’ (1961). Some light might be thrown on the way social order is produced in a society. The study of fractures and their repair should illuminate how social frameworks emerge.” I like these metaphors, further down they mention taking out part of an engine to see its effect. The slogan “No Excuses” seems funny in light of the ubiquity of accounting for dispreferred responses. This seems to be a theme, but one of interest to me: the “natural successful act” is obvious, overlooked, easy, unchecked. Only when there is a hiccup do we wake up from our zombie trance of automaticity. Does this mean that easy-going people are just too lazy to assert their own needs and desires onto a situation?

75: “For them also, the problem of free will should be translated into the question of how people depict constraints on their actions when giving accounts and excuses, how they formulate freedom or constraint, and what these formulations achieve.” This is a very interesting angle on free will: the question of free will can be such a rabbit hole when dealt with philosophically. Experiences of freedom, how people talk about it, and conceive it, seem like much better roads to understanding. I don’t see how DP would deal with the idea of freedom, for example, when it comes to the freedom people experience when they solve a problem. I suppose DP might “read” the action of falling out of a chair or yelling eureka and running into the royal court naked as signs that accomplish a kind of release?

87: “Yet close attention to the considerations outlined above helps us understand why such a refusal format might have evolved into a taken for granted social convention.”

Interesting choice of the term “evolved” here. They use the term “naturally” in the preceding sentence. It seems like an appeal to an abstract concept: a kind of “this is the way it developed in humans” kind of justification that seems uncharacteristic for DP. They usually seem to present evidence that anyone can verify or disagree with: on p. 89 they bring this to light with “this is not simply Atkinson and Drew’s theoretical interpretation, but how the witness sees things too.” And the evidence they present allows the reader to come to the same interpretation. I particularly like this aspect of DP.

One thought on “Potter & Wetherell (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology pp. 1-93

  1. Chomsky the activist and Chomsky the linguist do seem to be very different people. His linguistic theories have been largely discredited, though I’m not sure if he’s ever modified them.

    YES, discourse work does assume agency on the part of the participants, and to me that’s why there is such potential for change. Once you can see what your words are DOING, you can change them. It’s not easy of course, but there is power there.

    I guess it depends on what you mean by “fixed meaning” – meaning is only fixed temporarily, not forever…sure, communities of practice agree on what things “are” in order to do business together, but that meaning is always up for re-negotiation.

    Reliability isn’t something discourse researchers care much about. “Getting reliability is all about reduction/restriction. If you want something to be consistent, you have to eliminate lots of other stuff.” Right, and DA would argue that it is the “other stuff” that is critical. But yes, good point that everyone has to reduce to some extent or you’d never be able to get through it all.

    Right – variability isn’t infinite. Conversations are rule bound – but we see violation of those rules and that’s where the interesting “stuff” is – what are the speakers doing when they violate the rules?

    In terms of your last paragraph, the focus on “participant interpretations” is a fundamental one to DP – the researcher is supposed to be orienting to the data in the same way that a participant would. Of course this isn’t fully possible, but it’s a good start, I think.

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