Potter & Wetherell (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology pp. 94-187

Chapter 5

I really enjoyed the chapter on identity. I went back and read a chapter on identity in Chris Barker’s (2007) Cultural Studies text and found some overlapping citations: Gergen was cited by both, and Barker cites Potter, Edwards, and Wetherell, wondering why cultural studies scholars haven’t looked more closely at discursive psychology. :)

104 “This is perhaps the first step in successful discourse analysis, the suspension of belief in what one normally takes for granted, as we begin to think about how a practice is constructed and what it assumes rather than seeing it as a mere reflection of an unproblematic reality.” –This could be said of any learning at all. And any research program, for that matter. Bracketing is a term that originates in phenomenology, but I suppose even Descartes did a kind of starting from scratch that could be termed a “suspension of belief in what one normally takes for granted.”

108 William James described the mind being composed of a flood. But here we have a description of how the mind works that is couched in symbolic language, only possible because of words: Wittgenstien said that language is not only the vehicle thought but also the driver. Information processing theorists think the brain works like a computer. All these metaphors fit in with the quote they present later from Parkinson on page 109: “A subjectivity is produced in discourse as the self is subjected to discourse.” The computer metaphor is so prevalent in education now that I have to remind students that there is no such thing as a “2-store memory model” in the brain. That’s why it’s called a model. but it makes so much sense! Again, this goes to another quote, I don’t remember which page, about the ships in bottles. A lack of history can be quite damaging to creativity. If you assume things have always been a certain way, you lack the creativity to question them. Then again, obsession with history often keeps you from moving on down the line, so maybe that also hinders creativity. Maybe I need to read a DP study on creativity!

Also on 109 they talk about identity formation. The versions of self which you put forward are ones that help you survive, and tendencies will emerge based on predispositions and environment such that “personality” sediments. (That’s my version and I’m sticking to it). :)

114 “The violent protestor does not need to be taken seriously or speculated about any further. As they have no genuine motives and are completely defined by their understandable enjoyment of violence, energy need not be invested in listening to them. They are a source of violence; police violence is merely a response (cf. Reicher and Potter, 1985).” To me this is where this category research gets interesting. What kind of actions people take as a result of the discursive construction of ‘stirrer’ or, in this country more recently an “occupy” member,  have major societal implications. If protestors can’t even raise the curiosity of people outside their movement, they fail. But the ability of people to use their categories to ignore the suffering of others is distressing (not that I don’t engage in it myself).

Chapter 6

116: Complexity must be reduced, otherwise people would go insane: “people automatically transform the polluting detritus of their over-complex physical and social reality into a simplified and readily assimilable form.” Great sentence. They argue against that?

118 “Could prejudice be the unfortunate outcome of the biases which emerge when the differences between categories are exaggerated and the differences within them downplayed?” –Well, nothing brings people together like a common enemy. In my status as an amateur sociologist, this is a conclusion I’ve come to many times.

122 Prejudice may rely as much on particularization as categorization. Interesting subtlety: I find racism has background and foreground elements, for example, people will have a particularized friend minority they’re sure to mention before they state platitudes about the rest of the category members (that aren’t at all like the friend).

On 123 for some reason P&W say it is reasonable to assume that there would be high consistency in descriptions of Maori by white middle class New Zealanders. I don’t think it’s unreasonable, but I think that distracts from their main point: the same person will say good and bad stuff about Maoris and it’s all equally nutty, because humans are nutty and say whatever suits the moment. What’s in people’s heads isn’t consistent enough to use as a marker for anything scientific. And I guess that’s why social science research requires such exhaustive restriction techniques to achieve any kind of reliability.

Chapter 7

142: The critique I anticipated P&W would make about Moscovici’s theory is that it assumes a concrete object exists independent of people’s perceptions and discourse about it. So the political party exists, and then someone has a social representation of it. How can an object exist independent of the way people talk about it (DP)/think about it (cog)? Instead they focused on initial construction of research. Who gets to say what delimits a group? And if it is the researcher, P&W argue that the choice of the researcher should be the object of inquiry, not how participants react to it. I can see the problem here. As I noted while reading page 144 about consensus, consensus is something that is created through power. The voiceless don’t get to say what is and what isn’t consensus. A big loud megaphone helps with that.

I get caught up in critique sometimes, like in this chapter, the authors did a lot of what I thought was weak criticism of Moscovici. But really it just turns up my orneryness when I read what seems like veiled academic insults: 146: “Some of these problems might be resolvable, but it is questionable whether a social psychological theory with such a heavy emphasis on the essentially social should saddle itself with such a weight of unformulated cognitive baggage.” Unfortunately this hurts my focus because I kind of lower myself to their level and start thinking of snarky things to say about the snarky things P&W wrote.

Luckily the second part of the chapter about the scientist repertoires was a nice detailed synopsis of “Warranting Scientific Belief.” On p. 155 I see a good framework with which to judge other work on repertoires that I read. The interviewer really needs to kind of push on the participants to get a sense of how repertoires are used in broad and narrow situations, and as they note in chapter 8, there will always be a problem associated with the tools (repertoires). If researchers don’t get their heads around all this, maybe they didn’t spend enough time with their transcripts.

Chapter 8

On page 159 they talk about a dearth of full-time theorists in psychology. In physics, a full-time theorist spends time doing thought experiments and solving equations. They probably spend the most amount of time on math. The equivalent in psychology doesn’t exist because mathematical models cannot reveal the complexity of human systems nor individuals. The closest mathematical theories for such study are chaos theories, and they aren’t even that good at predicting the way cigarette smoke wafts, for example. And most of P&W’s argument seems to be that even decent theories don’t hold up to practical application. They pick on Moscovici, but what about a social theorist that people have ever heard of? Why not pick on Bordieau or Durkheim?

160 “Discourse is treated as a potent, action-orientated medium, not a transparent information channel.” Good quote.

On 161 their discussion of validity sounds like what the UT phenomenology group relies on. If the reader of a study can identify with and gain some insight based on an analysis, then it’s valid. For every new person who can identify “vital consequences” based on a study, a study’s value increases.

168: “If you read an article or book the usual goal is to produce a simple, unitary summary, and to ignore the nuance, contradictions and areas of vagueness. However, the discourse analyst is concerned with the detail of passages of discourse, however fragmented and contradictory, and with what is actually said or written, not some general idea that seems to be intended. In ethnomethodological terms, we are so used to ‘repairing the indexicality’ (Garfinkel, 1967) of talk, and reconstructing it in ways that make sense for us, that it is very difficult to throw off this habit.” What you summarize from an article says as much about you as it does the article. That’s one of the big things in what I guess is perceptual constructivism: we bring our biases and background to a situation, and that affects our reading of it.

Chapter 9

I appreciate the formulation of the problem of language as a call to creativity. If we are bound to words and words are our work, we might as well enjoy it. As P&W mention, the other option is to engage in a series of infinite regresses that could be quite depressing and lead to paralysis. 182

I particularly like the question Harré asks (177) in response to “why did they do that?” How about ask them? I always tell my teachers this. Want to know what your students are thinking? Ask. Shine a light on it. I don’t neglect the argument of Nisbett and Wilson: asking someone why they did something, especially in a disciplinary situation, is bound to lead to a frustrating response. But it’s not asking why that I think is important, it’s asking in general. This could lead to a kind of DP justification: there’s no cognitive reason to ask what’s happening, it can be strategic on a teacher’s part to use questions to accomplish their objectives.

My overall impression from these chapters: There mostly continued to be strong arguments for the points they were making, but I felt like some of them were not quite as airtight as some of what we have read so far. After reading all we’re read so far on DP, I figure if I read it twice and still don’t understand their point, it’s at least partly because they didn’t explain it well enough. There were a few claims I found outlandish. One example: “To be of heuristic value, theories of this kind should be able to explain actual patterns of social behavior, and allow us to predict patterns in the future. Failure in this central task is fatal” (122). This statement was in regard to some prototype theories. That research is done on this construct apparently contradicts their death sentence. I found some of those kinds of dramatic dismissals of some of the other theories and constructs they mentioned to be sloppy, which was all the more noticeable since most of the book was so tight.

One thought on “Potter & Wetherell (1987). Discourse and Social Psychology pp. 94-187

  1. It would be interesting to see how the notion of “creativity” is evoked to “do” different things in talk – or how different versions of “creativity” are deployed in various ways.

    “116: Complexity must be reduced, otherwise people would go insane: “people automatically transform the polluting detritus of their over-complex physical and social reality into a simplified and readily assimilable form.” Great sentence. They argue against that?” Yep. The idea that this (or anything else) is somehow a “natural” process and/or a given reality in that this is something that we all do all the time – yes. Any internal cognitive process that is assumed unproblematically to exist is seen as suspect by DP…

    “people will have a particularized friend minority they’re sure to mention before they state platitudes about the rest of the category members (that aren’t at all like the friend).” Bingo – that is another example/version of the discursive resource discussed in an earlier chapter, “I’m not a racist but…” is a way of trying to distance one’s self from a racist identity while engaging in racist talk.

    ““Some of these problems might be resolvable, but it is questionable whether a social psychological theory with such a heavy emphasis on the essentially social should saddle itself with such a weight of unformulated cognitive baggage.” Unfortunately this hurts my focus because I kind of lower myself to their level and start thinking of snarky things to say about the snarky things P&W wrote.” I agree this has been tough for some readers to get past – but I think it’s also important to remember that these are not Americans and not education people – it’s a whole different discourse community with different norms of academic talk – maybe like their Parliament they are given license to not be as “nicey nice” as Americans tend to be…

    “On page 159 they talk about a dearth of full-time theorists in psychology. In physics, a full-time theorist spends time doing thought experiments and solving equations. They probably spend the most amount of time on math. The equivalent in psychology doesn’t exist because mathematical models cannot reveal the complexity of human systems nor individuals.” I thought that was the point – psychology, or any field, could benefit from other kinds of theorizing rather than relying on natural science models of experimentation…so this book in that sense is doing that – theorizing on language and what it might say to psychology.

    And I agree that the asking is important – I don’t like asking “why” and advise students not to ask that (for many reasons discussed in this book) but I agree that asking something, engaging in dialogue, listening, is important – it’s how we choose to make sense of what we are hearing that is key.

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