Scholarly article on topic 'Psychology, sociology and interaction: disciplinary allegiance or analytic quality? -- a response to Housley and Fitzgerald'

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Academic research paper on topic "Psychology, sociology and interaction: disciplinary allegiance or analytic quality? -- a response to Housley and Fitzgerald"


Psychology, sociology and interaction: disciplinary allegiance or analytic quality? - a response to Housley and Fitzgerald

Qualitative Research Copyright© 2009 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore) vol. 9(1) 119-128


keywords : categorization, cognitive states, conversation analysis, discursive psychology, ethnomethodology, membership

A discursive approach to psychological matters

One of the features of various academic responses to discursive psychological research has been a mistaken representation of the status of the 'psychological'. Sometimes the assumption is made that it involves the attempt to make a psychology-based intervention in social science debates. The recent Housley and Fitzgerald (2008) paper (hereafter HF) to which we are here responding provides another example of this confusion. In this paper we take the opportunity to tackle some of these confusions head-on, beginning with a consideration of some of discursive psychology's antecedents.

In the early 1960s, when Harvey Sacks was starting to develop the ideas that were later to become foundational for conversation analysis, psychology did not figure highly in his interests (Sacks, 1992). His theoretical and analytic foils tended to be Parsonian sociology or Chicago School ethnography, and his critique of both was built up through the course of the lectures. Despite his lack of specific focus on psychology, Sacks's work can now be understood to provide a radical alternative to mainstream cognitivist approaches to psychology (Edwards, 1995). Most fundamentally, he rejected the prevailing John Locke understanding of language as a set of signs for transporting thoughts from one mind to another, in favour of considering talk as a medium for action (see Edwards, 2004). Sacks's focus was on the basic issue of how language can work as something that can be both culturally learnable and publicly understandable. Very early on (in the Spring of 1964) this led to his often quoted caution about researchers using cognitive intuitions:

When people start to analyze social phenomena, if it looks like things occur with

the sort of immediacy we find in some of these exchanges, then, if you have to

DOI: 10.1177/1468794108095078

make an elaborate analysis of it - that is to say, show that they did something as involved as some of the things I have proposed - then you figure that they couldn't have thought that fast. I want to suggest that you have to forget that completely. Don't worry about how fast they're thinking. First of all, don't worry about whether they're 'thinking.' Just try to come to terms with how it is that the thing comes off. Because you'll find that they can do these things. (Sacks, 1992, vol. 1:11)

On the whole, conversation analysis has followed this injunction, which has appropriately disengaged it from cognitivist thinking. Instead, the focus has been very much on what is seeable or hearable (for participants, and thereby for analysts) in interaction. Sacks started with the issue of how conversation makes sense (in all its rich detail of intonation, stress, timing and so on) and how issues such as understanding, knowledge and evaluation are delivered conversationally. From this point of view cognition - mind, thoughts, intentions and so on - are relevant to, and involved in, interaction in terms of their current invocation in the interaction itself. This is quite distinct from the classic psychological project of discovering the nature of people's mental furniture, and also different from the critical social psychological project of exploring people's ideologically built interiority. Sacks quoted approvingly Freud's observation that 'the problem is not how is it that people come to think that others know their thoughts, but how is it that people come to think so deeply that others don't know their thoughts?' (Sacks, 1992, vol. I: 114).

One way of understanding the intellectual place of discursive psychology (henceforth DP) is to take the kinds of fragmentary focus on psychological matters we find in Sacks's work and develop their implications more systematically. This has involved considering psychological concerns as features of situated practices, and that in turn is part of a radical and wholesale revision of the project of psychology. Part of the development of DP has involved a now longstanding dialogue with cognitivist and social cognitivist psychology (e.g. Edwards and Potter, 1992). Typically, this has involved exploring the implications, for the empirical basis of cognitive research studies, of understanding people's talk as dialogically, sequentially and practically organized. One of the features that distinguished most DP from even closely related traditions of discourse analysis was its use of records of natural interaction. This meant that DP worked with psychology situated in specific everyday or institutional settings, such as police interrogations, psychiatric assessments and family mealtimes. This is in sharp contrast with mainstream social-cognitive tradition in psychology, which overwhelmingly models action ('behaviour') experimentally with the aim of adducing general, trans-situation, trans-historical processes.

Another part of this development has involved a more systematic and cumulative set of studies of the way psychological matters such as intention, assessment, upset or understanding become live as participants' concerns (see examples in Potter, 2007), and the way the 'subjective' and 'objective' sides are built and invoked in, for example, activities such as complaining (Edwards, 2005a, 2007). As with conversation analysis, these studies have been

grounded in close attention to the empirical detail of recorded talk; again, this contrasts with prevailing uses in psychology, philosophy and conceptual analysis of materials and examples invented to illustrate a point. For example, DP has taken a close empirical interest in the use of what conceptual analysts would call psychological predicates such as 'honesty' (Edwards and Fasulo, 2006) and 'concern' (Potter and Hepburn, 2003), as well as a growing body of work on the situated procedures through which psychological entities are methodically constituted as the objects of social science (e.g. Antaki et al., 2005). For recent reviews of DP see, for example, Edwards (2005b) and Hepburn and Wiggins (2007).

Discursive psychology and theoretical amnesia

Housley and Fitzgerald's (2008) article claims that DP suffers from 'theoretical amnesia' with respect to the analysis of accounts and motives. It claims to confront that amnesia by re-emphasizing the 'sociological canon of interactionism, phenomenology and ethnomethodology/CA' (p. 265) and by demonstrating the way in which 'accounts' and invocations of 'inner' states must be understood in terms of the practical accomplishment of social organization. HF offers some critical observations about a paper by Edwards (2006) that are taken to show a relatively covert 'importing [of] psychological intention' and to reveal contradictions between theory and analytic practice; the critique goes on to offer some indicative analyses of its own working with different kinds of material.

There are many things of value in HF. However, we are doubtful of its approach to disciplines and the importance of 'canon'; we find a range of confusions and problems in its representation of DP, and we find important limitations in the offered analytic alternatives. We will take these areas in turn.


There are various ways of constructing the history of sociology as a discipline and judging the crucial 'canon' of interactional work. Although the Catholic Church has the Pope to pronounce which books should be sacred (the Oxford English Dictionary's core meaning of 'canon'), things are more open in the social sciences. We are less concerned about sociology (or psychology, or linguistics, even) as a discipline than with generating progressive theorizing and developing powerful analytic work. HF's promotion of a canon seems to us to be a conservative move. Moreover, HF's claim about amnesia is simply erroneous and their specific identification of the canon is at the very least problematic.

The claim about amnesia does not withstand scrutiny. Let us just indicate coverage in some key works. The tradition of accounts and motives that includes Mills and Scott and Lyman (listed in HF with regard to DP's 'amnesia') is discussed in detail, for example, in Potter and Wetherell (1987) where important elements of discursive psychology were developed. That book also

discusses ethnomethodology both in general terms and in a range of specific examples, including Coulter's (1979) seminal work; it also draws on conversation analysis in virtually every chapter, showing an early appreciation of how central conversation analysis would be to the analysis of psychological matters. Edwards and Potter (1992) can be read as a thoroughgoing exploration of the idea that motives and accounts are social objects, moving the discussion forward by taking an ethnomethodologically inspired consideration of the active role of description. Again, conversation analytic work is central to providing a way of understanding what 'situated action' actually involves analytically. Edwards (1997) and Potter (1996) are both characterized by deep engagements with ethnomethodology and conversation analysis. There are undoubtedly arguments to be had on the interpretation of this work (as evidenced by Coulter, 1999, and Potter and Edwards, 2003, for example), but there is no amnesia.

One of the problems with HF is that it is organized around disciplinary allegiance and sacred texts rather than around the specific arguments and analytic developments. For example, the traditions collected as the canon (interactionism, ethnomethodology and conversation analysis) are both radically at odds with one another and also characterized by important theoretically nuanced internal disputes. The separation between symbolic interactionism and ethnomethodology and conversation analysis has been clear since at least the early 1970s (e.g. Douglas, 1970; Turner, 1974). However, there are now key distinctions to be made between the early ethnomethodology and the more recent studies of work programme (Garfinkel, 1967, 2002; Wilson, 2003). Likewise, there are different emerging foci in conversation analysis, partly in consideration of how foundational sequential analysis will be and how far turn design can be analysed in an autonomous manner, and partly in consideration of how far conversation analysis can be merged with work that uses standard sociological variables. Blurring over these important differences in pursuit of a canon is a recipe for confusion rather than constructive theory development.


HF discusses Edwards (2006), which is a recent short article defining a DP approach to the relations between language, cognition and social interaction. The article uses, for illustration, an example from a corpus of police-suspect interrogations, in which the ostensibly mentalistic notion of the 'intentional-ity' of a reported action is raised and handled in the talk, as part of the police officer's pursuit of a legally relevant type and severity of criminal offence. The essential argument is that much of what psychological approaches may take to be hidden, invisible thoughts and motives at work behind talk are available under close scrutiny as participants' orientations and concerns, in the detail of talk's 'rich surface', when carefully analysed. HF claims to find inconsistency in Edwards's use of cognitive notions, a gap between analysis and evidence,

and an introduction of mentalistic notions into the analysis when these are not documented in relevant parts of the materials.

Before we address those criticisms, some important points need making. First, even if there were inconsistency in this one article, that would not in itself be evidence that inconsistency is either widespread or essential to DP. There is now a large body of DP studies (see Hepburn and Wiggins, 2005, 2007, for reviews, summaries and illustrations of recent work), and we do not expect all of the works to be uniformly flawless with regard to DP's stated principles. Second, Edwards (2006) is a rather inapposite choice to target because it is a brief, illustrative position piece, commissioned for an edited collection of similar statements by various authors, rather than a fully documented analytic study (in fact, a fuller study using the same kinds of material is to be published as Edwards, 2008). Third, given that there are plenty of general statements in discursive psychological methodological writing that emphasize the importance of working with participants' orientations (e.g. Potter, 2003) what would a single practical deviation show about the programme as a whole?

There are two important points to be made, however, with respect to HF's specific criticisms. First, contrary to HF, the article (Edwards, 2006) does not claim anything about the police officer having an 'intention or motive' to say what he said, nor that he subsequently formulated any such intention or motive - that claim, imputed to Edwards, is entirely HF's. Instead, the article refers to the officer's 'appreciation' of the notion of recklessness in law, evidenced elsewhere in the same interrogation, and Edwards makes that understanding relevant to the officer's line of inquiry. This is not, then, offering a psychological, motivational, intentional theory of talk - not unless HF is making the presumption that 'understanding' has to be a mental state (it is not, as Wittgenstein, 1958, famously argued). Second, the quoted example was, as indicated at the time, a shorthand, somewhat ethnographic gloss used for the purposes of highlighting the broader significance for police work of what was going on in the example (see Edwards, 2008). The main thrust of the example was to show how a participant's notion of intent to perform actions was separated (by them) from intent to cause an action's consequences, which is indeed an important concern in legal settings, and also to indicate something of how and when such notions are made relevant and handled - in other words, the status of 'intent' as a member's practical concern in that setting. The illustration was not at all offered as expressing the police officer's own intentions and motives in speaking, nor as endorsing such notions as coherent or appropriate terms of explanation (if understood mentalistically) in DP.

It is generally the case that contextually relevant matters, though analysable in their own right, may usefully be glossed when analysing specific actions. That is what happens when, for example, in analysing Oliver North's testimony, Bogen and Lynch (1989) tell us who North is, and gloss the political context and the general nature of the interrogation from which examples

are provided for analysis. Similarly, Schegloff informs us, contextually to some data and its analysis, that the speakers in an extract are

a separated couple discussing the return of their teenaged son to his father after having had a visit in another city with his mother. The father has called to find out when the son should be expected to arrive via car, only to be informed of a change of plan by the mother. (Schegloff, 1996: 185)

Schegloff (e.g. 1997,2006) is, of course, a major proponent of the importance of limiting analysis to participants' own categories and demonstrable concerns. The provision of contextual information about the participants is not designed to obscure the fact that the status, say, of Joey as the son of Marsha and Tony is not also analysable for precisely how, when, and for what that may be formulated or made specifically relevant. It is a matter of bracketing off what may usefully be understood but is not currently under analysis, for the sake of the comprehensibility of what is - if only for the sake of editorial word limits. Indeed, HF provides its own helpful glosses (with which we have no problems at all) when informing us, contextually to a data extract, that the 'Phillips report had suggested that individual blame was not appropriate in the case of the BSE crisis, while a culture of secrecy had provided a source of problems in dealing with the crisis at an organisational level' (p. 2 76).

HOUSLEY AND FITZGERALD'S ANALYTIC EXAMPLES HF's analytic examples are interesting and worthy of systematic study. However, we feel obliged to make some observations, as they are offered as improvements on what currently exist in DP. HF analyses the following example from a radio phone-in:

01H: Frances Smith from from Birmingham what do you think

02C: urhh ... I... feel that the age of consent should stay at

HF claims that while asking what someone 'thinks' is a routine interactional method for eliciting an opinion in interaction, 'here it is demonstrably part of the institutional organization in that it is an interactional method for introducing the next caller on air through placing the caller in the next turn position to answer' (p. 2 74). This is a rather limited analysis; for example, it ignores how the work of introducing the next caller is done by the identifying address form 'Frances Smith from Birmingham' that precedes it. This leaves HF in the odd position of claiming that 'what do you think' is the host's 'method for introducing the next caller'. It also ignores the specificity of the term 'think' here - this is not precisely the same invitation as 'what do you say?'

HF's point is, no doubt, that 'think' can be analysed in a way that does not treat it as a mental object. As researchers not afflicted by sociological amnesia, we are familiar with similar analyses by ethnomethodologists (e.g. Coulter,

19 79) and have developed analyses of 'think' in practice which are non-cognitivist (e.g. Edwards and Potter, 2005; Potter, 2007). It is therefore not clear in what sense this entails any notable advance on our own work.

HF offers the following observation: 'clearly we cannot know if this is the real opinion of the caller, what the caller really thinks about this topic' (p. 2 74). This implies a distinction between the talk and what lies behind it: the 'real opinion' of the caller. In DP, the notion that a person might be expressing a real or genuine or consistent thought or opinion is also a member's practical concern - not an invisible entity lying behind the talk. HF glosses the caller's talk as expressions of an 'opinion'. Yet why this word? Why not rather describe what is said as 'judgments', or 'conclusions', or even 'knowledge claims'? Those are very different kinds of epistemic categories, implying different kinds of grounding and commitment. In fact, the host and caller provide for the caller's claim about 'left wing' prison officers as being grounded in experience. So, is an experientially grounded claim to know something an 'opinion'? Let us emphasize again that we are not suggesting that HF's analyses are uninteresting or without merit - however, insofar as they are offered as illustrating a more coherent approach to 'psychological matters', we think they are seriously mistaken.

Let us restrict ourselves to a few more comments about HF's second example and its analysis. As part of developing their criticisms, HF notes the importance of sequence organization, repair and preference organization for their own understanding of accounts (p. 267). It is therefore odd that none of these analytic resources appear in their analysis. For example, Example 2 contains a number of self- and other-initiated repairs, the latter in particular being crucial in unpacking the activities performed by the interviewer's questions. HF focuses in particular on the following fragment from Example 2, in which the caller offers a description of uniformed prison officers:

12 Caller: I think that these um a strong left wing element in the uniformed


13 Host: Left wing element?

14 Caller: Yes

Rather than glossing the interviewer's turn ('left wing element') on line 13 as an other-initiated repair, providing a candidate hearing of, and so displaying some trouble with, the prior turn, HF opts for simply noting that 'a clarification is sought' (p. 2 74) and that this action invokes 'a possible category dis-juncture between a social category and the opinions and motives predicated to that category' (p. 2 75). They note that in doing this, the interviewer 'displays an alternative opinion' (p. 275) to the one displayed by the caller - i.e. that uniformed prison officers are not left-wing. However, the sense of the interviewer's turn being oppositional is brought about by its specific sequential position and nature as an other-initiated repair operating through a repeat of

the prior (Schegloff, 1987). Surely this kind of structural and sequential point is crucial to HF's argument that opinions and accounts are dependent on 'the situated action and context of their production' (p. 278)? However, repeats of the prior, and the repair work that they can elicit, display trouble with the prior turn. In this institutional environment such trouble may be designed to elicit clarification for the overhearing audience. In what sense do we need to import a putative 'opinion' of the Host?

HF's whole argument here is designed to show that 'opinions' are best analysed in terms of how they are displayed interactionally. But this is a foundational DP principle (Potter, 1998) that has been stated explicitly and in analytic detail in a number of publications (e.g. Puchta and Potter, 2002). It is unclear, therefore, who or what the target of HF's argument ought to be.

The oppositional sense of line 13 in Example 2 is also displayed by its con-trastive stress, and yet this is not noted in HF, which elsewhere in the critique of Edwards (2006) makes much of the importance of a detailed transcript for warranting analytic claims (Housley and Fitzgerald, 2008: 247). It is therefore disappointing that HF's transcripts are missing a number of key features: the timing of pauses and gaps, key points of emphasis, delivery and pitch movement, and closing and continuing intonation, all of which are crucial for understanding the actions and projects underway (we requested access to sound files to check these details, but they were unavailable). Line 13 is one of the few times that the reader is given any sense of how the turn was delivered, and there remains uncertainty as to whether this represents emphasis (in line with CA conventions: Jefferson, 2004) or a pitch change (suggested by their own index).

We could go on, but we hope that we have made the point sufficiently. Discursive psychology is neither cognitivist nor anti-sociological. It certainly raises questions with HF's illustrious canon, but is happy to do so. It continues to be defined by systematic and careful studies which consider psychological matters in terms of their invocation and place in situated practices. It continues to develop through close engagement with conversation analysis and new empirical materials.


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DEREK EDWARDS is Professor of Psychology in the Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University. His interests are based around the analysis of language and social interaction in everyday and institutional settings. He specializes in discursive psychology, in which relations between psychological states and the external world are studied as discourse categories and practices. Current work focuses on subject-object relations, person descriptions and intentionality in mundane conversation, neighbour dispute mediation, and police interrogations. His books include Common Knowledge, with Neil Mercer (Routledge, 1987), Ideological Dilemmas, with Michael Billig and others (Sage, 1988), Discursive Psychology, with Jonathan Potter (Sage, 1992), and Discourse and Cognition (Sage, 1997). Address: Discourse and Rhetoric Group, Department of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Loughborough, Leicestershire, LE11 3TU. [email:]

ALEXA HEPBURN is a Senior Lecturer in Social Psychology in the Social Sciences Department at Loughborough University. She has studied school bullying, issues of gender, and violence against children, and interaction on child protection helplines, as well as writing about the relations of the philosophy of Derrida to the theory and practice of social psychology. She has two recent books: An Introduction to Critical Social Psychology (Sage, 2002) and Discursive Research in Practice (Sage, 2007, with Sally Wiggins). She recently co-edited a special issue of Discourse & Society on developments in discursive psychology. [email:]

JONATHAN POTTER is Professor of Discourse Analysis in the Social Sciences Department at Loughborough University. He has written on constructionism, discourse analysis and discursive psychology, cognitivism, psychology and institutions, child protection, relativism, racism, science, method and reality. Recent books include: Representing Reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction (Sage, 1996), Focus Group Practice (Sage, 2004, with Claudia Puchta), and Cognition and Conversation (Cambridge University Press, 2005, with Hedwig te Molder). [email:]