Friday, November 22, 2013

Discursive psychology and social psychology

Attitudes towards confessional and sexual minorities in the discourse of the media in Latvia, Lithuania and Poland from a historical perspective

Out of the three fields of discursive psychology, social psychology and discourse analysis, the last one will carry most weight. The reason for this is that discourse is not only the research object, but also the medium through which other (mental, social) phenomena are communicated and may be studied. Thus, the concepts and methods of discourse analysis will be discussed in length separately. Here, I would like to introduce the concepts contributed by the two other disciplines that are relevant to this project. 

Social psychology
 In this project, I am interested in the influence of various aspects of social life on an individual’s attitudes. 
An individual, “self”, is always both a “unique human being” (van Dijk 1998: 119) and a member of various groups and communities. An individual is the recipient, contributor to, but also a product of, culture. 

cultural common ground
The concept of culture will not be defined here for obvious reasons (I refer the curious to Geertz 1973). It must suffice to say that people within a culture share cultural beliefs that are relatively stable at a given point in time (although historically subject to variation and change), that comprise cultural “common ground” which is taken for granted. This common ground provides a “shared reality and order for people” (Brown 1996: 27). Cultural norms and values are internalized by individuals via socialization and become obvious, “unmarked”; but they are not universal, and outsiders coming from other cultures may fail to recognize and abide by them.
Cultures are abstract, generalized entities, and thus “cultural identities (e.g. Afro-Caribbean) have to be actively created and constructed; this construction involves a struggle over representation and narrative (…) and power” (Wetherell 1996: 225).
A group, on the other hand, is an aggregate of people who think of themselves as being group members, experience a sense of belonging and common identity, and who have psychological effects on each other (Brown 1996: 44). Next to their unique personal identities, individuals have numerous group memberships and identities; identification with a group involves self-categorization, even self-stereotyping (i.e., adopting stereotypical group attributes in relation to oneself). Properties of group membership ascription include “impact on self-esteem, adoption of stereotyped ways of thinking, and the influence of group membership on one’s judgements and decisions” (McKinlay & Dunnett 1998: 48). Each group has its own norms, values, attitudes, etc. Group members are affected by group norms through social interaction, by observing the behaviour of other members, by being confronted with their beliefs, attitudes and opinions (van Knippenberg 2000: 161). According to van Dijk (1998), ideologies – understood as shared sets of beliefs of groups, general, abstract beliefs that underlie other social representations – operate at the group level. [more on ideologies here]
If we think in terms of group memberships, we naturally distinguish groups we belong to (in-groups) and groups we do not belong to (out-groups). This accounts for the framework of intra- and inter-group dynamics, including intra-group loyalty, obedience, conformity, cohesion, (avoidance of) conflict; inter-group cooperation (e.g. against a “common enemy”), competition, conflict, etc.
It also accounts for certain biases in perception and thinking, e.g. internal diversification of an out-group may be underestimated or ignored, while differences between the in-group and the out-group (intergroup differences) may be exaggerated (McCauley 1995). [more on this issue here]
reference groups
Social psychology also talks about reference groups, “which we take as a reference point for our views or behaviour whether or not we are present in them or have any realistic expectations of joining them at any time” (Brown 1996: 26). Reference groups are thus important sources of social influence. An individual may even adopt certain attitudes in order to attain membership in a desired group (Fleming & Petty 2000: 197).
imagined communities
Imagined community is a term coined by Anderson in relation to the concept of nation: nation is an imagined community because it is impossible for members of a nation to know all other members, but still they share a common identity – national identity (Anderson 1991) – that in some cases may even constitute one of the most important and central values of an individual. The definition of a group given above may thus be applied to imagined communities with one exception – the second defining feature of a group, that of members’ psychological effect son each other, is not obligatory, although it is possible. Sexual minorities and, to a lesser extent, religious minorities may be thought of in terms of imagined communities.
All the entities listed above contribute to an individual’s set of beliefs and attitudes. Social psychology recognizes the following foundations of beliefs and attitudes: persuasion, interpersonal influence, social norms, influence of reference groups. We may assume that social norms come from all levels (culture, communities, groups), persuasion – from imagined communities and reference groups (understood e.g. in terms of intellectual elites) and interpersonal influence – from groups. Of course, “each member may have a personal version of the shared belief or ideology, a version that is obviously a function of individual socialization or ideological development” (van Dijk 1998: 30). This way, beliefs are both personal and social, and they tell us something about both the individual and the society he/she is a part of (Billig 1991).

Other important concepts: 
Social representations – are “mental schemata or images which people use to make sense of the world and to communicate with each other” (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 138). An example may be a representation of a political party: “First, there is the political party; second, there is the person’s social representation of that party; third, there is the person’s opinion, which is derived from the representation” (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 139). So, when people are asked for their opinion about the Party X, they respond by giving their opinion of their social representation of Party X. A member of another group may have a completely different social representation of the same party. 

Attitude inconsistency, dissonance, cognitive dissonance, and similar – all refer to the lack of consistency between someone’s attitudes, attitudes and beliefs, or attitudes and behaviour. The theory of cognitive dissonance accounts for attitude change, which takes place when a person’s behaviour does not match their attitudes, creating a feeling of discomfort. This person may find it easier to change an attitude to match the behaviour than to look for justifications and explanations of this behaviour (Bem 1970). 

Discursive psychology’s focus is “the action orientation of talk and writing (…) how events are described and explained, how factual reports are constructed, how cognitive states are attributed” (Edwards & Potter 1992: 2). For example, “remembering is understood as the situated production of versions of past events, while attributions are the inferences that these versions make available, and that participants treat as implied” (Edwards & Potter 1992: 3). 
Discursive psychology rejects cognitivism and looks to discourse for patterns of “everyday procedures” that people use to do things, to act with their words. Such patterns are employed in descriptions, accounts, narratives, etc., in order to construct facts, factual versions that “appear credible and difficult to undermine” (Edwards & Potter 1992: 3). For example, discursive psychology identifies and investigates discursive strategies people use to attribute blame, justify, make excuses, etc. Scott & Lyman (1968) came up with a typology of excuses that includes appeal to: accident (‘I tripped up’), mental elements (‘I forgot’), natural drives (‘I couldn’t help myself’), scapegoating (‘he made me do it’); denial of injury (‘it’s only a scratch’), victim (‘she deserved it’), and appeal to loyalties (‘I owed it to him’). 
Attitudes in discursive psychology are not reflections of underlying cognitive entities – they are not something we have “inside”. Just as factual versions or memories, they are constructed in specific situations, specific contexts. Different people construct very different accounts of the same event; one person constructs very different accounts of the same event under different contextual conditions. This way, discursive psychology deals with the problem of cognitive dissonance – it is seen as a contextual effect of attitude talk: “people modify their behaviour, including their talk, in accordance with different social contexts. (…) Discourse analysts see variation in accounts as a consequence of people performing a whole range of different acts in their talk. Some variations may be due to considerations of face saving and creating a good impression” (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 37). Note that face management and politeness research (initiated by Goffman (1967) and Brown & Levinson (1987), respectively) are very important parts of discourse analysis too. 

Other important concepts: 
Disclaimers – are “pre-accounts which attempt to ward off anticipated negative attributions in advance of an act or statement” (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 77), e.g. I am no racist, but… (also van Dijk 1984, Billig 1991, among others). 
Interpretative repertoires – “are recurrently used systems of terms used for characterizing and evaluating actions, events and other phenomena. A repertoire, like the empiricist and contingent repertoires, is constituted through a limited range of terms used in particular stylistic and grammatical constructions. Often a repertoire will be organized around specific metaphors and figures of speech (tropes)” (Potter & Wetherell 1987: 149). Also Billig 1991, Wetherell, Taylor & Yates (eds.) 2001, Goodman 2007.

Social representations vs. interpretative repertoires:

social representations
interpretative repertoires
concepts and images of objects

originate in the course of social interaction
provide an agreed code of communication
their sharing makes a group a group

we have one social representation of an object
terms and metaphors used to talk about objects

a limited range of terms used in particular stylistic and grammatical constructions

we may activate different repertoires according to context


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