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 PSYC3004  Mind, Meaning & Discourse

Lecture 3 & 4: The "Discursive Turn" / 
Mind and the "prison house of language
© Dave Hiles, October 2003

"If we can call the construction of information processing models of cognition the realization of a First Cognitive Revolution, the turn to discourse and the adoption of conversation as the generic model for psychology, should perhaps be called the Second Cognitive Revolution."
                                                                                                 Rom Harré (in press)

(3) The "Discursive Turn"

O Discourse:
   Q Discourse is the way in which we act upon the world and modify it.
   Q Discourse is the exchange of signs and meanings, such as: word, clothes, images, etc.
   Q Discourse is central to social interaction, to human cognition, and is a social practice.
   Q Discursive psychology is the attempt to try to:-
               (1) understand this exchange of meanings;
               (2) uncover the different ways it offers us for thinking about the world;
               (3) focus on how discourse functions as a part of social practice.
   Q Discourse is intrinsic to our everyday lives, not only to convey wants and desires, communicate information, but also to construct reality. It is organized around adequacy and usefulness rather than validity, accuracy and "truth".
   Q Discourse is a socially located way of making sense of other's behaviour, our own experience and identity.

O Rom Harré: The Discursive Turn (1995)


Q Psychology has moved through:
    (1) Behaviourism - objective, scientific
    (2) 1st Cognitive Revolution - hypothetico deductive
    (3) 2nd Cognitive Revolution - a Discursive Psychology

Harré (1995) presents three examples of the application of discursive psychology:
       (1) coughing: a the scientific study
       (2) the psychology of the emotions
       (3) a discursive account of memory


"A discursive process is a structured sequence of intentional acts employing some sign system or other, eg. ordinary language, and in principle it is jointly produced." (p.146)

Harré repeatedly emphasizes the normative and intentional structure of human behaviour: e.g. human skill is based on two pillars:-
    Q a neural basis
  Q a set of rules or conventions normatively explicit in the community or implicit in the practice.

 i.e. a cognitive/causal model cannot provide a sufficient model of human action

O Gergen (1999) Chap 3: Discourse and emancipation
       ". . language is a central means by which we carry on our lives together - carrying the past into the present to create the future" (p.62).

Gergen proposes that discourse has at least three functions (p. 64-80):
    Q discourse as structured - as a set of conventions , habits or ways of life that are stable and recurring, e.g. definitions of "mental illness", "mental retardation", "homosexuality", etc.
    Q discourse as rhetoric - conventions or structures of language used to frame the world and thus achieve certain social effects
    Q discourse as process - an ongoing flow of social interchange, conversations, negotiations, arguments and other processes by which we are constituted.

O Edwards, D. & Potter, J. (1992):-
       "The focus of discursive psychology is the action orientation of talk and writing . . . . rather than seeing such discursive constructions as expressions of speakers' underlying cognitive states, [ or simply references or depictions of events, things, etc., in an externally given world] they are examined in the context of their occurrence as situated and occasioned constructions whose precise nature makes sense [ . . ] in terms of the social actions those descriptions accomplish." (p. 2-3)

      So: " . . remembering is understood as the situated production of versions of past events, while attributions are the inferences that these versions make available." (p. 3) 

       "A memory is not a mere recalling, isolated and serene, but is related to communicative actions and interests. Versions of mind, of thought and error, inference and reason, are constructed and implied in order to bolster or undermine versions of events, to accuse or criticize, blame or excuse and so on. . . "Discursive psychology is concerned to bring these otherwise contextual and peripheral phenomena into analytical focus. It is not designed to reveal the linguistic structuring of text and talk; nor is its aim to trawl talk for what it tells us about underlying cognitions. Instead, its focus is on how discourse accomplishes and is a part of social practices." (p. 16-17) 

       "Discourse analysis is a functionally orientated approach to the analysis of talk and text. . . . language emerges as a reality-constituting practice, such that the mapping of descriptions onto cognitive or worldly reality is made complicated and interesting, by the indefinitely many ways in which it might be done. Versions of events, of memories, facts and causes, for example, are therefore to be examined for their nature as versions (texts), and in terms of specific contexts of situated action for which they are constructed." (p. 27).

O Mair, M. (1989):- Commenting on his activities as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist:
       "When I look at what I do, I have to conclude that I am a professional conversationalist of sorts. I spend all my time in conversations of different kinds, some face to face, some in writing, some with individuals, some in larger gatherings, some (very many) with my self (or rather my selves, since there are many voices which constitute who I am and am becoming, who do not go along quietly with what others 'outside' or 'inside' may be urging or claiming." (p. 5)

       "Psychology as a discipline of discourse is concerned with how we 'speak together' in words deeds, manner and constructions of many other kinds. . . The kind of psychology I'm talking about is almost the mirror-image of the kind of psychology which holds centre stage at present in our culture. A discursive, conversational psychology takes as crucial what most empiricist, fact finding, experiment reporting psychology suppresses almost entirely." (p. 7)

O Second Cognitive Revolution: Harré & Gillett (1994)
       "The new and different strand of psychology was found, most influentially, in the later writings of Wittgenstein (1953). He argued that we understand the behaviour of an individual when we grasp the meanings that are informing that person's activity. . . Once one sees the task of understanding human behaviour as involving interpretation and empathy rather than prediction or control, the self-reports of the people one is studying become very important in any psychological research project." (p. 18-21)

        "In this view, our delineation of the subject matter of psychology has to take account of discourses, significations, subjectivities, and positionings, for it is in these that psychological phenomena actually exist." (p. 22)

O Situated occasioned action
    Q Human action can only be fully understood when placed in context.
    Q Human action is situated - i.e. physically and socially.
    Q Human action is occasioned - i.e. as part of temporal (causal/structured) sequence.
    Q Human action is constrained by rules, conventions, normative codes, etc., rooted in historical, cultural/discursive practices.

! Harré & Gillett (1994):-
      "A discursive practice is the repeated and orderly use of some sign system, where these uses are intentional, that is, directed at or to something. . . Discursive activities are always subject to standards of correctness and incorrectness. These standards can be expressed in terms of rules. Therefore a discursive practice is the use of a sign system, for which there are norms of right and wrong use, and the signs concern or are directed at various things." (p. 28-29)


(4) Mind and the Prison House of Language

O Four revolutions in human thought
At the start of the 20th Century, three revolutions in human thought had dethroned humankind from their exalted view of themselves:

          (1) Nicolaus COPERNICUS (1473 - 1543)
          (2) Charles DARWIN (1809 - 1882)
          (3) Sigmund FREUD (1856 - 1939)

 . . and now, a fourth revolution . . 

       "What distinguishes human beings is no longer that relatively specialized skill or endowment which is the power to speak, but rather the more general power to create signs."  
                                   Frederick Jameson (1972) The Prison-House of Language, p. 31

O Modernist vs. Post-modernist approaches
The Enlightenment was a crucial 18th Century movement in Western intellectual thought. The three pillars of this Age of Reason were:

         (1) REASON
         (2) NATURE
         (3) PROGRESS

Most of modern psychology is a direct descendent of this tradition of thought, i.e. a positivist, empiricist (experimental), materialist, mechanical, determinist approach to behaviour.

O The Paradigm Shift in the Sciences
Some implications:
         Q the world is not knowable, or, at least not knowable directly
         Q all human knowledge is relative
         Q there is no truth
         Q there is only discourse
         Q we are imprisoned in our language, in our culture.

O We live in "two worlds"
The "world" presents itself to us in at least two ways:-

Q as sense data, as phenomenon, as experience

                               i.e. I am able to "see" what is there

Q as discourse, as interpretation, as a socio-cultural construction

                               i.e. I am being "told" what is there

The problem is that sense data are of little value without interpretation, and interpretation is of little value without something that needs interpreting. As human beings we rely on both presentations in order to function, we need to both "sense" the world physically as well as "explain" the world to ourselves. It makes sense to differentiate these two modes, study them separately, but ultimately the two are inseparable.




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