Discursive psychology

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For other uses of the word, see discursive.

Discursive psychology (DP) is a form of discourse analysis that focuses on psychological themes.

Discursive psychology starts with psychological phenomena as things that are constructed, attended to, and understood in interaction. An evaluation, say, may be constructed using particular phrases and idioms, responded to by the recipient (as a compliment perhaps) and treated as the expression of a strong position. In discursive psychology the focus is not on psychological matters somehow leaking out into interaction; rather interaction is the primary site where psychological issues are live.

It is philosophically opposed to more traditional cognitivist approaches to language. It uses studies of naturally occurring conversation to critique the way that topics have been conceptualised and treated in psychology.


Discursive psychology was developed in the 1990s by Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards at Loughborough University. It draws on the philosophy of mind of Ryle and the later Wittgenstein, the rhetorical approach of Michael Billig, the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel and the conversation analysis of Harvey Sacks.

The term Discursive Psychology was designed partly to indicate that there was more than a methodological shift at work; there is also some fairly radical theoretical rethinking.


Discursive psychology conducts studies of both naturally occurring and experimentally engineered human interaction that offer new ways of understanding topics in social and cognitive psychology such as memory and attitudes. Although discursive psychology subscribes to a different view of human mentality than is advanced by mainstream psychology, Edwards and Potter's work was originally motivated by their dissatisfaction with how psychology had treated discourse. In many psychological studies, the things people (subjects) say are treated as windows (with varying degrees of opacity) into their minds. Talk is seen as (and in experimental psychology and protocol analysis used as) descriptions of people's mental content. In contrast, discursive psychology treats talk as social action; that is, we say what we do as a means of, and in the course of, doing things in a socially meaningful world. Thus, the questions that it makes sense to ask also change.


DP can be illustrated with an example from Derek Edwards’ research on script formulations. Traditional social psychology treats scripts as mentally encoded templates that guide action. Discursive psychology focuses on the foundational issue of how a description is built to present a course of action as following from a standardized routine. Take the following example from a couple counselling session (the transcription symbols here were developed by Gail Jefferson). The Counsellor says: before you moved over here how was the marriage. After a delay of about half a second Connie, the wife who is being jointly counselled, replies Oh to me all along, right up to now, my marriage was rock solid. Rock solid = We had arguments like everybody else had arguments, but to me there was no major problems. One thing that discursive psychologists would be interested in would be the way that Connie depicts the arguments that she and her partner have as the routine kind of arguments that everybody has. While arguments might be thought as a problem with a marriage, Connie ‘script formulates’ them as actually characteristic of a 'rock solid' marriage. Action and interaction is accomplished as orderly in interactions of this kind. Discursive psychology focuses on the locally organized practices for constructing the world to serve relevant activities (in this case managing the live question of who is to blame and who needs to change in the counselling). In the discursive psychological vision, scripts are an inseparable part of the practical and moral world of accountability.


In the past few years work in discursive psychology has focused on material from real world situations such as relationship counselling, child protection helplines, neighbour disputes and family mealtimes. It asks questions such as the following: How does a party in relationship counselling construct the problem as something that the other party needs to work on? Or how does a child protection officer working on a child protection helpline manage the possibly competing tasks of soothing a crying caller and simultaneously eliciting evidence sufficient for social services to intervene to help an abused child? What makes a parent's request to a child to eat different from a directive, and different in turn from a threat?

See also[edit]

Central texts[edit]

  • Edwards, D (1997) Discourse and Cognition. London: Sage.
  • Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (1992). Discursive Psychology (ISBN 0-8039-8442-1) London: Sage.
  • Lionel Nicholas. 2009. Introduction to Psychology. Publisher Juta and Company Ltd. ISBN 1919895027, 9781919895024
  • Ian Parker. 2003. Critical Discursive Psychology. Publisher Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 033397381X, 9780333973813
  • Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards. 2001. The New handbook of language and Social Psychology.
  • Potter, J. & Wetherell, M. (1987). Discourse and social psychology: Beyond attitudes and behaviour. London: Sage

Further reading[edit]

  • Button, G., Coulter, J., Lee, J.R.E. & Sharrock, W. (1995). Computers, minds, and conduct. Polity Press, Cambridge, UK.
  • Edwards, D. (2005). Discursive psychology. In K. L. Fitch & R. E. Sanders (Eds.), Handbook of language and social interaction, 257-273. Erlbaum.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.
  • Hepburn, A. (2003). Crying: Notes on description, transcription and interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 37, 251-90.
  • Jonathan Potter. Discourse analysis & discourse psychology. 2003.