Discursive Psychology: Theory, Method and Applications


Sally Wiggins

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    Dedicated to: My parents, Audrey and Stuart Wiggins.

    About the Author

    Sally Wiggins is a senior lecturer in psychology at the Department of Behavioural Sciences and Learning, Linköping University, Sweden. Previously, she was based in the School of Psychological Sciences and Health, University of Strathclyde, Scotland, for 12 years. She has co-edited two books (Critical Bodies and Discursive Research in Practice) and written numerous book chapters and journal articles featuring discursive psychology as the analytical approach. Her research focuses on the social interactional processes around eating, particularly during family mealtimes. This work has begun to examine the ways in which appetite, food preferences and gustatory pleasure/disgust are enacted and consequential for children and parents in everyday mealtime situations.


    The aim of this book is to demystify discursive psychology (DP): from the theoretical principles on which it is based, to the method of how to ‘do’ DP and use it in different ways. It is designed to be a practical and accessible guide, cutting through difficult theory and providing a clear account of the analytic processes. It offers basic starting points and discusses more advanced issues. It is therefore aimed at students and researchers at all levels, from undergraduate through to postgraduate and beyond. It will provide the scaffolding as you develop your understanding and skills, and allow you to progress at your own speed. There will be activities along the way, to help you practise on your own. DP should not be regarded as difficult or for expert researchers. With a little time and care, anyone can use discursive psychology.

    The politics of writing a book

    I write this book as someone who has been involved in the field of discursive psychology for some time. I am not so established as to have been there at the very start, nor am I so fresh as to not be aware of the political manoeuvring and pot shots from critics in all directions during the intervening years. I was fortunate enough to undertake my doctoral research under the supervision of Jonathan Potter at Loughborough, with Charles Antaki, Mick Billig, Derek Edwards and many others just an office away. I have also been, and continue to be, inspired and supported by many others in discursive and interactional research across the world. I do not consider myself to be particularly politically motivated. Those who know me would be hard-pushed to define me as radical. And yet this book feels like something of a political argument. I have witnessed the various criticisms from many angles: from cognitive psychologists who do not consider discursive work to be anything more than ‘just talk’ and subjective interpretation, to phenomenologists who argue that we are missing the very nature of what it means to be human, to other discourse analysts who argue that we are neglecting the big issues and have been hoodwinked by the conversation analysts, and finally to conversation analysts, who wonder why we aren’t doing CA when we’re almost there anyway.

    My stance is that while I have endeavoured to be even-handed in my treatment of various issues, I have also aimed to provide a clear and practical guide to DP research, to enable it to continue to flourish and develop. This means that I am fairly prescriptive in places: I have erred on the side of being specific and detailed to provide the ‘scaffolding’ which I mention in the book. Some readers may find it too prescriptive. They may be disheartened at the inclusion of the stages of analysis of DP, for example, as set out in Chapter 6. They risk turning DP into a formula, restricting creativity and synthesis across different forms of discourse analysis. They also possibly undermine the skilled way in which established researchers can read a short extract of data and produce a brilliant and eloquent analysis, while the rest of us are still figuring out what all the transcription symbols mean. So yes, there is a risk. But I think it a risk worth taking. We need some scaffolding to support new researchers – whether undergraduate students with one class on discourse analysis or postdoctoral researchers tasked with the discursive analysis of six months’ worth of data – to ensure the growth and development of work in this area.

    Politics also bubble under the surface of the data examples I use throughout the book. These are infused by my own research interests in eating practices and family mealtimes. It is my book, after all. But it might seem that using examples from family mealtimes are trivial or banal, that they don’t really tackle the important things, like inequalities, poverty, conflict, prejudice, death and illness. Or perhaps worse, that these kinds of issues are inherent in food and eating, and yet still I ignore or gloss over these and focus instead on the features of mundane interaction. But perhaps food and eating is in some ways more fundamental than any of those; that if we don’t eat, nothing else is possible. So yes, family mealtimes are just one small aspect of life, and no, we don’t all have children. But we all start out as children and we all need to eat. And for those reasons alone, I think it worth researching.

    How to use this book

    The book is in three parts: the first deals with the theoretical side of DP and how it stands in relation to four other discourse analytical approaches. This should give you an understanding of what DP is ‘about’ and when you might use it. The second part deals with the practical aspects of DP: how to actually do it, from the stages of deciding on a research question, to collecting and analysing data, and to presenting your work in different formats. The third part provides some ‘what next’ issues; inspiration from some of the early and contemporary work in DP, as well as some ways in which we might consider the application of either theory or practice.

    Each chapter stands alone as a complete unit, so you can dip in and out, in any order. It may be that you only need guidance on understanding the different forms of discourse analysis, so Chapter 2 will show you how these differ both theoretically and in terms of analysing data. Or you may have been given some data extracts to analyse using DP for an assignment, and so Chapter 6 will help you there. Chapter 1 provides the main theoretical and conceptual structure of DP, so that will help you to make sense of the rest of the book, but it can be challenging in places if you are new to some of these concepts. You might find it useful to skim through Chapter 1, then come back to it again once you’ve had a chance to work through some of the practical chapters in Part 2 of the book. Remember, becoming confident and competent with DP is a skill and it won’t happen overnight. You need to spend a little time working through some of the core principles of DP and applying these in practice. Then, once you’ve done that, you might find yourself wanting to dig a little deeper into some of the issues raised by Chapter 1.

    Throughout the book, references within the text have been kept to a minimum. This was a deliberate move, to keep the text uncluttered and to avoid overwhelming you with names and dates. In terms of learning, I tend to argue that less is more; I have given a couple of references at the end of each chapter, and a few scattered throughout. You will, however, find a whole heap of references in Chapter 9, where I overview DP research in different areas.

    The book contains features to help you apply the theory and methods to your own research, whether you have just one lecture on DP and don’t ‘get it’, a coursework assignment to do by this time last Tuesday, or your dream PhD project. There are boxes throughout each chapter which provide: discussion points on key issues, checklists, brief activities, hints and tips, and student reflections. There is a glossary at the end of the book, covering a range of key concepts and ideas in discursive research to help you to learn the jargon. There is also a FAQ (frequently asked questions) section providing suggested responses to some of the questions that you (or your colleagues) may have about DP.

    The book is assisted at various points by a short piece of family mealtime data, which was recorded especially for the purposes of teaching students about DP. The full video clip (around four minutes) can be accessed at: www.youtube.com/watch?v=OtKaXw6WqYM. It is used in Chapter 2 to demonstrate the difference between five forms of discourse analysis, in Chapter 5 to illustrate the transcription process, and Chapter 6 to provide a worked example of DP analyses. You might use it to practise your own transcription, coding and analysis skills, or practise using the discursive devices in Chapter 7.

    Most of all, have fun. There are few approaches that we can so readily apply to our own lives, to practise while we’re listening to other people or engaged in social interaction. Let’s see how far we can go.


    To those who, like me, always read the acknowledgements page first, here is a glimpse into the machinery behind this book. It is, in many ways, the culmination of around 20 years of being immersed in discursive psychology (DP) research and teaching. I was introduced to DP by Nick Hopkins in my final year as an undergraduate psychology student at the University of Dundee. I still have my set texts for that class (Billig, 1987, and Potter & Wetherell, 1987; bought for £13.95 each in October 1996 at Blackwell’s bookshop on campus), with notes scribbled enthusiastically (pencil, of course) in the margins. So those of you who are still studying, keep your mind open and be kind to your tutors. You never know where new ideas will take you. My thanks therefore go first to my main tutors in DP: Nick Hopkins, Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards. There are many others who helped along the way.

    Thanks to those who helped to make this book happen:

    To Michael Carmichael for getting me started on this adventure and to Luke Block and Lucy Dang for seeing me through to the end. Your encouragement, unwavering confidence and patience were like good coffee; they kept me focused and made me want to write. You also have three of the coolest names in publishing.

    To those who provided guidance, FAQ suggestions or support: Adrian Coyle, Stephen Gibson, Gillian Hendry, Emily Hofstetter, Judith Horne, Bogdana Humǎ, Ryan Kelly, Eric Laurier, Jessica Lester, Abi Locke, Clare MacMartin, Robert McQuade, Jane Montague, Jonathan Potter, Sarah Riley, Sarah Seymour-Smith, Liz Stokoe, Margie Wetherell and Sue Widdicombe. Stephen Gibson, Clare MacMartin and Sarah Riley deserve particularly fond thanks for their detailed and critical comments on some of the draft chapters. You improved the book in many ways, though any remaining flaws are, of course, my own.

    To the Scottish family who so kindly offered to record their meal and let me use the video as ‘data’ for the book, may your food always fire your rockets.

    To all the undergraduate and postgraduate students who I have tutored over the years, I hope I made some sense. To those who really ‘got’ DP and, even better, were as excited about it as I am: you made it all worthwhile.

    And so to home. I wrote most of this book into the night at my beloved writing bureau. Thanks to Kate Bush, First Aid Kit, Florence & the Machine and London Grammar for the soundtrack, and to Lucy for sleeping by my feet and taking me for walks. To Mum and Dad, for providing an unexpected writing retreat in my old bedroom and for the many, many times that you cared for me when I needed to rest, and cared for the boys and dog when I needed to write. To Phil and my extended family, for all your support and for coping very well despite having an academic in the family. To Beth and Rach, for showing me that every obstacle can seem daunting at first, but that we can do amazing things when we help each other. To Angus and Callum, for filling my days with love and laughter, the comfort of daily routines and a good excuse to always bake. You’re both still the most enjoyable projects I’ve ever undertaken, and the best reasons I have for doing anything. Sorry for hogging the my laptop and working so often. This book is proof that I wasn’t watching Minecraft videos on YouTube, as you may have suspected. To H, for all and everything. Thank you for always believing in me. It is time for new adventures now.

  • Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about discursive psychology

    In this section, you will find some common or potential criticisms and concerns of DP that may be faced at any time in one’s research career in DP. Whether you are a student with your own questions, a tutor facing quizzical looks from your students, or an established professor pre-empting critical comments on a grant application, it can be helpful to know what questions you may be asked and some strategies on how to respond. They have been grouped according to whether the FAQs relate to theory, transcription or analysis (the three core areas where questions are often asked). The FAQs are written in bold with responses immediately underneath.

    FAQs about DP theory
    What is the point of DP?… or Why should I use it?

    Discursive psychology offers a rigorous and systematic way in which we can examine how psychological business is involved in, and used for, the purposes of social actions. It can illuminate the detail of discursive practices – how people talk and interact in different settings – and the consequences of these practices. It is ideally suited to answering questions such as how we are held accountable for our actions, how our identities are invoked in different contexts and how psychological matters are used to perform social actions.

    Isn’t DP the same as discourse analysis?

    No, since discourse analysis is a broad set of approaches to analysing discourse, each of which has different theoretical assumptions and analytic tools. DP is one form of discourse analysis and so shares the argument that discourse constructs (rather than reflects) reality, but has its own range of principles (see Chapter 1) and ways of doing research (see Chapters 38). See Chapter 2 for a comparison of DP to other forms of discourse analysis.

    Isn’t DP just like conversation analysis?

    No, though it was inspired by and continues to be influenced by developments in conversation analysis (CA). The similarities between CA and DP are the focus on the detail of talk and interaction (and using these to drive research questions), a focus on participants’ orientations and a preference for naturalistic data. The differences are primarily in terms of DP’s constructionist focus (on how categories are invoked in talk and how particular versions of reality are constructed) and its anti-cognitivist stance (arguing against the reduction of language to cognitive processes).

    Doesn’t DP ignore subjectivity?

    DP does consider subjectivity, but theorises this in terms of how people make relevant and manage subjectivity in the unfolding sequence of social interaction. For instance, this is tackled in the form of subject/object relations, with how people invoke subject-side constructions (e.g., experiences, thoughts, emotions) as a contrast to object-side constructions (e.g., objects in the world, facts, events) and how these are involved in social actions. So it takes a different theoretical and analytical stance on what subjectivity is: placing this in the social and discursive world, rather than the intra-individual world of cognitions, perceptions and bodily states.

    Isn’t DP more like linguistics or English language studies rather than psychology?

    Like linguistics or English language studies, DP is interested in discourse, but it differs in that it is about discursive practices: with how people talk and interact in social settings. Linguistics and related disciplines, by contrast, are typically interested in individual understandings of language and language production. DP also places psychology at the heart of social interaction, with how psychological concepts are managed and made consequential in the way in which we talk and interact with each other. It is about people and their practices, and the dynamic interplay between discourse, psychology and social life. How much more psychological does it need to be?

    Isn’t DP a bit like behaviourism?

    No, in that DP does not bracket off psychological concerns and treat these as analytically unavailable. Nor does it reduce discourse and interaction to an individual level. Instead, DP examines how people’s categories and understandings are produced in interaction, and how minds, emotions, perceptions, and so on, are made ‘real’ in particular ways and the consequences of these in social settings.

    Do we have to know about psychology to use DP?

    No, psychology as a discipline doesn’t have exclusive rights to knowledge about psychological issues (just as we do not have to be a medical doctor to have a right to know about our bodies and health). While it may be helpful to have a background in psychology studies, DP research does not assume that you know psychological theory or research.

    Why does DP seem to reject the idea that there are cognitive (and other ‘internal’) processes? Surely it is obvious that we all think and feel things?

    DP does not deny that there are cognitive processes or that people have emotions or ways of experiencing the world. But it does challenge the assumption that these concepts should be used as a way of making sense of people’s discursive practices (talking, writing, interacting with other people). In other words, it argues against the referential view of language, which assumes that the words we speak are used to refer directly to ‘internal’ states or processes. So DP challenges cognitivism, not cognition. Discourse is theorised primarily as action, not as representation: as performing social business rather than representing an apparent intra-individual state.

    Why don’t we learn about why people use language?

    This is an interesting and important research question to ask, but DP research does not seek to determine causal relationships (it works with a different set of theoretical assumptions about discourse; see Chapter 1). However, it does provide a powerful analytical tool to examine how people use language and the consequences this has in different social settings. In some ways, we could argue that this is even more important than why people use language in the first place, since it focuses us on the ways in which discourse, social practices and people are woven together. It allows us to examine not why people use language, but what happens when they do.

    FAQ questions about DP transcription
    How do you know which bits to transcribe? Are we simply picking sections at random (I don’t have time to transcribe it all)?

    If you have a lot of data, it can be more time-efficient to first watch or listen to all of your data and make detailed notes (see Chapter 5) before you begin any transcription. As you do so, identify any possible sections of the data that are relevant to your research question; these are the sections that you can then transcribe first. If you have a small amount of data, you can follow the same procedure or else start from the beginning and transcribe the whole corpus. When you first transcribe, however, it is usually more efficient to just transcribe words-only. Once you are more familiar with the data, then you can transcribe sections in detail.

    How do you know what to transcribe in detail?

    Once you have produced some words-only transcripts, and coded these for different instances or occasions in which a psychological category is being invoked, then you can identify those sections to transcribe in more detail. Start with just a few first, and transcribe more as you do more analysis; sometimes the analysis will point to sections of transcript that require more detail. So work slowly at first, and intersperse transcription with coding and analysis.

    When creating a coded corpus, how much of the transcript should I copy across for each ‘instance’ that I find?

    When identifying particular instances or psychological categories in the data corpus, you will need to copy-and-paste these into a separate coded document. You should include a few lines of talk before and after the ‘thing’ in the transcript that you are focused on so that you capture some of the surrounding interactional context. It is always better to include a little more transcript than you think you will need, than to risk missing out on some piece of interaction that you later have to search for again.

    When do you start a new line?

    There are no hard-and-fast rules for when to begin a new line when transcribing, and ultimately it will not damage your analysis if you have too many or too few words on each line. In principle, though, you should start a new line when: (a) there is a pause of around (1.0) or more, as this typically indicates a noticeable pause in the interaction, (b) a change of speaker or when some other feature needs to be noted (such as a door closing or movement of people), and (c) before you get to the end of the page. Create a reasonably wide margin in your transcript, as this not only helps ease of reading, but it can also provide space for analytical notes or for the formatting of many academic journals.

    When using Jefferson symbols, do you place the symbol before or after the word?

    In most cases, the symbol is placed before the letter or word to which it applies; for example, when noting ↑rising or ↓falling pitch sounds. With symbols such as CAPITALS for louder talk, or underlining for emphasis, then the symbol features at the same time as the letter or word. Sometimes, as in the case of interpolated laughter (laughing while talking), the symbol features within the w(h)ord, just at the point at which it is audible. Finally, some symbols, such as those indicating °quieter°, >speeded-up< or <slowed down> talk, should be placed before and after the words to which they apply.

    Do I need to include all the symbols if I won’t be referring to these in my analysis?

    Yes. You cannot know from the start which features of the discourse will be relevant for your analysis, and the analysis itself relies on having a detailed transcript to work from (alongside the audio/video file where this is available). So always include as much detail as you can. Conversely, however, you won’t need to refer to all the transcription symbols when you are analysing or interpreting the data; they are there to provide a written representation of the video/audio data.

    Should I transcribe things as they are said, or how they should be spelt?

    It is usually preferable to transcribe things as they are said, to capture the particular intonation or inflection of the talk. Never ‘tidy’ up the talk or improve the grammar. You need to transcribe the talk as it was said, not how you think it should have been said. There are occasions, however, when it can be helpful to have standard spellings being used if you are searching for particular words or phrases across a data corpus. In such cases you may just need to be sensitive to alternative forms of the word when searching or else begin with standard spelling when transcribing to words-only level, then refine it once you include the Jefferson transcription symbols.

    How do I transcribe regional accents?

    There is no prescribed way of transcribing regional accents, though the characteristic nature of certain accents (such as frequent rising/falling pitch, raised pitch towards the end of turns at talk, different vowel sounds, and so on) can usually be indicated through careful use of the Jefferson transcription symbols and spelling words as they sound phonetically rather than orthographically. The steak example used in this book, for instance, features a strong Scottish accent saying the words ‘does not’; this was transcribed as ‘disnae’ to represent this in a way that was more faithful to the spoken dialect. If regional accents are particularly important to your study, then you can also note the accents that are used when describing the participants in your report.

    When and how do you transcribe visual information?

    This is typically done as a third (or later) stage in transcription. When first starting to transcribe, code and analyse your data, it may not be apparent as to which visual features are going to be important for the analysis. For example, are eye gaze, pointing at something, holding of objects or movements of the body going to be relevant? To include all visual information in a transcript would not only be an incredibly lengthy process; it would also make the transcript almost impossible to read. Better to use the video recording as your first point of contact, and add in one or two visual features as and when you begin to consider these in your analysis. For suggestions on how to transcribe these, see Chapter 5.

    My data are in a language other than English. Do I need to translate this and, if so, do I analyse it before or after I have translated it?

    It is more usual to transcribe the data in its original language, analyse it as such, then provide a translation into English if presenting this for an English-language publication (which is the majority of academic journals). See Nikander (2008) for a very helpful discussion on such issues.

    FAQ questions about DP analysis
    Why are there no fixed guidelines about how I should analyse the data using DP?

    Like many approaches, DP analysis requires a sensitivity to different aspects of discursive and social practices that cannot be reduced to something akin to a mathematical formula or a controlled experiment. It is a skill as much as a process, but there are broad stages that can be followed (see Chapter 6) to ensure that DP research is coherent and rigorous. Because social interaction and discursive practices vary so considerably there can never really be fixed guidelines – the analytical context will always vary. This is what makes DP research exciting; we have a set of procedures to follow, but each piece of DP research will provide unique insights and new ideas.

    How do I get started on analysis with DP?

    DP analysis begins when you start considering your research area; it starts with your research question and how you approach the world in a particular way. But when you have a piece of transcript, and you want to know how to start analysing this, see Chapter 6, stage 1. Your first stage is to read the data and familiarise yourself with what is there.

    Why don’t I just count the words? Wouldn’t a statistical analysis be more effective (and less hassle)?

    You can count the words, but it wouldn’t tell you anything about how they work to perform social actions. It would just tell you how many words there are, and the frequency of some over others. This can be helpful in some cases as a starting point – for instance, I have used this approach to gain an overview of the different types of words used to make food assessments (e.g., Wiggins, 2014) – but it needs to be followed up by a more detailed analysis of the interaction. A statistical analysis would require large data sets and could be possible, but that typically draws on assumptions about the referential status of language (that words refer directly to intra-individual concepts, such as attitudes, desires, beliefs, etc.).

    Does ‘action orientation’ mean that people are deliberately motivated or consciously using their language in a particular way?

    No, it means the way in which the discourse makes available certain social actions, without needing to explicitly state these. For example, in Extract 1 in Chapter 1, Lucy’s ‘I prefer red’ works as a request for red wine, without her needing to state this specifically. Even if people were deliberated motivated or consciously using their language in a particular way, we wouldn’t be able to access that particular cognitive process or structure. We can, however, examine how people treat each other as being motivated, biased and so on, and that in itself is often more important for social practices.

    What is a ‘device’ in DP and how would I know if I found a new one?

    The DP devices are broadly analytical tools; they are features of talk that are identifiable in some way, so in that sense they need to be prevalent enough in discourse and interaction to be recognisable. The list in Table 6.1 are those which are most often used in DP research, though there are others that are just emerging and which yet may be added. You may find a new one in your own research, though it might not be apparent that you have found one until it can be used or applied in other research; that is, to be regular enough to work across different contexts. What is important is that the devices allow us to investigate the psychological and social actions being performed in the talk, and to focus our attention on these rather than with other aspects of discourse.

    If discourse is seen to vary so much all the time, does this mean that we are unpredictable in the way that we talk or act?

    No, and quite the opposite. One of the things that conversation analysis (and DP) has shown is that social interaction is actually highly ordered, even to the level of pauses, interruptions and turn-taking. So we are not as unpredictable as might be expected.

    Why can’t I just summarise the gist of what was said? Why do I need to include extracts in the results section?

    How would you know what the ‘gist’ was, anyway? If you try to pick out the things that you think are important, then you would be missing all the detail of what is actually going on, and how the social actions are being performed. By providing extracts in the results section, we not only stay grounded in the data, and ensure that our interpretation is close to the evidence (reducing the ‘interpretative gap’, see Edwards, 2012), but also make this analytical process clear and transparent to anyone reading our analyses. In that way, we are opening ourselves up to the scrutiny and allowing readers to make their own decisions about our interpretations.

    How do I link my analyses to other research? Does this have to be other DP research or can it be any other study?

    One of the key ways in which you can ensure that your analysis is valid and coherent is to show how your study is situated within a broader research context. This might be other DP research or from any discipline or analytical approach. Drawing on DP research in your analyses can help to show how the devices you are using, the categories or psychological business you are analysing, have been considered by other research. So it can show whether your analysis adds something new, for example, or builds on the scope of previous studies. When referring to other (non-DP) research in your analysis section, just be sure that you are consistent with the theoretical approach taken in your study. Another piece of research might make very different claims, for example, about a topic area or psychological concept, so what they ‘find’ and what you are ‘finding’ might be very different things.

    What if other people come to a different interpretation or conclusion from mine? Does this mean that DP isn’t scientific? Should I use inter-rater reliability?

    Other people are entitled to have different interpretations and conclusions, and these may well add some new insights. This is very different from saying that DP isn’t scientific. Science is about debate, ideas and interpretations as much as it is about rigour, evidence and systematic observation (again, see Edwards, 2012). DP is a social constructionist approach. If we argued that there was only one interpretation, then we would be arguing against our own epistemological stance. It would also sound pretty dogmatic. Inter-rater reliability also suggests that there is some fixed truth or version of reality that we are trying to observe, and that with enough independent observers, we will be able to identify it. We can, however, incorporate other interpretations and ideas in the analytical process through data sessions and feedback at presentations of our work. These help us to check out the credibility of our interpretations and how well they stand up against critique. So we are not aiming to find ‘the truth’ about the data. We are aiming to provide an interpretation that is grounded in the data and which says something interesting and useful (whether that usefulness is about theory or practice; see Chapter 10).

    How do I know if my analysis is correct? Surely it is all subjective? (aka… how do I know that I am not just making this up?)

    First, there are epistemological issues to be considered here. DP doesn’t claim to have the ‘correct answers’ because it argues that there are many different versions of reality and no single version has precedence over another. Similarly, it would take issue with the claim that some things are ‘objective’ (and ‘true’) and others are ‘subjective’ (and, by corollary, supposedly ‘less true’). At the same time, there is a very practical concern here, and that is that we need to know when we are doing ‘DP analysis’ and when we are doing something very different. What is important, then, is that we focus on the three core principles of DP (see Chapter 1) and apply these to the analysis: working with participants’ orientations, grounding our research questions in the data, and using the DP devices to orientate us to the psychological business and social actions that are being performed. See Chapter 6 on validating the analysis for further discussion on this.

    How can a DP study be representative of the wider population when it uses small samples of talk from just a few people?

    DP doesn’t claim to be representative of a wider population any more than a statistical analysis of data from 100 people claims to be. The aim of DP is to examine discursive practices and how these work in different social contexts, and it argues that each interaction is unique. The ‘wider population’, and its many social interactions, is too diverse anyway to try to capture something that might represent it all (or even part of it). Instead, DP research can illuminate ways of talking about different psychological concepts and how these are involved in different social actions. And it does so in real, applied, settings; in the places where people live their lives and in which ways of talking have direct consequences. Rather than trying to ‘apply’ or translate our findings onto another section of the population, we can instead show how our research has direct relevance in actual social settings.



    A particular version of events, a description or explanation provided for a specific purpose.


    The activity of being held to account for something, or managing one’s responsibility (or lack of it) for an event or behaviour. This can also include one’s responsibility to provide an account. It is similar to the issue of blaming, but being accountable for something does not necessarily mean that the person is to blame for it.


    The feature of discourse (talk and text) that focuses it towards a particular social action (i.e., ‘orientates it’). For example, the action-orientation of the statement, ‘it’s cold’ might be as a request to close a window or turn up the heating.


    The property or ability of something to be the cause of an action, e.g., being able to take control of something, make choices or be able to act independently.


    A set of principles and assumptions for undertaking research, including everything from theory to data collection to analysis. The term ‘approach’ is thus much broader than theory, methodology or model.


    The judgement or evaluation of something; making a claim about the quality of an object, event or person, for example.


    A psychological concept that is typically associated with a cognitivist approach, where it refers to an evaluative belief or perception about something in the world. In DP research, an attitude is understood as a discursive accomplishment, an assessment or evaluation that is situated within a specific discursive context.


    Inferring or ascribing a cause for an event; whether or not the attribution is understood to be cognitive or discursive is dependent on the theoretical approach taken.

    Bottom-up analysis (or approach)

    An analysis (or approach) where the data are the starting point for developing an analysis, rather than ideology or theory.


    The process through which objects, people or places are assigned to categories. In DP research this is achieved through discursive practices (through talking and writing) rather than being ascribed to cognitive processes.

    Category entitlements

    The rights and responsibilities associated with a particular category.


    The process of sorting through a data set and separating out those parts of the data – both the transcript and the associated recording – that relate to the research question.


    An approach which interprets people’s talk and behaviours primarily in terms of underlying cognitive causes.

    Cognitive agnosticism

    Taking a neutral stance on whether or not (particular) cognitive states exist.


    The process through which different concepts (such as identity or attitudes) are produced in particular ways in discursive practices.


    The setting in which something takes place, the limits of which are taken as relevant for the research, specifically in terms of data collection and analysis.

    Conversation analysis

    An approach to analysing everyday and institutional discourse that examines the sequential organisation and action-orientation of talk-in-interaction.

    Critical discourse analysis

    A set of approaches that analyses how discourses are both productive of and produced by ideologies and power relations.

    Critical discursive psychology

    An approach to analysing discourse that combines both macro and micro features of discourse analysis.

    Critical realism

    A theoretical position which argues that we cannot directly access reality as it will always be represented or mediated in some way. For example, the words we use to describe something are a way of representing that thing, but they are not that ‘thing’ in itself.


    All the materials – in DP, this is talk or text in social interaction – collected (e.g., in online discussion forum interaction) or generated (e.g., in a focus group) for research. In DP research, data are therefore the original texts or audio/video recordings as well as any representations of this (e.g., transcripts). Data corpus refers to the whole set or collection of data for a research project.


    The process through which discourse is ‘taken apart’, i.e., the unpacking or exposing of the assumptions which underlie concepts or ways or talking.

    Deviant cases

    Those instances (cases) or sections of the data that do not appear to fit into the interpretation or explanation provided in the analysis.


    A phrase that makes a direct claim against the speaker being accused of something (e.g., racism) even if the subsequent talk might perform that action. For example, one might say, ‘I’m not racist…’ before stating something that could be interpreted as racist.


    Any form of spoken or written language – talk or text. In some forms of discourse analysis, this can also be extended to other ways in which meaning is produced in interaction, such as gestures, symbols and objects.

    Discourse analysis

    A broad collection of approaches that analyse discourse in all its forms. They share in common the assumption that discourse produces and creates reality rather than reflects it.

    Discursive action

    How things are accomplished in talk and text (e.g., asking questions, blaming someone, teasing, flirting, excusing).

    Discursive devices

    The analytical tools used by discursive psychology (and other forms of discourse analysis) to examine the constituent parts or structure of discursive practices.


    A turn in interaction that is potentially problematic for the other speaker or which does not fit the normative pattern of a particular sequence. Preference here is understood in the sense of what is preferred for smooth, untroubled social interaction.

    Emic analysis

    Analysis that privileges the interpretations, orientations or terminology used by the participants in the research.


    The study of, or theory of, knowledge, of ‘how we know what we know’. It can cover everything from what counts as knowledge, how we obtain or produce knowledge to what are the consequences of this knowledge.


    The argument that there are fixed qualities or ‘essences’ inside people – such as personality or intelligence – that are relatively enduring and not changed by the social context.


    An approach that studies groups of people and their practices.


    An approach that aims to understand the methods through which people make sense of each other’s practices in everyday settings: how people make sense of what they are doing. It often examines the processes through which the social world is made orderly and coherent.

    Etic analysis

    Analysis that privileges the interpretations, orientations or terminology used by the researchers, rather than those of the participants in the research.

    Extreme case formulation (ECF)

    An ECF is a semantically extreme word or phrase that works rhetorically to build an end-of-the-line description while also accomplishing other social actions.

    Focus group

    A method of data collection whereby a person (called the moderator) asks a series of questions or instigates discussion in a group of people who have been organised for that purpose. The discussion is typically focused on a particular topic.


    The stance that people take on an issue; the ‘participant role’ that is produced in the interaction at a particular moment.


    A summary or gist of a previous discussion or statement.

    Foucauldian discourse analysis

    An approach to discourse analysis that draws on the work of Michel Foucault, and which examines the socio-historical aspects of discourse and the impact of these on social and psychological life.


    The marking of a turn in interaction as being in some way tentative, conditional or provisional. It can also mark talk as potentially problematic.


    A coherent and organised set of ideas, which often underpins social structures or political arguments.


    How the meaning of an utterance or turn in interaction is understood to be situated both within the turn-by-turn sequential context as well as the broader interactional and rhetorical context. To identify what is ‘meant’, therefore, analysis should be based on what comes before and what comes after the turn.

    Interpretative repertoire

    A collection of words or ways of talking about objects or events in the world which provide a relatively coherent and culturally recognisable characterisation of that object or event.

    Linguistic determinism (see also Sapir-Whorf hypothesis)

    A theory that states that our language shapes (or determines) our thought processes. There are weaker versions of this (sometimes called linguistic relativity or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis) that argue that language influences, rather than determines, our perceptions and experiences of the world.

    Macro analyses

    Analyses that draw on broader contextual issues, such as socio-historical aspects, culture, ideology and power, to analyse data.

    Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA)

    A sub-set of conversation analysis that analyses the categories used to make inferences about people and events in the social world.


    A theory of theory, i.e., a way of understanding and analysing what makes a theory.


    The tool or technique used to collect data or carry out the research.


    The set of theoretical assumptions that underpin research, from the research questions, to the data and how they are collected, to the analytical procedure.


    Analyses that focus on the specifics of the interaction, such as turn-taking organisation and the words and gestures used within an interaction.


    Broadly defined, this refers to research or analysis that considers different ‘modes’ of communication or interaction. In conversation analysis, this might refer to talk, gesture, facial movement and use of objects. Multimodal critical discourse analysis, on the other hand, refers to visual imagery (photographs, diagrams, pictures) as well as language in the analysis of texts.

    Naturally occurring data (or naturalistic data)

    Data collected from settings that would have occurred regardless of the research taking place, such as family mealtimes, online discussion forums or doctor–patient interaction. Such data are often contrasted with researcher-generated data, where the setting is specifically designed for the research (such as interviews or focus groups).

    Next-turn proof procedure

    The process of checking the interpretation of a turn in talk by examining the next turn in the sequence, and focusing on how the speakers themselves understand or orientate to a turn in talk, rather than the analyst’s assumptions.


    A pattern or regular feature of human behaviour or interaction; something that is treated as expected or for which someone might be held accountable if they do not adhere to the norm.


    The study of things in the world: what exists, what form this takes, and the relationship between things in the world and our understandings of these.


    The way in which a section of talk (or speaker) attends to, or makes relevant, a particular action or interpretation.

    Orthographic transcript

    A written version of an audio or video recording that includes only the words spoken but not the way in which they are spoken.


    The features of speech that detail how words are delivered, such as emphasis, volume of speech, rising or falling pitch. It can also include non-lexical sounds such as coughs, laughter or crying.


    The term used to refer to the people who take part in our research, or whose discursive practices we are analysing.


    A set of theoretical approaches that developed as a response to structuralist approaches to language. They argue that meaning is produced through discourse, and that there are not fixed (structured) links between meaning and language.


    The features of speech that relate to its production and sound, such as pitch, volume, timing and voice quality. These are sometimes referred to as the rhythmic or musical aspects of speech.


    The fake name that you give to participants or places to protect their anonymity.


    (see also critical realism) An ontological and epistemological position that assumes that there is a single reality that we can access or know in some way, that a real world exists independently of our representations or interpretations of it.


    The acknowledgement of the researcher’s involvement in the production of knowledge.


    An epistemological position that assumes that there are multiple realities (rather than a single one). It argues that there is no basis on which we can claim that one version of reality is more ‘real’ than another. Thus all versions are, in theory, equally valid. This is not the same as saying that all versions of reality have equal status. A relativist can still argue for one version over another, but they should be transparent in stating that this is not an absolute truth.


    According to a realist position, this is the extent to which a study might be replicated and the same results observed. According to a relativist position, this is the extent to which other researchers (or readers) might interpret the data and analysis in a similar way to our interpretations.

    Reported speech/thought

    A section of talk or text in which the speaker (or writer) appears to provide a literal representation of something that had been previously said. It is sometimes known as ‘active voicing’.

    Research question

    The question used to guide the research in a specific and structured way. It is not as prescriptive as a hypothesis, but should still narrow the focus of the research.


    The design features of talk that favour one interpretation over others; the persuasiveness or argumentative features of talk.


    Where discourse appears to present a set of events or behaviours as if these were recurrent, normative or frequent.


    The study of signs, and use of signs in meaning-making in social practices.


    The turn-by-turn organisation of conversation and social interaction.

    Social constructionist/m

    An approach that examines how social phenomena are primarily the product of discursive practices and social interaction. The emphasis is on the social concepts that are produced, rather than an individual’s learning or understanding of them (cf. social constructivism).

    Social constructivist/m

    A theoretical approach that examines how knowledge and human development is produced in social interaction, though with the emphasis on individual processes of understanding (including cognitive processes).


    An area of study that examines language in society, with a focus on linguistic features rather than social or psychological issues.

    Synthesised discourse analysis

    (also known as multi-level DA) A blended version of discourse analysis that draws across different forms (such as blending discursive psychology and critical discursive psychology).


    A term used to emphasise the way in which talk is produced within, and should therefore be analysed as part of, conversation and interaction.


    Discourse in a written format (also includes text messages on a smartphone).


    An explanatory framework for an area of research.

    Top-down analysis

    An analysis that draws on theoretical or ideological concepts to make sense of data and uses these as the starting point for analysis.


    The process through which audio or video data are transferred into a written document and presented as a sequential series of turns, with each turn at talk written on a new line. Transcripts that are described as ‘words-only’, ‘basic’ or ‘first-pass’ are those which include line numbers, speaker names and the words spoken by speakers. Those described as ‘Jefferson transcripts’ also include paralinguistic features (e.g., rising or falling pitch, emphasis, volume of speech).


    In realist terms, this is the extent to which a study reflects the reality that it seeks to observe (i.e., how ‘true’ it is). In relativist terms, this is the extent to which a study is consistent with the social context in which it was produced (i.e., how true to the context it is).


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