Conversational Ethics in Psychological Dialogues: Discursive and Collaborative Considerations

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With the linguistic turn in the social sciences have come increased sensitivities to language use. In this paper, we examine such sensitivities as they relate to the conversational practices of psychologists seeking collaborative relationships with clients. In particular, we link ethical practice with developments in discourse theory and research, presenting arguments and evidence for enhanced forms of collaboration and client-centred practice. We conclude with considerations for what we consider "conversational ethics" in psychological practice.

The social constructionist movement in psychology is now a generation old. Premised primarily on developments in linguistic theory, the key insight spurring on this movement has been the notion that language is incapable of correctly representing experience in any absolute sense. For some, the movement seemed to invite linguistic anarchy; for others, it ushered in a new era of critical reflection and potentials for reauthoring understanding. Regardless, there has been a recent proliferation of research methods, therapeutic practices, pedagogies, and critically inspired reflections within psychology derived from ideas and practices associated with social constructionism. Attempts to reconcile these developments within mainstream psychology have been occurring for over 30 years now (Gergen, 1985; Shotter, 1975).

For us, a social constructionist epistemology refers to a view of meaning as the product of human interaction in relational and broader cultural circumstances; that is, meaning owes something to its use in social contexts. The Canadian Code of Ethics for Psychologists (the Code hereafter; Canadian Psychological Association [CPA], 2000) offers one such example of socially constructed meaning. It also shows a function of meaning we feel merits particular consideration: how meaning is consequentially interpreted and put to use. With social constructionist practice in psychology has come a concern for meanings and practices used without critical reflection (i.e., taken for granted; e.g., Parker, 1999). Psychological practice itself can be seen as a socially constructive activity (McNamee & Gergen, 1992), shaped and reshaped over time. Our focus here is on how social constructionist perspective can further inform ethical practice, particularly in discussions psychologists want to see as collaborative with clients.

Recent developments in social constructionist practice (e.g., Gubrium & Holstein, in press; Strong & Paré, 2004) emphasize a premise highly compatible with some aspects of ethical practice, as promoted by the Code (CPA, 2000): respect for the dignity and preferences of clients. This respect can be shown in how client-psychologist interactions occur in a collaborative manner when that is the aim of the psychologist. Specifically, the ethics to which we refer focus on how conversational differences are worked out between clients and psychologists. They also refer to how issues of power and dominance are collaboratively resolved in the manner by which such psychological dialogues are conducted. That clients consult psychologists for their expert knowledge, of course, does not extend to psychologists' expertise overriding the understandings or preferences of clients. Instead, the first principle of the Code (CPA, 2000), particularly the first ethical standard, asks psychologists to demonstrate respect for the knowledge, experience, and expertise of others. For social constructionists, since there is no correct meaning made possible by language, a primary issue is the fit or appropriateness of meanings for those with whom psychologists interact. Meanings not taken up by clients serve neither client nor psychologist in addressing concerns that clients present.

Arguably, psychologists have developed a more refined discourse than others from which to discuss clients' concerns and what can be done about them (Danziger, 1997). …