Academic journal article Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry

Discursive Psychology: A Human Foible?

Academic journal article Ethical Human Psychology and Psychiatry

Discursive Psychology: A Human Foible?

Article excerpt

Discursive psychology stands in distinction to experimental social psychology in that it seeks the deeper understanding of human behavior for emancipatory purposes rather than the confirmation of hypotheses and the certainty of prediction via nomothetic knowledge. The jury system is cited as an exemplar of consensual processes in the construction of social facts, the guilt or innocence of the defendant. The discursive mode of inquiry seeks deeper understanding, for example, the search for intentionality and normativity of behavior, by uncovering subjectively held assertions fused with their warrants (evidentials) in the open dialogue. Any mutual understanding about such evidentials creates an experienced socially constructed reality that leads to actions such as verdicts and other forms of decisions despite the absence of empirically demonstrated evidence.

Keywords: discourse; emancipation; hermeneutics; evidentials; understanding

Traditional North American social psychology has at times adopted the basic proposition that research with humans in the laboratory or in the field follows the same rules and regulations as those of the natural sciences. This proposition is commonly referred to as positivism, meaning "that which is given, given by our senses."1 However, the observation of perceptual givens even in the Skinner box requires a great deal of sophistication because it calls for the subordination of one's preconceptions to the situation that is being observed. McKenzie (1977) therefore refers to such observations as a form of applied phenomenology. More importantly, it is very doubtful that the social world is such a given, for that would imply that one must accept the existing order, as it is constituted. The difference between nature and the social world is not that the former is given and the latter is constructed, but that the study of nature is necessarily based on empirical observations which need not be the case for the social world.

However, discursive psychology challenges the propositions of positivism on different grounds. The social psychology researcher must communicate with the subject to carry out the research. These communications are preplanned and are designed to, and indeed do, activate expected behaviors. Any form of communication on the part of the researcher with a human subject, including the use of questionnaires, interviews, and instructions as well as the mere physical presence of the experimenter, constitutes a form of social interaction that disturbs the separation between the observer and the observed. The experimenter cannot therefore presume to be able to present an objective, independent account of the subject's experience. Hence the findings of human subject research, in the laboratory as well as in the field, are generated to a significant extent by the interaction of experimenter and subject. This basic "defect"2 raises questions of the reliability, validity, and generalizability of social psychological research findings.

Furthermore, the communication between researcher and human subject is predominantly a verbal one. Since language usage does not necessarily mirror the external world, measures of reliability and validity become more issues of intelligibility, truthfulness, and "palatability," rather than replicability, invariance, and statistical significance. These communicative criteria of validity create a sense of verisimilitude (WahrscheinUchkeit), the appearance of truth, rather than truth based strictly on empirical facts. While verisimilitude implies that others may perceive the truth differently, discursive consensus requires that all the participants in a given research perceive the issues in a similar manner. While the appearance of truth can often be misleading, what is argued here is that if it is based on a collective foundation it may indeed be scientifically relevant because it leads to behavior. Here Habermas argues, ". . . truth itself can only be arrived at via a consensus in a discourse" (Bleicher, 1980, p. …

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