The Turn to Discourse in Social Psychology

By Wood, Linda A.; Kroger, Rolf O. | Canadian Psychology, November 1998 | Go to article overview

The Turn to Discourse in Social Psychology

Wood, Linda A., Kroger, Rolf O., Canadian Psychology


We discuss the emerging turn to discursive social psychology as an alternative to experimental social psychology. We note that the barriers to change are rooted in the history of the discipline, in the failure of researchers to recognize the distinction between movements and actions and in their reluctance to switch from positivist to post-positivist criteria. We outline the tenets of discursive psychology and of its associated method, discourse analysis. Illustrations of discourse analysis are drawn primarily from a recent study of date rape. Throughout, we emphasize the centrality of discourse in social life and the definition of the social being as Homo loquens.


Nous discutons du passage a la psychologie sociale discursive comme solution de rechange a la psychologie sociale experimentale. Nous constatons que les obstacles au changement trouvent leur source dans l'histoire de la discipline, dans l'echec des chercheurs a reconnaitre la distinction entre les mouvements et les actions, et dans leur resistance a passer des criteres positivistes aux criteres post-positivistes. Nous soulignons les principes de la psychologie discursive et de l'analyse du discours, methode qui y est associee. Les exemples d'analyse du discours sont principalement tires d'une etude recente sur le viol commis par des connaissances. Dans tout l'article, nous mettons l'accent sur l'importance du discours dans la vie sociale et sur les definitions de l'etre social qu'est l'Homo loquens.

A decisive turn in the development of social psychology occurred when social psychology adopted the experimental method under the influence of Kurt Lewin. Lewin (1951) had been inspired by the success of field theory in physics and the possibilities he saw in applying field-theoretic principles of force, tension, constraint and context to the study of social-psychological issues. His experiments in leadership style (autocratic, democratic, laissez-faire) became classics in the new experimental social psychology. Festinger, Lewin's most prominent pupil, along with a phalanx of researchers who subsequently became the standard-bearers of experimental social psychology, adopted Lewin's program, first at MIT and later at Michigan and Minnesota. Festinger took an intuitive and creative insight into social processes (derived from his observation of the circulation of rumours about the consequences of earthquakes in India; Festinger, 1957) into the laboratory to spawn two decades of research on cognitive dissonance. Research on cognitive dissonance became the touchstone of experimental social psychology. Interest in the topic has declined, but the commitment to the experimental method remains seemingly unshaken.

This commitment has not gone unchallenged. Experimental social psychology came to experience a crisis of confidence on methodological grounds. The crisis literature focused first on ethical questions (Baumrind, 1964). Should an entire discipline rely on lying (technically, deception) as a necessary methodological tool? This was a difficult question in the politically volatile and optimistic 1960s, and is still so today. It involves more lasting questions concerning, for example, the opacity of results obtained via the strategy of deception (Kroger & Wood, 1980). The crisis literature then turned to methodological concerns. Orne (1962) raised the spectre of demand characteristics: the tendency of social psychological experiments to be peculiar social situations in which subjects respond to the social demands of the experimental situation and not just to the independent variables selected by the experimenter. Control over the subject's responses, the raison d'etre of the experimental method, seemed impaired. Rosenthal (1966) added the notion that in the fragile environment of the social-psychological experiment, the characteristics and expectancies of the experimenter might contribute to the results of the experiment as significantly as the classically defined independent variable. …

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