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date: 16 October 2017

Discursive Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication

Summary and Keywords

The recent emergence of discursive psychological approaches has challenged the dominance of cognitive and structural models of language that theorize it as an abstract and coherent system of meanings. Epistemologically informed by social constructionism, discursive psychological approaches examine how language is actually used in everyday formal and informal talk or discourse. Discourse (both written text and talk) is treated as a social practice that is both central to understanding and constructing social reality and oriented to the practical concerns of everyday life. Discursive psychological approaches to intergroup communication have produced a large body of research examining everyday informal talk and institutional discourse on intergroup relations in liberal democratic societies. This work has focused primarily on the text and talk of majority group members and powerful elites about matters pertaining to race, immigration, ethnicity, and gender. How speakers attend to and account for group differences in discourse is perceived to be intimately related to the reproduction and legitimation of social inequalities in liberal democratic societies. This body of research has identified common and pervasive patterns of talk by majority group members that are seen as contributing to the continued marginalization and social exclusion of minorities. These discursive patterns include: positive self and negative other presentation, denials of prejudice, discursive deracialization, and using liberal arguments to justify and legitimate inequality.

Keywords: discursive psychology, critical discourse analysis, social constructionism, majority discourse, representations of minorities, denials of prejudice, conversation analysis, social identities in talk, intergroup communication


Discursive psychological approaches to the study of intergroup communication can in part be attributed to what has been termed the “turn to language” in the social and human sciences that emerged in the 1980s. Epistemologically informed by social constructionism, the “turn to language” has been central in challenging the dominance of cognitive and structural models of language that theorize it to be an abstract and coherent system of names and rules. In contrast, discursive approaches examine how language is actually used in everyday formal and informal talk or discourse. Discourse (both written text and talk) is treated as a social practice that is not only central to understanding and constructing social reality but also oriented to the practical concerns of everyday life. Although the topic of intergroup communication is potentially vast, to date discursive psychological research in this field has focused primarily on the text and talk of majority group members and powerful elites about matters pertaining to race, immigration, ethnicity, and gender. How speakers attend to and account for group differences in discourse is perceived to be intimately related to the reproduction and legitimation of social inequalities in liberal democratic societies. This entry focuses specifically on this body of work and demonstrates how linguistic and discursive practices contribute to the continued social exclusion and marginalization of minorities.

The Emergence of Discursive Psychological Approaches

Jonathan Potter and Margaret Wetherell’s groundbreaking book, Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour (1987), is widely recognized as generating a “quiet revolution” among an increasing number of disaffected social psychologists examining core topics such as intergroup relations and communication (Augoustinos & Tileagă, 2012). The epistemology advocated by this book was fundamentally different from the positivist and realist epistemology of traditional psychology. Potter and Wetherell (1987) advocated for a social constructionist and non-cognitivist epistemology (and ontology) that fundamentally reformulated topics central to the social sciences and social psychology more specifically: constructs such as self and identity, attitudes, intergroup relations, social influence, and communication were reconceptualized as discursive practices that were enacted in everyday social interaction rather than cognitive processes that took place in the internal machinations of the mind.

Potter and Wetherell (1987) drew on several intellectual influences, in particular the social constructionist movement and its critique of traditional psychology (Gergen, 1985). It also drew on philosophical linguistics and in particular Wittgenstein’s later philosophical writings (Philosophical Investigations, 1953), which emphasized the interactive and contextual nature of language. Although traditional psychological models treat language as a “mirror of reality,” reflecting a world “out there,” Wittgenstein argued that words and language do not have independent objective meanings outside the context and settings they are actually used in. Wittgenstein challenged the view that language was merely a medium through which people expressed and communicated inner mental phenomena such as feelings and beliefs. Thus Wittgenstein rejected the conventional and dominant understanding in both psychology and philosophy that there are two separate and parallel systems—cognition and language—one private, the other public. Rather, Wittgenstein argued that “language itself is the vehicle of thought” (1953, p. 329).

This emphasis on language as a social practice is central to discursive psychological approaches: thus analyzing the fine detail language use in everyday activities and settings by participants is fundamental to discursive psychology. This action orientation of language draws on John Austin’s speech act theory (1962). Speech act theory emphasizes how people use language “to do things” and to achieve certain ends. Words are not simply abstract tools used to state or describe things: they are also used to make things happen. People use language to persuade, blame, excuse, and present themselves in the best possible light. Thus language is functional: it “gets things done” (Potter & Wetherell, 1987).

Conversation Analysis (CA) has been another intellectual influence in discursive approaches. CA is an ethnomethodological tradition that examines ordinary conversation in its everyday natural settings. In contrast to cognitive science and sociolinguistics that treat language as an abstract system of rules and categories, CA begins with people’s actual talk in social interaction—“talk-in-interaction,” as it is commonly known. This tradition has found that everyday conversation is orderly and demonstrates reliable regularities in its sequential turn-by-turn organization (Sacks, 1995; Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). CA attends to the ways in which participants’ talk is oriented to the practical concerns of social interaction; how for example, descriptions, accounts, and categories in conversation are put together to perform specific actions such as justifying, explaining, blaming, excusing, among others. For example, a pervasive feature of everyday talk and conversation is that participants attend to their own stake and accountability (Edwards & Potter, 1992). Structural models of language have typically treated talk-in-interaction as a source of data as “messy,” containing hesitations, pauses, interruptions, and self-corrections and thus preferring instead to develop highly formalized models of language that examine underlying grammatical rules and structures. CA, however, emphasizes how such messy features of talk are highly relevant in everyday social interaction. This has led to specific requirements regarding the level of transcription recommended for recorded materials in CA research. It is typical in CA to include details in transcripts such as the length of pauses, overlapping talk, intonation, hesitations, emphasis, and volume.

Critical Discursive Approaches

Although discursive psychological approaches are sometimes treated as unified, there are a diverse range of approaches that differ markedly from each other. Unlike discursive approaches primarily located at the micro level of everyday social interaction, critical discourse analysis (CDA) emphasizes how discursive practices or ways of talking about the world are predominantly shaped by influences outside of the immediate interactional context of speakers. Specifically, these influences are the historical, political, and cultural context within which speakers live their lives. These critical approaches have been influenced by postructuralist theory, and in particular, the work of Michel Foucault. Despite the enormous impact and influence that Foucault’s work has had in the humanities and social sciences generally, as a discipline, psychology has remained largely impervious to his prolific writings on the nature of knowledge and subjectivity. This is no surprise given the subject matter of Foucault’s writings, which challenged traditional notions of truth and knowledge (Foucault, 1972).

Drawing on Foucault’s writings, critical discursive approaches have argued that certain ways of talking or constructing objects and events become pervasive and dominant in particular historical moments, which make them more culturally available and thus powerful in constructing social reality. Such critical approaches to discourse look outside specific discursive interactions and toward the social and historical context within which both everyday conversation and formal institutional discourse takes place. The focus is on how this sociopolitical context shapes power relations between groups and how various institutions within the wider society propagate and reproduce particular constructions that come to dominate our subjective experience and our individual and social identities (Parker, 2002, 2012; Willig, 1999, 2001).

It is important to emphasize that discursive approaches to intergroup communication are practiced in several disciplines—all of which have developed their own analytic methods and approaches to analysis and interpretation. Within psychology, this diversity of approaches to analyzing discourse and communication can be represented as lying on a continuum between an approach that focuses on the local, interactional, and sequential nature of everyday talk and conversation in its natural settings (Edwards, 1997, 2012; Edwards & Potter, 1992; Potter, 1996, 2012) and an explicitly critical approach that is interested in how power is maintained through the reproduction and legitimation of social systems. Discursive work in general can be located anywhere along this continuum. Although these are sometimes viewed as antithetical approaches, some analysts have shown how they can be usefully combined to arrive at a synthetic approach (Wetherell, 1998).

Intergroup Communication

Discursive psychology has produced a significant body of research on intergroup communication that focuses specifically on how social groups are constructed and represented in everyday informal and institutional talk. This focus has been a central concern for discursive psychologists for several reasons. First, such discourse is seen to be central to how speakers perceive and represent intergroup relations that are defined by status and power differences based on race, gender, ethnicity, age, among other factors. How speakers attend to and account for such differences in discourse is perceived to be intimately related to the reproduction and legitimation of social inequalities such as sexism, racism, and ageism, which are in themselves important topics for analysis. Second, group-related discourse is associated with social identities and how they are produced in talk to accomplish social actions such as attributing blame, excusing, and defending. Social identities in talk are central to how group memberships are constructed and through which self and others are defined. Intergroup discourse analysis has produced a large body or research in two main areas: (1) the discursive practice of social categorization (constructing self and “others”) and (2) how majorities talk about minorities in a range of everyday and institutional settings.

Social Categories in Discourse

How social groups are referenced in language is rarely a neutral practice: linguistic categories used to reference self and others are not merely reflective, they are also constitutive. Unlike cognitive and psychological models of categorization that treat categories as automatically activated perceptual-cognitive templates, discursive psychologists view social categorization as a discursive and social practice that is constructive, action oriented, and that achieves rhetorical and social functions. Potter and Wetherell (1987, p. 116) argued:

Instead of seeing categorization as a natural phenomenon—something which just happens, automatically—it is regarded as a complex and subtle social accomplishment . . . this . . . emphasizes the action orientation of categorization in discourse. It asks how categories are flexibly articulated in the course of certain sorts of talk and writing to accomplish particular goals, such as blamings or justifications.

Discursive psychology’s approach to categorization has been strongly influenced by Harvey Sacks’ (1995) work in ethnomethodology and conversation analysis, which examined how categories are used in naturally occurring conversation and social interaction. This is in stark contrast to the experimental stimuli used in laboratory experiments that seek to understand the assumed perceptual and cognitive processes that underlie categorization and stereotyping. Inside the laboratory social categories are used unproblematically as verbal stimuli in experimental procedures designed to elicit either implicit or explicit evaluative responses. But outside the laboratory, in everyday talk and social interaction, social categories (even seemingly mundane ones) are used in flexible and context-specific ways. This approach to examining how categories are deployed in everyday talk and what work they perform in social interaction has led to a significant tradition of research known as membership categorization analysis or MCA (Lepper, 2000; Watson, 1997), a tradition that has developed largely in parallel to psychological theories of categorization.

Sacks (1995) showed how categorizations are a selection from a broad range of possible available alternatives: there are potentially many ways in which a particular person, group, or event can be categorized. For example, a woman could be described as a “girl,” a “lady,” a “female,” a “lawyer,” or a “mother,” or in other similar ways. Categories are therefore not objective blocks of description or cognitive templates waiting to be activated but are built up sequentially in interaction in order to accomplish a range of social actions. Edwards (1998) notes: “The way in which ‘identity’ categories work . . . is that by selecting one rather than another, speakers can perform and manage various kinds of interactionally sensitive business, including their motives and reasons for doing things and saying things” (p.19). By examining the identity categories and predicates invoked by participants in everyday social interaction we can examine how people hearably orient to the matter of their own motives and character and those of others.

The following example provided by Dickerson (2012) illustrates how categories function to construct various social identities for speakers. Dickerson (2012) analyzes a conversation that received considerable media attention during the 2010 U.K. election campaign between Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his aide that was unknowingly recorded following an exchange between Brown and a member of the public, Mrs. Duffy, who was expressing her concerns to the prime minister about immigration.

Discursive Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication

Between lines 1 and 9 we can see Brown describing his encounter with Mrs. Duffy as a “disaster” (from which we can infer that he means a public relations disaster for the campaign) and responds to his aide’s question on line 12, “What did she say?,” without any details other than to categorize her as “just a sort of bigoted woman.” As Dickerson (2012) noted, we do not need to know what Mrs. Duffy actually said to infer the kinds of things a “bigoted person” would say about immigration. The category itself provides a rich source of commonsense knowledge that we can draw upon to fill in the details. Moreover, this category holds considerable moral weight: having bigoted views is generally deemed socially unacceptable, so categorizing her in this way not only depicts Mrs. Duffy negatively but also holds her accountable for such views. In the following extract, however, we can see Mrs. Duffy challenge the prime minister’s depiction of her as “bigoted” by providing an alternative category for herself as an “ordinary woman.” As Dickerson argues, this alternative category works as a clear contrast to the category bigoted and normalizes Mrs. Duffy and what she has to say about immigration; indeed, on lines 4–5 she characterizes the questions she asked the prime minister as questions that “most people would ask.”

Discursive Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication

Categorization of Refugees

One area in which discursive psychologists have been prolific has been in analyzing everyday talk and public discourse about asylum seekers and refugees. Research has shown how participants in debates about refugees draw on different group categories, so that much of the debate becomes about which categories should be used to describe refugees, with supporters tending to use the term “refugee” while opponents use alternative categorizations such as immigrants, illegal immigrants or, “bogus” asylum seekers (Goodman & Speer, 2007). The following example comes from a columnist in the Daily Mail, during a televised debate about asylum seeking:

The most in inflammatory language which is used is the is the false use of the word of the word of the words ‘asylum seekers’ to describe people who are in fact illegal immigrants. (Goodman & Speer, 2007, p. 170)

The claim here is that people who are referred to as “asylum seekers” are not legitimate asylum seekers. This illustrates the importance of categories in the debate: as Sales (2002) shows, refugees are represented as “deserving” whereas “illegal immigrants” or “bogus” asylum seekers are not. However, by distinguishing different categories in this way (or in some cases distinguishing and blurring these different categories) all refugees (and especially asylum seekers) can come to have their legitimacy challenged so that the term asylum seeker itself can come to contain the possibility of a fraudulent claim. This means that everyone categorized as an asylum seeker is likely to face some element of doubt over being a “true” refugee, which makes it easier to justify their exclusion.

Although heated public debate about refugees has been making the news for some time, this debate has escalated globally as the Syrian refugee “crisis” became international news in April 2015. Goodman and colleagues (in press) reported on how the different use of the social categories “Migrant” and “Refugee,” were used in the news reporting of these events, noting that these different categories infer different moral status and therefore different treatment for the people involved. Initially, the media categorized the large number of people fleeing Syria to Europe as “migrants.” Following the publication of photographs of a three-year-old Syrian refugee, Alan Kurdi, who died attempting to cross the Mediterranean Sea into Europe, this changed; the crisis was subsequently referred to as a “refugee crisis.” The brief period in which the crisis was referred to as the “refugee crisis” coincided with unusual displays of sympathy toward refugees. However, as the crisis came to be linked with terrorist attacks, it reverted back to being a “migrant crisis,” with a reduction in sympathy toward those involved.

When refugees are presented as illegitimate, it is often implied that this is because they are actually economic migrants. A clear illustration of this can be seen in this example from the former United Kingdom Independence Party leader, Nigel Farage, discussing U.S. President Donald Trump’s controversial travel ban on Fox News: “Be careful about using the word refugees . . . actually most people that are coming from those countries whether it’s coming into Europe or coming to America are basically economic migrants.”

As will be discussed in this chapter, these alternative categorizations can be effective in protecting speakers against accusations of prejudice (Goodman & Burke, 2011). Lynn and Lea (2003), in their analysis of letters to the editor on asylum seekers in Britain, identified the differentiation of “genuine” from “bogus” refugees as a key discursive resource for denying asylum seekers access and rights in Britain. From Lynn and Lea (2003):

Bad feeling occurs when refugees are housed ahead of homeless British citizens. No-one begrudges genuine refugees a home, but when bogus ones are housed within weeks and UK citizens, black and white, are left to rot in hostels, it does seem unfair? (p. 433)

This discursive device of differentiating between a genuine and bogus Other is useful in bringing off a criticism, whilst simultaneously appearing “reasonable” and sympathetic towards asylum seekers. Lynn and Lea (2003) suggested that the idea of the bogus refugee has entered into “common sense,” and has become increasingly “naturalized” as a legitimate and justifiable categorization for asylum seekers. The categorization of refugees as “bogus” works to restrict their claims for asylum and to legitimate their detention on the grounds that only “real” refugees are entitled to protection and rights.

Majority Discourse on Minorities

How speakers invoke social identities in discourse and represent intergroup relations that are defined by race, gender, ethnicity, age, among other factors, is perceived to be intimately related to the reproduction and legitimation of social inequalities in liberal democratic societies. Discursive psychology has now produced a large body of research focusing primarily on the discourse of majority group members and powerful elites to identify dominant and pervasive patterns of discourse that are seen as contributing to the continued marginalization and social exclusion of minorities. These discursive patterns include: (1) positive self and negative other presentation, (2) denials of prejudice, (3) discursive deracialization, and the use of (4) liberal-egalitarian arguments to justify and legitimate illiberal ends (Augoustinos & Every, 2007). Although more recent research is beginning to examine how minorities themselves account for their experiences of marginalization and social exclusion, the emphasis on minority group discourse has been primarily about ethnic and social identification.

Positive Self and Negative Other Presentation

A common and pervasive pattern of talk found in intergroup communication is that of positive self and negative other presentation. This pattern of talk is typically associated with an “us versus them” contrast structure whereby the outgroup is compared negatively against the positive and socially desirable standards and norms of one’s ingroup. These comparisons are often embedded within storytelling that presents firsthand personal experiences of undesirable outgroup behavior (van Dijk, 1992). These contain purported “factual” claims about minority outgroup behavior that is represented as negative, antisocial, or transgressing the dominant group’s social norms.

The example below comes from a focus group discussion by white majority Australians on Indigenous/non-Indigenous race relations. In this account, the speaker’s direct observations of negative behavior are provided as evidence for why the dominant group is inclined to stereotype Indigenous Australians negatively.

From Augoustinos, Tuffin, and Rapley (1999):

J:you’ll see them sitting in the park and whatever and I think a lot of people get to see that side of it and they sort of a they find it very easy to put them into that sort of box being alcoholics and not being productive to society umm so I think that the people who do that the Aboriginals that will do that and are destructive and whatever form mm are doing the overall umm Aboriginal society a lot of damage. (p. 362)

J’s firsthand observation of Aboriginal people drinking publicly in the park provides empirical justification for why non-indigenous Australians find it “easy” to categorize Aboriginal people as unproductive alcoholics. The claimed ease with which such categorizations and generalizations take place carries with it an implication of being a common, natural, human response to such observed instances of undesirable behavior. This is a form of consensual and empirical warranting that functions to legitimate the factuality of the speaker’s account. Moreover, the consensus implied by the ease with which numerous observers reach the same conclusion works to deflect possible charges of prejudice and steeps what is a stereotypical generalization in an unquestioned “naturalness.”

Positive self and negative “other” presentation has also been identified in elite discourse (Wodak & van Dijk, 2000), most particularly in public debates on immigration, refugees, and asylum seekers. These discursive formulations function as justifications that support restrictions to immigration and to policies that exclude and restrict refugees from claiming asylum. In the extract below, Australian political journalist, Fran Kelly, requests the minister of immigration for the “data” upon which the government decision was made to reduce the Sudanese humanitarian intake in 2007; a decision that was subject to allegations of racism by sections of the Australian community.

From Hanson-Easey and Augoustinos (2010), this is Andrews’s interview with Kelly ABC Radio National, October 5, 2007:

Kelly: Minister (.) the Courier Mail today had a photo of a Sudanese family on the front page with a splash headline .h (.3) blacklist (.4) government says Sudanese don't fit .hh it’s pretty harsh stuff .h what evidence (.) what data do you base your decision (.7) to li- to limit the-Sudanese refugee numbers on (.6) the facts and figures that the last man was asking for.

Andrews: [11 lines removed] now .h coming to:o the matter you asked about

Kelly: mmhm

Andrews: I get .h ah regular reports from my department (.) hhh provide:d information through .hh various community groups and ethnic organisations from other sources (.) police and oth-otherwise .hh (.) and there's been .h a-a number of matters which have (.) continually being brought to my attention about .h things like the establishment of race based ga:ngs ah .hh altercations between various groups .h disagreement between ah .h various ah c-community originations (.) tensions between families .h ah and a range of other things (.) then on top of that .hh we know when we look at the data .h that .h this is a group that have .h ah (.) special or uniq:ue challenges beyond those of other groups of refugees (.1) for example the average .hh schooling age is .h about four compared to .h seven .h just three or four years ago .h a lot more (.) forty percent have spent time in refugee camps compared to .h just fifteen percent .h in two thousand and two-three .h ah the reading ability is quite low. (p. 306).

In response to Kelly’s request for “facts and figures” to justify reducing the quota from the Sudan, Andrews claims that “reports” of problematic behavior by Sudanese refugees have come from a wide range of sources. This formulation of “various groups” corroborating the information is particularly robust to accusations of prejudice or bias that could be made against Andrews and his government for this policy decision. Moreover, Andrews constructs “Sudanese refugees” as a highly problematic group, attributing a comprehensive list of negative traits and characteristics (the purported establishment of “race-based gangs,” “disagreements between community organizations” and “tensions between families”) that constructs the collective as internally dysfunctional and ridden with intragroup conflict and disunity. The minister then proceeds to differentiate them further from other refugees by identifying other “unique challenges” to the group: their average schooling age and reading ability is lower than that of other refugee groups, and a significant proportion of Sudanese (40%) have spent time in refugee camps. Thus, Andrews attributes the purported problems that refugees from Sudan face as settlers in Australia to the internal fractures of the group itself and the severity of their social deprivation associated with their refugee status.

Denying Prejudice by Grounding One’s Views in Reason and Rationality

Given the increasing opprobrium against expressing what may be potentially heard as racist or prejudiced views, speakers strategically avoid such attributions by presenting their views as reflecting the external world, rather than one’s internal (and therefore potentially racist) psychology (Edwards, 2003). Denials of prejudice are so ubiquitous that the formulaic disclaimer “I’m not prejudiced but . . .” is widely recognized as a strategic device to ward off such accusations (van Dijk, 1992). We can see how speakers attend to such concerns in several of the extracts above by building the factuality of their claims and using rhetorical devices such as corroboration and consensus. Thus, a common and pervasive way in which majority group members justify and legitimate their negative views of “others” is to present their views as reasonable, rational, and thoughtfully arrived at.

The denial of prejudice is a common feature of talk about refugees and in connected debates about immigration. This can be seen clearly in the British Conservative Party’s election campaign poster in 2005 that contained the clear disclaimer that “it’s not racist to impose limits on immigration.” Capdevila and Callaghan (2008) focused on the former Conservative Party leader Michael Howard’s use of language and showed how, in a conference speech in 2005 he explicitly claimed that his opposition to immigration and asylum is not racist, as seen in the following excerpt: “Some people say that’s racist. It’s not. It’s common sense.” (Capdevila & Callaghan, 2008, p. 5).

Alongside the straightforward denial of racism in Howard’s speech, it can also be seen that he is reacting to and preempting the possibility that he will be accused of racism (e.g., “some people say”). Indeed, if there was no possibility of being called racist, there would be no need to deny it. This is what van Dijk (2000) referred to as the paradox of disclaimers: by denying racism, the speaker draws attention to the possibility that what is being said could be responded to as racist. Moreover, Howard presents his views as being arrived at by “common sense,” thus invoking reason and rationality to justify limits on immigration.

Commonly used arguments about the potential financial costs of hosting refugees or the idea that countries are “full” so that their infrastructure cannot cope with people coming into the country are all examples of this kind of strategy. Headlines such as “Germany's Population Hits Record High of 82.8 Million People after 280,000 Migrants Arrive in One Year” (Daily Mail, January 27, 2017) work to present immigrants arriving as problematic because of its impact on a particular country’s population. By drawing on population statistics such as this, the implicitly antimigrant argument is presented as factual rather than reflecting any prejudicial antimigrant feelings on behalf of the author or newspaper in which it is published; any concern is presented as a reasonable and rational response to a valid “real” problem.

Discursive De-racialization

Another pervasive feature of intergroup discourse is the way in which speakers attempt to de-racialize negative representations of minority outgroups. Discursive “de-racialization” occurs when racial categories are attenuated, eliminated, or substituted, and racial explanations are omitted or deemphazised in discourse (Reeves, 1983). Many analysts have noted how the category of “nation” is increasingly taking over from “race” in legitimating negative views and practices toward minority groups. In institutional discourse the category of nation and national belonging has been increasingly mobilized in political debates in Western democracies on immigration and asylum seekers, not only by right-wing political parties but also by centrist parties (Wodak & van Dijk, 2000).

The discourse of nation, nationhood, and national identity has also been found to be a prevalent feature in everyday informal talk and argumentation on such topics. Wetherell and Potter (1992) for example, have described the use of a “togetherness repertoire” in the racial discourse of Pakeha New Zealanders that emphasizes the need to minimize differences between people and instead highlight commonalities. For example, this is from Wetherell and Potter (1992):

I think everybody should be free to follow their culture as part of (mmhm) their heritage. But, uh, I think it’s also important that we recognize that we are in fact New Zealanders (mmhm). And we should be tending to become more one rather than separately developing (right, yeah). (p. 145)

Although the importance afforded in this account to a collective national identity (New Zealand) functions to emphasize social inclusiveness, paradoxically, it can also work to undermine the legitimacy of minority groups having their varied cultural and social identities recognized and affirmed. Thus, existing differences in culture, history, language, and ethnicity are to be subsumed by appealing to the nationalist moral imperative to identify collectively at the level of the nation-state.

Goodman and Burke (2011) investigated this phenomenon in debates about refugee and asylum seeker policies in the United Kingdom. They found that non-racial reasons are typically offered for opposing refugees, including economic arguments, differences in culture, the threat of terrorism and refugees’ supposed inability to integrate into host societies. All of these explanations were offered as alternatives to the possibility that opposition to hosting refugees may be racist. This removal of race, and the associated denials of racism, suggests that the argument that opposition to refugees is not racist has been accepted as common knowledge.

Liberal Arguments to Justify Illiberal Ends

Based on interviews with white New Zealanders, and an analysis of media, political, and historical texts, Wetherell and Potter (1992) identified ten commonplace arguments that were typically deployed by majority group members to justify existing intergroup relations in New Zealand. These commonplaces functioned as “rhetorically self-sufficient” arguments that required little elaboration or explanation. Based on liberal egalitarian principles such as freedom, equality, and individualism, these abstract principles were recurrently drawn upon by speakers in their talk to account for and rationalize their views. Taken-for-granted arguments such as “everybody should be treated equally,” “present generations cannot be blamed for the mistakes of the past generations,” “anyone can succeed if they try hard enough,” and “you have to be practical,” constituted a tool-kit of “practical politics” that were used flexibly in the discourse of Pakeha (white) New Zealanders.

The self-sufficient rhetorical argument “you have to be practical” is perhaps just as ubiquitous in intergroup discourse as the denial of prejudice. Although on the one hand speakers invariably espouse egalitarian principles and ideals, on the other, these principles are undermined by practical considerations. Such “practical talk” is deployed in ways that, again, function primarily to justify and legitimate existing social inequities in society. This principle/practice dichotomy, in which a principle is cited but then is immediately undercut by the impracticalities that the upholding of this principle would entail, has been documented in intergroup discourse on gender, race, and disability. In the account below, care staff worker D supports the principle of choice and control for how people with learning disabilities spend their money but then immediately undercuts this principle by citing practical problems associated with this (“Some of them could just go out and blow it on fags.”) In this way, freedom and choice for people with disabilities are effectively constrained.

From Jingree and Finlay (2008), p. 715:

Discursive Psychological Approaches to Intergroup Communication

Anti-refugee discourse also draws upon using purportedly liberal arguments to achieve the illiberal end of preventing refugees accessing safety. For example, Goodman (2008) showed how British politicians from different parties presented social cohesion as a key reason for opposing refugees. The following example is from then Home Secretary Beverley Hughes:

We are radically transforming the system and generating public confidence in in the asylum system it’s a fundamental prerequisite for us its fundamental for community relations in this country. (adapted from Goodman, 2008, p. 113)

Thus, Hughes simultaneously argues for a tougher asylum system and supporting “community relations” as an anti-prejudice ideal. Connected to this strategy is that of saying that “tough” policies are needed on refugees to prevent far-right extremists from coming to power, which again presents a liberal ideal as necessary for the illiberal prevention of refugees accessing safety.


As this chapter has demonstrated, discursive psychological approaches have introduced new ways of examining some of psychology’s core topics. The focus on language use rather than purported underlying cognitive processes has been enthusiastically embraced by some social psychologists working in traditions such as social identity theory, intergroup relations, and particularly the social psychology of prejudice and racism. Despite its increasing acceptance, discursive psychology’s anti-cognitivist epistemology continues to attract considerable antipathy. Discursive psychological approaches are also typically criticized as lacking scientific objectivity and relying heavily on the interpretation of analysts. Addressing these criticisms, Potter (2012) and Edwards (2012) dealt with common misconceptions of discursive psychology that contribute to its continued marginalization and exclusion from mainstream social psychology. Potter argues for the methodological and theoretical coherence of discursive psychology as an empirically driven program of the systematic analysis of naturalistic records of human interaction and social action as they unfold in real time. Indeed, such an approach that emphasizes careful observation and description before generating hypotheses or building models is central to the scientific method. This is in contrast to the preference in psychology for studying human behavior and communication in contrived laboratory settings rather than in their natural everyday settings.

Similarly, Edwards (2012) argued that the methodological imperative in discursive psychology to treat “talk as talk,” and as managed and organized for social action by participants is far less interpretative and subjective than experimental and quantitative psychology. Edwards questions the privileging in psychology of cause-effect relationships and makes a strong case for a rigorous conceptual analysis of the “systematic, research tractable-set of practices by which people render themselves intelligible to each other” (p. 433): that the intelligibility of social life is to be found in the normative bases of human practices and accountability.

In terms of studying intergroup communication, discursive psychological approaches have thus far contributed to a large body of work that documents the fine discursive and rhetorical patterns that shape talk and text on race, multiculturalism, immigration, refugees, and gender—topics that typically generate polarized debate and argument in Western liberal democracies. Significantly, this work has mapped the new ways of talking about delicate issues that avoid imputations of racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice that have become increasingly socially unacceptable. Discursive approaches view language and communication as the primary mediums through which forms of inequality and discrimination are reified, reproduced, and maintained. Rather than treating these as individual phenomena, as in traditional psychology, they are conceptualized as social and collective phenomena that disseminate and reify certain truths about our own group identities and those who are different. These truths about “us and them” are seen as part of our social fabric, shared discursive resources and sense-making practices from which we draw upon to reason, explain, and justify in everyday discourse and communication.

Further Reading

Augoustinos, M., & Tileagă, C. (2012). Twenty-five years of discursive psychology. British Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 405–412.Find this resource:

McKinlay, A., & McVittie, C. (2008). Social psychology and discourse. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Find this resource:

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