Several arguments for adopting a discursive approach to research

Reading between the lines can bring plain text to life

By Stu Dunn.

It is not unusual for people to resist change. Even science – what our modern minds recognize as systemized knowledge of the world – resists change. If it was not for those that fought this resistance and had the resilience in the face of adversity, surely we would still be living in a flat world with no light bulbs. A popular change management website suggests that there are eight main reasons as to why people resist change, which included changing the status quo. It is this that I shall call one of “sciences deadliest of sins” – mainstream science’s fear that change may cause anarchized upheaval, whereas what this resistance really manifests is inadvertent stagnation of the lakes of science when there should be the flowing rivers of shared knowledge. The cry of the dinosaur that resists change echoes the quote; “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”, implying that it is a mistake to try to improve something that already works. It is with this concept I shall delve into the social sciences – in particular – mainstream social psychology.

 This resistance to change is clearly visible in mainstream social psychology (Tuffin, 2005). While there has been some extraordinary insights gained from social psychology experiments (such as the bystander effect and conformity), the time to call these experiment as the most accurate form of gathering data is coming to an end. Without the experiment, mainstream social psychology may struggle to find data with which to analyse, scrutinize and number crunch into meaningful statistics. The restrictive boundaries experiments place on mainstream social psychology includes a much higher chance of artificial cause and effects, distrust from participants, and a vast array of issues with ethics (Tuffin, 2005). Parker and Shotter (1990) amongst others suggest there is also the potential for experimenter bias, by saying; “…there is always the possibility that one is investigating fictions of one’s own making,” (Parker & Shotter, 1990, p. 109). It is no wonder that data may become scarce for the positivist mainstream social psychological perspective – even for such social animals as human beings. It is also no wonder that the “old ways” are defended, for any challenge on the experiment is a challenge to the status quo.

Let me say that experiments certainly have their place, however there is still the gaping hole left by the single minded positivism approach to fill. And if experiments are so potentially unreliable for analysing spontaneous human interaction, where will social psychologists receive their data from? As Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes suggests; “Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay,” as a potter requires clay to mold, a builder needs materials with which to build; a social psychologist requires data to work with. Looking from the social constructionism perspective there is however a rich amount of social psychological data right under everyone’s noses – quite literally – the language that comes out of our mouths and discourse analysis. “…it is the language they [participants] speak that is the site of investigation,” (Widdicombe, 1993, p. 109).

Positivism – the philosophy of science as led by empirical experimentation within psychology – requires a single truth to be discovered or achieved through objective and unbiased observation and statistical validity (Tuffin, 2005). This and seeking statistical significance is where mainstream social psychology sits quite comfortably. As a virtual polar opposite social constructionists allow for multiple truths (as each individual maintains their own reality, their own perspective of which is true to them), frowns upon the issues listed earlier that come with amalgamating people and experiments, and is focused on the importance of linguistics as opposed to merely relying on the occularcentralistic “viewpoint”. Potter (1996) suggests that rather than regarding language as a mirror that purely reflects reality as mainstream social psychology tends to; choose to see language as a building site that allows for the construction of reality (it produces things). One of the key forms of exercising this critical social psychology is through discourse analysis, as this fully enables the educated analyst to understand our social world through language, the raw data of talk and text (Tuffin, 2005).

“Reality is in some part created by the manner in which an account is put together,” (Tuffin, 2005, p. 92). Discourse analysis follows the assumption that language is action orientated (it does things), and implicated in social outcomes through how the construction, function and variability of how an account has been assembled.

In conclusion, although discourse analysis may be considered labour intensive (Gill, 1993), I believe the inclusion and acceptance of discourse analysis into mainstream social psychology would strengthen social psychology as a whole.


Gill, R. (1993). Justifying injustice: Broadcasters’ accounts of inequality in radio. In E. Burman & I. Parker (Eds.), Discourse Analytic Research. Repertoires and readings of Texts in Action 75-93. London: Routledge.

Idioms, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Retrieved May 7, from’t+broke,+don’t+fix+it

Parker, I. & Shooter, J. (1990). Deconstructing Social Psychology. London and New York: Routledge.

Potter, J. (1996). Representing reality: Discourse, rhetoric and social construction.London: Sage.

Reasons For Resistance To Change. Retrieved May 7, from

Tuffin, K. (2005). Understanding Critical Social Psychology. London: Sage.

Widdicombe, S. (1993). Autobiography and change: Rhetoric and authenticity of ‘Gothic’ style. In E. Burman & I. Parker (Eds.), Discourse Analytic Research. Repertoires and readings of Texts in Action 94-113. London: Routledge.

Wikipedia, Sherlock Holmes (2009 film). Retrieved May 7, from

About Stu Dunn

With a background in sales and behavioural science, I enjoy learning more about people, behaviour, psychology - which led into motivation - and more recently - sales again. Having started my own real estate company with my wife, it's time to merge interests.
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3 Responses to Several arguments for adopting a discursive approach to research

  1. Luann says:

    I’m still learning from you, while I’m trying to achieve my goals. I definitely love reading all that is posted on your site.Keep the information coming. I enjoyed it!

  2. Pingback: Discourse Analysis is Important in Detecting Deception | The Blog for Stu Dunn

  3. This was a nice explanation of what Discourse analysis is. I loved reading this repeatedly.#niceessay

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