When we set up the Discourse Unit in Manchester we were aware that to do critical discursive work is to engage in debates across the spectrum of alternative frameworks that contest traditional psychology. The account I am giving here glosses over many theoretical and methodological differences between people working with us. This debate is reflected in the rather clumsy and panoramic subtitle for the Discourse Unit, 'Centre for Qualitative and Theoretical Research on the Reproduction and Transformation of Language, Subjectivity and Practice'. We also knew that it would be antipathetic to the qualitative tradition to try and pin down one distinct theoretical stance, and to interpret material from that single point. The multiplicity of meaning in discourse calls for a multiplicity of vantage points and theoretical frameworks, and a multiplicity of subject positions from which to challenge positivism and empiricism in the discipline. This meant that training, discussion and practice had to be of qualitative and theoretical research. As psychology has changed since the Unit was founded in 1990 (by Erica Burman and Ian Parker), so has the focus of our work, and now 'qualitative research' and 'action research' tend to operate as the overarching rubrics for interpretative studies of discourse, subjectivity and social order.
One way of specifying who we are is to say a little about the different research projects that have appeared under the auspices of the Unit, and perhaps this is a better way of framing the narrative than simply producing a roll-call of the names of individuals who have been with the Unit over the years.
(1) Feminism: The emergence of discourse analysis in psychology at the end of the 1980s immediately posed a question about the political stakes of methodology, and a strand of research devoted to the role of feminist theory and the place of feminists in psychology was developed in the Unit which as continued to the present day (see: Burman, 1990; Burman, 1998; Burman et al. 1996a; Reavey and Warner, 2003). We have included PhD projects on women and therapy (Colleen Heenan), women and pornography (Karen Ciclitira), single parent action networks (Diane Burns), women and psychology training in South Africa (Jane Callaghan), HIV and sexual violence in South Africa (Judeline Clark), and women as refugees in southern Africa (Ingrid Palmary)
(2) Education: Alongside this specifically feminist research, we were concerned to tackle different varieties of oppression perpetuated by mainstream psychology, and to connect with the activist critiques from, for example, the disability movement with respect to education. Projects on education case conferences and on the statementing of children (specification of exclusion from school) were carried out with local services (Billington, 2000; Marks, 1999). We have included PhD projects on education case conferences (Deborah Marks), school exclusion (Tom Billington), and responses to Tourettes Syndrome (Rob Evans).
(3) Mental Health: The work in the Unit also connected with the activities of the anti-psychiatry movement, and in particular with the activities of the Hearing Voices Network, and research projects in the sphere of mental health were designed to make theoretical critique accessible and relevant to different groups that suffered and resisted the mental health system (e.g., Parker et al., 1995; Reavey and Warner, 2003). We have included PhD projects on the history of the Hearing Voices Network (Terence McLaughlin), personality disorder in special hospitals (Mark Stowell-Smith), psychotic discourse (Genie Georgaca), paranoia (David Harper), women in special hospitals (Sam Warner), gender and addiction (Ilana Mountian), and indeterminacy in addiction (Christian Yavorsky).
(4) Culture: At the same time, the theoretical challenge to the domination by psychology of forms of knowledge about subjectivity brought us into ostensibly more esoteric studies of the impact of the internet and cyberpsychology, conceptual explorations of the role of humour in resistance and semiotic research on popular culture. In this respect the Discourse Unit operated as a space inside psychology to open it out to the outside in different forms of interdisciplinary research (e.g., Burman et al., 1996b; Gordo-López and Parker, 1999; Heggs, forthcoming). We have included PhD projects on humour (Brenda Goldberg), new technology and subjectivity (Angel Gordo-López), September 11th (Alex Bridger), Jews for Jesus (Elliot Cohen) migration and therapy (Pauline Mottram), and the Zapatistas (Makis Mentinis).
(5) Discourse: Intervention in the world of discourse analysis and discursive psychology was all this time concerned to bring methodological disputes into connection with political issues the place of discourse analysis as an efficient part of the psy-complex and so as more part of the problem than part of the solution and so questions of criteria and what would count as good research to psychologists need to be questioned at the same time as the scope of discursive research is broadened out (e.g., Burman and Parker, 1993; Gordo-López and Linaza, 1996; Parker, 2002). We have included PhD projects on Superhero comics (Dan Heggs), therapy as research (Ian Law), and Lacanian ethics (Calum Neill).
Despite the competing and overlapping shifts of perspective and various disagreements between us, it is possible to characterise some of the theoretical and political projects of the Unit, and it is useful to reflect upon the conceptual resources that have contributed to it as a distinct research community. It is by no means the only research group concerned with discourse in psychology, and we could not even claim that it was unique in blending discourse theory with an intervention into psychological practice. This history does throw some light upon how theoretical connections in our work have percolated through to wider qualitative debates though, and laying its history open in this way should also help us to reflect upon the subjective investments that a researcher might make in 'alternative' varieties of psychology. Given the importance we attach to interpretation and subjectivity in our current work, this history should also be a more honest way of telling a story about who we are, how you might interpret what we say, and how you might want to share with, or refuse some of the particular assumptions we make.