7. The Circular Discovery of (a) Discourses and (b) Mental Constructs

Compiling quotations into a profile can be part of a discourse analysis. For instance, an analyst might be seeking to investigate whether speakers, in framing their individual utterances, are using commonly shared discursive resources. Some analysts examine how particular rhetorical and conversational devices are used in specific contexts. Some researchers examine how speakers may be using shared patterns of understanding or interpretation. There are a variety of terms to describe the sort of discursive resources that speakers may share. For instance, Potter and Wetherell (1987) refer to shared 'interpretative repertoires', Billig et al (1988) and Billig (1991) to 'ideologies' and Parker (1992) to 'discourses'. Each signals a different set of theoretical and analytic assumptions. Accordingly, some discourse analysts will consider it a matter of theoretical and methodological importance to show how particular utterances are themselves formed out of wider, socially shared 'repertoires', 'ideologies', 'discourses' etc. The analyst might present a profile of quotes in order to show how different speakers might be drawing upon common repertoires etc.

In theory, such profiling would seem to fit the requirement of discourse analysis. An analytic extra is being added. The reader is not merely being informed that the speakers made these utterances, but the additional claim is made that all these utterances have something in common, being manifestations of a shared pattern of talking. The problem comes when care is not taken to substantiate the claim. Again, the data cannot be left to 'speak for itself', as if a series of quotes is sufficient in itself to show the existence of the repertoire, ideology or discourse. Moreover, the analyst runs the risk of circularity if the socially shared entities are cited in explanation for the utterances. This is just the concern expressed by Widdicombe when she writes:

the analytic rush to identify discourses in order to get on with the more serious business of accounting for their political significance may be partly responsible for the tendency… to impute the presence of a discourse to a piece of text without explaining the basis for specific claims (Widdicombe, 1995, p 108).

Widdicombe then goes on to make a strong case for her observation by re-analysing another writer's data, and, in being more explicit in her analysis, coming to very different conclusions about it.

To return to our interview example, quotations could be selected from the speaker's comments about marriage and relationships, requiring commitment. Indeed, other speakers might be quoted, if the analyst is suggesting that they are all talking along the same lines. On the basis of such quotations, the analyst might then claim that the speakers are using the repertoire, ideology or discourse of 'marital commitment'. The analyst may even claim to have 'discovered' the repertoire / ideology / discourse on the basis of the interview material.

If that is all the analyst is doing, then these terms function merely as summaries. They add little if anything to the analysis of the utterances, for they are only handy ways of describing the common features that the analyst is claiming to summarise. However, if the analyst then moves towards an explanation of the quoted discourse in terms of these entities, then a step towards circularity is taken, and we have Under-analysis through Circular Discovery. The quotes, which provide the justification for claiming the existence of a 'marital commitment discourse' (or repertoire, or ideology) are then explained in terms of this entity. Such circularity would occur if the analyst, having quoted extracts to claim the existence of a 'marital commitment repertoire / ideology / discourse', then goes on to imply that the speakers made those particular utterances because they shared this discourse, repertoire or ideology. . This is the sort of circularity that can be made by analysts who are using 'discourses', rather psychological terminology, as an analytic, explanatory term. The psychological circularity arises when an analyst claims that talk shows evidence for the existence of a particular psychological state or process, such as 'attitude', and then explains the production of that talk in terms of the existence of the attitude. An analogous circularity can occur when the analyst is working with a more macro concept than 'attitude', such as a Foucauldian notion of 'discourses'. The analyst may claim that the texts that are being studied show evidence of a particular discourse ie they may say the writer/speaker is using 'the faithfulness discourse'. It would then be circular to explain the particular texts on the grounds that they have been produced by this 'faithfulness discourse' if the texts themselves were the evidence for the existence of that discourse.

This is not to deny that there can be discursive analyses of repertoires, ideologies or discourses. Such analyses must provide some extra elements. The analyst might, for example, want to show how particular repertoires, ideologies or discourses are drawn upon to deal with specific features of the conversational interaction, such as particular moves from the interlocutor; or that when speakers use this repertoire in a general way, they will tend to qualify it by introducing counter-themes (as the speaker does in lines 64 and following). Such an analysis would draw attention back to the details of the talk, as the analyst seeks to relate specific use of themes to specific conversational junctures. Much more will be required than quotation and assertions of commonality to sustain such an analysis. The analyst would need to demonstrate the commonalities in detail.

Alternatively, the analyst might seek evidence that is beyond the specific conversational extract, to substantiate the claim for the existence of such repertoires, ideologies or discourses. The analyst would need to state something about the nature of these entities. For instance, historical evidence might be cited to show the origins and development of various cultural patterns of talk. The particular analysis would aim to show how these wider patterns of talk are mobilized by the speaker in the particular context of the interview or conversation that is being studied. This wider historical perspective, then, would lead back to questions of why particular conversational manoeuvres are being made and what speakers are doing by using these common patterns of talk at these conversational junctures. Again, the perspective would lead back to examining the details of interaction. Indeed, it must do so, if the dangers of circularity and mere summarising are to be avoided.

In addition to the circularity of identifying discourses there is a parallel danger of circularly identifying mental constructs. The parallel move would be to interpret discourse as the expression of some underlying realm of thoughts, ideas, attitudes or opinions, where the nature of those underlying thoughts and opinions is given in the talk itself. Discursive psychology, in particular, has argued against the status of talk as being the expression of inner cognitive ideas or opinions, and rests upon a particular philosophy of mentality. Some discursive psychologists stress the philosophical heritage of Wittgenstein and Austin (Billig, 1999b, Harré & Gillett, 1994; Edwards, 1997; Potter, 2001) and some Volosinov (Billig, 1997b) and even classical rhetoric (Billig, 1996). Whatever the philosophical origins of the stance, the implication is clear: that rather than positing mental entities, we can concentrate upon examining the use of psychological language in discourse.

Of course, not all discourse analysts share discursive psychology's rejection of underlying mental schemata. In fact, some researchers, most notably van Dijk (1998), specifically incorporate cognitive factors within their models of discourse and ideology. Nevertheless, van Dijk still analyses discourse as discourse. He does not see discourse simply as a means of discovering cognitive structures or mental representations, nor does he see the cognitive structures or mental representations as producing the discourses. So our point here is not to argue specifically for discursive psychology, even though that is closer to our own take on the psychological nature of discourse. Rather, it is to suggest that whatever kind of discourse analysis is being done, it has to amount to much more than treating talk and text as the expression of views, thoughts and opinions, as standard survey, ethnographic and interview research often does.

The circularity to be avoided, in its most obvious guise, is that of taking speakers' uses of psychological phrases such as 'I think' or 'I feel', and treating these as giving direct access to the person's inner thoughts or feelings. The circularity comes into play when the analyst cites these inner thoughts or feelings as reasons why the speaker speaks as they do. The Respondent in the marital commitment extract constantly uses such psychological phrases: 'I believe' (lines 25-26); 'I think' (lines 51, 55, 63, 72 and 86), 'I just believe' (line 93) and so on. No discourse analysis of these phrases is attempted if the analyst takes them at face value as if they were outer manifestations of inner 'belief' or 'thought' processes.

Instead, such phrases would need to be analysed discursively. One might say that the interview situation is one in which the respondent knows that they are expected to engage in the discursive business of 'giving views'. In order to avoid appearing dogmatic and to demonstrate recognition that others have opposing opinions, speakers will use such phrases as 'I believe', 'I think'. Such an analysis of the rhetoric of giving views, then, would look to see how the speaker manages the dilemmas of presenting opinions forcefully but without seeming to be dogmatic. One would note how the speaker backtracks, going from strong statements about marital commitment to giving reasons for divorce if either 'party are really unhappy' (an analyst might ask precisely what the 'really' is accomplishing here); how he gives justifications; how he qualifies his utterances and so on. One would examine what the addition of 'I believe', 'I think', or 'that's my view' perform in the interaction. One would consult the relevant previous research on all these conversational moves and apply the accumulated insights to the present data. Or we could collect a corpus of examples of when and how people use such expressions as 'I believe', and 'I think', and examine what kinds of work such expressions perform, what kinds of contingencies they handle, what kinds of contrasts they occur in, and so on. Once one is doing this, one is doing discourse analysis. By contrast, merely to state that the speaker is expressing their beliefs is either to risk under-analysis through summarizing or making the circular discovery of an inner belief.

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