The identity of individuals and what shapes their identity is something that has been debated for many years within the different disciplines of psychology. Identity is said to be how one makes sense of who they are (Crafter, 2015), their own theory of themselves (Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016).
There are many theories surrounding identity and its formation with roots in biological psychology (Woodward, 1997) cognitivism (Drew 2005, in Potter, 2006), developmental psychology (Erikson, 1950, cited in Crafter, 2015 p.208) and social constructivism (Wetherell, 2007 cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p.397). The focus of this essay will be on text-based qualitative methods known as discursive methods that study how discourse, or language, is used between people, in talk or text, to construct different ‘realities’ (Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016). Discursive methods take a social constructivism stance that argues that an individual’s world is socially constructed through discourse with others (Thirkettle and Stenner, 2016), so they study these discourses to attempt to form an understanding of identity phenomena.
This essay will critically evaluate discursive methods and their contribution to psychologists’ understanding of identity. In discursive psychology, a social science approach, psychologists take a social constructionist stance by approaching questions of knowledge and reality from a discourse perspective. They argue that the world is socially constructed through discourse, or language, between people and that an individual’s ‘reality’ is created through historically and culturally situated practices (Thirkettle and Stenner, 2016). However, from this view, reality is specific to the individual, so consequently, psychologists will find multiple realities about the world (Dempster and Hanna, 2015; Thirkettle and Stanner, 2016).
Since discursive psychology looks for the situated reasons behind the actions of people and asks the question of ‘how’ a particular version of reality is constructed through discourse, it differs from the contrasting views of those who take a realist stance, often seen within experimental methodologies, or the natural sciences, which look for the cause and effect relationships between variables (Thirkettle and Stenner, 2016). These methodologies claim that phenomena are objectively observable and explainable so knowledge can be measured and there is only one single reality (Thirkettle and Stenner, 2016).
In discursive methods, knowledge cannot be measured but can be interpreted instead based on the judgement and opinion of the specific researcher. These methods do not provide evidence for why phenomena occur; therefore, cannot predict or determine what will happen the way natural science experimental methods can (Wiggins, 2017). But discursive methods can account for what happens in construction of phenomena such as identity. Discursive methods have played a part in our understanding of identities. From a discursive psychology perspective, a person’s identity is constructed via the various social, cultural and historical discourses, at a macro-level (Stenner and Lazard, 2016), which have been made available through their everyday interactions with others at a micro-level (Stokoe, 2009, in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2006).
It has been claimed that identities are something that are constructed and constructive in a psychological dimension and a social dimension (Thirkettle and Stenner, 2016), through an individuals’ own thoughts, feelings and talk to themselves, and their talk between themselves and others. It has also been claimed that these identities are not fixed and are instead variable due to interactions with others which can vary in contexts and call for different identities (Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016).
For example, C.T. Mohanty (cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016. p.395) described how she had to rethink her identity as an Indian woman every time she moved to a new country and with how, after 9/11, others perceived her. In line with that, there is often a relevance of power and social inequalities in the construction of identities, which individuals using discourse to occupy power in relation to others, for instance, mothers will construct themselves as the experts when it comes to childcare over their partners (Davies, 2014, cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p.420).
Dominant groups in society also use discourse to construct subordinated identities of others (Wiggins, 2017), through processes such as ‘othering’ (The Open University, 2019) and ‘labelling’ (Havard, 2014). There have been numerous theoretical and analytic approaches that have studied identities at both a micro and a macro level (Wetherell, 2011, cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p.397). Methods such as conversational analysis (Drew, 2003 in Stenner and Lazard, 2016 p.335) and ethnomethodology (Garfinkle ,1967; Goffman, 1959 cited in Wiggins, 2017 p.19) have examined identity construction within daily local interactions, and have argued the identity categories formed make common-sense knowledge associated with them available for participants to use in identity work, allowing them to position themselves in various contexts such as using categories such as ‘single mother’ to perform moral work or justify complaints (Stokoe, 2003, 2009; Davies, 2014, cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p.398,399).
Alternatively, methods such as Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (Willig, 2003, cited in Stenner and Lazard, 2016 p.335) have looked at analysing identity construction within broader sociocultural and historical interactions, and have claimed that knowledge is something that can change over historical time and can vary in different social and cultural settings. To illustrate this, Foucault (2003; 2006, cited in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p. 400) found that mental illness had been understood differently within religious, moral, psychological and biomedical discourse when he charted the definition and treatment of sanity and madness throughout history.
This implied that different forms of knowledge had different consequences for the different identities that were produced (Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016). Nevertheless, there is a divide between the micro and macro approaches since the methods either attribute identity construction to either local interactions or broader interactions, but neither suggest that both local interactions and cultural interactions could be at play together. However, Wetherell (2007) (in Davies and Horton-Salway 2016 p.400,401) recognised the need to bridge the gap between micro and macro analysis, and so developed a blended approach called Critical Discursive Psychology (CDP), which uses concepts of interpretive repertoires and subject positions to study ‘how’ and ‘what kind’ of identity is made, by considering how discourse is the connection between everyday interactions and cultural interactions (Wiggins, 2017).
Interpretive repertoires are recurring and recognisable, culturally available ways of discussing phenomena and are vastly flexible allowing individuals to create or resist identities for themselves (Davies and Horton-Salway 2016). The use of certain repertoires makes distinct ‘subject positions’ available which individuals can identify with. Subject positions are highly variable depending on the situation, with individuals having a ‘portfolio’ of positions they can use (Seymour-Smith, 2008, in Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016 p.403).
For example, Callaghan and Lazard (2012), cited in Davies and Horton-Salway (2016 p.403,404) found that mothers resisted the subject position of a ‘bad mother’ in the dominant ‘breast is best’ debate, by justifying their feeding preferences and constructing themselves as ‘good mothers’. It is argued that it is through a range of repertoires and subject positions that individuals can perform distinct moral work and construct positive identities for themselves (Davies and Horton-Salway, 2016).