First, cognitive psychologists have come to realise some of the limits of their traditional paradigm when it comes to modelling and theorising `meaning'. An `information-processing' paradigm has lead to some spectacular achievements in the field of the automated translation of one (written) language into another, for example, but the internal processes whereby readers of these strings of symbols are able to `understand' them have remained elusive. Cognitive psychologists have begun to look at `meanings' as being constructed in `conversations' rather than merely located in some `mechanism inside someone's head': cognition is coming to be `interpersonal' rather than `intrapersonal'.
Second, in a retreat from its previous shying away from the `subjective' domain, so as to establish itself as an `objective' science, many branches of psychology have come to realise that a major component of human reality is what may be termed a `conversational reality', in which two or more `subject(ivitie)s' interact to negotiate, maintain and change the meanings of the world within which they live, and also to construct, maintain and change their selves.
`Conversation', then, has become a central issue within psychology. In one sense it can become an `object' of study in its own right, and hence legitimately a province of `conventional' science. In another sense, it is the agent whereby meanings and selves are created and sustained. This shift in emphasis is still being explored in the academic or theoretical aspects of psychology, but has begun to be embraced in a number of the traditional applications of psychology: in the study of organizational behaviour; in clinical psychology; in educational psychology. There are also clear links with similar developments in many social science subjects, for example: social anthropology; sociology; media studies; women's studies; communication studies; etc. There are further links and applications shared with other disciplines: history; law; marketing; English; etc.
One source for gaining an introduction to this recent turn in the psychological literature is the September/October 1992 issue of the American Behavioral Scientist (Volume 36, Number 1: pp 3-123), where, as Rom Harre writes in his introduction, the papers 'are all contributions, in various ways, to a recent development in psychology that might be termed 'the second cognitive revolution'' (1992: p5).
One characterization of this emerging perspective has been put forward by Jerome Bruner:
There is no question that cognitive science has made a contribution to our understanding of how information is moved about and processed. Nor can there be much doubt on reflection that it has left largely unexplained and even somewhat obscured the very large issues that inspired the cognitive revolution in the first place. So let us return to the question of how to construct a mental science around the concept of meaning and the processes by which meanings are created and negotiated within a community (Bruner, 1990: p10).
A second attempt is offered by Rom Harre:
What, then, should psychologists do if the second cognitive revolution is on the right track? Why, study cognition where it lives, in discourse, considered in a broad sense to include all sorts of symbolic manipulations according to rules (1992: p7)
To be more explicit about discourse and what it is (dangerous ground, this: definitions always are, but are worse in an area that is concerned with the status of subject, relationship (practice), and object on which all definitions have, perforce, to be built), we draw on Ian Parker's list (1992).
From these points, it will be clear that the basic phenomena dealt with in a discourse approach are of a different nature from those that are held to be at the basis of empirical psychology. That is, the 'facts', for want of a better word (inverted commas and disclaimer illustrating the rhetorical nature of this discourse just noted), to be 'discovered' in investigation are nowhere near as clear-cut as those experimentalists believe they are uncovering. Determining exactly a psychophysical threshold is theoretically and methodologically possible; discovering exactly what someone meant exactly is theoretically and methodologically impossible. This leads to the next point:
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