The curious case of everyday discourses providing psychology with its subject matter

Something I’ve mentioned in passing deserves more attention I think.

Once you deal thoroughly with discourse analysis, social anthropology and ‘post-modernist’ ideas, you apply them to everything—including psychology itself.

What strikes me most when doing this is how psychology has been built almost entirely on common-sense, common everyday, ways of talking about people.  Psychology has taken all these terms, explanations, and theories over from our everyday discourses and turned these into:

Everyday talk is a good description of what there is about people (wrong!)

Which leads to:

 “What needs to be explained about people’s psychology lies in what we all talk about”  (wrong!)

So, in everyday life for example we talk about ‘feelings coming from inside us’.  That is fine for everyday life, and I do the same. But over psychology’s history it has taken the stance:

“Because people talk about feelings so frequently there must be something called feelings inside us so let’s develop theories, models, explanations and experiments to find out what these feelings are and where they reside (in the brain obviously)”  (wrong!)

But when you think about this, this is a real “the sun revolves around our flat-earth, and that is what physics should study” way of proceeding.

Just a few points to add:

  • Psychology, of course, has only taken on completely western versions of everyday discourses. When you delve into anthropology they have moved away from making this mistake (currently reading Suzanne Oakdale, Ingold, Castro & Fausto)
  • This shows how uncritical psychology has been in its history despite the numerous arguments and disputes about different models (which theory explains ‘feelings’ best? But all the theories still come from the same source)
  • Psychology theories have always got a strong appeal publicly when they give soothing ideas which ‘fit’ with common sense discourses (in social psychology your conclusions need to match a proverb or common saying, which then becomes the title of your paper before the colon)
  • This is fine for therapies in practice since they need to talk with people in a way that makes sense
  • This is not about looking down on everyday discourses but treating them as discourses (with all that implies) not as descriptions of what is real in everyday life (like the newer South American lowlands ontology avoids). Psychologists do need to pay more attention actually to people’s everyday talk but as discourses, not as accurate descriptions of the world.
  • One of the big differences between psychology and social anthropology (who both study the same thing remember !!!), is the long time spent by social anthropologists with people and the short time spent by psychologists with people.
  • Psychologists justify not spending much time with people in research because they are people themselves and therefore must know a lot already.  But what they ‘know’ are actually these common everyday discourses.  Social anthropology has avoided this because it began with people who were outside western ‘culture’ and researcher’s everyday discourses.
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