lecture slide

Language and symbolic
mediation in the social
Four Historical moments
Dr Derek Hook
Language and the stuff of
• How does the ‘turn to language’ change
our conceptualization of the
• The linguistic turn impacts upon how we
think the focus and methodological
priorities of psychology.
• What do we consider to be the ‘stuff’ of
Language as thought organized
in sound
Without words our thought is a vague and
shapeless mass; without signs we would be
incapable of differentiating any two ideas in a
clear and constant way. In itself, without
signifiers, “thought is like a swirling cloud,
where no shape is intrinsically determinate”.
Of course, the substance of sound is no more
fixed or rigid than that of thought…a malleable
material “which can be fashioned into separate
Language as thought organized
in sound
Language may be thought of as a “series
of adjoining subdivisions simultaneously
imprinted both on the plane of of vague
and amorphous thought (A) and on the
equally featureless plane of sound (B)
Language as ‘series of adjoining
(A): plane of thought
plane of sound
The dual nature of the linguistic
Saussure’s starting points:
Linguistic units are dual in nature;
comprising two elements.
When analyzing a linguistic sign we are not
simply concerned with the the link
between a thing and a name, but with the
link between a concept and a ‘sound
The dual nature of the linguistic
Both of these units are psychological in
nature. This is obvious in the case of a
concept; it is also the case though with a
sound pattern, or ‘acoustic image’, which
must be at least partly psychological in
nature if it is to be comprehended.
The Saussurean sign
(Arrows represent the reciprocal implication of signifier
and signified in signification; the enclosing circle shows
the union between the two).
The arbitrary relation btw
signifier and signified…
Both signifier and signified are necessary for
signification to take place however; a
concept in my head without an attached
signifier cannot be easily communicated
(except, of course, with reference to a
series of other signifiers). Similarly, a
signifier ‘hlahlapanzi’ without any attached
signified, means nothing to me.
The arbitrary relation btw
signifier and signified…
However, the relation between signifier and
signified, although thoroughly
conventionalized, is, nonetheless,
(Why, incidentally, is a sign not a symbol?
Symbols are, for Saussure, never entirely
arbitrary, they show “a vestige of natural
connection btw signifier and signified”).
Agreed meaning
To emphasize the arbitrary relationship
between signifier and signified is not to
detract from the fact that it is thoroughly
A signifier, for example, does not depend on
the free choice of the speaker.
A new domain for social
“What are the relationships between
Everything in language is basically
psychological, including its material and
mechanical manifestations, such as sound
changes; and since linguistics provides
social psychology with such valuable data,
is it not part and parcel of this discipline?
(Saussure, 1966, p. 6).
Agreed meaning
It is conventionalized in the sense that there
is a kind of standard agreement amongst
English-language speakers that “bat”
when written or spoken corresponds to a
certain concept or idea – namely that of a
club with a handle which one uses to strike
a ball.
Vygotsky’s general genetic
law of cultural development
• “Any function in the child’s cultural
development appears twice, or on 2
planes. First it appears on the social
plane, and then on the psychological
plane. First it appears between people as
an interpsychological category, and then it
appears within the child as an
intrapsychological category” (Vygotsky,
1988, p. 73).
Vygotsky’s general genetic
law of cultural development
• The essential element in the formation of a
Higher Mental Function (i.e. higher order
properly human symbolic cognitive ability)
is the process of internalization. What 1st
appears as a external sign-mediator or an
interpersonal communication later
becomes an internal psychological
• “Any mental function necessarily
goes through an external stage in its
development because it is initially a
social function. This is the centre of
the whole problem of internal and
external behaviour...”
(Vygotsky,1990, p. 116).
• “…When we speak of a process,
‘external’ means ‘social’. Any higher
mental function was external
because it was social at one point
before it became an internal, truly
mental function” (Vygotsky,1990, p.
What room for biology?
• Although the most interesting questions of
human development for Vygotsky are
those concerning the HMF, he does not
deny the role of biology and the LMF. In
fact he postulates a phylogenetic ‘natural’
line of development as primary within
early infancy and linking to the “direct
relations...based on instinctive forms of
expressive movement and action between
people” (Vygotsky, 1988, p. 71).
Natural and cultural lines of
• The lines of natural and cultural
development are separate until
approximately the end of the 2nd year of
life when they merge with the advent of
language acquisition.
Natural and cultural lines of
• At this point, the ‘cultural’ line takes
precedence, changing the very nature of
development from biological to
sociohistorical. From this point on,
biological maturation will be secondary to
development although it does operate as
a parameter/boundary to the process
(Vygotsky, 1978).
Practical intelligence & sign use
“The most significant moment in the course of
intellectual development, which gives birth
to the purely human forms of practical and
abstract intelligence, occurs when speech
and practical activity, two previously
completely independent lines of
development, converge…as soon as speech
and the use of signs are incorporated into
any action, the action becomes transformed
and organized entirely new lines…”
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 24).
“The essence of complex
human behaviour”
“Although practical intelligence and
sign use can operate independently
of each other in young children, the
dialectical unity of these systems in
the human adult is the very essence
of complex human behaviour”
(Vygotsky, 1987, p. 24).
Symbolic interactionism
• Sociology of micro-scale analyses of
• Mead, Cooler, Blumer
• People act towards things based on the
meaning these things have for them and
these meanings are derived from social
interaction and modified through
• ACTION – (based on) –
MEANING (those things have for
them) – (based on) – SOCIAL
INTERACTION – which is itself
Basic premises of symbolic inter• 1. Humans act towards things on the basis
of the meanings they ascribe things.
• 2.The meaning of such things is derived
from, arises out of, social interaction one
has with others and society.
• 3. These meanings are handled in, and
modified through, an interpretative process
used by persons dealing with things they
Meaning over action
• It is never a case of just responding to one
another’s actions, but of making meaning
from those actions.
• People interpret, define, one another’s
• Their ‘response’ is never direct but
mediated, based on meanings they attach
to situations and actions.
Continual meaning makers
• Human interaction is mediated by the use of
symbols and significations, by interpretation.
• Symbolic interactionist perspective is to be
contrasted to behaviourist explanations of
human behaviour which don’t allow for
interpretation between stimulus and response.
• Humans are continually making meanings
during social interactions, defining situations.
View of the social world
• The social world is a dynamic and
dialectical web.
• Attention to the network of roles, roleinductions, subject-locations, normal
expectations of such roles, reciprocations,
interactions, ‘slots’ in the social field,
stability of the situation of interaction,
discrete rules of engagement.
Discursive psychology…in brief
• “Discursive psychologists suggest that language
is a precondition for much of what we call ‘social
• Our psychological lives…are profoundly shaped
by the linguistic resources that culture makes
available to us, that we must use to make sense
of reality.
• Many higher-order reasoning-processes
(stereotyping, attribution of causality, social
attitudes, collective interest) are only possible
because we share a common language and are
able to jointly ‘construct’ the meanings of social
relations and identities (Dixon, 2006).
Discursive psychology…in brief
• Theorists approach discourse in the sense of
linguistic practices, as ‘textual formations’,
societal operations of knowledge, linguistic
• Potter & Wetherell: “We use ‘discourse’ in its
most open sense…to cover all forms of spoken
interaction, formal and informal, and written
1. Speech-acts: what is done in saying
•We are concerned here with the
performative dimension of language, what
language actually does.
•Not just a question of content but of what
occurs by virtue of having said something –
what commitment is made, what action
achieved (apologizing, declaring, blaming,
affirmation, excusing)
•What kind of relation is thus established by
virtue of what has been said; what pact
established; how is the speaker positioned?
2. The rhetorical aspect: persuasion
•All effective discourse functions to
normalize, naturalize itself, to affirm itself
as the only sensible truth of a matter.
•The traditional study of rhetoric identifies
three main axes of rhetoric, logos, ethos,
•the rationality and convincingness of the
argument being made, the status and
performative qualities of the speaker
themselves, and the affective quality of the
argument, how it moves me.
3. Negotiated meanings
•We are concerned with jointly produced
meanings, with ‘interacted’, negotiated
•Not just a case of language-in-action and
the social construction of the world, but of
how collectively generated and conventional
meanings are continually subject to conflict,
tussle, contestation.
•Dialogical context of construction is
important: my meaning is in part a function
of your recognition & agreement.
3. Negotiated meanings
•Billig’s idea of ideological dilemmas
underlies this idea that the making of
meaning is always somehow argumentative,
anticipating opposing arguments.
•The production of discourse is not simply
the collection of assertions, but a fraught
terrain of contested meanings.
•The dialogical, to-and-fro pattern of
discourse is also a pattern of thinking.
4. Narrative coherence
•Even apparently scientific discourse
maintains a strong narrative quality; it
engages and involves us on the level of a
good story
•Narrative devices are a part of what makes
an argumentative position powerful
(hero/villain, tension, identification, the
developing story-arc, struggle, resolution).
•Hayden White suggested that these
narrative devices typically over-ride the
content of historical narratives.
Potter and Wetherell: Interpretative
• A way of engaging discourse in use as ‘contrasting
structures of explanation’, as modes of explanation
and rationalization in speech
• The various and often contradictory ways in which
people explain facts and behaviours. More
specifically: the linguistic resources available to
speakers in the construction of their accounts (Potter
& Wetherell, 1987), the rhetorical strategies of
speakers. You can’t disentangle ostensibly
psychological functions from the utilization of
rhetorical, argumentative, linguistic, discursive
Criticism of the notion of interpretative
• This approach is about how various traditional
concerns of social psychology can be ‘fixed’ or
studied ‘on the outside’ in discursive modes of
exchange, in commonplace social interaction.
• It, says Fox (1991), is more concerned with
how people talk than with the attempt to
progress political change. Fairclough
(1993) considers ‘interpretative
repertoires’ to be a “one-sided
individualistic emphasis upon the
rhetorical strategies of speakers”.
Criticism of the notion of interpretative
• Parker: this model is more accepted in psychology
because it contains the work of discourse analysis
within traditional psychological categories
and…evades reference to politics or power.
• The model relativizes categories that psychology
likes to see as essential or unchanging, it restricts its
analysis to a particular text rather than locating it in
wider discursive practices…much of the research in
this tradition is rather descriptive; a range of
techniques from micro-sociology make the
description look more objective (2003, p. 127).