Psychology in the 21st century
Psychology in the 21st century

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Psychology in the 21st century

3.5 Meaning and language-based methods

In recent years many psychologists have become interested in language as an important human ‘product’ (the symbolic data described in Section 2.3 above). There are various ways in which psychologists analyse conversations, data from interviews and written texts. One of the most popular methods is content analysis, which involves counting up the prevalence and sequencing of certain words, sentences, expressions, metaphors, etc., in texts such as newspaper articles or transcripts of interviews. It can also be used to identify the types of explanations people give for their own behaviour or use in order to persuade people to support them or agree with their argument. It is predominantly a quantitative method.

Another popular method is discourse analysis. This is a qualitative method that provides detailed analyses of exactly what language is used and how it is used. For example, discourse analysts would try to identify the rhetorical devices by which we all as speakers seek to persuade each other of our arguments, and the functions served by various discourses. Discourse analysts do not aim to find ‘the truth’ about how people use language. They are more interested in the processes whereby people construct meanings socially and individually. Most discourse analysts are interested in subjectivity – people's own sense-making – and often include an analysis of the researcher's own subjective understandings as part of the analysis of data, thus using a mixture of insider and outsider viewpoints. Discourse analysis is an example of a hermeneutic approach. Hermeneutic approaches focus on meaning-making; that is, the work of interpretation. People are treated as meaning-producers, with the task of the psychologist being to interpret meanings. Hermeneutic approaches, therefore, tend to use qualitative methods (rather than measuring variables, taking group averages and drawing conclusions with the help of statistics as in experimental and other quantitative methods). The data they produce tend to relate to particular individuals in specific contexts, rather than generalising to a population as a whole.

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