The British Psychological Society has named Jonathan Potter, dean of the Rutgers School of Communication and Information (SC&I), a fellow. This award recognizes the significant and lasting contributions Potter has made to the field of psychology, notably through developing discourse analytic approach to social psychology (including a landmark book on the social psychology of racial prejudice), rethinking cognitive psychology, and most recently, discursive psychological work.
“I spent much of my research career working in Psychology, but also arguing with psychologists and trying to change the discipline,” Potter said. “So I feel pleased and honored to be awarded a Fellowship by the British Psychological Society.”
The mission of the BPS is to “support and enhance the development and application of psychology for the greater public good, setting high standards for research, education, and knowledge, and disseminating our knowledge to increase the wider public awareness of psychology and its importance.”
BPS requires fellowship applicants to demonstrate that they have achieved an “international reputation through making a major impact on a particular area of psychology; made an outstanding contribution to the advancement or dissemination of psychological knowledge; can show evidence of a significant contribution to one major area of psychology; and expertise in psychology influencing another discipline or profession.”
Potter can trace the impact he has had on the field of psychology beginning nearly forty years ago when he focused primarily on a discourse analytic, qualitative approach to psychology.
“In 1980 I presented the first discourse analytic, qualitative conference presentations at the BPS Social Psychology Section conference in Oxford,” Potter wrote. “At that time the conference was overwhelmingly experimental or survey-based studies. This presentation helped pave the way to the establishment of discourse analytic studies as a standard feature of the social psychology section conference in the 38 years since, and the establishment of a “Qualitative Section of the British Psychological Society.”
In 1985, Potter and co-author Ian Litton introduced a discourse analytic approach to social psychology in the British Journal of Social Psychology. That year he and Litton also published the first discourse analytic paper in the European Journal of Social Psychology and in the same year he and coauthor Michael Mulkay published the first piece that outlined a systematic approach to identifying the interpretative practices being used in qualitative research interviews.
In 1987 Potter and Margaret Wetherell published “Discourse and Social Psychology.” Potter explained the book “laid out a systematic alternative approach to basic topics in social psychology. It established discourse analysis as one of the standard approaches within social psychology, and laid the groundwork for a distinctive discursive psychology.”
During this period Potter and his Loughborough University colleague Derek Edwards refined the discourse analytic approach to social psychology and started to build a perspective on core issues of cognitive psychology. Potter and Edwards accomplished this, Potter said, through a series of articles and their book, “Discursive Psychology.”
In 1992 Margaret Wetherell and Potter published “Mapping the Language of Racism.” The book, Potter wrote, “was the first-book-length discourse analytic study in social psychology. It is partly an engagement with the classic social psychology of racial prejudice building a more social, less individualistic account of the way discrimination is legitimated. It also moved the focus away from the traditional extremist/man of violence image central in earlier social psychology of prejudice and instead studied the accounts and explanations of middle class professional groups.”
Since 1992, Potter has written extensively in the area of discursive psychological methods. “I am particularly concerned to explicate the rigor of discourse work and how it can be used as the basis for training and social impact,” he wrote.
Potter’s book, “Representing Reality,” published in 1996, used discursive psychological principles to build a distinctive, systematic approach to the perspective of social constructionism.
In 2005 Potter and Hedwig te Molder published a collection of pieces by leading interaction analysts – “Conversation and Cognition” – which focused on the implications for cognitivist perspectives.
Developing his concerns with the way qualitative interviews are used, he wrote with SC&I’s Research Professor of Communication, Alexa Hepburn “Qualitative interviews in psychology: Problems and possibilities.” This was published with a set of commentaries and these issues were developed further in the “Handbook of Interviewing.”
Working with Alexa Hepburn, he has published a series of papers focused on emotion and advice in a range of settings, including child protection helplines and family mealtimes. They also collaborated on studies of the serious use of laughter in conversations.
“In each case,” Potter said, “the aim has been to show how psychological matters play out for participants in the specifics of their interactional practices.”
Most recently, Potter and Hepburn have been commissioned by the American Psychological Association to write a book on conversation analysis for psychologists.