Unconscious conflict or everyday accountability?

Wetherell, Margaret (2005). Unconscious conflict or everyday accountability? British Journal of Social Psychology, 44(2) pp. 169–175.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.1348/014466605X39619


Hollway and Jefferson's paper ‘Panic and Perjury: A Psychosocial Exploration of Agency’ is a thought-provoking and evocative piece of analysis. Hollway's work, and her recent research with Jefferson, has made a major contribution to the reshaping of social psychology. It raises profound and challenging questions from a direction that has been under-represented, and I welcome the opportunity to comment on the paper from a discursive psychological standpoint.

The central analytic claim of the paper is that powerful unconscious forces explain the ‘puzzle’ of Vince's illness. The central theoretical claim is that psychoanalysis offers a resolution of the agency/structure debate in contrast to discursive and social constructionist approaches in social psychology. According to Hollway and Jefferson, discursive approaches remain hopelessly mired in dualism and in deterministic positions. My first reaction to these two claims is to identify strongly with Vince. Both of us, the participant in this piece of research and the discursive psychologist constructed here as straw antagonist, have been placed in storylines not of our choosing. For Hollway and Jefferson's paper to work as a new resolution of the agency and structure debate, Vince needs to be presented as facing a ‘stark choice’ and to be inexplicably ill. There also needs to be an ‘old theory’ which can be rejected. As Vince comments in relation to his original injury, we have had ‘words put in our mouths’. Vince and the discourse analyst acquire identities which we might not recognize and may want to strongly repudiate. Obviously, for Vince this is a much more serious matter, since as is the way in psychoanalytic interpretation (Parker, 1997), his very character is at stake. It is probably just as well then that it is the discursive psychologist who is offered the chance to reply in the pages of his journal. For ethical reasons (as Hollway and Jefferson intended) one hopes that Vince will never have to engage with this analysis of himself as a timid man choosing illness to avoid confrontation with a bullying boss.

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