The I-Positions Between Us: Exploring how Politically Polarised Citizens Sustain Dialogue Discussing the UK’s Global Relationships

English, Anthony (2022). The I-Positions Between Us: Exploring how Politically Polarised Citizens Sustain Dialogue Discussing the UK’s Global Relationships. PhD thesis The Open University.



The aftermath of the 2016 UK-EU referendum has created a heightened polarisation between the public on the UK’s future global relations. This has manifest in increasingly partisan political alignments via public discourse and hostile social media interactions. Such polarisation presents psychologists with a challenge; namely, to understand how a polarised public can engage with one another to sustain dialogue. The proposal here is that exploring polarised dialogue with a dialogical approach offers the ontological assumptions relevant to understand an individual’s multifaceted capacities. This thesis introduces the Dialogue Sustainment Theoretical Model and proposes to understand polarised discourse between interlocuters by exploring the following: (1) Internalised (shared social representations), (2) Interactive (I-, We- & They- dialogical positions), and (3) Dimensional (temporal/spatial chronotopes which locate the discourse). To explore this, a two-study process was developed to answer the following questions: (1) Do either (A) Migration-mobility or (B) Place-person relationships, influence how individuals position the UK and its global relations? (2) Are there I-positions which can sustain dialogue between interlocuters during polarising discussions on the UK’s global relations? The first study (N = 28) explored migration-mobility experiences and place-person relationships among coastal (Seaburn) and urban (Dundee) residents. Analysis found that, in contrast with the generationally non-mobile, those with higher migration-mobility reject ‘glorious past’ representations during discussions on the UK’s historical global relations. Furthermore, a high place-person relationship among coastal residents influenced how they positioned the UK’s post-Brexit relations as a threat to their community. To answer the second research question, study two paired individuals together (N = 10) on both shared and conflicting core dialogical positions with different levels of political polarisation (high or low). This quasi-experimental study brought the pairs into dialogue with one another to re-adopt previously shared core positions before a researcher-led rupture exposed them to polarising differences. In the subsequent polarising discourse, the pairs sustained dialogue in three different ways: (1) Independently-sustained dialogue, (2) Sustained dialogue, or (3) Supported sustained dialogue. For the pairs who independently-sustained dialogue, three common features were present: (1) Shared re-adopted core positions, (2) Shared-affective responses to the polarising materials, and (3) Adoption of ‘distancing’ I-positions during the polarising discourse itself. These findings offer a substantive first step in understanding the factors influencing how dialogue is sustained between polarised individuals on vexed political questions.

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