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Psychology and Formalisation

Phenomenology, Ethnomethodology and Statistics


Anita Williams

This book revisits psychology’s appropriation of natural scientific methods. The author argues that, in order to overcome ongoing methodological debates in psychology, it is necessary to confront the problem of formalisation contained in the appropriation of methods of natural science. By doing so, the subject matter of psychology – the human being – and questions about the meaning of human existence can be brought to the centre of the discipline. Drawing on Garfinkel, Sacks, Edwards and Potter, the author sees ethnomethodologically informed qualitative methods, which stem from phenomenology, as a possible alternative to statistical methods, but ultimately finds these methods to be just another method of formalisation.She returns to Husserlian phenomenology as a way to critique the centrality of method in psychology and shows that the adoption of natural scientific methods in psychology is part of the larger push to formalise and objectify all aspects of human existence.

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Chapter Three: A Discursive Psychological Investigation of Therapy—‘Personality’ as a Mediating Device


This chapter presents a substantive change from the last two chapters. In chapters one and two, I have investigated the conversational structures of therapeutic interaction; in this chapter I turn to a particular topic of talk: namely the concept of personality.1 In the previous chapter, I have used ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA), drawing specifically upon Garfinkel’s and Sacks’s original work. Following from my EM and CA approach to research, I discussed the completely ordinary practices of clinical psychological therapy. My approach to research in the previous chapter led to a focus upon the ordinariness of clinical psychological interaction as well as all social interaction. Such a focus on the ordinariness of social interaction, or on common-sense knowledge, leads to a position that does not allow critique. In addition, the focus on common-sense knowledge seems to suggest that there is little point in analysing practices that members already know and use if we cannot highlight the problematic aspects of these practices.

In this chapter, I wish to show that ethnomethodologically informed (EM-informed) approaches to research can provide a way of critiquing psychological categories, following on from the adoption of EM by discursive psychology (DP) (Edwards and Potter 1992). In particular, EM-informed DP can be used to critique the psychological concept of personality as it is used within clinical psychological therapy.2 I will demonstrate through my DP investigations of clinical psychological therapy that categorisation is a social practice that can only be investigated through paying close...

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