Face revisit: The case of Miller (the therapist) and Mike (the client)

There are times when I keep saying to myself “This is me!” when reading some articles.  This is especially true when I was in the counseling theory class, one focus of which was dysfunctional interpersonal patterns.  At that juncture, I suspected that the authors possessed some sort of magical power to heck into my life and observed my interaction with other people.  For the reading this week, I was struck by this sense of deja vu–the six ways of “treating data” pointed out by Antaki and colleagues (2003) were clearly a recap of what I have been doing with the transcript of Miller and Mike’s counseling session.  Because this is the last blog post for the class, I decided to dig a bit deeper into the data and see if I can go beyond the six shortcomings and actually produce some meaningful results.

I would like to talk more about the management of face, broadening its scope to include labeling in counseling.  More specifically, I argue that our client, Mike, oriented to face when labeling becomes salient in the conversation.  Given the negative connotations of the labels “alcoholic” or “addict,” the strategies that Mike employed to manage label and construct a favorable identity in line with the dominant cultural discourse on an ideal person were foregrounded.  Central to this analysis are: (1) labels created reality to which Mike responded emotionally and (2) Mike eschewed a socially prescribed deviant identity through positioning himself as a rational and autonomous person.  In other words, in spite of his alcohol and cigarette use, Mike portrayed himself as an individualistic person in control of his behavior, which differentiates himself from other people struggling with the same problem.

My first argument is that labeling (or the anticipation of being labeled) creates a reality that triggers people’s emotional responses.  The management of face is important, as I discussed in the previous post about how the management of face was interactionally achieved by Miller (the counselor) and Mike to build rapport.  However, the construct of face is not enough.  Saving face is the flip side of stigma, and stigma is inherently tied to negative meanings bestowed on various labels in a society or culture.  These undesirable labels are usually inconsistent with discourses on normality.  For example, in the United States nowadays, the label of mental illness is often linked to weakness that stands in contrast to the dominant discourse of being a self-reliant individual.  Therefore, labels carry with them the cultural meanings, which the targets maneuver to accept or reject depending on the valence.  Mike was oriented to what it meant to be an “alcoholic,” as evidenced by his emotional reactions.  Take a look at the following excerpt.

Excerpt 1

  1. MIKE: Well, I always heard in AA too, is the dumbest things I ever heard. Some of the
  2. comments I heard that were just god awful stupid. And these people were just complete
  3. idiots. We alcoholics don’t like to be told what to do. I’m thinking wait. We alcoholics.
  4. What are you some special breed of people ‘ No one likes to be told what to do. You
  5. know what, I really got tired of that kind of like we’re special because we have this
  6. disease or come feel sorry for us because we have a disease. And quite frankly, the
  7. more I read about alcoholism, no one knows what the hell it is. So I’m not going to say I
  8. am cause until there is a definitive area that we can agree on, you know, I could say
  9. alcohol dependent. Now that makes sense. It’s a bit more clinical
  10. MILLER: That you can understand.
  11. MIKE: Yeah, That’s understandable, but that’s one of the things I didn’t like
  12. about AA is they wore it like a badge. It’s nothing to be proud of, but it’s nothing to
  13. be ashamed of. But you certainly don’t do some reverse pride on it, and you know,
  14. we’re special because we’re this. We’re different. I didn’t see any difference between
  15. those people and normal people.

In this Excerpt, Mike’s anger was arguably driven by shame associated with the label of alcoholic.  Mike discredited the comments he heard in AA as “stupid” and counselors in AA as “idiots.”  He went on to establish his nomality by evoking what he perceived as a general truth: “No one likes to be told what to do.”  In addition, Mike pushed back against shame explicitly in Line 6 where he linked shame to alcoholism and subsequently negotiated the meaning of alcoholism.  He accepted the label of “alcohol dependent” because it makes more sense to him and is more “clinical.”  Notice that this label was accepted as a result of his understanding of it and the label being “clinical.”  By constructing “alcohol dependent” as clinical and a product of rationality, the feeling of shame was diffused.  As a result, Mike worked up his claim of being the same as “normal people.”

Excerpt 2

  1. MIKE: Well, who do you think it works for? Apparently highly religious people who
  2. believe in higher powers and miracles and some deity is going to come down and save
  3. them anytime they have problems. I’m not that type of person.

In Excerpt 2, Mike distanced himself from other people with alcohol use problem, such that he could escape the identity of alcoholic and the negative attributes attached.  Mike built up his uniqueness by labeling other people in AA as “highly religious” who rely on higher powers to help them.  Other members in AA were positioned as weak, but Mike is “not that type of person.”  This suggested that Mike oriented to the dominant discourse of a normal individual who is strong and self-reliant.

I am still struggling with articulating my thoughts, so I am not sure whether or not I escape the six shortcomings proposed by Antaki et al. (2003).

Thank you for reading my blog post #1 to #10 and all the inspiring feedback!


Antaki, C., Billig, M., Edwards, D., & Potter, J. (2003). Discourse analysis means doing analysis: A critique of six analytic shortcomings. Discourse Analysis Online, 1. Retrieved from http://www.shu.ac.uk/daol/previous/v1/n1/index.htm

Doing alignment and managing face in counseling

Counseling entails delicate interactions where counselors strife to create a collaborative working alliance with clients such that clients are empowered and a genuine encounter is made possible.  This is especially true considering the consistent empirical finding attesting to the therapeutic power of relationship in counseling outcome studies.  Almost all forms of therapy conceptualize solid rapport between counselors and client as the necessary condition for clients growth.  When it comes to addiction counseling, the same principle holds.  Counselors are advised not to see clients’ lack of motivation to change as resistance, but a natural reaction to the prospect of change.  Counselors abandon the aggressive confrontation of denial, recognize that clients vary in their readiness to change, work with clients to explore reasons of substance use, and amplify clients’ ambivalence benefits of change, all of which require counselors to meet clients where they are and engage them sensitively (i.e., to save their face).  It is fascinating to see how the dynamic plays out in an online counseling program in Stommel and van der Houwen’s (2014) study.  In addition, both the counselor and the client are oriented to the management of face.  In the data that I am working on for my final paper, I also noticed that face management seems to stand out as a recurrent pattern throughout the session.  The counselor, Miller, minimized threat to the client’s (Mike) face by explicitly expressing agreement to and validating the client’s experience, potentially strengthening the alliance and avoiding rupture.  Let’s turn to an excerpt.

***Excerpt (Mike was complaining about his previous mandatory counseling in which he was “told” what to do)***

  1. MILLER: It’s only when it’s a problem for you, really, that it matters.
  2. MIKE: Right.
  3. MILLER: If somebody else is telling you…
  4. MIKE: Yeah, it doesn’t work.
  5. MILLER: Or worse. More likely you back away from it.
  6. MIKE: Well, then why is the approach the opposite? That’s what I, I don’t mean to be
  7. belligerent toward addiction counseling, but I can’t help but be. Why, sometimes
  8. I wonder if these people didn’t do more bad than good
  9. MILLER: It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s human nature to push against something when they push against you.

***End of excerpt***

In this excerpt, we can see how Miller and Mike navigated this emotion-loaded conversation by attending to the other’s and one’s own face.  Mike was expressing his discontentment, which was most evident in Line 6-8.  However, Mike was aware that he was in a addiction counseling now and possibly oriented to Miller’s identity as a addiction counselor, so his words could constitute an attack to Miller’s identity and endanger Miller’s face.  Mike deployed several strategies to ameliorate the intensity of the threat.  First, Mike conveyed his dissatisfaction subtly through questioning (why is the approach the opposite?) that diverted the attention to his “curiosity.”  Second, the impersonal sentence structure, “the approach,” distanced Miller from the subject because “the approach” is not necessarily Miller’s approach.  Third, there is evidence that Mike also managed his own face.  “The complainants often protects their own face by presenting themselves as not the complaining type” (Stommel & van der Houwen, 2014, p. 184), which was made salient in Mike’s self-assessment of personality: “I don’t mean to be belligerent.”  Fourth, again, the complain was constructed as a question that Mike is contemplating in his mind, “I wonder if these people didn’t do more bad than good” which diminished the force.  Mike was just thinking of the question and not asking for an explanation from Miller’s part.  Last, the modifier, “sometimes,” further diluted the embedded causticity of his remark.  In short, Mike displayed his discontentment about addiction counseling but at the same time showed interest in saving faces for himself and his counselor, Miller.

Miller utterances demonstrated his alignment with Mike’s understanding of how addiction counseling should work and therefor he built alliance and preserved Mike’s dignity.  In his first three responses (Line 1, 3, and 5), he took a relatively detached stance, putting the focus on Mike.  Although Miller did not use first-person pronoun in the these utterances, he designed his remarks based on what Mike had shared with him.  This created a common ground between Miller and Mike.  In Line 5, Miller expanded Mike’s words and took a leap ahead, saying that “Or worse. More likely you back away from it.”  This response clearly demonstrated Miller’s alignment with Mike–he made this prediction because he thought Mike was telling something reasonable.  That is, if Miller did not think Mike was making any sense, he would have questioned Mike rather than making a deductive hypothesis.  Last, in his last utterance (Line 9), Miller explicated his position on the issue at hand.  Miller probably received Mike’s implicit complain and handled it delicately.  He made it personal (“It doesn’t make any sense to me”) but distanced himself from those approaches in that he does not think those approached would work.  He also normalized Mike’s experience by considering his response as “human nature,” which not only showed his approval of Mike but also saved Mike’s face by affirming Mike that he did not see him as “the complaining type.”

Does this analysis make sense to you?  “I don’t know much about” (Lester & Paulus, 2011) the management of face and complaining, so I welcome your feedback!


Lester, J. N., & Paulus, T. (2011). Accountability and public displays of knowing in an undergraduate computer-mediated communication context. Discourse Studies, 13, 671-686.

Stommel, W., & van der Houwen, F. (2014). Complaining and the management of face in online counseling. Qualitative Health Research, 24, 183-193.

Hello darkness, my old friend.

I always think a good title can do a lot of things.  Rebecca Rogers knows it too.  The main title of her (2011) article, “The sounds of silence in educational tracking,” immediately set off a classical conditioning process in my brain and elicited my institutional identity.  First, the lyrics and melody of “The Sound of Silence” by Simon & Garfunkel, “Hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk to you again…,” jumped right into my head (and I cannot get rid of it).  This is one of my favorite songs, so this title piqued my interest: Does this article has anything to do with the song?  Second, as a doctoral student in counseling psychology, I thought that I know “the sounds of silence” all too well.  In counseling, silence is one of the important skills that conveys to clients plenty of messages.  It could express therapists’ intention of encouraging clients to reflect on the previous statement and see if they have additional information to share.  If it happens in the midst of clients’ unfinished utterance, silence allows clients to process their feelings without interruption.  It can also show empathy, warmth, and respect and give clients time and space to talk.  With this knowledge in mind, I wondered what new insights I will reap from the article.  It turned out that the article has nothing to do with the song but, unexpectedly, stirred up a lot of feelings and thoughts inside of me.

It makes me uneasy to see how the story of June, an African-American mother, and her daughter, Vicky, unfolded.  Using a critical discourse analysis (CDA) approach combined with ethnography, Rogers revealed several episodes epitomizing convincingly how institutions (in this case, schools and school personnel) exerted oppression on June and Vicky through a variety of social practices (e.g., academic tracking, No Child Left Behind policy) and rhetorical devices, with an emphasis on omissions and silence that are otherwise difficult to “hear” the embedded sounds by any single approach alone.  From the very beginning, June did not want Vicky to be placed in a special education track out of the fear that this label would stick with Vicky through 12th grade.  Her fear was transformed into reality by the omission of teachers who know well about Vicky in the Committee of Special Education (CSE) meeting and the discourse of deficits imposed on Vicky throughout the meeting.  In this episode, not only were Vicky’s strengths neglected, but the decision process and interventions that Vicky’s going to received were also obscured.  In the second episode, June and Vicky were offered an “opportunity” to choose whether or not Vicky would like to stay in special education class in an annual review meeting.  In contradiction to the previous CSE meeting, this meeting took on a relatively informal vibe in which Vicky’s weaknesses were reframed as her strengths.  However, the language surrounding different placements, special versus regular, and the ensuing consequences was again vague and impenetrable to June and Vicky.  Vicky, although giving her consent to stay in the special education class, her consent was based on the level of comfort she was in the self-contained classroom, which was in part discursively constructed by the guidance counselor.  This decision had profound implication on Vicky’s future, as can be seen in the third episode.  When I read to the juncture where Rogers had to crucially explain to Vicky what she had had longed for, graduate from high school and get a real job, was not going to happen, I could not help but feel angry, frustrated, helpless, and sad.  Vicky was quite right–she was played.

This article depicted a sad story through the use of CDA and ethnographic study.  Ethnographic approach complements CDA by providing a rich context where functions of silence and omissions can be powerfully explicated.  I was amazed by what Rogers produced in her study, and at the same time, very disturbed by what happened to June and Vicky.  Their voices were silenced.  The implications of their choices were silenced.  Their hope was silenced.

I rethinked my original position and felt that I may be wrong.  Perhaps the sounds of silence delineated in this article do have something to do with “The Sound of Silence.”  “Fools” said I, “You do not know.  Silence like a cancer grows…”  Institutional oppression embodied itself in this story in the form of disability imposed on the marginalized.  The insidious silence grows if no one dares to disturb the process.


Rogers, R. (2011). The sounds of silence in educational tracking: A longitudinal, ethnographic case study. Critical Discourse Studies, 8, 239-252.

“Should I ask if you drink?”

In my clinical experience, luckily enough, I have not (yet) encountered a client questioning whether or not I have been in a similar situation he or she is currently struggling with.  I always have this concern hovering in the back of my mind ever since I took my first counseling class in which the instructor shared her experience as a substance abuse counselor.  She mentioned that questions along this line were what she had had to grapple with on a regular basis, so she posted the following question to the class: What would you do in this scenario?  Most of us agreed that we would make explicit the client’s motivation of asking the question by engaging the client in a discussion rather than becoming defensive and trying to justify our competencies in working with something we do not have first hand experience in.  We assumed that when clients have this concern, basically their inner monologue is that this counselor can never understand what I am going through and thus is not qualified to help me.  Is that the case?

Let me share an excerpt taken from a demonstration session featuring motivational interviewing that I intend to analyze in my final paper.  The counselor’s name is Miller, and the client’s name is Mike.  Mike said that he is struggling with alcohol and cigarette, emphasizing that for him, cigarette is more difficult to control compared with alcohol.

[Start of Excerpt]

  1. MIKE: Should I ask if you drink?
  2. MILLER: I do. Yes, I do.
  3. MIKE: Well, you know how the judgment goes. And let’s face it, it goes. It goes on everyone, you know. They always say oh we alcoholics are different. No, no, no, no. You feed someone six beers and their judgment is going to go down .
  4. MILLER: It’s going to have that effect.
  5. MIKE: It’s a physiological reaction to a toxic drug. You know, let’s face it.
  6. MILLER: Yep.
  7. MIKE: So, it is.
  8. MILLER: So, you really would be talking about stopping cigarettes and alcohol then.
  9. MIKE: Well, yeah.
  10. MILLER: In order to breathe.
  11. MIKE: But I don’t want to think about it. Huh? What’s this?
  12. MILLER: Oh.
  13. MIKE: I don’t want to think about that.
  14. MILLER: Meaning you just want to do it and not think about it, or you don’t want to get serious?
  15. MIKE: Well, I would rather do it and not think about it.
  16. MILLER: Yep. Not much point in thinking about it.
  17. MIKE: Well, I mean, is there’
  18. MILLER: No, no.
  19. MIKE: Do I think about working out every day? Do I think about brushing my teeth? If I did I wouldn’t want to brush my teeth. I gotta brush my teeth tomorrow. That’s going to be pretty bad, you know that. I gotta brush my teeth. You know what I’m saying?

[End of Excerpt]

As we can see, our expert counselor Miller was put on the spot.  His reaction was quite different from what I learned from the class, which piqued my interest.  He briefly admitted that he does drink (I do) and indicated that he has finished his turn by repeating what he just said (Yes, I do) without using any words that signal his intention to continue. Mike oriented to Mill’s completion of his utterance and kept on describing how alcohol impairs “everyone’s” judgments.  What was Mike doing here?  It seems to me that he was not simply casting doubt on Miller’s competency.  Here comes my thought.

I think Mike was doing “stake inoculation” here.  The main purpose of Mike’s question is to seek agreement from Miller as a way to increase the factuality of his claim that alcohol undermines “everyone’s” judgment.  This is especially important because Mike was positioned as a person with problematic alcohol and cigarettes use.  Therefore, the credibility of Mike’s statement can be compromised if it is perceived as self-defending.  Mike strategically asked this question to align his claim with Miller’s personal experience such that he could fend off the potential threat to the validity of his account.  To put it differently, Mike utilized this strategy to strengthen the veracity of the universal impact of alcohol on judgment and to attenuate the distinction of “alcoholic” and “non-alcoholic,” a dichotomy he had been trying to fight against in previous utterances.  Since Miller, presumably not an alcoholic, drinks himself and has personally experienced the influence of alcohol, Mike could argue that there is not much difference between the two positions (alcoholics versus non-alcoholics) and his impaired judgement after drinking was not a deficit in his willpower or personality.  Interestingly, see also Line 5 for further evidence: “MIKE: It’s a physiological reaction to a toxic drug. You know, let’s face it.”  Again, here Mike was avoiding accountability and deflecting possible accusation of his willpower by evoking the explanation that alcohol effects everyone, regardless of individual differences, through physiological routes.  Last, I would go further and suggest that Mike oriented to the discourse on an autonomous self in the broader social cultural context.  Mike discursively preserved his identity as an autonomous person whose willpower is not in question albeit his difficulty in controlling his alcohol and cigarette use.

When I look at the interactions in a therapy session through a conversation and discourse analysis lens, I get a very different picture.  However, to what degree are my findings grounded in the data?  Am I imposing my thoughts on the interlocutors?  Coming more from a quantitative background, I am not so comfortable making claims without 95% confidence level.

Be positive or pathetic-that is the question.

Some people call me positive psychology guy for several reasons.  First, I teach Positive Psychology.  Second, I study positive psychology.  One strand of my research involves Chinese indigenous positive psychological constructs.  It is fair to say that positive psychology is central to my academic self-concept.  It is also safe to say that positive psychology has become a sexy word since 1998 when Martin Seligman officially launched the positive psychology movement during his presidency at the American Psychological Association.  Its advent embodied psychologists’ attempt to achieve a balanced understanding of human nature.  All seem well and good.  So, what’s wrong with positive psychology?

Let me put on my teacher’s hat for a minute and start with “negative” psychology (or, to add a bit academic flavor to it, the pathology model).  After World War II, psychologists have been devoting enormous effort to unraveling the “negative” side of human psychological processes, such as the etiology and treatment of mental disorders, unconscious and libido, and the irrationality and cruelty of human mind, at the expense of two other forgotten missions in psychology: promoting the welfare of normal population and nurturing the talented.  This narrow focus was understandable given the fact that psychologists were called upon to treat a large number of returning soldiers exhibiting trembling and trauma-related symptoms and the resulting realization that they could secure copious funding on studying psychopathology.  In short, psychologists were operating under the guiding question, “What is wrong with people?” without the awareness that their view only captured a limited segment on the spectrum of human behavior.  To combat such a disproportionate weight assigned to studying mental illness, Martin Seligman and colleagues (e.g., Csikszentmihalyi) echoed early humanistic psychologists’ (e.g., Maslow and Rogers) work on positive human development and proposed that psychology should pay equal attention to both repairing deficits and building strengths.  They sought to use scientific methods to pursue the question, “What is right about people?”

Positive Psychology class dismissed.  Now it is time to put on my Y631 hat and see what is going on here.  First, it is evident that knowledge is never neutral.  Rather, knowledge (or more specifically the alleged value-free psychological science) is intertwined with cultural or historical context.  Theories and practices accrued from pathology model of psychology dominated the discipline not because human psychological processes are objectively flaw or all people suffer from mental disorders, but because the historical background confined psychologists’ perspective.  Moreover, the distorted representation of human nature was also a reflection of power relations in the society.  The establishment of National Institute of Health and Veteran Affairs largely influenced the trajectory of psychological research for decades due to their power in allocating financial resources.  Reality was distorted as a result: people who flourished, lived a meaningful life, and knew how to love were invisible to psychologists masked by the ideology at that time.  Last, in retrospect, the constructed nature of knowledge becomes obvious.  For example, not until 1986 was homosexuality entirely removed from Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM).  Additionally, there was no such a thing as “depression” that people can “have” before.  Psychiatrists created diagnostic labels, which then turn into reality through social consensus and finally take on meanings and incur consequences.

What is the problem with positive psychology then?  Isn’t it a good thing to study the positive side of people and develop theories that could potentially make people happier?  My concern is that Positive Psychology as an academic movement, if not taken into account cultural contexts in which it is founded and the idea that knowledge is created, may run the risk of becoming another hegemonic power that distorts psychological processes.  I always have mixed feelings when my students say something along the line that an important lesson they learn from the course is to always be positive.  Positive psychology is not about putting a big smile on your face when you are clearly facing a devastating event.  The mission of positive psychology is not to obliterate depression from our life so that everyone experiences hedonic happiness.  In fact, Eastern philosophical traditions place emphasis on suffering.  Positive psychology is not about telling you there are certain traits or strengths that are universally applicable, so you should be forgiving or be optimistic all the time.  In my perspective, there is no such thing as “positive” psychological traits, only adaptive ones under specific contexts.  For people in domestic violence relationships, forgiving their spouses are not beneficial to their mental health.  If researchers in positive psychology lack an active exploration of their assumptions and an explicit recognition of context-specificity in theories, they are exerting their power under the name of science to force people to either consume the knowledge they produced to be “positive” or refuse to do so and be “pathetic.”

So, I see you as a survivor.

I had worked with a young man (let’s call him M) who suffered from a serious mental disorder, schizoaffective disorder, since he was an adolescent.  When I first saw him, this thin, pale young man walked into the counseling room with a friendly smile.  However, as the intake session went on, M appeared to become more and more agitated when he started sharing what brought him into counseling.  His story was indeed excruciatingly painful to hear.  There were several times when my mind went blank because of the shock caused by the traumatic events happened to him.  I can vividly recall that I had to ask M to give me a few seconds to recollect myself.  According to M, he was raised by uninvolved parents who hired a neglectful babysitter to take care of him and his younger brother.  “Take care of” may not be the accurate phrase to use here because that babysitter barely attended to the two toddlers’ needs.  The resulting malnutrition made M look as skinny as a model on a fashion magazine, which caused M’s dissatisfaction with his body image.  M also stated that his father was an alcoholic who got violent after drinking.  To protect his younger brother from getting beat up, M deliberately provoked his father such that his father would only direct his anger to M.  In addition, M was bullied in school, undergone a few sexual assaults by strangers as well as one of his relatives in his adolescence, and was under tremendous financial stress chronically.  M said that he had been experiencing symptoms of schizoaffective disorder on and off his life, including hallucinations (e.g., voices telling him to commit suicide) and episodes of mania and depression.  Yes, my jaw dropped after hearing M’s story, so did my heart.

“I don’t want to go crazy,” said M, “I can’t afford to go to a psychiatrist, but I want to move on with my life and leave all the s**t behind.  I have my pride so I won’t give up.”  M was obviously in an emotional turmoil due to the influence of his past, but at the same time his resiliency and determination were incredible impressive, at least to me.  One day, when we were processing his traumatic memories, M was recounting how he managed to take care of his younger brother and coped with the sexual assaults and psychotic symptoms.  Again, I saw a strong person struggling to thrive in face of adversities, so I cannot help but share with him my genuine admiration.  “M, I saw you not so much as a victim but a survivor.”  Here came the crisis point- the clash between the discourse of a victim and that of a survivor.

When M came to the session, his dominant identity was constituted by the script of a victim, which stripped him off his agency and obscured his strengths.  The narrative he constructed about himself and his worlds was highly selective, which in turn influenced the realities of his life.  Undeniably, there were pain, depression, trauma, anxiety, and stress.  There were wounds and hurt.  There were domestic and sexual violence.  The story of a victim was rich in detail.  However, his life was much more greater than that, but those omitted experiences and realities were not available to him because they did not fit with the plot.  For example, my identity of being socially awkward when interacting with women (this is totally hypothetical) is constructed through social interactions over time.  The language that I use to describe myself strengthens the reality I created (e.g., the identity I adopt discourages me from reaching out; enjoyable experiences are discounted), resulting in an outlook of loneliness and isolation.  When I suggested another discourse to him, it opened up a possibility to make sense of his past through a different lens.  Now, we can work together to author another story that is about a survivor, about strengths, about prides and thriving.  The dynamic, relational view of self and identity is a fertile ground for counseling profession: A counselor can collaborate with the client to construct a different identity and expand a client’s narratives.  This is an empowering experience to both the counselor and the client.

So, what happened to M at the end?  He still suffered from psychotic symptoms and was worried about not having enough money to meet basic needs.  He was tortured by flashbacks of the past.  It was very hard for him to recover from what he had gone through, and maybe he never will.  However, the critical moment when he realized that there was an alternative discourse empowered him to persevere to live a life full of challenges.  To me, the boundary between victim and survivor seems to be blurry now.

Who wakes up early?


This picture (admittedly old-fashioned) came from the textbook that I used when I was in elementary school.  Here is the translation of the text:

“Lesson 3: Who wakes up early

Who wakes up early?  My mother wakes up early.  She wakes up early to do cleaning chores.

Who wakes up early?  My father wakes up early.  He wakes up early to read the newspaper.

Who wakes up early?  I wake up early.  I wake up early to go to school.”

Anything things going here?  I think if Fairclough were to see this discourse, he would have a lot to say.  Given the fact that I interacted with this discourse when I was a child and internalized the messages it sent out, I want to utilize this opportunity to analyze what social order it served to maintain and the ideology that was established insidiously.  Let me try to adopt Fairclough’s perspective and unpack what is going on in this particular instance.  A caveat before we move on.  I am by no mean an expert in any approaches in discourse analysis, so please be critical when you are reading my analysis of this text.

First of all, the linguistic level.  How is this discourse organized rhetorically?  Apparently, this discourse portrays a stereotypical, middle class, modern family type- a nuclear family consists of a father, a mother, and a child.  The bourgeoisie family is deemed as “normal,” and hence it conveys the message that any deviations from this standard family composition is somewhat problematic.  If a child is raised by his/her grandparents, by a single parent, by same-sex parents, and so on, his/her family is not consistent with the social relations stipulated by this discourse.  The consequences?  Feelings of inferior and exclusion.  In addition, the use of parallel sentence structure (Who wakes up early?  X wakes up early.  X wakes up early to do Y.) functions not only to facilitate memory of the discourse assigning differential roles/obligations to members in the household based on their gender and position, but also to accentuate the truthfulness of the discourse.  Last, the use of first person pronoun (“my”, “I”) positions the reader as the child who provides this account, constructing a personalized reality that may or may not fit with the readers’ experience in their lives.  Indeed, this is an exertion of power- what your life really is does not matter.  This is the default family structure in our society, so this kind of family experience is more valuable than yours.  Suck it up kids.

Let’s advance to the second level, discursive practice that “focuses on how the authors of texts draw on already existing discourses and genres to creat a text, and on how receivers of texts also apply available discourses and genres in the consumption and interpretation of the texts (Jorgenson & Phillips, 2002, p. 69).”  The authors of this text employed two overarching discourses, including gender discourse and middle-class discourse.  For gender discourse, authors were clearly constructing a knowledge system with strict gender roles ascribed to male and female and at the same time implicitly devaluing female.  First, even though it seems “fair” that everyone wakes up early regardless of gender and family role, the father wakes up early and start off his day by doing something enjoyable, that is, reading the newspaper (this is more of a personal reaction).  The mother, on the other hand, wakes up early to do the cleaning, which I assume most people do not derive much joy out of this activity.  The child, “me”, wakes up early to go to school.  The role of father is presented as the privileged person in the family, granted the power to spare himself from sharing house chores.  Additionally, the image of father reading newspapers carries with itself the ideology that men need to know about the world, whereas women do not because they belong to the house.  Second, the dressing code further reinforces the differentiation between men and women.  The mother is different from the father.  The mother wears dress, and the father wears shirt.  The mother is nurturing because she is the one who sees the child off the house, while the father sits there reading his newspaper.  Third, children from working class family may not share the same lifestyle: both parents wake up early.  It is not uncommon for these parents to work night shifts.  Consequently, children’s experiences are again invalidated, and their voices are marginalized by dominant groups in the society.  Fourth, what is the context that this discourse takes place?  In a textbook, which is associated with power and considered the standard.  The constructed identities (gender, positions in a family, class), relations, and knowledge are automatically linked to authority, regardless of its original intention.  This discourse may not be as influential as it is should it happen in another context, say, in a children book.

The last level, social practice.  What are the relationships between this discourse and the broader social processes?  Is this discourse reproducing the social hierarchy or challenging the existing power asymmetry?  What are the consequences?  My short answer is: This discourse serves the purpose of maintaining male hegemony and reproducing the ideology of patriarchy.  The consequences?  Not until I was exposed to feminist movement did I realize that the gender inequality embedded in this lesson.  In addition, my mother was also a victim.  When I was little, I had seldom, if ever, felt the need to share the housework.  Sorry mom.


Jorgensen, M. W., & Phillips, L. J. (2002). Discourse analysis as theory and method. London, UK: SAGE.

What I talk about when I talk about discourse?

You know, I spent about 10 minutes trying to come up with a title that could not only tie together all my scattered thoughts after finishing the readings, but also perform the action of catching people’s attention.  What made it really challenging was the fact that I can’t help but contemplating on those other potential titles floating in the field of discursivity.  At first glance, it appeared that by choosing this particular topic out of the indefinite competing alternatives, I was exerting some kind of power (of course this is my blog), pinning down one option as the overarching theme for this post, and endowing meaning to the title by elaborating on it.  However, I was wrong.  The entire process, from the formation of topic, my thoughts, to what to be included in this post, was imbued with constraints from structural relationships I have with potential audience, especially the instructor of the course who is going to grade this post.  In this regard, given the fact that the instructor has more power, the field of discursivity presented to me was actually a limited one.  For instance, it is very unlikely, at least at this moment when I still care about my grades, that the title be something unrelated to the readings, such as a psychoanalytical theory about SpongeBob SquarePants.  In addition, to what extent were my thoughts or reactions to the readings “mine?”  My understanding of Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory and the connections I made between their constructs and my existing knowledge/experience depended largely on all the dominant discourses (or arguably “objectivities” in their terminology) in the society.  For instance, I made sense of the idea of “every discourse being relational” by linking it to the principle of contradiction proposed by Taoist philosophical tradition which holds that every element in the universe only exists in relation to its opposite.  Without death, there is no life.  Masculinity cannot be understood without femininity.  The concept that group formation obscures differences within a group stood out to me because of my exposure to discourses in psychotherapy about diagnostic labels.  After thinking through the process, now I am not so confident that I was granted full latitude in constructing a discourse.  Discourse is contingent.

Let me asked my self a hallmark question posed by discourse analysts: What did the above paragraph do?  From a neophyte discourse analyst’s viewpoint, it served as a proof that I have critically read the readings by picking up the discourses employed by discourse analysts.  It constructed a reality, hopefully.  This demonstrated one of the defining features of language- it is constitutive, which Wetherell (2001) extracted as a critical theme when she analyzed the transcribed extract from the interview of Diana.  Diana’s version of utterance constructed a social reality portraying herself in a certain light.  Wetherall’s article, in my opinion, echoed some of the key constructs in Jorgensen and Phillips’s chapter, such as the idea that discourse involves work is another way to talk about the field of discursivity; “meaning is relational (Wetherall, 2001, p. 18)” is conceptually similar to discourse is relational.  It goes back to the three assumptions of discourse analysis on language: action-oriented, situated, and constructed (Potter, 2004).  With these assumptions in mind, then we can start to decompose the process through which meaning/discourse becomes temporarily fixed.  In my mind, this is a mean to critical thinking, and perhaps more importantly, this way of viewing the social world sensitizes us to the operation of power, hegemony, and antagonism.

Another thing that resonated with me was Lacan’s theory of the subject being incomplete, giving rise to the subject’s continual striving to become whole again.  This idea is not unfamiliar.  Erich Fromm (1957) made an argument that human beings are in painful awareness of their ultimate separateness, thus are motivated to eradicate this excruciating loneliness through either constructive or destructive mechanisms .  For Fromm, it is possible to become oneness with others through cultivating the ability to love, whereas for Lacan subject is fundamentally split.  In this field of discrusivity, there is an antagonism.  Coming from a psychology background, Fromm’s theory is more compelling to me.  How do the rest of you think?


Fromm, E. (1957). The art of loving. London, UK: Harper Collins.

Jorgensen, M. W., & Phillips, L. J. (2002). Discourse analysis as theory and method. London, UK: SAGE.

Potter, J. (2004). Discourse analysis. In M. Hardy & A. Bryman (Eds.), Handbook of data analysis (pp. 605-624). London, UK: SAGE.

Wetherell, M., Yalor, S., & Yates, S. J. (2001). Discourse theory and practice: A reader (Part I: Foundations and Building Blocks): Themes in discourse research: The case of Diana (pp. 14-28).

Citations, citations, and more citations.

While I was in the master’s program in counseling here at IU, almost every class that I took would require us to write a conceptual paper, or a paper summarizing a specific topic, or even an imaginary research proposal on psychology.  Now I am a doctoral student, writing a psychology paper becomes even more important to me (but I still find it onerous).  I can clearly recall an instance in which I was struggling with a paper I need to turn in for the career counseling class.  I was so distraught that I went outside for a cigarette (I used to be a smoker) and couldn’t stop cursing in my mind:  Why on earth do I need to include a citation after virtually every sentence I wrote?  Is it because that I don’t have a Ph.D. degree and am nobody in the field, what I have to say doesn’t count at all?  Because of my dissatisfaction with the “rules of the game,” I deliberately make this blog more of a monologue than an academic discourse of “true psychological knowledge.”  A form of passive resistance if you will.

A part of the literature review in Lester and Gabriel (2014) talked about how scholars in psychology qualify their claims through the inclusion of extensive references and the contested nature of “facts” in psychology.  This particular section stood out to me because this perspective makes explicit the notion that psychological “facts” are not a reflection of truth, not a revelation of something that has already been out there.  Rather, a phenomenon can be viewed in different ways.  Psychologists constructed their version of “facts” by citing existent literature that supports their arguments.  For example, if I am trying to establish the importance of relationship harmony in determining East Asians’ mental health, I may sift through relevant studies and only include those that are consistent with my statement.  In other words, because there are variations in scholars’ accounts, psychological “facts” are contested in nature.  Also, by making reference to authoritative figures, one can boost the “trueness” of a claim.  Now I understand why I need to ground my ideas on what those big shots in the field have said- that makes my statement compelling.

A second implication of the is that, because the discourse drawn upon by experts is action-oriented, we have to develop a critical eye to discern the purposes that it attempts to achieve, as well as the consequences that follow once the discursive framework is accepted to be “true.”  Again, Lester and Gabriel (2014) did an extraordinary job in analyzing how intelligence was positioned as an entity that is more or less measurable in psychology textbooks.  If intelligence truly exists as the authors of textbooks claimed, it follows that this construct will always be there, regardless of social and cultural context.  When this account became dominant in our society, people are less likely to examine its consequences and its relationships with social and cultural practices.  It also reminded me of a vibrant research strand in positive psychology that focuses on strengths and virtues.  Researchers assume that certain psychological traits and processes can be inherently conducive to well-being, such as forgiveness and kindness.  Numerous studies have been conducted to demonstrate the beneficial influences of those “positive traits” on a wide variety of outcomes.  However, just as Wooffitt (2005) pointed out that experimental studies of memory did little to help us understand how memory works in our everyday life, empirical studies in “positive traits” were not very informative when applying to a real life setting because once a trait is labeled as “positive,” it functioned to de-emphasize the context in which it operates.  For example, forgiveness may contribute to well-being in general, but it could be problematic for one who is in an abusive relationship.  If a static value judgment is attached to the construct, in this case, positive, it not only becomes a “real thing”, but also obscures other ways it can be understood, that is, situations where it could cause harm.

In short, it is very interesting to see how discourse analysis can be used to explicate the functions of discourse in psychology.  I will end my blog post this week with the two questions taken from Potter (2004) which I think will help me develop a keen awareness in discourse analysis: “What is this discourse doing?” “How is this discourse constructed to make this happen?”  At the end, I still need to provide a list of references.


Lester, J. N. & Gabriel, R. (2014). The discursive construction of intelligence in introductory educational psychology textbooks. Discourse Studies, 16, 776-791.

Potter, J. (2004). Discourse analysis. In M. Hardy & A. Bryman (Eds.), Handbook
of data analysis (pp. 605-624). London, UK: SAGE.

Wooffitt, R. (2005). Conversation analysis and discourse analysis: A comparative and critical introduction. London, UK: SAGE.

A culturally and historically situated psychology

I will be honest here.  After my first time reading the first chapter by Jorgensen and Phillips (2002) on the philosophical underpinning of the three approaches in discourse analysis, my mind went blank when I asked myself the question: What were they talking about?  Although I grasped the big picture when they were discussing those concepts of social constructionism, power, discourse, and subject, and the like, I found it difficult to articulate their meanings and relationships as soon as I put away the book.  Not until I kept my patience and finished reading Hepburn’s (1997) work on discourse analysis on bullying did the readings resonate more with me.  I can sum up what I took away from the readings this week as follows: Discourses (including language and texts), and the knowledge they produce, are never a neutral reflection of reality, but are frameworks set up by individuals with power through which the world is created and the “truth” is constructed.  In this sense, there is no universally applicable knowledge, because there are infinite numbers of discourses that can be offered to account for a specific phenomena.  The dominant discourse available to the public is often constructed by powerful individuals to achieve a certain purpose.  Importantly, those in power are also bound by the cultural and historical background they are in.

Too abstract?  Take bullying (Hepburn, 1992) as an example.  Hepburn explained that bullying is interpreted by teachers who adopt a humanist discourse as a result of pupils’ fixed personality, so the individual is to blame, and ultimately, deserves to be punished.  Teachers interviewed in this study demonstrated a western way of conceptualizing issues through the lens of binary logic, i.e., nature/nurture, individual/society, which in turned justified their attribution of the cause of bullying to individual students.  Consequently, bullying was taking out of context, creating Catch-22 scenarios.  This was a very concrete, vivid example of how discourses place limits on our understanding of the world and how they are recruited flexibly to warrant different statements at different times.  Also in this example I saw the influences of cultural and/or historical factors on discourses available to teachers- if behaviorism is still dominant today, a very different account may be drawn to explain bullying.  There would be another version of “what it means to be human,” seeing human beings as more of a passive reactor of environment instead of the humanist account of people being a self-contained persons with free-will.  Obviously, bullying would have been a totally different story if behaviorist discourse is invoked.

This reminded me of an article I read a few months ago by Cushman (1990), who strongly advocated for a historically situated psychology in studying the configuration of the self.  He argued that psychology is embedded in contextual factors, such as cultural values and beliefs, economic constituents, and historical antecedents.  To fully understand the self and what it is to be human, one must take these factors into accounts.  Another implication of his claims was that psychological theories are never universally applicable, as he put it: “There is no universal, transhistorical self, only local selves; no universal theory about the self, only local theories (Cushman, 1990, p. 599).”  However, practically, it is a challenging task to recognize the cultural and historical influences on discourses and the limits of discursive frameworks that shape the way we perceive ourselves and the world, because we are surrounded by people who think and behave so much like us.  Here is where the suggestion from Jorgenson and Phillips (2002) struck me when I was reading their chapter: “…it is fruitful to try to distance oneself from one’s material and, for instance, imagine oneself as an anthropologist who is exploring a foreign universe of meaning in order to find out what makes sense there (Jorgenson & Phillips, 2002, p. 21).”  In fact, the very same concept happens to be one of the techniques that I as a counselor employ to maintain empathy and avoid the tendency to make assumptions that clients’ reality is the same as mine.

Last, I was impressed by how Gilburt and Mulkay (1984) analyzed scientific discourses to construct the mechanisms through which scientists use different repertoire to sustain their professional work.  Again, this hit home because I read an article using a similar approach, which the authors called the sociology of science approach, to understand the Taiwan Indigenous Psychology Movement (Gabrenya, Kung, & Chen, 2006).  I was very excited to encounter this particular method again!  Look forward to more articles on power, knowledge, discourses, ideology, subjectivity, and those intimidating philosophical constructs to tease my brain.


Cushman, P. (1990). Why the self is empty: Toward a historically situated psychology. American Psychologist, 45, 599-611.

Gabrenya, W. K., Kung, M. C., & Chen, L. Y. (2006). Understanding the Taiwan Indigenous Psychology Movement: A sociology of science approach. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 597-622.

Jorgensen, M. W., & Phillips, L. J. (2002). Discourse analysis as theory and method. London, UK: SAGE.

Wooffitt, R. (2005). Conversation analysis and discourse analysis: A comparative
and critical introduction. London, UK: SAGE.