University of Cambridge > > Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) > What constitutes 'discrimination' in everyday talk? Argumentative lines and the social representations of discrimination

What constitutes 'discrimination' in everyday talk? Argumentative lines and the social representations of discrimination

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Most people agree that discrimination is wrong, but the boundary between ‘discrimination’ and ‘not discrimination’ is often highly contested in everyday practice. We explore the social representations of ‘discrimination’ as an object of study in qualitative interviews and focus groups with both minority (self-identified as BAME and/ or gay men) and majority (self-identified as white and/ or heterosexual) participants (n= 54). Our analysis suggests three repeated and pervasive argumentative lines in social representations of discrimination; (1) that there are two distinct kinds of discrimination (hard versus soft), (2) that you need to understand the intention of the actor(s), and (3) that a claim of discrimination requires a specific kind of evidence. We outline the macro Functions of these resources to argue that each was non-performative (i.e., they undermined the naming of actions or events as discrimination). ‘Soft’ discrimination was constructed as trivial compared to ‘hard’, but ‘hard’ discrimination was located as mostly in the past. ‘Intention’ was important, but any alternative intention was sufficient to discount a claim of discrimination. Participants constructed discrimination as a consequence of individual and isolated interactions, and therefore required a specific kind of information base that was difficult to evidence in practice. In consequence, therefore, only the most narrow forms of discrimination could to be constructed as ‘discrimination’, and discrimination was an explanation of last resort.


This talk is part of the Social Psychology Seminar Series (SPSS) series.

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