Nigel Lawson's tent: Discourse analysis, attribution theory and the social psychology of fact

Jonathan Potter, Derek Edwards

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

80 Scopus citations


The general aim of this paper is to show some of the limitations of the attribution theory approach to ordinary reasoning when compared to a discourse analytic alternative. Three central shortcomings with attribution theory are documented, each stemming from the method of presenting subjects with factual vignettes from which they are required to draw inferences: (a) its asocial and unexplicated notion of information; (b) its realist view of linguistic description; (c) its constrained account of participants' activity. These paws are illustrated in practice through a discourse analytic study of the management of factual versions in a political dispute (over a controversial briefing between a British politician, Nigel Lawson, and a group of journalists). Specifically, it focuses on ‘consensus information’, examining the way notions of consensus are used when warranting and undermining versions. Two features of consensus accounts are examined: (a) consensus across a group of observers of an event; (b) corroboration between independent individuals. In each case, the rhetorical organization of factual accounts is documented by analysing both the way the consensus is constructed and the way it is undermined or discounted. The analysis explores how the ‘facts of the matter’, rather than existing as criteria for the resolution of disputation, were themselves part and parcel of the disputation itself: In attribution theory terms, the clear distinction between ‘consensus information’ and the attributions which flow from it becomes unworkable. It is suggested that the analysis provides an exemplar for a discourse orientated social psychology of fact.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-424
Number of pages20
JournalEuropean Journal of Social Psychology
Issue number5
StatePublished - 1990
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Social Psychology


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