Communication and meaning construction in social psychology: Group polarization as a communication process  [presentation, pdf, 178 kB]

Vodušek V.
Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts, University of Ljubljana, Ljubljana, Slovenia

Communication is the medium and the dynamic principle of all social psychological processes and structures as they can be found in everyday life. Mainstream experimental social psychology tends to neglect this fact both in theory and methodology: quantification being the sine qua non, it has to define it's subject matter »outside of« the dynamics of communication, thereby crucially altering the very reality of the phenomena it seeks to explain. In my presentation I shall try to form a bridge between the qualitative and the quantitative approach by showing how a social psychological process – group polarization – can be approached not only »inside« communication but as a communication process. For this purpose I shall present the main findings of an in-depth discourse analysis of the discussions that are an integral part of the classic group polarization experiment. I am going to deal with two main issues: (i)The presupposition of the attitude scale used in such experiments is a »stable« attitude object that is »essentially the same« both from a synchronic and a diachronic perspective. The implication is that individuals evaluate the same thing, only with different intensity and/or value. Using representative examples from discussions, I am going to show that participants with opposite evaluations find very different meanings when discussing the same statements (comprising the attitude scale): the very reading of the statements is a function of the overall object evaluation. (ii)The meaning of the scale items (and thereby the structure of the attitude object itself) undergoes transformation through the discussion: the group strives to form a joint reading of each item when reaching a consensus on the item rating. When the group is attitudinally homogeneous, the reading of an item tends to simplify, leading to more extreme ratings. When the group is heterogeneous, the reading tends to complexify, leading to more moderate ratings. Attitude objects are therefore communicatively constructed, "attitude change" being the consequence of a specific communication setting.