What can be said? Identity as a constraint on knowledge production

  • Alex Gillespie University of Stirling
  • Flora Cornish Glasgow Caledonian University


Social representations are produced and reproduced through social interactions. Gerard Duveen made an important contribution by revealing the subtle processes through which the microgenetic production of knowledge is constrained by the identity relations between the participants in an interaction. Relations of symmetry and asymmetry constrain what can be said and heard. In this paper, we show how these ideas yield fruitful analyses in the context of two research projects. First, in a project concerning professional advice-giving by Health Visitors to parents, we elucidate the identity stakes involved in offering, receiving  and resisting advice. Giving advice is not simply presenting new knowledge, it re-positions the advice-giver and advice-receiver with complex consequences for each person's knowledge and action. Second, in an experimental study of communication conflict we show how hierarchical identity positions constrain what
can be both said and heard. Across both studies, we draw attention to the processes allowing speaking and listening on the one hand, or self-silencing and dismissing on the other. To take this line of inquiry further, we conclude by suggesting directions for future research, calling for investigations of how specific identity content and identity relations mediate knowledge construction, and for studies of the kinds of social contexts that might make transformative dialogical engagement more likely.

Author Biographies

Alex Gillespie, University of Stirling

ALEX GILLESPIE is a lecturer in the Department of Psychology at the University of Stirling. His research focuses on communication, intersubjectivity, social interection, assistive technology and identity. Alex's PhD was supervised by Gerard Duveen and subsenquently he had the privilege of working and teaching alongside Gerard at the Department of Social and Developmental Psychology in the University of Cambridge.

Flora Cornish, Glasgow Caledonian University

FLORA CORNISH is a Reader in the School of Health at Glasgow Caledonian University. Her research interests are in commnity development approaches to improving public health, with a focus on the engagement between marginalized communities and their powerful stakeholders. Before coming to Glasgow, she lectured in Social Psychology at the Department of Social & Developmental Psychology, University of Cambridge, while Gerard Duveen was Head of Department.