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Mentality or morality? Membership categorization, multiple meanings and mass murder

Rapley, M., McCarthy, D. and McHoul, A. (2003) Mentality or morality? Membership categorization, multiple meanings and mass murder. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42 (3). pp. 427-444.

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A central topic for social psychology is how we identify, categorize or represent ourselves to ourselves and to each other. Previous work on this topic stemming from attribution theory, social identity theory, self-categorization theory and social representations theory has tended to accept the dominant cognitivist tenet of an interior self which is (with varying degrees of success) re-presented in ordinary discourse. Against this tradition, and drawing on membership categorization analysis, we argue here for an attention to ordinary members' methods of categorizing the self. Such devices are constitutive of a culture. Accounts of the self (whether lay or professional) cannot avoid reliance on such devices. Our particular case involves a corpus of materials from the press surrounding the Port Arthur massacre: the shooting of 35 people by a lone gunman, Martin Bryant, in Tasmania in 1996. In this case, where public accountings for what ‘makes up’ a particular person are tied to an otherwise inexplicable but ultra-newsworthy event, we find that lay and professional methods of accounting are remarkably congruent. One of the reasons for this congruence, we suggest, is that the categorization of persons is a fundamentally moral matter. Devices for producing everyday moral accounts, in actual practical circumstances, precede and ground, for example, ‘technical’, ‘clinical’ or ‘scientific’ judgments. We conclude that describing such routine (but ultimately grounding) cultural devices can be a central goal of social psychology, as opposed to explaining ‘the self’ by tacitly relying upon those same devices in an unacknowledged and unproblematized fashion.

Item Type: Journal Article
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Media, Communication and Culture
School of Psychology
Publisher: The British Psychological Society
Copyright: 2003 The British Psychological Society
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