Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Identity and help in calls to Victim Support

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posted on 2021-12-07, 16:49 authored by Emma TennentEmma Tennent

The link between identity and action is a fundamental topic across the social sciences. A key site to investigate this relationship is social interaction, where identities and social relations are built and used to accomplish action. In this thesis, I used discursive psychology to analyse the relationship between identity and the action of help in recorded calls to a victim support helpline. Victim is a contentious identity, with feminists and other critical scholars pointing to the politics involved when certain people are categorised as victims and others are overlooked. The name of the organisation that was the setting for my research, ‘Victim Support,’ explicitly links a victim identity with rights to access the help the service offers. Drawing on concepts in discursive psychology and using conversation analysis and membership categorisation analysis, I examined how participants oriented to the contentious questions of who victims are and how they should be helped. Drawing on contemporary interactional research which theorises the epistemic, deontic, and affective basis of human social relations, I examined how participants used self-other relations as a resource to build and interpret actions as help.  The findings provide evidence for the mutually constitutive relationship between identity and action. Counter-intuitively, most callers did not explicitly categorise themselves as victims when asking for help. My analyses show how call-takers understood callers’ identities as victims even when they did not say so directly. The act of asking for help from Victim Support constituted callers’ identities as victims; and their identities rendered their requests accountable.  Call-takers on the victim helpline act as gate-keepers, determining callers’ eligibility before providing help. I analysed how call-takers denied callers’ requests by implicitly or explicitly disavowing their identities as victims. Conversely, I showed that offers of help constituted callers as legitimate victims. Yet even once participants had accomplished joint understanding of callers as victims, they negotiated their respective epistemic and deontic rights to determine what help was needed and how it should be provided.  The negotiation of how victims should be helped was particularly salient when callers sought help on behalf of others. Participants negotiated whether the moral obligation to help victims was associated with friends and family members, or institutions. The emotional support and practical advice offered by Victim Support is delivered by volunteer support workers, reflecting a common-sense assumption that these forms of help are normatively available to any competent person. My analyses attend to the dilemmas involved when callers sought help for others rather than providing it themselves.  The findings contribute to three main areas of research: conversation analytic study of help as social action; membership categorisation analysis research on categorically organised rights and obligations; and the re-specification of psychological phenomenon as interactional objects within discursive psychology. The mutually constitutive link between identity and help is consequential, as the provision or withholding support can have material effects when callers are highly distressed or in fear for their lives. Thus, studying real-life interaction demonstrates the practical ways identity matters for seeking help.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License

Author Retains Copyright

Degree Discipline

Discursive Psychology

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code

970120 Expanding Knowledge in Languages, Communication and Culture

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Weatherall, Ann; Harrington, Carol