Conversation Analysis

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Outline

I. Introduction

II. Basic Principles

III. Historical Sketch

IV. Situating Context-In-Interaction

V. Micro/Macro Distinctions and Relationships

VI. Accessing CA and Future Directions for Research

I. Introduction

Conversation Analysis (CA) is a primary mode of inquiry for understanding how people talk with one another in everyday casual encounters, as well as in more specialized institutional settings involving bureaucratic representatives (e.g., medical, legal, educational, corporate, government). Research materials are naturally occurring audio and video recordings, and carefully produced transcriptions, of a broad range of interactions comprising the social worlds of diverse speakers, relationships, activities, and events. Examples are: telephone conversations and face-to-face interactions among family members, friends, acquaintances, and service providers such as telephone emergency hotlines; interactions among young children, parents, and daycare providers; patient–provider interactions; news and broadcast interviews. Giving priority to recordings and transcriptions is based on the recognition that detailed features and contingencies of interactional events cannot be intuited, nor adequately reconstructed, through field notes, interviews, or other forms of self-reported information. Interactions that are “naturally occurring” are those that would take place whether or not a recording device were present, and are not significantly influenced by researchers prompting the origination, content, or length of the social occasion.

II. Basic Principles

Speakers order their lives by collaboratively producing distinct courses of unfolding action. Discovering how these actions are sequentially organized is fundamental for explaining communication in everyday life. Through CA, priority is given to: (1) identifying how speakers utilize specific vocal and visible practices to manage the moment-by-moment design of turns-at-talk, and (2) the sequential and spatial environments within which actions routinely occur. Although CA has historically given primary attention to the ongoing orderliness of talk within single cases and collections of social interaction (e.g., see Atkinson & Heritage 1984; Sacks 1992), the embodied organization of gesture, gaze, and body orientation are basic and enduring concerns (e.g., see Goodwin 1981; Heath 1986; Beach 2007b).

Central to CA are ongoing, informal, yet systematic procedures for conducting what is commonly referred to as data sessions. Colleagues gather to repeatedly hear and view recordings, closely examine transcribed excerpts, and provide increasingly refined observations about practices comprising the organization of specific moments and interactions being examined. A defining feature of CA is the descriptive rigor and explanatory force brought to recordings and transcriptions, a proof-by-exemplar methodology of analytic induction: social problems are not brought to the data, but emerge from grounded and systematic inspections of moments not prematurely dismissed as lacking order or relevance. Observations about the ordering of interaction must be anchored within the recorded and transcribed interactional data, specifically, how speakers make available to one another their emergent understandings of local (i.e., “Why that now?”) interactional circumstances. What speakers display and demonstrate in real time, in the first instance by and for them, become resources for analysts to warrant claims, progressively advance evidence about the organization of social interaction, and seek to establish consensus about the most compelling depictions of interactional conduct.

The analytic procedures of CA stand in marked contrast to attempts to understand communication by speculating about speakers’ mental states, or background knowledge, which do not somehow get invoked during interaction. So too are analysts’ imagined, hypothetical, and anecdotal possibilities minimized in favor of focusing on what is actually occurring between speakers. Attention is not drawn to individuals’ interpretive or perceptual experiences, but to the turn-by-turn and embodied coordination of local actions within an architecture of intersubjectivity – an organization in which “a context of publicly displayed and continuously up-dated intersubjective understandings is systematically sustained” (Heritage 1984, 259).

Through systematic data sessions, and subsequent publications, empirical attention has been given to a wide variety of social activities. The analytic dimensions of CA investigations are broad and vibrant, revealing the organization of frequently recognized, yet taken-for-granted, features of language and action: recognition during telephone openings, repairing understandings, the systematics of turn-taking and overlapped speech, agreeing and disagreeing, acknowledging and closing turns-in-progress, establishing and withdrawing gaze, initiating and closing topics, questioning and answering, referencing persons, the social construction of self, accounting, accusing, announcing, apologizing, blaming, complaining, complimenting, gossiping, offering, pursuing noticeably absent responses, requesting, storytelling, teasing, exhibiting and claiming entitlement to knowledge, grammar and syntax in interaction, dealing with embarrassment, laughing when displaying resistance to troubles, discussing uncertain and delicate futures, delivering and receiving good and bad news.

Across these diverse social activities, the empirical findings of CA reveal how ordinary speakers, in both casual and institutional interactions, routinely address and resolve emerging problems. For example, speakers manage the allocation of turn-taking by precisely coordinating the inception and completion of turns, minimizing overlapped speaking, and enforcing efforts to speak out of turn and/or interruptively. When monitoring the course and progression of another’s speaking, recipients rely on acknowledgment tokens (e.g., mm, mm hm, uh huh, and yeah) to display attentiveness and facilitate others’ extended talking (e.g., during stories). But words such as yeah, okay, or all right can also be recruited to close down prior speakers’ talk and thereby secure speakership. Similarly, the word oh is utilized across a range of social actions, including displays of a “change of state” in knowledge, as well as treating prior questions as sufficiently problematic to avoid talk raised by another’s query. What may appear to be small, insignificant, and otherwise benign features of everyday conversation are, in practice, employed as key resources by speakers to manage critically important activities such as speaker selection, topic organization, and reluctance (or willingness) to talk about particular issues.

Central to these social actions are ways speakers work together to negotiate and achieve shared understandings. One primary mode of CA research is to investigate how speakers work to repair their own talk (e.g., when a wrong word is employed), and/or exhibit an inability to understand another’s talk (e.g., What?). Mechanisms comprising these sequential environments have been identified, including how it is possible that “breakdowns” and “misunderstandings” are created and resolved, and how those who initiate repair about another’s talk are made out to be responsible for the trouble. Related studies of “troubles” have also revealed that while speakers may state they are “pretty good” or “fine,” such utterances may give rise to more elaborated talk about troubles they are experiencing – talk in which troubles-tellers display their resistance and ability to manage the troubles, just as recipients may (or may not) make available their receptivity to hearing and responding to another’s dilemma.

III. Historical Sketch

From the late 1970s, the empirical rigor and theoretical implications arising from CA have provided a viable alternative for communication scholars researching language and social interaction (LSI). Although CA was emerging in sociology in the mid- to late 1960s, and strongly influenced by work in ethnomethodology (Heritage 1984), it was nearly a decade later when interdisciplinary relationships began to be cultivated. The work of CA, and its importance for communication research, was initially recognized with the reading of early publications such as Emanuel Schegloff ’s (1968) paper on “telephone openings,” and the later (now classic) article on turn-taking published in the journal Language by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974). When contacted and visited in the Department of Sociology at UCLA, both Schegloff and his visiting colleague, Gail Jefferson, also generously provided “blue ink” mimeos of Harvey Sacks’ lecture notes – a bedrock for CA investigations. These notes were transcribed by Gail Jefferson, following Sacks’ untimely death in a car accident in 1976, and eventually published as an indispensable two-volume set (Sacks 1992). Emanuel Schegloff ’s introduction provides a useful lens for appreciating Sacks’ contributions in historical and scholarly context.

As these mimeos, related earlier publications, and unpublished papers were read and disseminated among interested communication scholars, who otherwise had limited access to CA work, the integration of CA into the communication discipline became gradual yet progressive. Since the late 1970s, CA has been a primary focus of 11 special journal issues (and sections) involving communication researchers. The 1987 advent of the journal Research on Language and Social Interaction also provided a needed forum for LSI research, facilitating ongoing collaborations within and across traditional disciplinary boundaries.

Significant relationships between CA and alternative methodologies have been addressed (e.g., between ethnography and CA, and contrasting orientations to “context”). A variety of related and critical issues have also been examined (e.g., news interviews, conversational poetics, morality, verbal/non-verbal relationships, lay diagnosis, and turn construction).

Throughout these key developments, unequivocally the most important activities for a growing CA community in communication centered on the collegial discipline of data sessions: most gatherings included informal but rigorous analyses of recorded and transcribed data. The doing of CA occurred, first and foremost, when working directly with others analyzing interactional data. While data sessions were ordinarily conducted at separate universities, during conferences these sessions occurred more privately, among small groups in hotel rooms. But as interest grew and brainstorming increased, data sessions became community-based, open events occurring (more or less “officially”) preconference and during programmed panel slots. Initiated during Western States Communication Association (WSCA) meetings, these sessions carried over into the National Communication Association (NCA) annual conferences: participants worked together with seasoned analysts to refine analytic skills and discuss the potential of CA for pursuing diverse and rich investigations into fundamental communication activities. These open data sessions continue and, especially at NCA and WSCA, related CA paper and panel presentations are now normalized conference events. It is particularly notable that NCA is internationally recognized as hosting one of the most prominent annual gatherings of CA researchers representing diverse disciplines and countries. This success is due, in large part, to growing openness and receptivity for CA as an innovative and substantive approach to how messages and social relationships might be examined.

IV. Situating Context-In-Interaction

Fundamental to CA’s position on social order is the recognition that speakers construct, place, and participate within sequences of adjacently paired (i.e., contiguous) actions that are not random but highly organized. Each utterance and action occurs within structurally defined places, exhibiting what speakers treat as meaningful for unfolding interaction. In systematic ways, speakers work together to manage emerging interactions by constructing local contexts of meaningful, communicative actions. A speaker’s current turn-at-talk projects the conditional relevance of not just any, but a range of appropriate next responses. Next speakers design their responses by displaying understandings of what the prior speaker made available and relevant. Just as utterances cannot be understood when stripped from carefully designed sequential environments, for CA context is best understood as achieved through interaction – constantly renewing and shaping social actions – rather than external to or otherwise removed from communication (i.e., as located in roles, social settings, or institutions). Through close analysis of single cases and constant comparisons across collections of phenomena, it has become evident that numerous practices employed by speakers to organize specific moments of interaction (i.e., local and context-sensitive actions) also occur – in systematic and thus generalizable ways across speakers, topics, activities, and cultures (i.e., context-free and universal patterns of communication).

Locating context in speakers’ responses to immediately prior talk, and action, gives priority to capturing how speakers organize interaction. Alternative and more general descriptions of social settings cannot lay bare the details of how speakers collaborate to shape communication contexts (e.g., see Duranti & Goodwin 1992). In the last two decades, for example, turn-organized notions of context provided an empirically grounded alternative to creating and utilizing various “coding schemes” to capture message content and subtle features of relationships (e.g., control, dominance, and submission). With CA as a resource, it was recognized that many schemes utilized categories neither grounded in nor sensitive to interactional conduct. Coders’ decision rules were also ambiguous in that they were not focused on describing how current speakers project, and next speakers are responsive to, prior turns and actions. Even though arguments could be advanced that coders agreed on 80 percent or more of decisions made, such consensus did not translate into an ability to capture how speakers organized sequences of interaction.

Similarly, contextual approaches advanced by CA revealed the tendency to underspecify “speech act” functions of utterances (e.g., compliments, offers, requests), especially when the detailed and sequential environments in which such actions occurred were not fully articulated.

V. Micro/Macro Distinctions and Relationships

The social sciences in general, and communication scholarship in particular, have demonstrated considerable interest in what are often described as macro categories for explaining social order (e.g., power, status, race, ethnicity, gender, and culture). For CA, it is inherently problematic to claim that the existence of social order is the natural consequence of these (and related) attributes – overly general qualities that are too easily invoked, yet difficult to anchor within participants’ orientations to practical circumstances of choice and action. It is not sufficient, for example, to offer the following kinds of assertions: men dominate when conversing with women; persons with differing racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds are communicatively dissimilar; or judges, doctors, and politicians are obviously more powerful than those with whom they interact. In each instance, such declarations do not evidence how participants in interaction exhibit and achieve such actions – dominance, lack of similarity, being powerful – in specific and observable ways during the routine course of daily interactions. Since it is through the fine-grained organization of actual communicative events that “macro” concepts are accomplished, it remains for analysts to provide empirically grounded, compelling evidence that speakers are engaged in activities amounting to whatever power, gender, culture, and the like might be conceived to be.

Distinctions between “micro” and “macro,” so frequently debated in classes and at scientific gatherings, are unnecessary for CA: roles, categories of societal membership, and institutions (i.e., “macro”) get simultaneously and interactionally constructed (i.e., “micro”) as speakers enact and embody their orientations moment by moment. Such actions are neither small nor insignificant, but may well be taken for granted when attempting to describe “larger” societal structures.

VI. Accessing CA and Future Directions for Research

Examples of recent CA investigations by communication scholars include work focusing on interactional activities such as laughter (Glenn 2003), narratives (Mandelbaum 2003), test results during medical consultations (Pomerantz & Rintel 2004), apologies (Robinson 2004), asserting speakers’ rights (Stivers 2005), and how family members talk through cancer on the telephone (Beach 2007a). Ongoing research involves an increasing convergence of studies on conversational and institutional interactions (e.g., patient–provider encounters), more frequent applications for external funding to support research efforts, and continued discussion of how empirical findings resulting from CA might be employed to refine communication skills across various relationships, settings, and institutions. These collective efforts seek understandings of the amazingly sophisticated and finely ordered nature of social interaction, extend fertile collaborations across disciplinary boundaries, and work toward developing grounded, universal, and relevant theories of social order. A seemingly endless array of primal features comprising everyday communication awaits discovery, and CA is uniquely positioned to continue analyses of unexamined interactional involvements.

Bibliography:

  1. Atkinson, J. M., & Drew, P. (1979). Order in court: The organisation of verbal interaction in judicial settings. London: Macmillan.
  2. Atkinson, J. M., & Heritage, J. (eds.) (1984). Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  3. Beach, W. A. (2007a). A natural history of family cancer: Interactional resolutions to medical problems. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton.
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