Conversation Analysis

Conversation Analysis


Conversation Analysis

              Conversation analysis (commonly abbreviated as CA) is an approach to the study of  social interaction, embracing both verbal and non-verbal conduct, in situations of everyday life. As its name implies, CA began with a focus on casual conversation, but its methods were subsequently adapted to embrace more task- and institution-centered interactions, such as those occurring in doctors’ offices, courts, law enforcement, helplines, educational settings, and the mass media. As a consequence, the term ‘conversation analysis’ has become something of a misnomer, but it has continued as a term for a distinctive and successful approach to the analysis of social interaction.

              Inspired by Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology and Erving Goffman’s conception of the interaction order, CA was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s principally by the sociologist Harvey Sacks and his close associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. Today CA is an established method used in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, speech-communication and psychology. It is particularly influential in interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and discursive psychology. It is distinct from discourse analysis in focus and method. (i) Its focus is squarely on processes involved in social interaction and does not include written texts or larger sociocultural phenomena (for example, ‘discourses’ in the Foucauldian sense). (ii) Its method, following Garfinkel and Goffman’s initiatives, is aimed at determining the methods and resources that the interactional participants use and rely on to produce interactional contributions and make sense of the contributions of others. Thus CA is neither designed for, nor aimed at, examining the production of interaction from a perspective that is external to the participants’ own reasoning and understanding about their circumstances and communication. Rather the aim is to model the resources and methods by which those understandings are produced.


Turn-taking refers to the process by which people in a conversation decide who is to speak next. It depends on both cultural factors and subtle cues.

Turn-taking and gender
Turn-taking in male-female interactions is highly salient. Male interlocutors systematically interrupt females and tend to dominate conversations, and women are frequently treated in much the same way as children are in conversations. This interruption, however, is not due to female interlocutors’ failure to pursue the floor. “Deep” interruption, or interruption at least two syllables before a potential utterance boundary, is perpetuated more frequently by men, towards women, regardless of ways that women negotiate them.

Language and conversation are primary ways in which social interaction is organized. Unequal conversational patterns are therefore reflective of larger power disparities between men and women. One study by Zimmerman and West found that in same-sex pair conversations, overlap and interruption tend to be equally distributed between the two interlocutors, and interruptions are clustered – that is, only a couple of the pairs did all of the interrupting. For opposite sex pairs, male interlocutors interrupt much more, and interruptions are much more widely distributed – that is, most men did it. Gender differences in turn-taking are not invariable, however, and are related to the conditions and context of the speech Gendered aspects of speech and turn-taking must be recognized as being reflective of the cultures in which they exist. Questions have been raised about the correlation between interruption and dominance, and its importance to gender as opposed to other social categories. Studies done by Beattie find status difference more important than gender difference in predicting which speakers interrupted more.

Turn constructional component
The turn constructional component describes basic units out of which turns are fashioned. These basic units are known as Turn construction unit or TCUs. Unit types include: lexical, clausal, phrasal, and sentential.

Turn allocational component
The turn allocational component describes how participants organize their interaction by distributing turns to speakers.
Sequence organization
This focuses on how actions are ordered in conversation.

Adjacency pairs
Talk tends to occur in responsive pairs; however, the pairs may be split over a sequence of turns.
A pair of turns may be understood as preliminary to the main course of action. For example, “Guess what!”/”What?” as preliminary to an announcement of some sort, or “What are you doing?”/”Nothing” as preliminary to an invitation or a request.

Preference organization
CA may reveal structural (i.e. practice-underwritten) preferences in conversation for some types of actions (within sequences of action) over other actions. For example, responsive actions which agree with, or accept, positions taken by a first action tend to be performed more straightforwardly and faster than actions that disagree with, or decline, those positions (Pomerantz 1984; Davidson 1984). One consequence of this is that agreement and acceptance are promoted over their alternatives, and are more likely to be the outcome of the sequence. Pre-sequences are also a component of preference organization and contribute to this outcome (Schegloff 2007).

Repair organization describes how parties in conversation deal with problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding. Repair segments are classified by who initiates repair (self or other), by who resolves the problem (self or other), and by how it unfolds within a turn or a sequence of turns. The organisation of repair is also a self-righting mechanism in social interaction (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Participants in conversation seek to correct the trouble source by initiating self repair and a preference for self repair, the speaker of the trouble source, over other repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Self repair initiations can be placed in three locations in relation to the trouble source, in a first turn, a transition space or in a third turn (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Self initiators of repair in the same turn use different
non-lexical speech perturbations, including: cut-offs, sound stretches and “uh’s” (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977).

Speech community
A speech community is a group of people who share a set of norms and expectations regarding the use of language.[1]
Exactly how to define speech community is debated in the literature. Definitions of speech community tend to involve varying degrees of emphasis on the following:
• Shared community membership
• Shared linguistic communication

Early definitions have tended to see speech communities as bounded and localized groups of people who live together and come to share the same linguistic norms because they belong to the same local community. It has also been assumed that within a community a homogeneous set of norms should exist. These assumptions have been challenged by later scholarship that have demonstrated that individuals generally participate in various speech communities simultaneously and at different times in their lives each of which has a different norms that they tend to share only partially, communities may be de-localized and unbounded rather than local, and they often comprise different sub-communities with differing speech norms. With the recognition of the fact that speakers actively use language to construct and manipulate social identities by signalling membership in particular speech communities, the idea of the bounded speech community with homogeneous speech norms has become largely abandoned for a model based on the speech community as a fluid community of practice.

A speech community comes to share a specific set of norms for language use through living and interacting together, and speech communities may therefore emerge among all groups that interact frequently and share certain norms and ideologies. Such groups can be villages, countries, political or professional communities, communities with shared interests, hobbies, or lifestyles, or even just groups of friends. Speech communities may share both particular sets of vocabulary and grammatical conventions, as well as speech styles and genres, and also norms for how and when to speak in particular ways.
Gumperz asserted the notion of the linguistic community as the community that carries a single speech variant, and seek a definition that could encompass heterogeneity. This could be done by focusing on the interactive aspect of language, because interaction in speech is the path along which diffused linguistic traits travel. Gumperz defined the community of speech:

Any human aggregate characterized by regular and frequent interaction by means of a shared body of verbal signs and set off from similar aggregates by significant differences in language usage.—Gumperz (1964)

This definition gives equal importance to the structural and interactional layers, and does not aim to delineate either the community or the language system as discrete entities. The community is a group of people that frequently interact with each other. This is not a definition of a discrete group because frequency of interaction is relative and graduated, and never stable. The definition of the language system is also not exclusive because it is defined as being set off from other systems by significant differences in usage.Furthermore Gumperz refines the definition of the linguistic system shared by a speech community:
                         regardless of the linguistic differences among them, the speech varieties employed within a speech community form a system because they are related to a shared set of social norms. —Gumperz (1964)

Atkinson, J. Maxwell and Heritage, John (eds) (1984). Structures of Social Action: Studies in
Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Drew, Paul and Heritage, John. (1993). Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Enfield, N. J. and Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural
and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Heritage, John (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Cambridge: Polity Press.
Heritage, John and Steven E. Clayman (2010). Talk in Action: Interactions, Identities and
Institutions. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.
Hutchby, Ian and Wooffitt, Robin. (1988) Conversation Analysis. Polity Press.
Lerner, Gene H. (ed.) (2004) Conversation Analysis: studies from the first generation.
Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.
Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. pp 284–370. Cambridge University Press.


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