Conversation analysis

Conversation analysis

Conversation analysis
(commonly abbreviated as CA) is the study of talk in interaction (both verbal and non-verbal in situations of everyday life). CA generally attempts to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction, whether institutional (in school, a doctor's surgery, court or elsewhere) or in casual conversation.

Inspired by ethnomethodology (e.g. Harold Garfinkel) and Erving Goffman, 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, as well as being a coherent discipline in its own right. Recently CA techniques of sequential analysis have been employed for instance by phoneticians to explore the fine phonetic detail of speech (Kelly and Local 1989). [1]

The use of the term “conversation” to label this disciplinary movement is sometimes considered to be misleading. For instance, one of CA’s principal practitioners, Emanuel Schegloff, has more recently identified “talk-in-interaction” as CA’s topic. Perhaps for this same reason, others (e.g., Jonathan Potter) who use CA methods identify themselves as discourse analysts (DA), though that term was first used to identify researchers using methods different from CA (cf., Levinson, 1983), and still identifies a group of scholars larger than those who use only CA methods.


CA analysis

As in all research, conversational analysis begins by setting up a research problem. The data collected for CA is in the form of video or audio recorded conversations. The data is collected without researchers' involvement, often simply by adding a video camera to the room where the conversation takes place (e.g. medical doctors consultation with a patient). From the audio or video recording the researchers construct a detailed transcription (ideally with no details left out). After transcription, the researchers perform inductive data-driven analysis aiming to find recurring patterns of interaction. Based on the analysis, the researchers develop a rule or model to explain the occurrence of the patterns.

Basic structures

Turn-taking organization

The set of practices by which a conversation is done in and through turns. Turn-taking is one of the fundamental organizations of conversation. According to CA, the turn-taking system consists of two components: the turn constructional component and the turn allocational component[1].

CA does not explicitly claim that turn-taking is universal. However, as research is conducted on more languages, if there were any basis for a claim to universality in language, turn-taking would be a good candidate. The turn-taking model for conversation was arrived at inductively through empirical investigation of field recordings of conversation and fitted to such observationally arrived at facts as that in conversation, participants are constrained to issue their utterances in allocated turns, and enlist various mechanisms to obtain turns.

Turn constructional component

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

Turn allocational component

The turn allocational component describes how participants organize their interaction by selecting speakers in a conversation. The three ordered options are: Current Speaker selects Next Speaker; Next Speaker Self-selects as Next; or Current Speaker Continues.

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).

Action formation

This focuses on the description of the practices by which turns at talk are composed and positioned so as to realize one or another actions.

Contrasts to other theories

In contrast to the research inspired by Noam Chomsky, which is based on a distinction between competence and performance and dismisses the particulars of actual speech as a degraded form of idealized competence, Conversation Analysis studies naturally-occurring talk on the assumption that spoken interaction is systematically orderly in all its facets (cf. Sacks in Atkinson and Heritage 1984: 21-27). In contrast to the theory developed by John Gumperz, CA maintains it is possible to analyze talk-in-interaction by examining its recordings alone (audio for telephone, video for copresent interaction). CA researchers do not believe that the researcher needs to consult with the talk participants or members of their speech community.

Application in other fields

In recent years, CA has been employed by researchers in other fields, such as feminism and feminist linguistics, or used in complement with other theories, such as Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA). Elizabeth Stokoe argues that ethnomethodology's egalitarian creed reflects the egalitarian ethos in feminism. Traditional feminist concerns can be explored from an ethnomethodological standpoint, since oppression is not a once and for all phenomenon but the processes involved in defining social reality produces and reproduces oppression daily. Thus, the gendered properties of social life, routinely taken-for-granted as natural and trans-situational, are best understood as situated accomplishments of local interactions.[2] MCA was influenced by the work on Harvey Sacks and his work on Membership Categorization Device (MCD). Sacks argues that 'members’ categories comprise part of the central machinery of organization and developed the notion of MCD to explain how categories can be hearably linked together by native speakers of a culture. His example that is taken from a children's storybook (The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.) shows how "mommy" is interpreted as the mother of the baby by speakers of the same culture. In light of this, categories are inference rich – a great deal of knowledge members of a society have about the society is stored in terms of these categories.[3] Stokoe further contends that members’ practical categorizations form part of ethnomethodology's description of the ongoing production and realization of ‘facts’ about social life and including members’ gendered reality analysis, thus making CA compatible with feminist studies.[2]

Subject index of conversation analysis literature

The following is a list of important phenomena identified in the conversation analysis literature, followed by a brief definition and citations to articles that examine the named phenomenon either empirically or theoretically. Articles in which the term for the phenomenon is coined or which present the canonical treatment of the phenomenon are in bold, those that are otherwise centrally concerned with the phenomenon are in italics, and the rest are articles that otherwise aim to make a significant contribution to an understanding of the phenomenon.

A process by which interactants allocate the right or obligation to participate in an interactional activity. (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974)
The mechanisms through which certain "troubles" in interaction are dealt with. (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks 1977)
The ways through which different types of social actions ('preferred' vs. 'dispreferred') are carried out sequentially. (Pomerantz 1978, Pomerantz 1984)

See also


  1. ^ Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation." Language, 50, 696-735.
  2. ^ a b Stokoe, Elizabeth (2006). "On ethnomethodology, feminism, and the analysis of categorial reference to gender in talk-in-interaction", Sociological Review 54: 467-94.
  3. ^ Sacks, H. (1992). "Lectures on Conversation, Volumes I and II" Edited by G. Jefferson with Introduction by E.A. Schegloff, Blackwell, Oxford.
  • 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.
  • 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. ISBN 0-521-29414-2.
  • Local, John. (2007). Phonetic Detail and the Organisation of Talk-in-Interaction. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences. Saarbruecken, Germany: 16th ICPhS Organizing Committee.
  • Kelly, John and Local John (1989). Doing Phonology, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Pain, Jean. (2008). Not Just Talking: Conversational Analysis and Psychotherapy. Karnac. ISBN 978-1855756892
  • Pomerantz, Anita M. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessment: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structure of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Psathas, George (1995): Conversation Analysis, Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Sacks, Harvey. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55786-705-4.
  • Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A., & Jefferson, Gail (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A., Jefferson, G. & Sacks, H. (1977). The Preference for Self-Correction in the Organisation of Repair in Conversation. Language, 53, 361-382.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2007). Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analyis, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidnell, Jack. (2010). Conversation Analysis: An Introduction, London: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Prescribing Under Pressure: Parent-Physician Conversations and Antibiotics (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ten Have, Paul (1999): Doing Conversation Analysis. A Practical Guide, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Terasaki, Alene Kiku (1976). Pre-announcement Sequences in Conversation, Social Sciences Working Paper #99. School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine.

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