Conversation Analysis Research Paper

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Conversation analysis (CA) is a field of sociology concerned with the norms, practices and competences underlying the organization of social interaction. Notwithstanding the name, CA is concerned with all forms of spoken interaction including not only every-day conversations between friends and acquaintances, but also interactions in task-focused social contexts such as medicine, the mass media, education and socio-legal contexts. Originating in the 1960s in the privately circulated lectures of Harvey Sacks (1992), CA has grown into a field of research that is practiced worldwide.

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1. Background

CA emerged from the confluence of two theoretical initiatives in sociology. The first derives from Erving Goffman who, in a long series of theoretical writings, argued that social interaction forms a distinct institutional order comprised of normative rights and obligations that regulate conduct in interaction, and that functions as the medium for the operation of other societal institutions. From Goffman, CA adopted the essentially Durkheimian perspective that these normative conventions are autonomous and independent of the social and psychological characteristics of persons and their particular motivations and projects, and indeed are the vehicles through which the particular characteristics of interactants are made manifest in conduct. The second influence derives from Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, which stresses the contingent and socially constructed nature of both action and the understanding of action in the social world. From Garfinkel, CA adopted the perspective that a common body of normative conventions and practices are the basic resources for the methodical production and recognition of action, and for the achievement of common understandings of joint activities in a dynamic social context that is maintained or altered with each successive contribution.

These two perspectives were fused into a methodology that focuses on the sequential production of interaction. Analysis of the normative practices through which interaction and its outcomes are built is possible because participants display their under-standings and analyses of one another’s conduct in each successive contribution to interaction. The systematic ‘choices’ involved in each successive move are resources for grasping the practices—conceived as a domain of massive order and empirical regularity— through which these choices are implemented.

2. Basic Assumptions

Underlying this sequential methodology are a number of fundamental ideas. First, in performing some current action, participants normally project (empirically) and require (normatively) the production of a ‘next’ or range of possible ‘next’ actions to be done by another participant. Second, in constructing a turn at talk, they normally address themselves to preceding talk and, most commonly, the immediately preceding talk. Participants design their talk in ways that exploit this basic positioning, thereby exposing the fundamental role of this sequential contextuality in their utterances.

Third, by the production of next actions, participants show an understanding of a prior action and do so at a multiplicity of levels—for example, by an ‘acceptance,’ an actor can show an understanding that the prior turn was possibly complete, that it was addressed to them, that it was an action of a particular type (e.g., an invitation) and so on. These under-standings are (tacitly) confirmed or can become the objects of repair at any third turn in an on-going sequence. Within this framework, the grasp of a ‘next’ action that a current projects, the production of that next action, and its interpretation by the previous speaker—are the products of a common set of socially shared practices. CA analyses are thus simultaneously analyses of action, context management and inter-subjectivity because all three of these features are simultaneously, if tacitly, the objects of the actors’ actions.

Embedded in this perspective is the notion that social action is both context-shaped and context-renewing, and that social context is not a simple ‘container’ of social interaction, but rather something that is dynamically created, sustained and altered across an interaction’s course. Similar conclusions hold for the relevant social identities of the participants, which are also activated, sustained or adjusted on a temporally contingent basis. Finally, the procedures that inform these activities are normative in that actors can be held morally accountable both for departures from their use and for the inferences which their use, or departures from their use, may engender. The sequential methodology arising from these assumptions has proved highly productive in generating findings about the basic organization of interaction, and its modifications in a wide range of more specific institutional settings.

For the first two decades of its existence, CA research focused on ordinary or casual interaction between friends and family members, rather than on the intersection between interaction and specific social institutions. This focus on the institution of conversation reflected the stance that ordinary conversation is in various ways a fundamental domain for the analysis of interaction, and that its analysis is a basic resource for the extension of CA into more specialized interactional domains (Sacks et al. 1974). There are various reasons to treat ordinary conversation as fundamental, and indeed as a ‘primordial form of human sociality’ (Schegloff 1992). It is the predominant form of human interaction in the social world and the primary medium of communication to which the child is exposed and through which socialization proceeds. It thus antedates the development of other, more specialized, forms of ‘institutional’ interaction both phylogenetically in the life of society and onto-genetically in the life of the individual.

Moreover the practices of ordinary conversation appear to have a ‘bedrock’ or default status. They are less historically mutable and subject to discursive justification (by reference, for example, to equity or efficiency) than practices of communication in legal, medical, pedagogical and other institutions manifestly are. Research is increasingly showing that communicative conduct in more specialized social institutions embodies task- or role-oriented specializations and particularizations that generally involve a narrowing of the range of conduct that is generically found in ordinary conversation (see below). The latter thus embodies a diversity and range of combinations of interactional practices that is unmatched elsewhere in the social world. Communicative conduct in institutional environments, by contrast, embodies socially imposed and often irksome departures from that range.

3. Domains Of Research On The Study Of Ordinary Conversation

CA research into ordinary conversation addresses practices of interaction that are organized as systems. These practices are clustered in a range of domains. These include the following:

(a) Turn-taking comprises the organization of coordinated access to the interactional floor and its social regulation, together with the management of failures in coordination and regulation (manifested in overlapping talk and various forms of competitive interruption).

(b) Sequence organization focuses on the practices through which courses of action are built, and ho alternative pathways within them are activated and structured. Beginning with simple paired actions— such as question-answer, or invitation response—the study of sequence organization focuses on the various ways in which the interior structure of these sequences are managed and expanded. Many sequence organizational practices, including expansions, are oriented to issues of affiliation and social solidarity between the speakers, handled under the related topic of ‘preference.’ Sequence expansions, for example, are, in large part, designed to avoid, minimize or otherwise mitgate disaffiliative actions which are potentially ubiquitous, and which would otherwise undermine the social solidarity of interactants. For example, the simple pre-expansion inquiry ‘Are you doing anything tonight?’ permits a recipient, by responding with an alternative activity, to forestall an upcoming suggestion and thus to avoid the face-threatening action of rejection. Correspondingly, a ‘No’ response permits a would-be inviter to proceed with more confidence since a less face-threatening opportunity to reject the invitation has already been passed.

(c) Repair concerns the resources with which participants deal with problems in speaking, hearing and understanding talk, including the interactional mechanics of self- and other-initiated repair, and the ongoing management of problems in sustaining inter-subjective understanding.

Other domains of research include story-telling and narrative, the internal structuring of turns at talk, word selection, prosody, and the intersection between talk and body behavior. Taken together, this research has generated a very large range of findings that link the sociological study of social interaction to convergent perspectives in linguistics and communication. These findings have increasingly been enriched by parallel analyses from other languages, including most European languages and a number of prominent Asian languages, including Japanese, Korean, and Mandarin.

4. Interaction And Social Institutions

During the past two decades, the findings emerging from the study of ordinary conversation have found increasing application in the study of interaction in various kinds of institutional settings, including education and social work, socio-legal contexts, police work, the mass media, medicine, and the human-machine interface. These are all areas in which social interaction is a prominent feature of the working activities of participants. Research in this field ad-dresses the ways in which the work of institutions is realized in interaction.

Initial interest in the analysis of social institutions focused on how participants’ actions embodied their understandings of relevant aspects of the settings which, through these same actions, they constitute as real and binding on one another. As noted earlier, institutional interactions tend to involve reduction in the kinds of practices and actions that are deployed in ordinary conversation and a specialization of those that remain. In this context, research initially focused on the ways in which turn-taking arrangements and basic facets of sequence organization undergo modifications in such contexts as classrooms, law courts, news interviews and business meetings, and the ways in which these modified arrangements structure opportunities for action among the participants that impact on other dimensions of interaction in these settings.

Subsequent research has focused on the ways in which the particular demands of institutional roles, tasks and identities are managed in the sequential structure of interaction, in the specific design of turns at talk, and in the ways that the different knowledge bases possessed by the interactants play out as bases for inference and action. More recent work increasingly ties specific practices of interaction to participants’ perceptions and expectations, and to the outcomes of interactions, particularly in medicine and related fields where outcomes are measurable. Finally, with the passage of time and the growth of an historical record of recorded data, it is becoming possible to chart changes in interactional practices over time and to examine them as indices and vectors of social change.

5. Methodologies

CA embodies a significant methodological departure from most extant sociological perspectives. First, it is premised on the assumption that all aspects of social interaction are organized and/orderly and that social participants attend to interaction in fine detail, albeit with varying degrees of reflexive awareness. Thus gaze, body posture, prosody, intonation, pacing, self-interruption, word selection, grammar, etc., have been shown to be the objects of systematic orientation in both the production and interpretation of interaction. This conception of order contrasts markedly with other positions in the social sciences—from Parsons to Chomsky—which start from the presumption that social interaction is ‘noisy’ and needs to be cleansed of accidental detail if analysis is to be successful. It effectively mandates that CA investigations be based on audio- and video-recordings of interaction, rather than data arrived at through invention, reconstruction, recollection or precoding, because all the latter foreclose on the levels of detail and/organization that conversation analysts have repeatedly found to be relevant to participants in recorded specimens of interaction.

Beyond this point, there are some divergences. The study of ordinary interaction focuses on practices which are putatively of general provenance, and usable by anyone who knows how to talk. While large numbers of specimens of such practices are valuable in determining their nature and function, statistical analysis has played little role in the field, largely because in the matter of interactional practices, as in the case of biological species, large numbers are not essential to establishing their existence. In the field of institutional interaction, however, and especially in its applied aspects, where practices of interaction are being linked to tasks, identities, perceptions, expectations and outcomes, a more statistically-focused methodology is appropriate and is increasingly used.

6. Conclusion

CA is a large and diversifying field of study. Its basic outlook and methodology have achieved ‘paradigmatic’ status in Thomas Kuhn’s sense, and is widely accepted across the range of social science disciplines to which it has contributed. It seems likely that its methodology will continue to evolve and that it will contribute, not only to sociology, communication science and linguistics, but also to medicine, neuroscience, artificial intelligence and the life sciences with which its practitioners are in increasing contact.


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