Conversational Analysis Research Paper Starter

Conversational Analysis

(Research Starters)

This article looks at conversational analysis (or conversation analysis) from the theoretical assumption that conversation is based on a set of patterns and rules that are found in all languages. The work of Harvey Sacks and his colleagues is cited as the fullest body of work on the topic. Sacks argued that we use a process of turn-taking when we communicate through talking, and these turns are determined by even more tacit rules of turn-taking and turn-yielding cues. The theory has been used to understand why languages are so similar. Hundreds of studies have used this model to understand how humans interact, including looking at gender differences, when children learn to turn-take, and the difference in turn-taking in traditional classrooms vs. online classrooms. Critiques include Noam Chomsky's linguistics theory, in which he argues language emerges out of an inherent grammar all humans have.

Keywords Conversational Analysis; Cues; Ethnomethodology; Gap; Sociolinguistics; Turn Constructional Units; Turn Relevance Place; Turn-Taking; Turn-Yielding

Day to Day Social Interaction: Conversational Analysis


Conversational analysis is the study of how we communicate through talking. It is a relatively new field in sociology, developed in the 1960s. While it is based on some fundamental theories in sociology, and the methods used to understand how we talk to one another are sociological, it is quite common to see the ideas behind conversational analysis discussed in speech-communication, psychology, anthropology, and linguistics. Some believe the term "conversation" is misleading, which has some scholars calling this study "talk-in-interaction" (Schegloff, 2000). Also, the term "discourse analysis" is commonly used, but this can also be misleading, because discourse can also include exchanges involving reading and writing, events at which people offer information, or what is not said, so to be most accurate, conversational analysis is limited to the study of looking at how people interact when talking. Still, this definition should be considered as broadly as possible; so, the interactions considered in this study include chatting with other casually, but also buying tickets for the theater, making appointments for the dentist, talking to strangers at the bus stop, reporting an emergency on the telephone, responding to a grandparent's inquiry about how school is going, and so on.

Conversation analysts look at the order of our everyday interactions when we are talking. Through careful recording of spoken exchanges between people, they have found patterns and structures that, to date, are seen in every culture studied. Conversation analysts assume that people are trying to make sense of the world through the reproduction of what they understand to already be true (Garfinkel, 1967). In other words, people have a notion of what is reality and that reality is constantly being reaffirmed by checking in with others; in this way, the social order is maintained and people know what to expect in social settings. This theory of how we make sense of the social world is called ethnomethodology. These theorists believe that it is enormously important for the social world to be predictable for humans, and this is true in conversations with others.

Theories of conversational analysis grew out of two fields: ethnomethodology and sociolinguistics. Ethnomethodology is a sociological theory that studies how ordinary people make sense of their world. Harold Garfinkel, a sociologist who developed this theory, viewed people as having a folk methodology which comprised a "range of seen but unnoticed" procedures and practices that make it possible for persons to analyze, make sense of, and produce recognizable social activities" (Pomerantz & Atkinson, 1984, p. 286). Ethnomethodologists engage in norm-breaching experiments to determine what these rules are. They intentionally breach rules and document how people behave and in this way determine what the rules are. They don't believe people are aware they are following these patterns, and this is why the rules need to be determined by outside observation. Sociolinguistics is the study of how culture affects language in a society.

The assumption is that conversations are integral to social life, and through them much of life is organized. So, by recording the patterns in conversations, we are able to observe other common patterns in everyday life. Conversational analysts focus on structures, cadences, and other aspects of verbal interaction, looking specifically at dyads and small groups. They are not concerned about what is being said, but rather the patterns seen in how people talk to one another.

In order to determine what these patterns, rules, and structures are, early developers used a research method in which the researcher makes a careful record (ideally a videotape) of talk between people, and later carefully analyzes it. Researchers are looking for patterns such as who initiated the exchange, the number of interruptions, the number of pauses, times people spoke at the same time, and so on. This analysis requires specific training, and it is crucial the researcher is aware of the possibility of making assumptions about what a word or phrase "means" in the analysis. The researcher is looking for patterns in the exchanges and that these patterns exist and what they are is the basis for the "meaning" within the interaction.

Harvey Sacks' Theory of Conversational Analysis

Sociologist Harvey Sacks and his associates A. E. Schegloff and G. Jefferson, using the ideas surrounding ethnomethodology, were interested in what people do in conversation, rather than what they are saying. They followed the assumptions Garfinkel had about how people use methods in everyday life and found that we use two basic elements in everyday talk: interactive reciprocity (when one person says something, there is an obligation to respond), and local management by participants (it is the speakers who decide what is said when). Further, they found that what people say in everyday talk shapes the conversation; put another way, how we talk to each other determines who will speak next, the current speaker, or the person listening.

Sacks and his colleagues used observations of recorded conversations to develop a theory describing the patterns of what they call turn-taking. This means that people almost always take turns when they are talking, try not to leave gaps in between turns, and avoid interrupting one another. Turn-taking allows people to direct and manage conversations, and keeps interactions from being chaotic. People interpret how and when to take turns based on the "surface linguistic meanings and the social meanings inherent in the situation and its expectation" and through signals they get during the conversation as well as the status each person holds (Roy, 2000, p. 36). In other words, we are paying close attention to the specific words another is using, and those words have immediate meaning in the context of the sentence, and have larger meaning found socially. All of this is done based on the other information we are getting from the person and who that person is in relationship to us. In conversational analysis, the researcher does not need to talk to the speakers to determine what is happening in the exchange. Conversational analysis is not concerned with the "meaning" individuals might have. They are only looking at the patterns that are reproduced in the exchange.

Conversational analysis argues that there are several rules to how we exchange with each other in everyday talk. They are:

  • One person speaks at a time,
  • People commonly speak at the same time, or overlap, although it is brief,
  • Usually, transitions, or turns, have no gap and some overlap, although there can be both gaps and overlaps,
  • The order of the turns varies,
  • The length of turns varies,
  • The order of turn is not predetermined.

Two-Turn Constructional Unit

Sacks details this everyday system he says we all use. A turn starts with the first word after breaking the silence that follows another person's turn. Each turn is made up of at least one turn construction unit (TCU), which is a complete linguistic unit. Our speech patterns are made up of these units that, when completed, the other speaker recognizes as time to speak. While it is not always easy to know for sure what the boundaries of these units are, it is at these boundaries that the other speaker understands when it is time to take a turn. To understand this abstract description of a very concrete occurrence, it helps to see that turn construction units can be full sentences, partial sentences, one word or an utterance. It is also possible that two-turn constructional units could be found in the same turn. Here is an example of two-turn constructional units (Thronbury & Slade, 2006, p. 123):

A: Do you want to have a drink? B: Good idea.

Again, more than one unit can be found in a turn, as we see here (Thronbury & Slade, 2006, p. 123):

A: Do you want a drink? We could go somewhere after work.

Turn Constructional Unit

The end of a turn constructional unit is called a transition relevance place (TRP), and this marks a point where the turn may go to another speaker, or the present speaker may continue with another turn. Turn relevance place is used in all conversations and is a method people use to avoid chaos, or everyone talking at once. To avoid the chaos of us all talking...

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