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Microanalysis represents not only a distinctive methodology, but also a distinctive way of thinking about communication (Bull 2002). Of particular importance has been the belief in the value of studying social interaction through detailed analysis of film, audiotape, and videotape recordings. Indeed, the effect of the videorecorder has been likened to that of the microscope in the biological sciences. Through the use of recorded data that can repeatedly be examined and dissected in the finest detail, interpersonal communication has become an object of study in its own right.

But microanalysis did not develop simply as a consequence of innovations in technology. It also reflects fundamental changes in the way in which we think about human communication (Kendon 1982). Microanalytic research has been conducted in a wide variety of academic disciplines, most notably social psychology, psychiatry, anthropology, linguistics, sociology, ethology, and communications. Within these disciplines, a number of distinctive approaches may be distinguished: in particular, conversation analysis (e.g., Sacks 1992), discourse analysis (e.g., Potter and Wetherell 1987), speech act theory (Austin 1962), ethology (e.g., Fridlund 1997), and the social skills approach (e.g., Hargie 1997). Despite substantial disagreements and differences, these approaches do also share a number of common assumptions. The key features of the microanalytic approach are:

  1. Communication is studied as it actually occurs.
  2. Communication can be studied as an activity in its own right.
  3. All features of interaction are potentially significant.
  4. Communication has a structure.
  5. Conversation can be regarded as a form of action.
  6. Communication can be understood in an evolutionary context.
  7. Communication is best studied in naturally occurring contexts.
  8. Communication can be regarded as a form of skill.
  9. Communication can be taught like any other skill.
  10. Macro issues (such as racism or politics) can be studied through microanalysis. (Bull 2002)

Not all of these features characterize all microanalytic research. For example, there are many studies that do not concern themselves with the evolutionary context of behavior. But an evolutionary perspective has played an important part in our understanding of the facial expressions of emotion (e.g., Ekman 2002).

Similarly, not all microanalysts concern themselves with macro issues. Indeed, microanalysts are open to criticism for ignoring larger structural factors that may influence behavior. But significant insights into macro issues can be gained through microanalysis. For example, according to interaction ritual theory (Collins 2004), it is social rituals that hold society together as a pattern of stratified and conflicting groups. Through the micro-analysis of such rituals in situational context, Randall Collins argues that we can acquire a deeper understanding of macro issues such as social stratification and conflict at the societal or even global level. Again, according to expectation states theory, beliefs about how men and women differ in competence affect the emergence and exercise of social hierarchy and leadership (Ridgeway 2001). But through microanalysis, it may be possible to identify how those beliefs and expectations are manifest in behavior and affect social interaction. Thus, microanalysis is not incompatible with a macro perspective; indeed, our understanding of macro issues may be enhanced through the application of a microanalytic approach.

SEE ALSO Individualism; Methodology; Microeconomics; Reductionism; Sociology


Austin, John L. 1962. How to Do Things With Words. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Bull, Peter. 2002. Communication under the Microscope: The Theory and Practice of Microanalysis. London: Psychology Press.

Collins, Randall. 2004. Interaction Ritual Chains. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Darwin, Charles. [1872] 2002. The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals, 3rd ed., ed. Paul Ekman. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Fridlund, Alan J. 1997. The New Ethology of Human Facial Expressions. In The Psychology of Facial Expression, eds. James A. Russell and José-Miguel Fernández-Dols, 103129. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Hargie, Owen D.W. 1997. Interpersonal Communication: A Theoretical Framework. In The Handbook of Communication Skills, 2nd ed., ed. Owen D. W. Hargie, 2963. London: Routledge.

Kendon, Adam. 1982. Organization of Behaviour in Face-to-Face Interaction. In Handbook of Methods in Nonverbal Behaviour Research, eds. Klaus R. Scherer and Paul Ekman, 440505. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

Marey, Étienne-Jules. 1895. Movement. New York: D. Appleton.

Muybridge, Eadweard. [1899] 1957. Animals in Motion. New York: Dover Publications.

Muybridge, Eadweard. [1901] 1957. The Human Figure in Motion. New York: Dover Publications.

Potter, Jonathan, and Margaret Wetherell. 1987. Discourse and Social Psychology: Beyond Attitudes and Behaviour. London: Sage.

Sacks, Harvey. 1992. Lectures on Conversation, ed. Gail Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.

Peter Bull

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mi·cro·a·nal·y·sis / ˌmīkrōəˈnaləsəs/ • n. the quantitative analysis of chemical compounds using a sample of a few milligrams. DERIVATIVES: mi·cro·an·a·lyt·ic / -ˌanlˈitik/ adj. mi·cro·an·a·lyt·i·cal / -ˌanlˈitikəl/ adj.

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