Conversation Analysis (CA) was inspired by a convergence of Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology, Erving Goffman’s interactionism, and sociolinguistics. Beginning with Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff, Gail Jefferson, and Anita Pomerantz in the 1960s, CA has become an international interdisciplinary enterprise. Since the mid-1970s there has been an explosion of interest in CA, which has been widely identified as a rigorous methodology. It has had significant impact on the fields of business (through studies of work and organizations), medicine (through analyses of doctor-patient interaction), legal studies (through examinations of deviance, policing, and courts), science, computer and information studies, robotics, gender studies, race and cross-cultural studies, as well as on sociology and social studies of language, linguistics, communication, and semiotics.
Inspired by Goffman and Garfinkel, largely through their mutual connection with Sacks, the first detailed analyses of conversation, articulated by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, combined a Goffman-inspired interest in the moral commitment involved in interaction with Garfinkel’s interest in the details involved in the production of the fragile intelligibility that required that moral commitment.
The reputation of CA as a rigorous new approach to the study of language and social order was established through a foundational paper on “turntaking,” “A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turntaking in Conversation,” first published in 1974. Written jointly by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, the paper established an “economy of turns,” and preferences related to turntaking orders, as basic organizing features of conversation. This article was augmented by Pomerantz’s work on assessments and Alene Terasaki’s work on “pre-sequences.”
Sacks’s lectures, given between 1964 and his death in 1975, were carefully transcribed by Jefferson, then circulated widely as photocopies for more than twenty years, before being published in 1996 in a volume edited and introduced by Schegloff. They had a huge impact on thinking not only about conversational orders, but also about orders of practice in many areas (including medicine, law, science, business, work, and information technology). Schegloff’s work on repair and conversational sequencing and his sophisticated critiques of established linguistic and philosophical approaches to language were essential to establishing the CA enterprise. Jefferson also contributed essential work, especially on side-sequences and laughter. The spread of CA to various other disciplines was accomplished through the work of Schegloff, Jefferson, Pomerantz, Christian Heath, Doug Maynard, Don Zimmerman, Candace West, John Heritage, Paul Drew, George Psathas, Jeff Coulter, and Paul Ten Have, among others.
The basic idea behind CA is that conversation is orderly in its details, that it is through detailed order that conversation has meaning, and that conversational details manifest themselves in specifiable forms. These include turn types, turn transitions, membership categorization devices, and forms of indexicality (words and sentence fragments with multiple possible meanings) that require constant attention to orderly production and ensure that participants maintain interactional reciprocity. The need to display attention to these preference orders solves the problem of how any speaker can know whether or not the listener has understood what was said and provides a way of explaining how the meaning of words are disambiguated in particular situations of use. It also introduces an inevitable moral dimension to interaction.
According to Sacks, the ability of any speaker to take a recognizably intelligible turn next, after a prior turn (given a sufficient degree of indexicality in the talk), displays understanding. Thus, speaking in indexical fragments, which linguistically would appear to be a problem, is a highly efficient device for ensuring mutual intelligibility. It ensures that all participants who take turns are fulfilling their listening and hearing requirements and either understand what has been said, or display their lack of understanding in their next turn. Even speaking last demonstrates attention to a long sequence of turns.
CA referred to this phenomenon as “recipient design,” a process in which each speaker, at each next conversational point, designs a turn at talk with the “other,” the recipient, and the last turn in the conversational sequence in view. The recipient, in turn, hears the talk as oriented specifically toward the current sequential ordering of turns, in the current interactional situation.
All conversational preference orders have direct implications for what can be done next in conversation and how immediately prior utterances can be heard to follow from those before. The general position on the problem of indexicality and social order was articulated by Garfinkel and Sacks in “On Formal Structures of Practical Actions” (1970). The importance of conversational sequencing was articulated in 1948 by Garfinkel (2006). Each interaction is a context for what occurs within it, but a context that is in essential ways independent of broader social contexts, except as a “context of accountability.” This “context-free/context-sensitive” character of recipient design, as Sacks and Schegloff called it, is made possible by a move away from the symbolic content of words, to a focus on the enacted positioning of words in spoken sequences of turns.
Turntaking preferences are sensitive to both the sequential character of conversation, and the presentational selves of participants. There are thus elements of both “within-turn” and “between-turn” preference orders that transcend particular conversations. This view of the “context free/context sensitive” character of particular conversations is quite distinct from the more popular, but problematic idea of context as shared biographies, or shared cultural values—the view that characterizes conventional, postmodern, and interpretive sociologies.
Many social theorists have made superficially similar arguments, but none have been able to ground them in an approach to language and interactional practice that could provide for either the details of situated meaning or the moral commitments required. The tendency is to continue thinking in terms of associations (Bruno Latour) and the content of dialogue (Jürgen Habermas), instead of focusing on the situated and detailed sequential character of conversation.
The CA approach promises to explain not only how the mutual intelligibility of words is achieved in areas of practical, technical, and instrumental importance, but also why persons from different social “categories,” including those associated with race, gender, culture and disability, experience conversational difficulties. “Membership-categorization” devices and small differences in the details of preference orders promise to unlock the key to many social issues.
The study of preference orders in medical settings has already made a significant contribution to studies of doctor-patient interaction, the study of diseases such as diabetes, and the delivery of what Maynard calls “bad news” in medical and other settings (see studies by Maynard, Pomerantz, Heritage, Halkowski, Clayman, Heath, and Mondada). Similar advances have occurred in the study of human-machine interaction (see studies by Heath, Greatbatch, Mondada, Orr, Hindmarsh, Button, Vinkhuyzen, and Whalen) Internet financial exchanges (Knorr-Cetina), business and technology (see studies by Heath, Vinkhuyzen, Boden, Hindmarsh, and Whalen), and technology and policing (see studies by Meehan, Zimmerman and Whalen, and Maynard). Paul Ten Have set up and maintained a CA Web site starting in the 1980s. There is also an ASA Section for Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis; an International Institute for Ethnomethodology and Conversational Analysis associated with Boston University and Manchester Metropolitan University; a work, Interaction and Technology Research Group at Kings’ College London ; and an Institute for Workplace Studies associated with faculty at Bentley College, all devoted equally to CA and ethnomethodology (EM).
With CA and EM, the sociological promise is transformed and rejuvenated. Instead of beginning with individuals, and aggregating their attachment to beliefs and symbols across large numbers of persons to reveal alleged underlying causal effects of institutions, CA and EM assume that institutions, where they exert an influence on daily life, will, and indeed must, manifest themselves in the sequential details of interaction. What is necessary is to discover those orders, which, when they are violated, render interaction unintelligible, and how such troubles are repaired. In this way the underlying social facts of social orders can be laid bare.
CA does not a study a micro order that accompanies a macro order, as some have claimed. Rather, the idea is that all social orders, including politics, race, class, inequality, and justice, must be enacted at the level of conversational and interactional orders, or they would cease to exist. This is not a reductionist argument, as many believe, and does not begin with the individual. The point of refusing to begin with so-called macro structures is not to deny that constraints exist beyond local orders of conversation. Rather, the argument is that the result of treating “macro” structures as independent entities that manifest themselves in the beliefs and values of individuals is to render invisible the effects of such constraints on persons engaged in producing living social orders.
Situated interaction itself, in situations of particular sorts, places requirements on what participants can and must do, and those must be understood by researchers. It is these situated requirements, in fact, that are the stuff and substance of EM and CA. Each situation requires persons to mobilize a set of resources in ways that will be recognizable to others in that situation. These orders are a basic feature of modernity—situations not grounded in shared belief—and their study offers a foundation for the discussion of politics and morality in a modern global context.
SEE ALSO Anthropology, Linguistic; Discourse; Ethnomethodology; Goffman, Erving; Interactionism, Symbolic; Linguistic Turn; Modernity
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Anne Warfield Rawls