Conversation Analysis (CA)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

friends having a conversation
"A key issue in conversation analysis," says Brian Partridge, "is the view of ordinary conversation as the most basic form of talk. For conversation analysts, conversation is the main way in which people come together, exchange information, negotiate and maintain social relations" (Discourse Analysis: An Introduction, 2012).

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In sociolinguistics, conversation analysis is the study of the talk produced in ordinary human interactions. Sociologist Harvey Sacks (1935-1975) is generally credited with founding the discipline. Also called talk-in-interaction and ethnomethodology.

"At its core," says Jack Sidnell, "conversation analysis is a set of methods for working with audio and video recordings of talk and social interaction" (Conversation Analysis: An Introduction, 2010).

See Examples and Observations below. Also, see:

Examples and Observations

  • "[C]onversation analysis (CA) [is] an approach within the social sciences that aims to describe, analyze and understand talk as a basic and constitutive feature of human social life. CA is a well-developed tradition with a distinctive set of methods and analytic procedures as well as a large body of established findings. . . .
    "At its core, conversation analysis is a set of methods for working with audio and video recordings of talk and social interaction. These methods were worked out in some of the earliest conversation-analytic studies and have remained remarkably consistent over the last 40 years. Their continued use has resulted in a large body of strongly interlocking and mutually supportive findings . . .."
    (Jack Sidnell, Conversation Analysis: An Introduction. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
  • The Aim of Conversation Analysis
    "CA is the study of recorded, naturally occurring talk-in-interaction. But what is the aim of studying these interactions? Principally, it is to discover how participants understand and respond to one another in their turns at talk, with a central focus on how sequences of action are generated. To put it another way, the objective of CA is to uncover the often tacit reasoning procedures and sociolinguistic competencies underlying the production and interpretation of talk in organized sequences of interaction."
    (Ian Hutchby and Robin Wooffitt, Conversation Analysis. Polity, 2008
  • Adjacency Pairs
    One very common structure that has been identified [through conversation analysis] is the adjacency pair. This is an ordered pair of adjacent utterances spoken by two different speakers. Once the first utterance is spoken, the second is required. A few of the many adjacency pairs that have been identified are shown.Summons--answer
    Can I get some help here?
    On my way.
    Offer — refusal
    Sales clerk: May I help you find something?
    Customer: No thank you, I'm just looking.
    Compliment — acceptance
    Your hair looks very lovely today.
    Thank you. I just had it cut.
    ​(William O'Grady, et al. Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. Bedford, 2001
  • Response to Criticisms of Conversational Analysis
    "Many people who take a look at CA 'from the outside' are amazed by a number of superficial features of CA's practice. It seems to them that CA refuses to use available 'theories' of human conduct to ground or organize its arguments, or even to construct a 'theory' of its own. Furthermore, it seems unwilling to explain the phenomena it studies by invoking 'obvious' factors like basic properties of the participants or the institutional context of the interaction. And finally, it seems to be 'obsessed' with the details of its materials. These impressions are not too far off the mark, but the issue is why CA refuses to use or construct 'theories,' why it refuses interaction-external explanations, and why it is obsessed with details. The short answer is that these refusals and this obsession are necessary in order to get a clear picture of CA's core phenomenon, the in situ organization of conduct, and especially talk-in-interaction. So CA is not 'a-theoretical' but it has a different conception of how to theorize about social life."
    (Paul ten Have, Doing Conversation Analysis: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. SAGE, 2007)