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—also called talk-in-interaction and ethnomethodology—is the study of talk produced in the course of ordinary human interactions. Sociologist Harvey Sacks (1935-1975) is generally credited with founding the discipline.

Adjacency Pairs

One of the most common structures to be defined through conversation analysis is the adjacency pair, which is a call and response type of sequential utterances spoken by two different people. Here are some examples:

Summons/Answer

  • Can I please get some help over here?
  • I'll be right there.

Offer/Refusal

  • Sales clerk: Do you need someone to carry your packages out?
  • Customer: No thanks. I've got it.

Compliment/Acceptance

  • That's a great tie you've got on.
  • Thanks. It was an anniversary present from my wife.

Observations on Conversation Analysis

"[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."
From "Conversation Analysis: An Introduction" by Jack Sidnell

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."
From "Conversation Analysis" by Ian Hutchby and Robin Wooffitt

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."
From "Doing Conversation Analysis: A Practical Guide" by Paul ten Have

Other Resources

Sources

  • Sidnell, Jack. "Conversation Analysis: An Introduction". Wiley-Blackwell, 2010
  • Hutchby, Ian; Wooffitt, Robin. "Conversation Analysis". Polity, 2008
  • ​O'Grady, William et al. "Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction." Bedford, 2001
  • ten Have, Paul. "Doing Conversation Analysis: A Practical Guide". Second Edition. SAGE, 2007