Conversation Analysis

Jack Sidnell

in Linguistics

ISBN: 9780199772810
Published online October 2011 | | DOI:
Conversation Analysis

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  • Linguistics
  • Anthropological Linguistics
  • Language Families
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  • Sociolinguistics


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Conversation analysis (CA) is an approach to the study of social interaction that emerged in the 1960s in the writings and lectures of the late sociologist Harvey Sacks and was consolidated in his collaborations with Emanuel A. Schegloff and Gail Jefferson in the later 1960s and early 1970s. CA is not a subfield of linguistics and does not take language per se as its primary object of study. Rather, the object of study is the organization of human social interaction. However, because language figures centrally in the way humans interact, CA typically (though not necessarily) involves the analysis of talk. For all practical purposes, CA can be thought of as the study of talk in interaction and other forms of human conduct in interaction other than talk, for example, gaze, gesture, body orientations, and their combinations. The boundaries of the field are not always completely clear. In this article, however, I treat the application of the conversation analytic method as criterial to inclusion within the field. This method involves a series of steps beginning with what Sacks described as “unmotivated observation” of some stretch of recorded interaction (copresent or telephone) with the goal merely of noticing something about it. Once a noticing has been made (e.g., some responses to yes-no questions are prefaced by “oh”), the researcher can then start assembling a collection of possible instances. A collection constitutes the empirical basis upon which to develop an analysis of what distinctive work the phenomenon or practice initially noticed through unmotivated observation accomplishes—this being independent of the contextual specifics of any particular instance. The method is thus fundamentally qualitative in that it involves case-by-case study of each instance. However, though fundamentally qualitative in this sense, the method also involves looking across multiple instances in a collection of cases—it is this that allows us to see and to describe the generic, stable features of the practice that are independent of the particular contextual features of any given instance. The scholarship within CA can be divided up in a number of different ways. One possible categorization distinguishes studies concerned primarily with the organization of talk itself and those concerned to use the methods of CA to investigate some other aspect of the social world. Another possible categorization distinguishes studies of “ordinary conversation” from those of institutional interaction.

Article.  9369 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Anthropological Linguistics ; Language Families ; Psycholinguistics ; Sociolinguistics

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