A research method that takes conversations in real-life settings as the object of study, and as a window on to the roles, social relationships, and power relations of participants.
Derived largely from ethnomethodology and sociolinguistics, it starts from the premiss that conversations are one of the central activities of social life, and that through them much social life is organized. Conversation analysis therefore sets out to record patterns of conversation in order to detect underlying rules that enable communication to proceed in a largely orderly fashion. It focuses on the structure, cadences, and other characteristics of verbal interactions, usually in dyads or very small groups. The subject-matter of the discussion is noted, but can be unimportant, and is not itself the main focus of analysis (as in content analysis). The method normally involves making tape-recordings or video recordings of conversations, which are then subjected to detailed analysis. Research findings have proved useful in elucidating many hidden aspects of human interaction, such as how turns to talk are allocated, the duration of pauses, silences, and speech, and when interruptions are permitted.
For an excellent short introduction to the leading practitioners (such as Emmanuel A. Shegloff and Harvey Sacks) and principal themes, see John Heritage's essay on the several dimensions of empirical research in contemporary ethnomethodology, in A. Giddens and Jonathan Turner (eds.), Social Theory Today (1987). Sacks's own work can be found in the posthumously published Lectures on Conversation (1965–72, pub.1992).