Conversation analysis

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Conversation analysis (commonly abbreviated as CA) is an approach to the study of social interaction, embracing both verbal and non-verbal conduct, in situations of everyday life. As its name implies, CA began with a focus on casual conversation, but its methods were subsequently adapted to embrace more task- and institution-centered interactions, such as those occurring in doctors' offices, courts, law enforcement, helplines, educational settings, and the mass media. As a consequence, the term 'conversation analysis' has become something of a misnomer, but it has continued as a term for a distinctive and successful approach to the analysis of social interactions.


Inspired by Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology[1] and Erving Goffman's conception of the interaction order,[2] CA was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s principally by the sociologist Harvey Sacks and his close associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.[3] Today CA is an established method used in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, speech-communication and psychology. It is particularly influential in interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and discursive psychology.


As in all research, conversational analysis begins by setting up a research problem. The data collected for CA is in the form of video or audio recorded conversations. The data is collected with or without researchers' involvement, often simply by adding a video camera to the room where the conversation takes place (e.g. medical doctors consultation with a patient). From the audio or video recording the researchers construct a detailed transcription (ideally with no details left out). After transcription, the researchers perform inductive data-driven analysis aiming to find recurring patterns of interaction. Based on the analysis, the researchers develop a rule or model to explain the occurrence of the patterns.

Basic structures

Turn-taking organization

In the absence of formal agendas, the set of practices through which turns are allocated in conversation has been the subject of study in its own right. The Turn-taking model for conversation was arrived at inductively through empirical investigation of field recordings of conversations and fitted to the observationally derived facts as that in conversation, participants are constrained to issue their utterances in allocated turns, and enlist various mechanisms to obtain them. Initial interest was in very simple forms that take place in two-party conversations where sentence completion, or pause, might be enough to allocate the next turn to the co-present party in the manner that has been discussed under the rubric of 'adjacency pairs'.

In multi-party conversations the mechanisms were found to be more complicated where 'current speaker selects next' is a possibility, and how frequently individual utterances are tailored for their turn 'sequential implicativeness'. The possibility of obtaining not only the next turn, but a series of turns (required for example in telling a joke or story) is documented in analyses of announcements and story prefaces. A certain economy in conversation could be located in the process whereby turns are allocated. That economy was directed at the 'turn commodity', but also in myriad other instances for example person identifiers and locators where minimal forms are utilized in an economic fashion.

Other collections of turn allocation mechanisms include use of 'repeats', the elision of lexical forms, the use of temporal regulators in turns including chuckles, 'uhm', ‘yuh know’, and ‘right’, the use of speech particles like ‘uh’, and ‘oh’, and other specifically short-syllabic devices that are consonant-prefaced like ‘tih’.

According to CA, the turn-taking system consists of two distinct components: the allocational mechanism which is responsible for distributing a turn (in any case), and the lexical components that parties utilize in filling that turn while remaining concurrently sequentially implicative to deal with the contigency in the process that will result in a subsequent turn allocation.[4]

Turn constructional component

The turn constructional component describes basic units out of which turns are fashioned. These basic units are known as Turn construction unit or TCUs. Unit types include: lexical, clausal, phrasal, and sentential.

Turn allocational component

The turn allocational component describes how participants organize their interaction by distributing turns to speakers.

At a transition relevance place (TRP), a set of rules apply in quick succession so that turns are allocated instantly:
1. Current speaker selects next speaker: this can be done by the use of addressing terms (e.g. names), initiating action with gaze, initiating action that limits the potential eligible respondents and the availability of environmental cues (e.g. requesting the passing of salt in a situation where only a particular person is sitting close to the salt).
2. Next speaker self-selects: when there is no apparent addressee and potential respondents, one might self-select to continue the conversation. This can be done by overlapping, using turn-entry devices such as "well" or "you know"; and recycled turn beginning, which is a practice that involves repeating the part of a turn beginning that gets absorbed in an overlap.
3. Current speaker continues: If no one takes up the conversation, the original speaker may again speak to provide further information to aid the continuation of the conversation. This can be done by adding an increment, which is a grammatically fitted continuation of an already completed turn construction unit (TCU). Alternatively, the speaker can choose to start a new TCU, usually to offer clarification or to start a new topic.

Sequence organization

This focuses on how actions are ordered in conversation.

Adjacency pairs

Talk tends to occur in responsive pairs; however, the pairs may be split over a sequence of turns. Adjacency pairs divide utterance types into 'first pair parts' and 'second pair parts' to form a 'pair type'. There are lots of examples of adjacency pairs including Questions-Answers, Offer-Acceptance/Refusal and Compliment-Response. (Schegloff & Sacks:1973) [5]

Sequence expansion

Sequence expansion allows talk which is made up of more than a single adjacency pair to be constructed and understood as performing the same basic action and the various additional elements are as doing interactional work related to the basic action underway.
Sequence expansion is constructed in relation to a base sequence of a first pair part (FPP) and a second pair part (SPP) in which the core action underway is achieved. It can occur prior to the base FPP, between the base FPP and SPP, and following the base SPP.
1. Pre-expansion: an adjacency pair that may be understood as preliminary to the main course of action. A generic pre-expansion is a summon-answer adjacency pair, as in "Mary?"/ "Yes?".It is generic in the sense that it does not contribute to any particular types of base adjacency pair, such as request or suggestion. There are other types of pre-sequence that work to prepare the interlocutors for the subsequent speech action. For example, "Guess what!"/"What?" as preliminary to an announcement of some sort, or "What are you doing?"/"Nothing" as preliminary to an invitation or a request.
2. Insert expansion: an adjacency pair that comes between the FPP and SPP of the base adjacency pair. Insert expansions interrupt the activity under way, but are still relevant to that action.[6] Insert expansion allows a possibility for a second speaker, the speaker who must produce the SPP, to do interactional work relevant to the projected SPP. An example of this would be a typical conversation between a customer and a shopkeeper:

Customer: I would like a turkey sandwich, please. (FPP base)
Server: White or wholegrain? (Insert FPP)
Customer: Wholegrain. (Insert SPP)
Server: Okay. (SPP base)

3. Post-expansion: a turn or an adjacency pair that comes after, but is still tied to, the base adjacency pair. There are two types: minimal and non-minimal. Minimal expansion is also termed sequence closing thirds, because it is a single turn after the base SPP (hence third) that does not project any further talk beyond their turn (hence closing). Examples of SCT include "oh", "I see", "okay", etc.

Preference organization

CA may reveal structural (i.e. practice-underwritten) preferences in conversation for some types of actions (within sequences of action) over other actions. For example, responsive actions which agree with, or accept, positions taken by a first action tend to be performed more straightforwardly and faster than actions that disagree with, or decline, those positions (Pomerantz 1984; Davidson 1984). The former is termed an unmarked turn shape, meaning the turn is not preceded by silence nor is it produced with delays, mitigations and accounts; while the latter is termed marked turn shape, which describes a turn with opposite characteristics. One consequence of this is that agreement and acceptance are promoted over their alternatives, and are more likely to be the outcome of the sequence. Pre-sequences are also a component of preference organization and contribute to this outcome (Schegloff 2007).


Repair organization describes how parties in conversation deal with problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding. Repair segments are classified by who initiates repair (self or other), by who resolves the problem (self or other), and by how it unfolds within a turn or a sequence of turns. The organisation of repair is also a self-righting mechanism in social interaction (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Participants in conversation seek to correct the trouble source by initiating self repair and a preference for self repair, the speaker of the trouble source, over other repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Self repair initiations can be placed in three locations in relation to the trouble source, in a first turn, a transition space or in a third turn (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks

Action formation

This focuses on the description of the practices by which turns at talk are composed and positioned so as to realize one or another actions.

Contrasts to other theories

In contrast to the research inspired by Noam Chomsky, which is based on a distinction between competence and performance and dismisses the particulars of actual speech as a degraded form of idealized competence, Conversation Analysis studies naturally-occurring talk and shows that spoken interaction is systematically orderly in all its facets (cf. Sacks in Atkinson and Heritage 1984: 21-27). In contrast to the theory developed by John Gumperz, CA maintains it is possible to analyze talk-in-interaction by examining its recordings alone (audio for telephone, video for copresent interaction). CA researchers do not believe that the researcher needs to consult with the talk participants or members of their speech community.

It is distinct from discourse analysis in focus and method. (i) Its focus is squarely on processes involved in social interaction and does not include written texts or larger sociocultural phenomena (for example, 'discourses' in the Foucauldian sense). (ii) Its method, following Garfinkel and Goffman's initiatives, is aimed at determining the methods and resources that the interactional participants use and rely on to produce interactional contributions and make sense of the contributions of others. Thus CA is neither designed for, nor aimed at, examining the production of interaction from a perspective that is external to the participants' own reasoning and understanding about their circumstances and communication. Rather the aim is to model the resources and methods by which those understandings are produced.

Application in other fields

In recent years, CA has been employed by researchers in other fields, such as feminism and feminist linguistics, or used in complement with other theories, such as Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA). MCA was influenced by the work on Harvey Sacks and his work on Membership Categorization Device (MCD). Sacks argues that 'members’ categories comprise part of the central machinery of organization and developed the notion of MCD to explain how categories can be hearably linked together by native speakers of a culture. His example that is taken from a children's storybook (The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.) shows how "mommy" is interpreted as the mother of the baby by speakers of the same culture. In light of this, categories are inference rich[7] – a great deal of knowledge members of a society have about the society is stored in terms of these categories.[8] Stokoe further contends that members’ practical categorizations form part of ethnomethodology's description of the ongoing production and realization of ‘facts’ about social life and including members’ gendered reality analysis, thus making CA compatible with feminist studies.[9]

Subject index of conversation analysis literature

The following is a list of important phenomena identified in the conversation analysis literature, followed by a brief definition and citations to articles that examine the named phenomenon either empirically or theoretically. Articles in which the term for the phenomenon is coined or which present the canonical treatment of the phenomenon are in bold, those that are otherwise centrally concerned with the phenomenon are in italics, and the rest are articles that otherwise aim to make a significant contribution to an understanding of the phenomenon.

A process by which interactants allocate the right or obligation to participate in an interactional activity. (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974)
The mechanisms through which certain "troubles" in interaction are dealt with. (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks 1977)
Preference organization 
The ways through which different types of social actions ('preferred' vs. 'dispreferred') are carried out sequentially. (Pomerantz 1978, Pomerantz 1984)

See also


  1. Garfinkel, Harold (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Goffman, Erving (1983). The Interaction Order. American Sociological Review 48:1-17.
  3. Schegloff, Emanuel (1992) Introduction. In Harvey Sacks, Lectures on Conversation (Vol.1: Fall 1964-Spring 1968). Oxford, Blackwell: ix-lxii.
  4. Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation." Language, 50, 696-735.
  5. Schegloff, E & Sacks, H. (1973) Opening Up Closings (p.74)
  6. Jefferson, G. (1972). Side sequences. Studies in social interaction, 294, 338.
  7. Steve Kaplan (March 6, 2014), Conversation Analysis, retrieved 4 May 2014<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. Sacks, H. (1992). "Lectures on Conversation, Volumes I and II" Edited by G. Jefferson with Introduction by E.A. Schegloff, Blackwell, Oxford.
  9. Stokoe, Elizabeth (2006). "On ethnomethodology, feminism, and the analysis of categorial reference to gender in talk-in-interaction", Sociological Review 54: 467-94.


  • Atkinson, J. Maxwell and Heritage, John (eds) (1984). Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Cameron, Deborah. (2001). Working with Spoken Discourse, London: SAGE Publications
  • Drew, Paul and Heritage, John. (1993). Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Enfield, N. J. and Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heritage, John (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Heritage, John and Steven E. Clayman (2010). Talk in Action: Interactions, Identities and Institutions. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Hutchby, Ian and Wooffitt, Robin. (1988) Conversation Analysis. Polity Press.
  • Lerner, Gene H. (ed.) (2004) Conversation Analysis: studies from the first generation. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. pp 284–370. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29414-2.
  • Local, John. (2007). Phonetic Detail and the Organisation of Talk-in-Interaction. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences. Saarbruecken, Germany: 16th ICPhS Organizing Committee.
  • Kelly, John and Local John (1989). Doing Phonology, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Pain, Jean. (2008). Not Just Talking: Conversational Analysis and Psychotherapy. Karnac. ISBN 978-1-85575-689-2
  • Pomerantz, Anita (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Psathas, George (1995): Conversation Analysis, Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Sacks, Harvey. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55786-705-4.
  • Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A., & Jefferson, Gail (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A., Jefferson, G. & Sacks, H. (1977). The Preference for Self-Correction in the Organisation of Repair in Conversation. Language, 53, 361-382.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2007). Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analysis, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sidnell, Jack. (2010). Conversation Analysis: An Introduction, London: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Sidnell, Jack and Tanya Stivers (2012) (eds.). Handbook of Conversation Analysis. Boston: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Prescribing Under Pressure: Parent-Physician Conversations and Antibiotics (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ten Have, Paul (1999): Doing Conversation Analysis. A Practical Guide, Thousand Oaks: Sage.
  • Terasaki, Alene Kiku (1976). Pre-announcement Sequences in Conversation, Social Sciences Working Paper #99. School of Social Sciences, University of California, Irvine.

External links