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Encyclopedia > Conversation analysis

Conversation analysis (commonly abbreviated as CA) is the study of talk in interaction. CA generally attempts to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction, whether this is institutional (in the school, doctor's surgery, courts or elsewhere) or casual conversation. Thus, use of the term “conversation” to label this disciplinary movement is misleading if read in a colloquial sense, as many have. In light of this, one of CA’s principal practitioners, Emanuel Schegloff, has more recently identified “talk-in-interaction” as CA’s topic. Perhaps for this same reason, others (e.g., Jonathan Potter) who use CA methods identify themselves as discourse analysts (DA), though that term was first used to identify researchers using methods different from CA (e.g., Levinson, 1983), and still identifies a group of scholars larger than those who use only CA methods. Jonathan Potter is Professor of Discourse Analysis at the Loughborough University. ... Discourse analysis (DA), or discourse studies, is a general term for a number of approaches to analyzing written, spoken or signed language use. ...

Inspired by ethnomethodology, it was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s principally by the sociologist Harvey Sacks and, among others, his close associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. Sacks died early in his career, but his work was championed by others in his field, and CA has now become an established force in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, speech-communication and psychology. It is particularly influential in interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and discursive psychology, as well as being a coherent discipline in its own right. Recently CA techniques of sequential analysis have been employed by phoneticians to explore the fine phonetic detail of speech [citation needed]. Ethnomethodology (literally, the study of peoples methods) is a sociological discipline which focuses on the way people make sense of the world and display their understandings of it. ... Harvey Sacks (1935-November 1975) was an American sociologist influenced by the ethnomethodology tradition. ... Emanuel Schegloff is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the University of California at Los Angeles. ... Gail Jefferson is the creator of many of the elements of Conversation Analysis transcription, and with Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, one of the principal early creators of the Conversation Analysis. ... This article or section cites its sources but does not provide page references. ... Discourse analysis (DA), or discourse studies, is a general term for a number of approaches to analyzing written, spoken or signed language use. ... Discursive psychology is a school of psychology developed in the 1990s by Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards at Loughborough University. ...


Basic Structures

Turn-taking Organization

The nature by which a conversation is done in and through turns. Turn-taking is one of the fundamental organizations of conversation. According to CA, the turn-taking system consists of two components: the turn constructional component and the turn allocational component. The turn-taking organization is described in Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.

While CA does not explicitly claim that turn-taking is universal, as research is conducted on more languages, it is possible that if there were any basis for a claim to universality in language, turn-taking is a good candidate. The turn-taking model for conversation was arrived at inductively through empirical investigation of field recordings of conversation and fitted to such observationally arrived at fact as overwhelmingly, participants in conversation talk one at a time. This can be illustrated by the game ping-pong, where the people conversing are players and their turns are represented as they hit the ball.

Turn Constructional Component

The turn constructional component describes basic units out of which turns are fashioned. These basic units are known as turn constructional units or TCUs. Unit types include: lexical, clausal, phrasal, and sentential. These are grammatically and pragmatically complete units, meaning that in a particular context they accomplish recognizable social actions.

Note that not all unit types may exist in all languages. Further, it is possible that there are units in other languages, such as particles in Asian languages, that may not exist in English.

Turn Allocational Component

The turn allocational component describes how turns are allocated among participants in a conversation. The three ordered options are: Current Speaker selects Next Speaker; Next Speaker Self-selects as Next; or Current Speaker Continues.

Sequence Organisation

This concerns 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. An adjacency pair is a term used in conversational analysis to refer to a pair of conversational turns by two different speakers such that the production of the first turn (called a first-pair part) makes a response (a second-pair part) of a particular kind relevant. ...


A pair of turns understood as a preliminary to the main course of action. For example, "guess what"-"what" (as a preliminary to an announcement of some sort) or "what are you doing"-"nothing" (as a preliminary to an invitation or a request).

Preference organisation

There are structural (i.e. practice-underwritten) preferences for some types of actions (within sequences of action) in conversation over other actions.


Repair organization describes how parties in conversation deal with problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding. Repair is classified by who initiates repair (self or other) and by who resolves the problem (self or other) as well as by how it unfolds within a turn or a sequence of turns.

Action Formation

This concerns 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, Conversation Analysis only studies naturally-occurring talk. 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). In CA there is no belief that the researcher needs to consult with the talk participants or members of their speech community. Avram Noam Chomsky (Hebrew :אברם נועם חומסקי Yiddish: אברם נועם כאמסקי) , Ph. ... John Joseph Gumperz (1922) is a professor at the University of California in Berkeley. ... Speech community is a concept in sociolinguistics that describes a more or less discrete group of people who use language in a unique and mutually accepted way among themselves. ...


  • Hutchby, Ian and Wooffitt, Robin. (1988) Conversation Analysis. Polity Press.
  • 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.
  • Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessment: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structure of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Sacks, Harvey. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55786-705-4.
  • Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.

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)
The ways through which different types of social actions ('preferred' vs. 'dispreferred') are carried out sequentially. (Pomerantz 1979, Pomerantz 1984)

External links

  • An Introduction to Conversation Analysis (by Discourse and Rhetoric Group, Loughborough University)
  • Online bibliography of pre-1990 CA literature
  • Online bibliography of post-1989 CA literature
  • Online clearinghouse for the CA community

  Results from FactBites:
FQS 7(2) Paul ten Have: Conversation Analysis Versus Other Approaches to Discourse (Review Essay) (4800 words)
The term "conversation analysis" (CA) is by now quite firmly established as the name for a particular paradigm in the study of verbal interaction that was initiated in the 1960s by Harvey SACKS, in collaboration with Emanuel SCHEGLOFF and Gail JEFFERSON.
In CA the focus is on the procedural analysis of talk-in-interaction, how participants systematically organize their interactions to solve a range of organizational problems, such as the distribution of turns at talking, the collaborative production of particular actions, or problems of understanding.
For her, such an analysis would be "incomplete" if it would not include the various "interpretative repertoires" used to "place" the boy’s activities in various ways.
Conversation Analysis and the Book of Jonah (6977 words)
Conversation Analysis examines oral dialogue to determine the social and pragmatic principles whereby speakers (and hearers) negotiate, structure, and interpret conversation.
The primary contribution of Conversation Analysis to the discipline of sociolinguistics has been the observation that conversation is fundamentally structured in terms of contiguous, alternating turns of talk, known as "adjacency pairs."[4] The first part of an adjacency pair produces the expectation of a relevant and acceptable rejoinder in the second part.
Because Conversation Analysis was developed by native speakers of the language under analysis and had as its focus oral (not written or literary) language, it was relatively straightforward for analysts of English to determine the adjacency pairs of English oral conversation based upon their understanding of the purposive intention of the speakers involved.
  More results at FactBites »



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