Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2020

Page updated 29 April, 2020

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2020, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

6. Conversation and discourse analysis

6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis
6.2 Conversation analysis

6.2.1 Introduction
6.2.2 Focus and presumptions of conversation analysis
6.2.3 Elements of conversation analysis
6.2.4 Why undertake close analysis of conversational sequences?
6.2.5 Methods of conversation analysis
6.2.6 Examples of how conversation analysis has been used
6.2.7 Analysing power relations

6.3 Genre analysis
6.4 Pragmatics
6.5 Discursive psychology
6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics
6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking
6.8 Narrative analysis
6.9 Critical discourse analysis
6.10 Summary and conclusion

6.2 Conversation analysis

6.2.1 Introduction

Conversation analysis is an approach to understanding the society based upon close analysis of how people make sense of, and establish order in, the social world through everyday encounters. In that sense it shares the concerns of ethnomethodology (Section, although focusing closely on the specific act of conversation. It concerns itself with how people create order in their social interactions through the structure and procedural rules of conversation.

There are two key concerns for conventional conversational analysts.

First, to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction as evidenced through conversation.

Second, to uncover social order through this close analysis of the 'mundane' activity of conversation. It is less concerned with macro views of social order than how order is created and sustained at a micro-level. The focus of conversation analysis is not on why individuals behave and speak as they do but on examining how participants go about interacting and inferring the nature of social order from that analysis of process.

It seems as though conversational analysis has done rather more on the first concern (describing conversation) than the second (uncovering how social order is maintained). However, that view depends, as we will show, on our expectations of sociological research.

These two concerns are rooted in a phenomenological approach (albeit that later developments focus more on the structure of conversations). There is also a third, unconventional, approach, that attempts to use the analysis of conversations to elucidate power relations. However, this critical approach is somewhat at variance, epistemologically and methodically, with mainstream conversation analysis and we will explore it briefly at the end (Section 6.2.7).

Conversation analysis is also referred to as conversational analysis and some commentators use the two terms interchangeably. Furthermore, some researchers who use conversation analysis methods refer to themselves as discourse analysts (Section 6.1) or discursive psychologists (Potter, 1996; Potter and Wetherell, 1987).

Conversation is not just restricted to the commonsense notion of casual chat, but also includes more formal encounters such as those in a courtroom, doctor's surgery, or educational setting such as a school lesson. To avoid misconceptions about what constitutes conversation, Emanuel Schegloff suggested that the focus of conversational analysis was any 'talk-in-interaction', by which he meant any verbal exchange in an interactive setting.


Next 6.2.2 Focus and presumptions of conversation analysis