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 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, 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

6.2.2 Focus and presumptions of conversation analysis

Conversation analysis concentrates on how speakers themselves interpret each other's inputs to the conversation. It explores how talk, as a form of social action, is organised into a sequential process.

Conversation analysis presumes (as noted in Section that this conversational process is an accomplished act and based on common sets of procedures, which reflects ethnomethodological presuppositions. However (as also was noted in Section the increasing focus on the structure of conversations has arguably moved conversational analysis away from the phenomenological roots of ethnomethodology.

Conversation analysis adopts an empirical and inductive approach and avoids theorising (in contrast to discourse analysis, see Section 6.1). It proceeds by analysing detailed transcripts of authentic ordinary speech events (that is conversations in the broadest sense) and attempts to identify systematic recurrence of patterns.

Conversation analysts focus on what people do in conversation (their moves), rather than subjective explanation. Following the tenets of ethnomethodology, early conversation analysts were interested in examining the micro-practices of conversation.

The acknowledged originator of conversation analysis is Harvey Sacks. He developed the idea as a result of listening to tapes of helpline conversations and was intrigued by the way that people introduced themselves and their problems. He saw the process of interaction as a sociological issue, he was not interested in the problems people had but how they engaged with other people on the telephone.

As Sacks later noted:

The gross aim of the work I am doing is to see how finely the details of actual, naturally occurring conversation can be subjected to analysis that will yield the technology of conversation. The idea is to take singular sequences of conversation and tear them apart in such a way as to find rules, techniques, procedures, methods, maxims (a collection of terms that more or less relate to each other and that I use somewhat interchangeably) that can be used to generate the orderly features we find in the conversations we examine. The point is, then, to come back to the singular things we observe in a singular sequence, with some rules that handle those singular features, and also, necessarily, handle lots of other events. (Sacks, 1984b, p. 411)


Next 6.2.3 Elements of conversation analysis