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
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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

Activity 6.2.1

6.2 Conversation analysis

6.2.3 Elements of conversation analysis

Conversation analysts identify three basic elements of conversation, the speaking turn, the adjacency pair and the sequential implicativeness (Sacks et al., 1974).

Despite these curious labels, the idea is simple. A conversation involves people taking turns at speaking (speaking turn) and a conversation consists of a minimum of two turns.

Furthermore, conversations are typically structured in pairs and the first input raises expectations for the second, such as question and answer, complaint and apology, greeting followed by greeting, accusation and denial (adjacency pair).

Third, conversation is responsive with each participant assimilating what has gone before and anticipating what will follow and inputting to the conversation on that basis. Speakers, in making their contribution, demonstrate their understanding of the previous turn and reveal their expectations about the next one (sequential implicativeness).

Activity 6.2.1
1. Can you think of any types of talk that do not have the three basic elements: speaking turn, adjacency pair and sequential implicativeness?
2. Are there examples of conversations where the three elements break down and if so what happens as a result?

As a class activity this would take about 15–20 minutes in small groups with a short 5-minute feedback session. As an individual activity think about this for ten minutes providing as many examples as you can before looking at the indicative answers. [Indicative answers]

Conversation analysis has undertaken much enquiry into the nature of turn-taking, adjacency pairing and the sequential implicativeness, exploring, for example, how participants indicate that they are ready to yield the floor (turn-yielding), how overlaps differ from interruptions, types of adjacency pairs and how some pairs have alternatives by way of response, such as invitation followed by acceptance or decline, although there is clearly a preferred and a not preferred response (or dispreferred as conversation analysts call it). For examples, see CASE STUDY: Examples of conversation analysis patterns.

An early study (Sacks et al., 1974), investigated turn taking in conversations. How do people know when it is their turn to speak? The study examined the transition relevance places (TRP) in a conversation that allowed a transition from one speaker to another. TRPs are 'naturally occurring socially constructed events that marks the transition from one speaker to the next' (Gale, 2000). Sacks et al. (1974), argued that TRP's operated in all conversations and effectively ensured that conversations were not chaotic. They showed that a TRP is occurs in various ways.

A speaker can select the next speaker and either verbally or non-verbally and convey this transition prior to the TRP. In the absence of this choice, the TRP is an opportunity for any listener to take a turn through self-selection. This can be a problem when one speaker is a quick starter and another is slower to begin a turn. Also at the TRP, if there is no pre-selection and no one self-selects, then the speaker can continue. A pause of a half second or more at these TRP's could suggest avoidance of participation, mis-speaking, confusion, surprise, anger, etc.. (Gale, 2000)

Analysis of turn taking not only provides a clarification of one aspect of how conversations are conducted, it also provides possible insights into the nature of interpersonal relationships. Nofsinger (1991), for example, pointed out that the structure of turn-taking may be more important than preconceptions about the personalities of participants. If participants are invited to respond, then it effectively rules out others from taking a turn. Indeed, some people may listen to others, not because of any fascination with the conversationalists but because they have to listen as a result of turn-taking strategies.

Everyday conversation, Sacks argued, was a good place to start in examining the social world and how we make sense of it. The studies that he developed involved painstaking analysis of tape-recorded conversations. They were transcribed in detail, including false starts, hesitations, pronunciation, emphasis and length of pauses. If more than one person spoke at once this was noted. The end result was a curious transcript with lots of symbols representing pauses and emphasis, and so on.

The important point for conversational analysts is not what the conversation is about, nor whether, for example, it can be seen as reflecting power relations, as some sociologists suggest. What conversation analysts are interested in describing is how a commonplace activity like ordinary conversation is actually organised. For example, the object is to see 'just what things are said to begin a conversation, just how do those things involve movement from the beginning to the middle of a conversation, and once a conversation is in full flow what kinds of sayings will bring it to an orderly conclusion?' (Sharrock & Anderson, 1986, p. 68).

An example of this kind of conversational analysis is Schegloff's (1967) work which was centred on telephone conversations in which he analysed how people in a telephone conversation recognise each other: how they manage to tell each other who they are, whether each knows who the other is, and whether or not each is recognised by the other. Telephone conversations are particularly valuable for dealing with these issues since the speakers are unable to see each other so their only clues are through their voices and the way they speak.

Schegloff tape-recorded various telephone conversations to show the variety of methods used by speakers to display and achieve recognition. He also looked at how the people involved in the conversations used sequences of meaning to bring their conversations to a satisfactory end with neither party feeling that the call had been ended prematurely. One example of the opening sequence of a telephone conversation is when the initial greeting is copied by the recipient of the call. Similarly, the use of a name or nickname changed the nature of the telephone call from a formal one to an informal one.

This study of telephone conversations, by recognising what is expected of a beginning and an ending, can then be used to identify a taken-for-granted rule by recording the reaction of the recipients of a phone conversation if inappropriate endings or beginnings. are used.


Next 6.2.4 Why undertake close analysis of conversational sequences?



Indicative answers: 1.commands, monologues/lectures, ceremonial incantations (marriage ceremony, religious responses) In police interrogations or counselling sessions, devices are used to encourage the other person to speak, for example a police officer could simply say 'Hmm' thereby indicating that the suspect is expected to say more.
2. People misunderstand each other, think the other(s) rude, inattentive, peculiar, etc