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 Recording Transcription Analysing the sequential structure Non-verbal communication Participants' issues, concepts and categories

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

6.2.5 Methods of conversation analysis Analysing the sequential structure

In the example from Gale (2000), (CASE STUDY Transcribed conversation between husband and wife), the husband (H) and wife (W) are discussing their daughters' squabble; a therapist (T) listens and asks occasional questions. Gale analyses the 'turn taking' in this conversation fragment focusing on the transition relevance places.

The wife reported complete body paralysis for periods of time ranging from 10 minutes to seven hours, and no medical explanation of the paralysis could be diagnosed. An examination of the TRP's demonstrate several features of the couple?fs relationship. For example, line 3 shows the husband taking a turn while the wife is stretching "they::::" in the previous line. His comment of "quite a squabble" is an upgrade of her "a little squabble" and serves to change the gist of her narrative.

She adopts his characterization and further elaborates on this theme (lines 4–7). In line 7, where it is unclear if the wife has completed her utterance, the husband intervenes with another correction before she can continue. His interjection of a cough and comment that "But it was stressful" (line 8) moves the wife?fs narrative from "I can't say that had anything to do with it" (line 6) to "It was stressful because I couldn't take neither side" (line 9). On line 12 the wife turns to the husband (a TRP signal) to provide the answer to the therapist's question. Once the husband offers the narrative track, "It's been 6 months" (line 13), he then hands the turn back to the wife (line 14) as she accepts his interpretation (as seen by the matching "uh hum's" on lines 14 and 15).

This brief transaction demonstrates the interactive nature of the couple's narrative. The husband was able to influence the narrative and control key attributes. Through the use of turn taking allotments, corrections and elaborations, the husband actively participates in forging the wife's problem definition. This construction of the problem became pivotal to therapy as the focus of therapy moved from teaching the wife self-hypnosis skills to working jointly with the wife and husband on their concerns over their daughters?' squabble. (Gale, 2000)

This analysis may be revealing about the relationship between husband and wife but what wider value does it have? For conversational analysts in general, it is an example of turn-taking and provides an insight into interaction in a specific setting. It does not offer any grand insights or theories but that is not what conversation analysts are concerned about.

For Gale, the analysis provides insights into a clinical situation and, as the last sentence of the analysis states, resulted in a reorientation of the therapy. In general, then, for Gale, the analysis provides examples of how, inter alia, methods are used by couples to collaboratively construct narrative accounts through the negotiation of turns, gender differences displayed in turn-taking sequences and power issues used to influence turn-taking sequences.

Moving from the first concern, the analysis of the conversational sequence, through the identification of participant's categories to saying something more general is not a self-evident process in conversation analysis. Have (undated) argued that within conversational analysis there is a tension between 'interpretation' and 'analysis'.

'Interpretation', here, refers to the effort to formulate the relatively unique meaning an utterance, an action or an episode seems to have for participants and/or researchers, while 'analysis' is used to indicate efforts to isolate aspects, mechanisms and procedures that are relevant to a range of cases. CA [conversation analysis] may be defined, then, as the enterprise of analyzing interpretations in interaction.

CA's history illustrates this point. In the beginning the focus was mostly on textual or verbal aspects of what is done in interaction. Gradually, other aspects were added to this base, mostly in relation to the sequential organization of interaction, for instance points of overlap, audible breathing and intonational phenomena. This can be clearly seen by comparing transcripts included in earlier and later studies (c.f. Jefferson, 1985). To my mind, the interpretation of the meaning of utterances for participants is not an end in itself, but one possible means to an end, which is the analysis of conversational organization. (Have, undated)

Top Non-verbal communication

A related issue for conversation analysis is the problem of recording and analysing non-verbal communication. Special problems are connected with the analysis of non-vocal phenomena in direct interaction, such as facial expressions and body movements. A frequent objection to conversation analysis is that one cannot decide the meaning of 'words' without a consideration of associated 'non-verbal' behaviour.

This objection assumes that one can only say something sensible about meanings when one considered a situation in toto.

Conversation analysis?fs counter-argument seems to be that, while recognising that meaning is depending on a moving Gestalt (holistic perspective), one can analyse the contribution of specific details or classes of phenomena to that holistic entity separately. That is, conversation analysts take a de facto reductionist approach and argue that in practice, conversation can be analysed first and then subsequently embellished. One can start with the most accessible aspects of what is done in conversations, the speaking of words, and pursue the analysis of less easily isolatable aspects later, when one has learned more about the whole organisation or setting through the analysis of conversation.

Thus, starting with verbal aspects is not a principled choice but a practical one. Conversation analytical studies of non-vocal phenomena, including Goodwin (1981) and Heath (1986), show that these can be included in the conversation analysis framework. However, also in this field, Have (undated) claimed that research has started with the most accessible aspects of the interactional stream, the most ?etranscibable?f, such as gaze direction.

In essence, Have (undated) argued that conversation analysis is more about practice than philosophy. It is a job that requires a lot of work to analyse small amounts of material and is more dedicated to that process than to broader theoretical conjecture. Arguably, the strong empirical content of the work means that practitioners of conversation analysis are less given to philosophical reflection than to hard work.


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