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 Is it possible to avoid imposing the analyst's concepts?

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 Participants' issues, concepts and categories

As noted in the introduction (Section 6.2.1) a second concern of conversation analysis is to uncover social order through this close analysis of the 'mundane' activity of conversation. This second aspect explores how people use categories in their talk; what are the implications of the ways people choose to describe themselves and others, and what do they subsequently do?

Conversation analysis attempts to draw out the participant's concepts and categories from the analysed conversation. It does so by invoking analytic devices. Nationality, ethnicity, parental status, occupation are examples of obvious membership categories, which Sacks labelled a membership categorisation device. They help fix relationships in conversation. There are also category-bound activities, that is the things people in a given category might be expected to do. For Sacks, how people are labelled influences the implications that listeners draw about what sort of scene they are acting in, and therefore what the rules are of the other actors, and what sort of plot they are in. For example, Lesley, the lorry driver, asked for directions implies that we have a conversation about how to get somewhere, we would not expect, for example, Lesley to be asking about directions for opening a medicine bottle. Similarly, in conversations, where people insert their categories it is not a passive act but a development of the conversation to a particular end.

Which category, or combination of categories, and which of the characteristics it affords are matters of changeable arrangements made locally. Membership of a category is ascribed (and rejected), avowed (and disavowed) and displayed (and ignored) in local places and at certain times, and it does these things as part of the interactional work that constitutes people's lives…. they work up and work to this or that identity, for themselves and others, there and then, either as an end in itself or towards some other end. (Antaki and Widdicombe, 1998)

Schegloff (1997) argued that analysts should focus on participant orientations and not import their own categories into participants' discourse. Any analytic claim must be demonstrably evident in the recorded conversation. The analyst should not infer that, say gender, is important because one participant in a conversation is male and the other female. The analyst may assume it is relevant but cannot use it unless it is relevant to the participants and the conversation evidently draws on gender differences. However, that does not simply mean that it has to be a concept or category as specified in the words of the participants. Categories derived (inductively) from the analysis can be used. The male may, for example, not refer to gender explicitly but may, for example, make assumptions in the course of the conversation about physical strength based on his gender presuppositions. In which case this implied category can be used in the analysis.

What does it mean to draw out participant's concepts in practice? In the example (CASE STUDY Transcribed conversation between husband and wife), Gale (2000) points out how a 'detailed analysis of the discourse reveals how the not-yet-said of the family squabble emerges into the narrative'. This is a key element that in the course of a full therapy session may have been easy to miss. As he noted:

Generally, therapeutic conversation passes by quickly. It is recommended that clinicians take the time to slow down this talk, via transcribing segments of sessions, in order to examine the communication weave. This procedure, and through considering various phenomenon of talk...facilitates a mindfulness of one's rhetorical practices and to key transitional moments that occur in therapy. (Gale, 2000)

Although Gale's focus is on conversational analysis as an aid to therapeutic practice, the issue of identifying key issues is a general one.

Top Is it possible to avoid imposing the analyst's concepts?

The choice of details to be included in a transcript is based on the insights developed within conversational analysis. The approach emphasises sequential organisation of talk; and transcriptions tend to concentrate on pauses, overlaps and so on.

However, conversation analysts emphasise that transcriptions should not be made with a specific research problem or hypothesis in mind; the transcription should provide data for inductive analysis. Ideally, analysts would like a large number of very detailed transcripts that could be used to analyse specific phenomena. However, it is not clear that this ideal is approached in much conversation analysis.

Wetherell (1998, p. 403) pointed out that analysts decide what fragment of the conversation is to be analysed and in so doing impose their own categories and concerns, ignoring not only previous conversations but rendering irrelevant previous turns in the same continuing conversation. For her 'the problem with conversation analysis is that they rarely raise their eyes from the next turn in the conversation, and, further, this is not an entire conversation or sizeable slice of social life but usually a tiny fragment' (Wetherell, 1998, p. 402).

The presumption of the sanctity of the data, as though conversations exist independently of the analysts' frames of reference and that the intention of the speakers can be drawn out inductively, leads to conversation analysis refusing to acknowledge the presence of 'pre-existing' categories. This includes any contextual information that would help make sense of the conversation, for example, the family set up within which the conversation is taking place. However, the conversation analyst is not a blank piece of paper on which the conversation is drawn.

Thus it is difficult to see how conversation analysis can avoid importing their own concepts, either through an awareness of the context, because they are looking for particular types of interaction or because they cannot avoid their own preconceptions.

In short, conversation analysts have to address whether they are using their own concepts to organise the data or whether the data reveals that they are looking at a particular type of conversation. Slembrouck (2006) questions whether it is at all feasible to separate these 'two moments of categorisation'?

Next 6.2.6 Examples of how conversation analysis has been used