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 2012–2018

Page updated 5 March, 2018

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2018, 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

6.2.7 Analysing power relations

In a rather less conventional manner, conversation analysis has been used to explore power relations expressed through conversation. Michael Toolan (1989) undertook conversation analysis designed to explicate power struggles within discourse, be it of real or fictional participants.

Toolan's approach modified conventional conversation analysis. He identifies different types of conversational moves, which demonstrate how topics can be carried forward or suppressed in conversation. He lists five types of conversational moves that are useful in analysing fiction. A 'move' is roughly equivalent to a 'turn' in conversational analysis, usually concurrent with speaker change.

  • An opening move introduces a new topic.
  • A supporting move concurs with the previous move and sustains the topic.
  • A challenging move suppresses the topic under discussion.
  • A bound-opening move enlarges upon the topic under discussion.
  • A reopening move reinstates a topic that has been challenged.

Within a move, four different possible types of acts may occur.

  • An 'elicitation'is usually a question eliciting a linguistic response but occasionally it may be a command requesting a linguistic response; for example, "What time is it?" or "Tell me the time."
  • An 'informative' is usually a statement whose sole function is to provide information. The appropriate response is the giving of attention and indication of understanding.
  • A 'directive' is usually a command requesting a non-linguistic response.
  • An 'accusation' is usually a statement, question or command requesting an apology or an excuse.

The analysis of moves provides the basis for exploring power relations. An example is Marion Muirhead's (2000) analysis of the Awakening by Kate Chopin (Chopin, 1981) (CASE STUDY An exploration of power relations in conversation). Note, that this approach does not involve transcription but is an analysis of existing text, in this case, published fiction. The intent is to use the analytic concepts to illustrate how power is exercised and resisted rather than the conventional conversation analysis approach of sequential analysis. Some of the concerns about context in relation to conversation analysis, such as Pierce's (1994) critique of Matoesian (1993) and McPhee et al.'s (2006) response to Cooren, (2004), reflect wider issues about potential developments and variants of conversational analysis that reflect the issues of power. There has, for example, been extensive discussion about the possibility of a 'critical' approach to conversation analysis (McHoul, 1990, 1994; Bogen and Lynch, 1990; Forrester, 1999) via post-structuralism (Wetherell, 1998; Schegloff, 1998, 1999a, 1999b; Billig, 1999a, 1999b) or feminism (Kitzinger, 2000; Kitzinger and Frith, 1999; Speer, 1999; Stokoe and Smithson, 2001).

Kitzinger and Frith (1999), for example, showed that 'Just say No' advice to potential victims of date rape is misguided, given the conversational complexity of declining invitations, assessments, and offers. In each case a conversational power position is maintained. In general, conversation analysis can indeed reveal the operation of power in actual conduct.


Next 6.3 Genre analysis