Conversation Analysis: Social Action Structures

Conversation Analysis (CA) is the technique used to investigate and analyze the structures and processes of social interactions between human beings. CA is primarily focused on casual conversations but it also deals with the non-verbal forms of social interaction. CA’s research methodologies have evolved to include advanced forms of social interactions such as the ones that occur at courts of law, doctor’s offices, mass media, educational settings, and law enforcement scenarios. CA research is responsible for defining sequential structures of social interaction and its recurring patterns. CA research focuses on ordinary forms of conversation such as the ones that happen between family members or institutional-interactions that deal with institutional-based representatives.

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The main purpose of CA is to unravel social interaction dynamics. CA makes it possible to “to discover how participants understand and respond to one another in their turns at talk, with a central focus on how sequences of action are generated” (Sacks 2004). CA was formulated by Harvey Sacks, whose aim was to understand the underlying dynamics of social-interaction order. Consequently, CA serves the purpose of elucidating the core aspects of human interaction that are incorporated in conversations. Moreover, CA is useful when examining how social institutions are revealed and incorporated through social conversations. CA also serves the purpose of uncovering the reasoning processes and the linguistic abilities that are manifested when producing conversations in structured social interactions.

CA’s research employs several methods and structures. The first method that is employed by CA is the use of a research question. The research question is used as a guide for the CA procedure. Research questions often focus on a specific aspect of CA such as the nature of the addressed conversation. Another common method in CA is the use of social interaction data. Data can be in form of video or audio recordings of social interactions that happen without the input of the researcher. This method “is one of the most commonly used research techniques in CA” (Hutchby 2008). The impartiality of the researcher and the unawareness of the studied subjects contribute towards the effectiveness of this approach.

Another method of CA is the use of data transcriptions. These transcriptions have to be detailed to ensure that all aspects of conversational data are adequately represented. The use of transcriptions was a common method before the advent of digital media. However, the popularity of this method has declined over the last two decades. Inductive data analysis is another method of CA that employs more interaction in it analysis. Through inductive data analysis, researchers are able to deduce the interaction dynamics in a particular scenario of social interaction. This CA methodology is mostly used in analyses that involve groups of researchers. Researchers also try to find habitual models of social-interaction in social-exchange scenarios.

This method is commonly used because it can be incorporated with other CA methods. One advanced form of CA methodology “involves verification of data by deviant case analysis” (Sacks 2004). Verification of data in CA involves developing rules or models that outline various interaction patterns. After gathering information using CA’s methodologies, the results are then contextualized using relevant discussions.

There are several analytical categories of CA. One of these categories is traditional CA, a method that focuses on ‘ordinary talks’. An example of traditional CA is the adjacency pair. An adjacency pair is “an ordered pair of adjacent utterances spoken by two different speakers” (Goodwin 1981). When using the adjacency pair as an analytical tool, the first set of the conversation is the spoken one, while the second portion is the required response. Another analytical category of CA is turn-taking organization. Turn taking features in both formal and informal interactions. Where there are no formalized agendas, conversations usually take a free-styled approach.

Turn taking in CA applies to two-party conversations and to multi-party conversations. The main distinction in turn-taking is that in two-party conversations turns are allocated by gestures such as pauses and sentence completions. However, in multi-party conversations the current speaker usually points out the next one. Turn-taking provides CA researchers with a tool for analyzing both simple and complex utterances. Turn allocation in CA includes the use of repetitions and other lexical forms of conversations. Consequently, sequentiality is an important tool of CA analysis. The main purpose of sequentiality is to unravel the most important aspects of an utterance and its relevance in a series of other utterances. Turn constructions units (TCU’s) are the cues that are clearly recognizable by all the parties in a conversation.

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When a TCU is used, it signals that it is the turn of the next speaker. Another common analytical category is the transition relevance places (TRPs). TRPs signal completion during social interactions. Researchers categorize TRPs as “potential boundaries between turns that participants orient to when managing their turns” (Hutchby 2008). Projectability is also another analytical category of CA. Researchers use projectability within the TCU context to predict when a certain portion of a conversation is likely to come to the end. Overlapping talk can also be used to analyze CA. Overlapping talk is usually a result of other analytical tools such as TCU and TRP. Turn-distribution is used to analyze how to address overlapping talk in the context of other CA’s analytical tools.

An example of how CA can be applied in various texts is in a transcript-conversation between a sales representative and a customer.

Customer: Which car model is most suitable for a family? It also has to be well priced but up to date.

Sales Representative: We have very nice Toyota models that have proved to be popular with families. Let us move to the other side of the room and have a look please.

Customer: Okay.

In this conversation, the customer finishes a sentence but does not pause to allow the sales representative to reply. However, in the second sentence the customer gives the sales rep a definite TRP. This conversation pattern is replicated by the sales representative who speaks without pausing until another TCP is offered. Turn-taking is well manifested in this conversation.

CA as a research method features several superficial features. These features undermine CA’s reputation as a solid research tool. Furthermore, CA does not incorporate recognizable theories of human interaction. Using theories of human interaction would contribute to the validity of CA as research mechanism. For instance, most research theories are organized around known theories and their subsequent arguments. Researchers also fault CA because it fails to explain the complex phenomenon that lies behind its basic claims. Instead, CA uses ‘obvious’ claims to substantiate its assertions and arguments. For example, in a conversation there are various underlying elements apart from the basic parameters of social interaction such as institutional contexts and social statures.

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Goodwin, C 1981, Conversational Organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers, Academic Press, New York. Web.

Hutchby, I 2008, Conversation analysis, Polity, London. Web.

Sacks, H 2004, Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. Web.

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