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Conversation analysis (CA) is a method for investigating the structure and process of social interaction between humans. It focuses primarily on talk, but integrates also the nonverbal aspects of interaction in its research design. As their data, CA studies use video or audio recordings made from naturally occurring interaction. As their results, CA studies yield descriptions of recurrent structures and practices of social interaction. Some of these, such as turn taking or sequence structure, are involved in all interaction, whereas others are more specific and have to do with particular actions, such as asking questions or delivering and receiving news, assessments, or complaints. CA studies can focus either on ordinary conversations taking place between acquaintances or family members, or on institutional encounters where the participants accomplish their institutional tasks through their interaction. CA elucidates basic aspects of human sociality that reside in talk, and it examines the ways in which specific social institutions are invoked in, and operate through, talk.
CA was started by Harvey Sacks and his co-workers — most importantly Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson — at the University of California in the 1960s. The initial formation of Sacks’s ideas is documented in his lectures from 1964 to 1972 (Sacks 1992a; 1992b). CA was developed in an intellectual environment shaped by Goffman s work on the moral underpinnings of social interaction and Garfinkel s ethnomethodology focusing on the interpretive procedures underlying social action. Sacks started to study the real-time sequential ordering of actions: the rules, patterns, and structures in the relations between actions. Thereby, he made a radical shift in the perspective of social scientific inquiry into social interaction: instead of treating social interaction as a screen upon which other processes (moral, inferential, or others) were projected, Sacks started to study the very structures of the interaction itself.
There are perhaps three basic features shared by CA studies: (1) they focus on action, (2) the structures of which they seek to explicate, and thereby (3) they investigate the achievement of intersubjective understanding. As general research topics, these three would be shared by many ”schools of social science. The uniqueness of CA, however, is in the way in which it shows how ”action, ”structure, and ”intersubjectivity” are practically achieved and managed in talk and interaction.
- Sacks, H. (1992a) Lectures on Conversation, vol. 1. Blackwell, Oxford.
- Sacks, H. (1992b) Lectures on Conversation, vol. 2. Blackwell, Oxford.