Conversation Analysis and Intergroup Communication
- Ann WeatherallAnn WeatherallSchool of Psychology, Victoria University of Wellington
Conversation analysis is a distinctive approach to research on language and communication that originated with Emanuel Schegloff, Harvey Sacks, and Gail Jefferson. It assumes a systematic order in the minute details of talk as it is used in situ. That orderliness is understood to be the result of shared ways of reasoning and means of doing things. Conversation analytic studies aim to identify and describe how people produce and interpret social interaction. For example, the interpretation and response to the question, “How are you” differs depending on whether it is asked by a doctor in a medical consultation or a friend during a casual conversation. Overwhelmingly, data are naturalistic audio (for telephone-mediated talk) or video recordings (for copresent interactions). The recordings are transcribed using conventions first established by Gail Jefferson. They have been further developed since to better capture features such as crying and multimodality. Specialized notations are used to highlight features of talk such as breathiness, intonation, short silences, and simultaneous speech. Analyses typically examine how everyday actions are done over sequences of two or more turns of talk. Greetings, requests, and complaints are actions that have names; others don’t. Studies may examine a range of linguistic, embodied, and environmental phenomena used in coordinated action. Research has been conducted in a broad range of mundane and institutional settings. Medical interaction is one area where conversation analysis has been most applied, but others include psychotherapy and classroom interaction.
A conversation analytic perspective on identity is also distinctive. Typically, approaches to intergroup communication presuppose a priori the importance of social identities such as age, gender, and ethnicity. They are theorized as independent variables that impact language behaviors in predictable and measurable ways. This view strongly resonates with common sense and underpins popular questions about gender-, race- or age-based differences in language use. In contrast, a conversation analytic approach examines social identities only when they are observably and demonstrably relevant to what participants are doing and saying. The relevance of an identity category rests on it being clearly consequential for what is happening in a particular stretch of talk.
Conversation analysis approaches identity as a type of membership categorization. The term “member” has ethnomethodological roots that recognizes a person is a member from a cultural group. Categories can be invoked, used and negotiated in the flow of interaction. Membership categorization analysis shows there is a systematic organization to category work in talk. Using conversation analysis and membership categorization analysis, discursive psychology studies how social identity categorizations have relevance to the business at hand. For example, referring to your wife as a “girl” or a “married woman” invokes different inferences about socially acceptable behavior.