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What Is Conversation Analysis?

By F. Ruiz
Updated May 23, 2024
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Conversation analysis is a field of research that studies talk-in-interaction, or, how talk is used to perform social actions. This field was developed during research performed primarily by sociologists Harvey Sacks and Emanuel A. Schegloff during the 1960s and 1970s. In the 21st century, the techniques from conversation analysis have been widely used across linguistic and non-linguistic disciplines alike.

This field is founded on the assumption that spoken interaction is ordered, which means that speakers follow a systematic structure that speakers follow. This structure can be separated from the specific information being conveyed. Conversation analysis is concerned with examining different conversation structures and how they are used to achieve interactive goals in various social situations.

In conversation analysis, an utterance is not just viewed as a vehicle to communicate an idea but rather as a tool used by the speaker to achieve a social goal. Examples of social goals include making a complaint, a request or a greeting. There are specific slots in conversations where several utterances might be appropriate, but each utterance would perform the same action. For instance, to greet a friend, a person might say, "Hi, what's up?" or "Hi, how's it going?" Different words are used, but the same social action — a greeting — has been taken.

Researchers use recordings of natural conversations from real environments to perform conversation analysis. Recordings of conversations between two or more people talking as they ordinarily would are the standard. There should be minimal experimental interference. These conversations are then transcribed in a very detailed manner that reflects pauses, emphasis and intonation changes, all of which are important details.

After recordings are transcribed, they are analyzed for patterns using data-driven methods and sequential analysis. The placement of an utterance within a conversation is very important; nothing can be viewed in isolation. Researchers place particular attention on examining the patterns surrounding turn taking, adjacency pairs, repair and preference organization.

Researchers employ conversation analysis in sub-disciplines of applied linguistics such as interactional sociolinguistics, psycholinguistics and second-language acquisition. It also can be helpful in psychology, such as when developing approaches to talk therapy, as well as in other fields. Practical applications are especially useful for second-language learners. One example is the Japanese phenomenon of aizuchi — frequent interjections by the listener, with various subtleties that are notoriously difficult for non-native speakers to learn. Conversation analysis can help spell out the rules for aizuchi that otherwise would be extremely difficult for learners to figure out on their own.

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Discussion Comments
By Clairdelune — On Oct 24, 2011

It is very important for those who have come to our country and are learning English to learn and practice what phrases, tone of voice, and body language to use when performing conversation functions.

I know quite a few ESL students, and I hear them saying certain things in a conversation that aren't appropriate or might be offensive to native English speakers. So teachers can't just teach reading, grammar and writing. Conversation knowledge and practice are also important.

By BabaB — On Oct 23, 2011

The way we now teach conversation to those students learning English as a second language resulted from this conversation analysis theory.

I was an English as a second language instructor for adult students. This method of conversation analysis was very helpful to the students and the teachers.

Each language group has their own way of communicating when they need to start a conversation, end a conversation, change the topic, and many other conversation functions. It takes a lot of time and hard work to get them to understand and begin using the English ways of communicating.

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