February 12, 2024

Ethnomethodological Conversation Analysis

Wayne mellinger author photoBy Wayne Martin Mellinger

Everyday talk-in-interaction is the medium through which our identities are enacted and our relationships are negotiated. It is often through situated activities such as talk that the practical problems of our lives get resolved, the tasks of our workplaces get completed, and the business of society gets managed. Talk-in-interaction is a fundamental mechanism through which culture is enacted, providing the very infrastructure of social institutions. Everyday talk-in-interaction is indeed the fundamental site of human sociality.

Conversation Analysis (CA) is an approach to studying everyday social interactions which focuses on how participants in a conversation collaboratively build meaning and organize their interactions through verbal and non-verbal behaviors. It closely analyses the moment-by-moment unfolding of social life through close examination of ordinary social interactions. These fine-grained studies, now done in a wide variety of social situations and institutional settings, are revealing the basic structures of interaction as experienced in concrete instances of social life.

By analyzing naturally occurring conversations, CA researchers aim to understand how meaning is constructed: This includes examining turn-taking patterns, adjacency pairs (e.g., question-answer), repair mechanisms, and other structures that facilitate conversation flow. In addition, there is a focus on the role of non-verbal communication, including gestures, facial expressions, eye contact and other non-verbal cues which are crucial for turn-taking, signaling emotions, and reinforcing spoken messages.

Conversation Analysis is deeply rooted in ethnomethodology — a sociological perspective that views social reality as actively constructed and interpreted by everyday members. Ethnomethodological researchers analyze how participants themselves organize and make sense of their interactions, rather than imposing external frameworks. Ethnomethodology publicly emerged from the writings of Harold Garfinkel at UCLA in the 1960s. While rooted in sociology, ethnomethodological conversation analysis has taken hold in many other disciplines including anthropology, psychology, communications, linguistics, geography, and computer design. Practical applications are now instituted in schools of medicine, education and business.

Garfinkel was centrally concerned with the “problem of social order””. The problem of order is a central question in sociology and related fields, exploring how and why social order exists and persists despite the potential for chaos and conflict. When Garfinkel created ethnomethodology, the dominant approach to sociology was functionalism, which views order as an inherent property of social systems. Instead, Garfinkel sees order as an ongoing, dynamic process actively constructed by participants through their shared understandings and social practices.

The genius behind Conversation Analysis was Harvey Sacks, who was a student of Garfinkel. While Garfinkel was most concerned with discovering methods of practical reasoning and the underlying assumptions and presuppositions involved in the structuring of everyday experience, Sacks wanted to build an emic science of social interaction, that is from the participants' own perspective, rather than imposing an external, etic perspective. Sacks was also greatly influenced by Erving Goffman. Goffman is well known in sociology for his work on a dramaturgical approach to social interaction. Individuals are seen as “actors” who analyze who their audience and present different selves to strategically impress that audience.

Goffman also articulated a notion of the “interaction order”—an autonomous domain of social interaction comprising the rules of communication. Sacks was also influenced by Goffman’s naturalistic research methodology— observing and recording data during the actual unfolding of the social phenomenon.

CA relies heavily on audio and video recordings of naturally occurring conversations in various settings. These recordings are meticulously analyzed, focusing on turn-taking patterns, pauses, intonations, gestures, and other non-verbal cues. Researchers employ specialized transcription methods to capture nuances of spoken language and non-verbal behavior.

CA prioritizes examining the organization of talk, particularly turn-taking, adjacency pairs, and repair mechanisms. This focus stems from the understanding that conversation is a collaborative activity where participants constantly negotiate meaning and manage the flow of interaction. This means there is a central concern for the sequential organization of everyday social interactions.

Unlike psychology, which primarily focuses on individual mental processes, CA emphasizes the interactiveness of meaning-making. It assumes that meaning arises from the social interaction itself, rather than residing solely within individuals' minds.

Sacks used the phrase "order at all points" to capture the inherent orderliness of everyday conversations. This principle implies that even seemingly mundane interactions are governed by subtle rules and patterns that participants employ to achieve smooth interaction.

CA is concerned not only with how utterances are produced but also with how they are recognized and understood by participants. This highlights the dynamic nature of conversation, where participants constantly adjust their actions based on their understanding of the ongoing interaction.

By delving into the intricate mechanics of everyday conversations, CA offers valuable insights into how humans organize social interaction, negotiate meaning, and build shared understanding. Its focus on participants' own perspectives and collaborative meaning-making sets it apart from other approaches to communication, making it a valuable tool for understanding the complexities of human interaction. Rigorous scrutiny of everyday talk-in-interaction reveals the situated practices members of society employ to do a
significant share of social life.

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