In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Conversation Analysis

  • Introduction
  • Origins and Foundations
  • Journals
  • Websites
  • The Analysis of Institutional Talk
  • Membership Categorization Analysis
  • Multimodality: Gesture, Gaze, and Embodied Conduct

Sociology Conversation Analysis
Michael Emmison
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 November 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 November 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0121


Conversation analysis (hereafter CA) is a rigorously empirical approach to the investigation of social action—or “talk-in-interaction,” to employ the term which has been adopted as the preferred description of the field—which has emerged in the last five decades as the distinctive research program within the wider ethnomethodological perspective. The core premise of CA is that the topic of social interaction per se has been virtually ignored by mainstream social science disciplines and that through the detailed inspection of transcriptions of recordings of conduct in naturally occurring social settings we are able to appreciate the complex forms of order and organization which constitute this bedrock of spoken interaction—the substrate upon which all the institutions of society inescapably depend. The primary aim of CA is to document this order and the systematic methods or practices which human actors rely upon to carry out their everyday social lives. As with its progenitor, ethnomethodology, it is difficult to apply standard scientific categories—theory, method, research design, etc.—to CA. Rather than pursue the testing of hypotheses derived from a priori theorizing, CA favors a more inductive approach to theory building based on the close inspection of actual sequences of conduct. By the same token, although CA does have methodological principles and procedures it is not something that can be utilized in a decontextualized fashion as, for example, an alternative to traditional thematic techniques for analyzing the content of verbal data such as recorded interviews. Since its emergence in the mid-1960s, there have been a number of developments in its core foci. Although the organization of ordinary or mundane conversational interaction still continues to receive scholarly attention, a significant amount of research activity is now undertaken into the talk which transpires in institutional or work-related settings. In addition, many commentators now identify two strands within CA. The first, which has become consolidated as the principal mode of CA research, is concerned with the structural organization of talk and the actions which particular sequences of turns accomplish. The second strand deals with the way descriptions of the social world are made in talk and the categories and commonsense knowledge which are constitutive parts of this process (see Membership Categorization Analysis). Although prominent in the early CA writings, this strand is now less conspicuous. CA is now firmly established within the social sciences. Although its roots are in sociology, the CA approach now informs a great deal of the research work in cognate fields such as linguistics, communication, anthropology, social psychology, education and child development, human-computer interaction, counseling, and psychotherapy.

General Overviews

An initial reluctance on the part of the mainstream sociology journals to carry the results of CA inquiries forced most of the early researchers to place their work (see Origins and Foundations) in journals from other disciplines which were more sympathetic. Another solution to the problem of the dissemination of scholarly work was the production of edited collections, some of which were based on papers first presented at conferences or symposia.

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