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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews and Introductory Works
  • Theoretical Foundations
  • Discipline History
  • Discourse as an Interactional Achievement
  • Action and Understanding
  • Gesture, Gaze, and the Body in Interaction
  • Talk in Institutions
  • Cross-Linguistic Comparison
  • Epistemics

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Forthcoming Articles Expand or collapse the "forthcoming articles" section


Linguistics Conversation Analysis
Jack Sidnell
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 October 2011
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0062


Conversation analysis (CA) is an approach to the study of social interaction that emerged in the 1960s in the writings and lectures of the late sociologist Harvey Sacks and was consolidated in his collaborations with Emanuel A. Schegloff and Gail Jefferson in the later 1960s and early 1970s. CA is not a subfield of linguistics and does not take language per se as its primary object of study. Rather, the object of study is the organization of human social interaction. However, because language figures centrally in the way humans interact, CA typically (though not necessarily) involves the analysis of talk. For all practical purposes, CA can be thought of as the study of talk in interaction and other forms of human conduct in interaction other than talk, for example, gaze, gesture, body orientations, and their combinations. The boundaries of the field are not always completely clear. In this article, however, I treat the application of the conversation analytic method as criterial to inclusion within the field. This method involves a series of steps beginning with what Sacks described as “unmotivated observation” of some stretch of recorded interaction (copresent or telephone) with the goal merely of noticing something about it. Once a noticing has been made (e.g., some responses to yes-no questions are prefaced by “oh”), the researcher can then start assembling a collection of possible instances. A collection constitutes the empirical basis upon which to develop an analysis of what distinctive work the phenomenon or practice initially noticed through unmotivated observation accomplishes—this being independent of the contextual specifics of any particular instance. The method is thus fundamentally qualitative in that it involves case-by-case study of each instance. However, though fundamentally qualitative in this sense, the method also involves looking across multiple instances in a collection of cases—it is this that allows us to see and to describe the generic, stable features of the practice that are independent of the particular contextual features of any given instance. The scholarship within CA can be divided up in a number of different ways. One possible categorization distinguishes studies concerned primarily with the organization of talk itself and those concerned to use the methods of CA to investigate some other aspect of the social world. Another possible categorization distinguishes studies of “ordinary conversation” from those of institutional interaction.

General Overviews and Introductory Works

For many years there were two standard introductions to the field that offered complementary views from sociology, on the one hand (Heritage 1984), and linguistics, on the other (Levinson 1983). In both cases, conversation analysis (CA) is covered in a single chapter and is embedded in a larger discussion. While these two texts still provide excellent entry points to the field, a number of book-length introductions are now available. Ten Have 2007 offers a more explicitly practical approach—guiding the reader through various steps involved in developing an analysis. Hutchby and Wooffitt 1998 takes a similarly “practical” approach. Sidnell 2010 is, in comparison, more of a general overview of the major findings of the field, with chapters on turn taking, action and understanding, sequence organization, preference, and so on. Atkinson and Heritage 1984 is a classic collection of chapters covering many important topics. Drew 2005 is an eloquent introduction to a wide range of topics in CA.

  • Atkinson, J. Maxwell, and John Heritage, eds. 1984. Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A classic collection of contributions from leading conversation analysts. The introductory essays that begin the book and the various sections provide an excellent point of entry.

  • Drew, Paul. 2005. Conversation analysis. In Handbook of language and social interaction. Edited by Kristine L. Fitch and Robert E. Sanders, 71–102. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

    An excellent and relatively recent overview of the field.

  • Heritage, John. 1984. Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

    Exceptionally clear, exegetical account of the roots of ethnomethodology and CA. Chapter 8 focuses on CA.

  • Hutchby, Ian, and Robin Wooffitt. 1998. Conversation analysis: Principles, practices, and applications. Malden, MA: Polity.

    A useful introductory text that covers some of the most important topics in CA.

  • Levinson, Stephen C. 1983. Pragmatics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    Chapter 6 provides an introduction to CA from the point of view of linguistic pragmatics.

  • Sidnell, Jack. 2010. Conversation analysis: An introduction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Book-length introduction to the field. Reviews the major domains of conversational organization, such as turn taking, action sequencing, and repair.

  • Ten Have, Paul. 2007. Doing conversation analysis. 2d ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

    A guide to “doing” CA. Useful chapters on transcription and data collection.

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