In This Article Conversation Analysis and Research with Children

  • Introduction
  • Child-Focused CA Research
  • Children with Communication Issues
  • Health Interactions
  • Institutional Interactions
  • Family Interactions

Childhood Studies Conversation Analysis and Research with Children
Andrea Lamont-Mills, Steven Christensen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0199


Conversation analysis (CA) research with children is the study of children’s talk-in-interaction. It focuses on the social interactions that children engage in, and like CA research with adults, analytic attention is on explicating the features of these interactions. How children learn to interact with others, how they use talk to accomplish social actions, how they make sense of their worlds, and how they meaningfully participate in social interactions are key aims. Given that childhood is one of the most heavily regulated developmental periods, CA research with children can demonstrate how children actively participate in their own childhood, negotiating, challenging, and navigating complex interactional encounters. Children, here we mean zero-to-eighteen-year-olds, have traditionally been positioned as somehow “incomplete.” Successful development and progress to adulthood means that a state of completeness has been obtained. Developmental research focuses heavily on children who are not successfully progressing and includes difficulties with language acquisition, learning, development, or mental health. Children’s interactional practices as the focal point of research have largely been overlooked. Preference for cognitive explanations of behavior and development has resulted in treating what children say as reflective of their developing cognitive processes. By treating language as socially constitutive of childhood experiences, where such experiences are produced through children’s active participation in interactions, development and childhood become situated as emergent, local, and in situ interactional accomplishments. There is no one underpinning framework that permeates CA with research children. Researchers have applied CA methodology to children’s interactions in varied ways. Theoretically, CA research with children takes either more of an ethnomethodological or developmental position, although this is somewhat of an artificial categorization. Developmentally focused research is more concerned with using CA to explicate children’s language acquisition and the development of language skills. Here, emphasis is on the child and their interactional skills. Ethnomethodologically focused research is more interested in the sense making practices that children adopt and the practical social accomplishments that children achieve in their interactions. Prominence is given to how children interact with others in various interactional settings and how this interaction displays understandings of childhood. Categorizing CA research with children is fraught with difficulties, as many categorizations are possible. One way is to distinguish by theoretical underpinnings, development, or ethnomethodological. Another is to categorize by the substantive area being researched, and this is the position that has been adopted in this work.

Conversation Analysis

Conversation analysis (CA) is the study of human social interaction, be this talk-in-interaction or other forms of social conduct, and emerged from a series of lectures that sociologist Harvey Sacks gave in the 1960s. The focus of CA is on making explicit the sequential organization of interaction and the social actions that are accomplished through these interactional sequences. It does this by explicating and describing the competencies that ordinary speakers use and rely on to participate in intelligible, socially organized interaction. Given this, real-life interactions are the focus of CA study, be these everyday conversations such as family meal-time interactions or more institutionally situated conversations such as classroom interactions and health professional–patient interactions. CA is inductive in that it accepts that social organization can only be understood by examining actual instances of social interaction. Therefore, it works systematically—from initially noticing something interesting (e.g., a disagreement); assembling a collection of these interesting things as means for examining the distinctiveness of the phenomena (e.g., disagreements in school playgrounds); and building a detailed, data-driven description of the generic, stable features of this curiosity as a human practice (e.g., confrontation). However a rigorous account needs to be independent of the exterior or contextual features found in any single instance of this phenomenon. Sacks and his cofounders, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson, developed CA to document social order and describe the systematic practices that participants rely on to accomplish it. Social order is understood as human practice: an order is created by participants in talk-in-interaction—jointly, contingently, and always locally—using talk but also gaze, gesture, silence, body orientation, and their combinations. The key to mutual understanding is recipient design, which refers to the idea that participants design their talk-in-interaction so as to be understood by another person, using the common knowledge that participants are assumed to share with each other to construct or design their talk-in-interaction.

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