Analysing Talk In Interaction
Lectures 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University

Lecture / Seminar 9: The "other half" of CA - categories


Antaki C and Widdicombe, S (1998) Identities In Talk. London: Sage. chapter 1

Hutchby and Wooffitt, rather late in their book (p 213 and after), give a very good account of the sort of analyses that one can do with the concepts that I shall outline here, but don't lay the groundwork out as simply as I would like, so use the Antaki and Widdicombe for preference.

So far I've only talked about conversational structures and the way people use them to do things with each other.

But there is another part of CA, which is equally insightful into what talk-in-interaction does. Indeed, it was one of Harvey Sacks's own starting points in his analyses, and he never gave it up; but after his death, his co-workers focussed on what has now become 'core' CA, the things we have seen so far about sequential organisation.

This other half of CA is the study of how people use categories in their talk. That is, how their choice of ways of describing themselves and others, and what they and others do, carries with it significant implications.

The basic idea is that the words we use to describe things bring with them a very heavy set of implications - implications that go a long way beyond the dictionary, and a long way beyond 'ordinary' pragmatics. Of course, words in use always have implications beyond the dictionary; we've seen plenty of evidence for that already. But what I'm going to talk about in this lecture is a special kind of implication: namely, an implication about about the units out of which society is structured. That is a very abstract way of putting it, so let us turn to an example.

The baby cried...

Sacks' simple example illustrates the theme well. He found the following two sentences as the opening of a story written by a child:

The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.
There is nothing in logic or pragmatics to tell us that the mommy is the baby's mommy; still less that she picked up her baby because it cried. Yet these are two judgements that we make automatically.

This simple observation revealed a very powerful engine that people used in their talk. The childish author of those two sentences had (correctly) assumed that her or his readers would unconsciously make the inferential leap between the words and the social arrangements they represented. And any other speaker or writer can do the same. It is obviously economical; you don't have to spell things out. But it is also subtle, and can go unnoticed. That's why it is so fertile for analysis.

Some terms

Sacks invented some terms to help sort out the concepts involved. To my mind the terms are a bit ugly, but they serve their purpose.

Membership categorisation device

This is the most important one. Words (and other things too, which I'll come to later) can work as 'devices' that force a set of otherwise random objects into a 'category' with 'members'.

In the child's story, above, the effect was achieved by the word 'mommy'. That forced the implication that the two people in the story were joined in a set.

Another example. (An invented one, just for convenience). 

Suppose I read out a list of two people: Anna, 34, and Ivan, 50. The very fact that I have put them into a list strongly (but hardly logically) implies that they have some relationship. But what relationship? As soon as I say 'Anna, the doctor, is telling Ivan...' you have fixed them into a framework of doctor and patient. Like family-member names, job descriptions are among society's most powerful devices for organising how we see people.

In fact it is so powerful that we need to remember that these descriptions are always a matter of choice. If I say 'Anna, the doctor, is telling Ivan...' then the doctor-patient relationship seems the natural and perhaps even exhaustive one. For all current purposes, speaker and hearers are seeing Anna interacting with Ivan as doctor to patient. All other descriptions are off. Indeed it would be an effort to suddenly talk about (say) Ivan as a Christian. If you did, the strong assumption would be that this was somehow relevant to his now-established membership of a doctor-patient category (perhaps they are talking about euthanasia, or contraception, or something else where religion and medicine overlap).

This is Sacks' point. What you call them affects hugely influences the implications your listeners can draw about what sort of scene they are acting in, and therefore what the rules are of the other actors, and what sort of plot they are in.

Try some other alternatives. If you identified Anna as 'the Canadian" then you would be using the Membership Categorisation Device (MCD) of 'nationality', and implying that Ivan was not Canadian, and that their nationalities mattered at this point, and you're ready for a story along those lines. If you identified Anna as 'white', you would be invoking the MCD of 'race', and suggesting that Ivan was non-white, and you would be ready for race to be significant. They are always the same people, and all of those descriptions might be equally true. But their consequences would be quite different. So the message is: speakers can cast the people they're talking about (or themselves, of course) as members of a category with implications for how to see the other participants in the scene.

Category-bound activities

Another pedantic expression, but again useful to crystallise the point that emerges when we think about what happens when we set Anna and Ivan into a category. We've made the point that each category (be it 'family', 'medical consultation') has its set of members (mother-child, doctor-patient and so on). But there is more to it than that. Each member has a set of behaviour, feelings, rights and obligations that go along with the role. Mothers are nurturing, babies are helpless, doctors are expert, patients are in need of attention.

So when you say the words 'Anna, the doctor, is telling Ivan....' then the listener is going to assume that she is telling him the sort of things that doctors tell patients, and that he is going to receive it as a patient as patients receive what doctors say as doctors.

This is a normative assumption (we came across that word at the start of the lectures on CA). That is, if the speaker has said Anna is a doctor, that's how people will understand what she is reported to say.  They would think it very odd if the speaker then protested that they never meant her to be understood that way, and 'just mentioned' that she was a doctor.

Real examples of using category membership devices

Let's move back onto firmer territory with some real examples. We've already seen the way the word "mother" can signal a family relation with another character in a story. Here is another example, this time from spoken conversation.

From the Holt corpus Holt:2:3, transcription simplified
1   Mar: one three five?
2   (.)
3   Les: Oh hello it's um Leslie Field he:re:
4   Mar: Oh hello.
5   Les: Hello, .tch I hope you don't mind me getting in touch
6 but uh- we metchor husband little while ago
7 at a Liberal meeting.

When introducing oneself to a person one doesn't know well, one has to choose some description that makes sense of calling, and makes sense of what the call will be about. Leslie's choice of 'we met your husband at a Liberal meeting' (the Liberals are a political party in Britain) set up two categories. The "we" sets her up as a member of some team, presumably husband and wife (suggested by calling the person they met 'your husband'). The other device is the one of 'political affiliation', set up through the explicit nomination of a Liberal meeting.

Leslie need have said neither of these things. The fact that she did, means that Mary is to understand Leslie as calling on those two bases, and gives Mary a sense of what basis she herself is now expected to speak - a member of her own husband-and-wife team, and someone with Liberal sentiments. How these are relevant to the call, we don't know yet, but they set up a footing for it.

Using categorical descriptions can be crucial in getting yourself a proper footing in the interaction when you have very little time - as in the case of calling the emergency services, for example. If you can establish a 'legitimate' identity then do so quickly, as this caller does:

From Zimmerman (1998) (CT= call-taker, C: = caller)
1 CT: Mid-City emergency
2   (.)
3 C: tch .hh u::h This is u::h Knights of Columbus
4 Hall at uh: twenty twenty ni:ne West Broadway
5 North?=
6 CT: =Mmhm ((keyboard sounds))
7 C: U::h we had some u::h women's purses u::h stolen

Saying you are "Knights of Columbus Hall" gives you an institutional identity, and institutions talking to institutions are 'serious' and 'professional'. You are not 'just anybody' or 'some idiot' etcetera. Moreover, giving your address without prompting shows that you know the routine, that you are a co-operative partner in the Call-taker's business. Both those things together help cement a proper footing for the call to proceed smoothly (next lecture we'll see an example where it doesn't).

Examples of "trouble"

Claiming a category for yourself is usually trouble-free, but not always. Hutchby and Wooffitt give some useful examples from Wooffitt & Widdicombe's work on "goth" and "punk" identities. They went to rock festivals and wandered around the crowd, asking people if they would care to be interviewed. here are some interesting exchanges:

From Hutchby and Wooffitt, 1998 p 179
1   I: how would you descri:be (.) yourself
2   and your appearance and so on
3 (.)
4 R: describe my appearance.
5   I yeah
6   (1)
7   R: su- su- slightly longer than average hair
  ((goes on to describe appearance))


Notice the pause at line 3, and R's choice of a 'clarificatory' question, rather than an answer, at line 4. This is, as we know, a 'dispreferred' response to a question (which usually expects an answer). Notice also that the R in repeating the question, edits it; the bit about 'describe yourself' is dropped and what remains is 'describe your appearance".

The way that Wooffitt and Widdicombe analysed this was to see that the R was orienting to the implications of answering the question as put by the interviewer. The R could have self-categorised themselves as "a Punk" or "a Goth", but this would mean that they would then be responsible for a whole load of category-implications which they might not be comfortable with. So a neat move is not to answer the question in a legitimate way, by asking for a clarification; and to exercise control over that clarification and steer it into safer territory - the R's appearance, rather than their category-membership.

Some general principles.

If we are going to look at identity through the eyes of Conversation Analysis and the idea that people can ascribe themselves (and each other) to various categories, some principles will help. I take these from Antaki and Widdicombe (1998), chapter 1.

"...a person's identity is their display of, or ascription to, membership of some social category, with consequences for the interaction in which the display or ascription takes place. Which category, or combination of categories, and which of the characteristics it affords are matters of changeable arrangements made locally. Membership of a category is ascribed (and rejected), avowed (and disavowed) and displayed (and ignored) in local places and at certain times, and it does these things as part of the interactional work that constitutes people's lives.

In other words...[it is]  not that people passively or silently have this or that identity, but that they work up and work to this or that identity, for themselves and others, there and then, either as an end in itself or towards some other end. If this working-up and working-to of identity happens in interaction, the argument continues, then the best tools to examine it will be those appropriate to the medium of interactional business, namely, talk."

That's a very general way of putting it. Here are five more specific principles, which I'll talk a little about in this lecture, and try to illustrate in the next one.

  1. For a person to 'have an identity' - whether he or she is the person speaking, being spoken to, or being spoken about - is to be cast into a category with associated characteristics or features (the sort of thing you'd expect from any member of that category; their actions, beliefs, feelings, obligations, etcetera)
  2. Such casting is indexical and occasioned. That is, it only makes sense in its local setting.
  3. The casting makes relevant the identity to the interactional business going on.
  4. The force of 'having an identity' is its consequentiality in the interaction - what it allows, prompts or discourages participants to do next
  5. All these things are visible in people's exploitation of the structures of conversation.

Again, I've taken these from Antaki and Widdicombe, Chapter 1. More in the next lecture. 

This Seminar

We'll have a look at some data to see if we can find more examples of membership categorisation devices, and what people do with them.

Next Seminar

We'll go on to think about the relationship between 'category membership' and 'identity'. Carry on with reading Chapter 1 of Antaki and Widdicombe, and try the chapter by Zimmerman, although it may be hard going.

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