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

Lecture / Seminar 10: More on categories in talk


Antaki and Widdicombe, (1998) Identities in Talk. London: Sage. chapter 1 again.

Last lecture I introduced the notion of category-membership and set out its basic principles. Basically the idea is that casting people (including oneself) into a category does some interactional business. I said I would talk more about the five principles of analysis I mentioned, so here they are again.

  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. Participants orient to that identity.
  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.

We spent some time on the first one in last week's lecture, and we've talked about the structures of conversation throughout the lecture series as a whole. So I'd like to concentrate here on what I mean by 'indexical and occasioned', on 'relevance', and on 'consequentiality'.

Indexical and occasioned

This is just to point out that a category-label - like 'cyclist' or 'aunt' or 'midwife' - takes a good part of its colour from the local surroundings. Obviously words like 'her', 'that' and so on are completely indexical because what they point to changes on each occasion, but even 'cyclist' means somewhat different things according to the environment it appears in. It can mean a professional sporting cyclist, if we are talking about the Tour de France; or a vulnerable kind of road-user, if we are talking about road safety; and so on. 

That's related to the notion of the category-word's being occasioned: that is, that it is called up by some expectation or demand of the local environment. To stay with the word 'cyclist', you would only use it if it was in keeping with the current range of categories appropriate to the topic, and called up by it (Tour-de-France-talk, or road-safety-talk). Otherwise you would need to do some work to initiate some topic shift and make sure that people understood what sort of 'cyclist' you wanted to talk about.

Relevance and orientation

Perhaps the clearest way to explain this is to put it in the negative. The idea is that analysts should simply ignore all those (possible) identities participants might have, unless the participants make them relevant. That is, unless the participants actually do seem to be treating each other as (say) 'business partners' and not some other equally true, but not currently relevant identities (one may be a woman and the other a man; one may be gay and the other straight; both may be Christians; both may be in poor health; and so on ad infinitum). So 'relevance' is relevance to the people involved. 

'Orientation' is a bit of CA jargon that simply reminds us that, when an identity-category has been made relevant, then we shall see people visibly reacting to it, or to its implications. This of course won't always be a co-operative orientation. If you go to your parents' house and make relevant their identities as hotel keepers or servants, they will 'orient to' that pretty sharply!


This is a still tougher analytical recommendation. The idea is that categories are essentially for use, so that we can only really be confident that a category is 'live' in the interaction (relevant for the participants, and oriented to by them) if something happens. Someone has brought the category into being just so that something happens, so we should see the effects. I'll give examples below. But it's worth remarking how radical an argument this is (it goes back to the beginnings of CA, and has recently been restated by Emanuel Schegloff, one of CA's leading authorities). If we take it seriously, we must not talk about any identity unless it can be shown that it does some business for the participants in the interaction. It means CA has an uncomfortable time with  analysis in more abstract political terms, where the analyst may want to claim that two people are acting as they do because one is a man and the other a woman, and so on - even though there is no evidence in the interaction (or even no interaction) that the category of 'gender' is relevant to them.


For the rest of the lecture let me try to bring to life the idea of consequentiality. The idea, as I said above, is that that category-identities are brought up in conversation not just randomly or because the person has no control over them, but to do specific jobs.

Let's look at the interaction I use in Chapter 1 of the Antaki & Widdicombe book.

From Schenkien (1978, p 65) quoted in Antaki & Widdicombe 1998
50 Alan: Mm hmm. It just tells you some of the
51 basic concepts. And, I give a memobook,
52 out. And also let me put my magic card
53 innit.
54 Pete: Your magic card?
55 Alan My magic card, this sort of makes the whole
56 thing a s- sort of a kaleida-scopic
57 experience - not really it's just,
58 y'know, uh two dimensional a(hh)c-
59   tually hehh hehh hehh hehh hehh he ih- it
60   all depends on y'know, what you've 
61   been doing right before you, look at
62   the card I guess if it's two dimen-
63   sional
64   Pete: Righ(h)t
65   (2.0)
66   Alan: Uhh,
67   Pete: I gather you also wanna try t'sell me some insurance
68   (2.0)
69   Alan: Now- that doesn't sound like a bad 
70   idea- no, ih- it would be nice. But
71 what I'd like to do,
72 (3.0)
73 Alan: Uhh, do you have any insurance.

Read through that a few times to get a sense of what is going on. We can characterise it as something to do with Alan selling Pete insurance. How do Pete and Alan achieve their ends by using categories?


We join the extract at the point where Alan is giving Pete some printed information. This could be an exchange between friends, but note that what Alan is handing over is something that 'just tells you the basic concepts' (lines 50-51) . Presumably he can only say that if he is in a position to recognise what is basic and what is advanced, so he is claiming some sort of authority in the matter. That is perhaps the first hint in the extract that Alan is doing more than just talking to Pete as an ordinary friend or acquaintance (of course, the material before may have been even more explicit).

Then Alan says 'I give my memobook out'. This is an habitual action, something he routinely does - he gives it to lots of people. A memobook is some sort of relatively cheap but ostensibly useful thing to have, but for the office rather than the home. Another hint that this is business. Moreover, he gives it out - and 'giving out' is somehow more official than just giving. You'd give a friend a present, but you would give out advertising flyers in the street. Another hint.

These hints are what Sacks would have called category-bound activities, as we saw in the last lecture. They are the kind of actions that are done by a certain category of person. We don't know exactly what that category is yet, but it seems to be something to do with the sort of business where Alan is in command of information (both the 'basic concepts' and whatever else he seems to know) which he is 'giving out' to Pete, who does not know it. Something technical or business-like, not really social. Alan's category is a business one, and if 'business' is what binds him and Pete together, then Pete must be some complementary category, maybe 'customer'.

Now look at line 52-3 for a clever move.

50 Alan: Mm hmm. It just tells you some of the
51 basic concepts. And, I give a memobook,
52 out. And also let me put my magic card
53 innit.
54 Pete: Your magic card?

I won't go into the detail of it here, but mentioning something 'odd' at the end of one's turn more or less guarantees that the next speaker (unless they want to imply it's not odd, or they know what's being talked about, or want to be rude) will ask about it. Schenkien called it the 'puzzle-pass-resolution' sequence. You see a lot of this sort of identifiable structure in talk, if you look for them.

What's interesting to us is what it does. It allows Alan to come back and explain this reference to his 'magic card', as if reacting to a spontaneous question from Pete.

55 Alan My magic card, this sort of makes the whole
56 thing a s- sort of a kaleida-scopic
57 experience - not really it's just,
58 y'know, uh two dimensional a(hh)c-
59   tually hehh hehh hehh hehh hehh he ih- it
60   all depends on y'know, what you've 
61   been doing right before you, look at
62   the card I guess if it's two dimen-
63   sional
64   Pete: Righ(h)t

What do you make of Alan's explanation of why the card is 'magic'? Why does it give the whole thing a 'kaleida-scopic experience'?

I think it comes across as a very strong 'hint' that the card looks different if the viewer's vision is somehow altered. Not just randomly or accidentally altered, or altered by something like myopia or some disease of the eye, but something the viewer has done to themselves  ("it all depends on what you've been doing right before"). What would that be? Well, add in the chuckling, and the 'oblique' references, and indeed the description of the effect as being a 'kaleida-scopic experience' and you get something like an alcoholic, or more probably a drug experience. The card is 'magic' is you have been drinking, or have taken drugs, immediately beforehand.

Obviously this is a rather joking fancy, and Alan himself delivers it with laughter (line 59). Pete puts a tiny breath of laughter in his response; he gets the joke. But what is it all about?

The fellow-drug-user

It's not hard to see this as Alan trying to change the current categories in which he has put himself and Pete (remember they were something to do with office-type business). If Alan hints at activities only a drug user would recognise, and he gets Pete to join in, they can both share a new category: fellow recreational drug users. The kind of guys who enjoy making the world look different (more kaleidoscopic).

If he gets that in play, Alan can make what he says sound less 'business-like' and more social. More friendly, and more persuasive. That is to say, whatever he says will not risk being dismissed by Pete as coming from someone offering a business proposition, but from a fellow who shares his tastes in recreation, even rather naughty ones.  (In fact, look again at what happens and you see that Pete actually is alive to this and his next utterance blows Alan's cover).

Categories fitted to the business in hand.

The point I'm trying to make is that the category in which you're cast (or cast yourself) is crucial for getting your business done. The Alan and Pete example was good because there we see someone actively (and rather crudely) trying to change his category, to wrench his footing onto that of a quite different persona. That made the identity-work very obvious. Of course, most category-identity work is done more quietly, as it is usually a matter of maintaining the categories you are currently in.

That kind of work is still necessary, as it allows the speakers to keep the interaction going on the footing they find appropriate. For example, during a physical check-up, doctor and patient will stick to medical-consultation talk so as to keep at bay any embarrassment about what would, if they were 'strangers', or even 'friends', be too much intimacy.

A case of a category conflicting with the business-at-hand

We can look at a case from Zimmerman's collection of emergency calls to see what happens when one party fails to choose the 'right' category on which the other party wants to talk.

 From Zimmerman (1998) pp 88-89
1 CT: Mid-City police an fire
2 ((background noise and music on the line))
3 C: (YA::H) This is thuh (       ) ((voice is very 
4 slurred))
5 (1.5) ((loud background noise))
6 CT: Hello?
7 (0.4)
8 C: YEA::H?
9 CT: Wadidja want'?
10   (0.5) 
11   C: Yea::h we- we wan' forn'cay (h) heh
12   (0.6) ((background noises, noise))
13   CT: 'Bout wha::t?
14   (5.3)
15   ((noise, voice: 'hey gimme dat ..'))
16   C Hay=I've=uh ri:ddle for ya::
17   (0.3)
18 CT: HU:H?
19   C I have uh ri:ddle for ya
20   (0.3)
21   CT I don't have time f'r riddles=do-ya wanna
22   squa:d'rno:t=
23   C: =NO jes' uh simple que::stion,
24 (0.4) ((loud music)) Wha' fucks an leaks
25 like a ti:ger,
26 (0.2)
27 CT: HU:H?
28 C: What fucks an leaks like uh ti:ger,
29 Huh? ((background noise))
30 CT: Good bye
31 C: Why::?
32 ((disconnected))


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 move on to see what CA (both in its work on sequential organisation and membership categories) has to offer our understanding of 'applied' settings in the world of work. Read Chapter 1 of Drew and Heritage's Talk at Work (1992).

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A course for the University of Southern Denmark, Odense 2003