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

Lecture / Seminar 11: Applying CA


Drew, P and Heritage, J (1992) Talk at Work, Cambridge, England: CUP. Chapter 1

ten Have, P (1999) Doing Conversation Analysis: A Practical Guide. London: Sage. Chapter 8

Analysing work-place and other 'institutional' settings

CA is interested in social action in any place, so it is as applicable to what happens in institutional settings as it is anywhere else. by 'institutional settings' I mean times and places where at least some participants are fulfilling some sort of 'official' role, usually paid-for (as in any business transaction), or formalised in some way (as in, say the annual general meeting of a hobby-club, even if no-one is a paid official). Some of the examples we have already seen in these lectures show some business being done (be it selling insurance or handling incoming calls to an emergency service centre). CA will discover how people do what they set out to do.

But CA is careful about what it can say. Its first obligation is to see how things are done. It can only have a secondary role as a commentator on why they are done. Most CA in applied settings is of the first, 'discovery' type. That is what I shall describe in this lecture. In the next lecture I'll talk more about CA's uneasy relationship with suggesting changes in people's practices.

Talk constitutes the work?

The strongest form of a CA approach to applied settings is that our description of how people interact with each other is the work they do. There is no other, more abstract reality which the talk somehow represents. For example, the call-taker must do her job, and can only do her job, by interacting in real time with the caller. 

This cannot be the whole story, because she also writes documents. In some call-despatcher offices, the instruction to send an ambulance or a police car is passed on as a written chit of paper.  Certainly all  ethnographers, and many ethnomethodologists, would include documents, as well as many other parts of the physical scene, as analysable aspects of 'work'. But those who approach work from the CA point of view will privilege the spoken interactions which are at the heart of any business that people transact.

Talk manifests the institution?

Not only will talk show what doctor and patient (and others) are doing in the sense of asking questions, using this conversational device or that, and so on, it will also (according to the strongest CA argument) reveal what it means to be a doctor interacting with a patient. In other words it will make us see, more clearly than any theoretical account, just what the institution of 'medical consultation' is. The same can be said for any other social institution: seeing how it's done will tell us what (say) 'the law' is, or what 'education' is, and so on. So a CA account promises to tell us not only what people do, but what the institutions they embody are. An abstraction like 'fashion' is the many instances of its realisation in a large variety of interactions, each of which is analysable by close inspection of its management by the participants.

Again, other social scientists will disagree. They will point to things that are written down, say legal documents, or physically embodied, perhaps buildings and furnishings. These things, they say, are not 'speakable', but form part of the essence of an institution. How can one have a social science of 'fashion', they may ask, without reference to the physical properties of designed objects - the cut of a fifties' suit, the shape of a new piece of foot-wear?

Socially consequential.

The CA reply is to concede, of course, the interest of such things as legal documents, and designed objects - to scholars of the law, and of design. But as social scientists, they remind us that things like legal documents, or even the hard physical facts of a shoe or a dress, if they are to be socially consequential, have to be brought to bear on some case; and that will be done in talk. That is an argument which requires some space to make in full, which we don't have here. The best sustained account I know is in Dede Boden's CA account of the world of business meetings (The Business of Talk, Polity Press, 1994). Otherwise, chapter 1 of Drew and Heritage (see Readings, above) is an excellent overview of the issues. 

For the purposes of this and the next lecture, I'll take a more moderate CA line, and hope only to explicate institutional practices, without passing judgement on whether practices constitute the institutions.

What are the features of 'institutional' talk?

Above I said that 'institutional' meant that at least someone was acting some sort of formal role - "represent[ing] a formal organisation of some kind", as Drew and Heritage put it (1992, p3). That is not determined by just where people or are or whether they are within office hours; not all talk on the assembly line is work related. So one can't just turn on the tape-recorder on the shop-floor, or in the office, and log everything as institutional or work-related.

But say we have such a tape-recording. How do we distinguish between the institutional stretches of talk and the non-institutional ones?

The way CA has answered this question is fairly straightforward. First, it starts with a collection of materials selected from places and occasions when the CA analyst 'knows' - as any member of her or his community would - that there is a strong likelihood that institutional work is being done. The analyst looks it over and, again, using her or his commonsense, makes some separation of the material into three piles; pile A, where it is just commonsensically obvious that what the participants are up to is work-related; pile B, where it is just as obvious that it is not work-related; and a third pile of ambiguous or marginal cases.

The analytical job then is to see what one can find as a conceptual reason to distinguish one from the other. You start with examples, and look to see why they fall into different piles. I take these three criteria below from a very lucid account by Drew and Heritage (1992) chapter 1.

Asymmetry of knowledge, expertise and rights

Perhaps the strongest criterion of something that would fall into the 'work-related or  'institutional' pile is that there is a display of  various differentials between the people involved. Drew and Heritage list a number of these 'asymmetries', as they call them: "distribution of knowledge, access to conversational resources, and to participation in the interaction" (Drew and Heritage, p 49).

So, for example, an asymmetry of knowledge or expertise would be visible in examples in pile A. The doctor displays more knowledge than the patient in making a diagnosis; the computer help-line operator shows a clearer grasp of the  software problem than the caller; and so on. And asymmetry in rights to speak would be visible in court, where the judge may initiate a turn at talk without sanction, but a witness may not. There won't be such pronounced differentials in casual talk.

Orientation to some specific task or goal

 Another strong criterion of why some talk falls into one pile or another is that it seems to be heavily goal- or task-oriented. Of course, you can get friends doing seemingly goal-oriented things like looking through a holiday brochure to decide where they want to go this summer. But if they drift off into something else, no-one will worry. Compare that with what happens, say, when a customer discusses the same thing with a travel agent. [Another case, of course, where there will be a differential in what the two parties know; the agent will have access to details that don't appear in the brochure]. 'Drifting off' would be oriented to as unusual, and perhaps troublesome. A distracted customer is a 'bad' customer, and an inattentive travel agent is 'incompetent' or 'rude' and so on.

Speaking as institutional participants

The last of the three criteria that Drew and Heritage identify is a matter of how the speakers are to be understood. In Pile A talk, we should see them speaking as doctor, patient and so on. That is to say, that the point of what they are saying (or not saying) can only be understood if one understands them to be speaking as this or that institutional person. So when the news-interviewer gives no response to the answer she gets from the interviewee, and just moves to the next question, no-one thinks 'how rude', as they might if it were a couple of friends talking. Once you wear an institutional hat, you change the implications of what you say (or don't say).

How these asymmetries get played out

So far I've just appealed to our intuitions in describing these differences between institutional and non-institutional talk. But it would be better to look at some data. And there we will also start to see exactly how it is that these asymmetries get 'performed'. 

In looking at the extracts, look out for these five things, taken from Heritage (1997): the particular choices of words used, the kind of turns they're used in, the organisation of those turns, the appearance of certain sequences of turns, and the over all shape of the interaction. [We might not have time in the lecture, so this activity may spill over into the seminar].


From Heath (p 249 in Drew and Heritage's Talk at Work)
1 Dr: In fa:ct actu:ally (.) her tonsils an that
2 look (0.5) much more shrun:ken.
3 (0.4)
4 M: Do they?=
5 Dr: =Yeah: (.) they look quite (.) >have you? (0.6)
6 looked recently (.) .hhh[hhh They heh so (.) .hh
7 M:                                          [No
8 Dr: want to show your mum:?
9 (1.2)
10   M: Les[ss than they usually are::? you mean::=
11   Dr:        [Show her
12   Dr: =Oh yers:: (0.2) actually (.) .hhh open wi:::de
13   (0.6)
14   DR: Can you see:: em:: [the bit down the mid[dle
15 M:                                  [oh::::: yers::                [yes::
16   Dr: is [what we ca:ll the: uvula:: >that's just
17   M:     [yes
18   Dr: the fancy name but either side [.....]


 From Maynard's chapter (p 337-8) in Drew and Heritage (1998) 
1 Dr: What do you see? as- as his (0.5) difficulty.
2 (1.2)
3 Mo: Mainly his uhm: (1.2) the fact that he
4 doesn't understand everything. (0.6) and
5 also the fcat that his speech (0.7) is very
6 hard to understand what he's saying (0.3)
7 lot[s of ti]me
8 Dr:      [right  ]
9 (0.2)
10   Dr Do you have any ideas wh:y it is? are you:
11   d[o yo]u? h
12   Mo:   [No   ]
13   (2.1)
14   Dr: .h okay I (0.2) you know I think we basically
15   (.) in some ways agree with you: (0.6) .hh
16   insofar as we think that (0.3) Dan's main
17   problem (0.4) .h you know does: involve you
18 know language.
19   (0.4)
20 Mo: Mm:hmm
21   (0.3)
22   Dr: you know both (0.2) you know his- (0.4) being
23   able to understand you know what is said to
24 him (0.4) .h and also certainly also to be
25 able to express:: (1.3) you know his uh his
26 thoughts
27 (1.1)
28 Dr. .hh uh:m (0.6) .hhh in general his


This Seminar

We'll have a look at some data to see if we can find more to say about institutional talk..

Next Seminar

We'll carry on with institutional talk. Carry on with reading Drew and Heritage, and try the chapter by Jorg Bergmann.

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