analysing talk
and text
a course for the Universitat Autònoma
de Barcelona
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University
lectures   1     2     3     4     5     6     7     8     9     10     11     12  

Lecture / Seminar 3: Conversation analysis I - the roots in sociology


My recommended text for all the CA lectures is:

Hutchby, I. and Wooffitt, R (1997) Conversation Analysis. Oxford: Blackwell

The first chapter is very good for the historical roots. Later I'll recommend other sources for various aspects of CA that we shall cover.

Other sources you might find useful are:

Nofsinger, E. (1990) Everyday Conversation. Very readable, if you can find it

Sacks H (1992) Lectures on Conversation. Oxford: Blackwell, then you can see it all at first hand. For this lecture, read his own very first lecture in Volume 1 (Lecture 1: Rules of conversational sequence)


Like speech act theory, Conversation Analysis (CA) believes that talk 'does' things. Like Grice's co-operative principle, it sees that what talk does depends on (at least) the assumption that one piece of talk is relevant to another. 

So far so good. But CA departs from these two theories of pragmatics in important ways. It doesn't depend on invented examples, it doesn't limit itself to units like sentences, and it wants to understand social action. Indeed, it started in Sociology.


Surely the question of how people do things with language is a linguistic one? How come CA started in Sociology?

The very start was at the desk of an emergency psychiatric telephone help-line. Harvey Sacks, a young PhD student, was listening to tapes of these calls, and kept noticing things that struck him as sociologically interesting. That is, interesting for what they told him not about 'psychological' matters like depression and distress, but about how people do such basic human actions as 'introduce themselves', 'have a problem' and 'sound concerned'. These things are sociologically interesting because (Sacks argued) sociology is about human action. Even when sociologists are apparently talking about something more abstract (like 'the health professions' or 'mental disorder') they must mean what real people actually do. A term like 'mental disorder' must be a shorthand for a whole load of specific actions that people do.

So if you have tape recordings of real people 'doing' those actions, you have a very solid base of data. For Sacks, much more solid than sociology normally had. Things like questionnaires and surveys never showed you how people 'did' actions - only what they said about them afterwards.


The most basic action was to engage with the world, and for Sacks, this meant engaging in talk. As soon as you see that this is an action, then you appreciate that there must be rules, and that to use these rules is what it means to be human. So Sacks started there, trying to discover what rules people were using when they engaged with each other through talk.


Sacks found pragmatics largely useless, and linguistics in general no help at all. Most of it was about language as an abstract system (langue), rather than talk in interaction (parole). Pragmatics (as we have seen in previous lectures) was, with the honourable exception of Grice, concerned with isolated utterances; and the trouble with Grice was that he (and his followers) used made-up examples. Why not, asked Sacks, look at what people actually say? With a tape-recorder you can listen over and over again. No linguists ever did that, unless they had a specialised interest in prosody or the sounds of language. But Sacks wasn't interested in sounds for their own sake; he was looking for meaning and action.

What kind of action?

It helps to start with one of the first things that Sacks noticed, which was how someone managed to call the emergency line and not give his name. This might not strike us as odd today, when we are used to calling service centres and getting straight down to business. But it was different from other calls Sacks received, and he puzzled over it. Normally what happened was that when the call-taker gave their name, the caller reciprocated. This is what happens in ordinary greetings, after all.

Sacks shows us this stretch of talk (Sacks 1992 p7-8, edited), and invites us to think about it. [A is the call-taker, B is the caller]
1 A: This is Mr Smith may I help you
2 B: I can't hear you
3 A: This is Mr Smith.
4 B: Smith?
5 A: Yes. Can I help you?
6 B: I don't know hhh I hope you can

B, the caller, manages not to give their name. That might be a significant thing to do (psychologically, sociologically...). How does the caller manage that?

If you think about it, it must be something to do with 'avoiding answering' what the call- taker says when he pickes up the phone. So that implies one rule straight away:

'if what precedes your turn is an introductory greeting then you must respond in the same way'

But, as we see, B doesn't respond in the same way. But he manages not to sound strange or rude. So he must be using another rule, something like:

'not-hearing is an acceptable reason to be excused the demands of the previous turn'.

So very simply we see that there are rules even here, in this comparatively tiny bit of behaviour. And we see that not by abstract theory, but by looking at what people do.

We'll talk more about that extract in the lecture and the seminar afterwards, to try and tease out more rules that both speakers are using. But now let's think about what the term 'rule' means for CA.


The basic idea is that you follow normative rules. That is, people expect you to follow them. If you do, then the conversation proceeds smoothly, and what you say has its normal implications. If you don't, there's trouble, of two kinds.

a) interactional troubles. If someone breaks a rule - for example by saying something unintelligible, then you will see the next speaker either give a brief pause (which people hardly ever do in free-flowing conversation) or try and repair the damage, or both, as in this example.

From my own data; A is a doctor, B is a patient. You might like to consult this page of notation to make sense of some of the odd symbols.

1 A: phh (.6) right. (.) so with walking, (.3)
2 you'd be (.3) jus' slowing down.
3 B: yes- yes it's um (.5) wha- (.) my partner calls 
4 it plattered leg walking.
5 (.3) .
6 B: h'sez can you just tryan' walk (proply)  
7 ma legs don't (.3) they can s:seem
8 to lumber along, (.3) an'
9  I- (.4) trip over ma feet quite a lot
10  ah don't (.4) (seem t') lif' them up prop'ly
11 A: y'said (.) clattered
12 B: .h clattered .h clattered leg walking=hhhh (.)
13 A: heh
14 (.3)
15 B: m=
16 A: =I see, yeah.
17 B: if y'know what I mean, (.3) 
18 bit like a drunk. .hhh er terrible 
19 trouble w'stairs. upstairs an' downstairs

The patient reports that her partner has a name for her difficulties in moving about - he calls it (what sounds like) 'plattered leg walking'. This is not a recognisable expression in English and indeed 'plattered' is not a known English word, so not surprisingly the doctor has trouble with it; hence the pause at line 5. 

The patient explains (lines 6-10), but it is not clear whether this explanation completely covers everything about the expression, so the doctor tries a bit more directly (line 11) to see if that is what she meant.

b) implicational troubles. The other kind of trouble that the rule-breaker gets into is that what he or she says is now much more significant. It isn't what-people-normally-say. By breaking the rule, your words mean something different. 

Of course, this need not be 'trouble'; this kind of rule-breaking is usually done  deliberately so that people see explicitly that you could have said the expected kind of thing, but didn't. [You may link this with Grice's observations about people 'flouting' the co-operative maxims; see the lecture on Grice].

Look at this example:

From Levinson p 320
1 A: So I was wondering would you be 
2 in your office on Monday (.) by
3 any chance
4 (2.0)
5 A: Probably not.

Note that it is A who is responsible for both turns - so why does s/he answer his or her own question, and answer it with a negative? Because B has done the unexpected thing of not answering, and thus allowed the implication that the answer is 'no'.


We shall see much more of how people use these rules as we go along, and next lecture I'll talk a lot about the basic rules of the conversational system For the moment, though, the thing to remember from this lecture is that Sacks set out to understand human actions through investigating how people engage with each other in detail, and when he started looking, he found a very complex world. We shall spend the bulk of the remaining lectures following his footsteps and those of his successors.

This week's Seminar:

Discussion about 'rules' of human action, and what we might learn from looking in great detail at how people engage with each other. Reading as for the lecture (see top of page).

Next Week's Seminar:

Read further in Hutchby and Wooffitt, as we shall we shall going further into the 'basics' of CA.