analysing talk
and text
a course for the Universitat Autònoma
de Barcelona
Charles Antaki
Loughborough University
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Lecture / Seminar 4: Conversation analysis II - conversational structures


As I mentioned in Lecture 3, my recommended text for all the CA lectures is Hutchby and Wooffitt. But the other sources (see the Readings page on the left) are good too.

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


The best way to start to explore CA is to see what it says about how people manage the (apparently simple) business of holding any sort of conversation. 


The ground floor of the local management system that CA identifies is the way people exchange the opportunity to speak - to 'turn-take'. This, on inspection, turns out to be more flexible and complex than our intuitions might suggest. People are fantastically good at it, though.

The term "adjacency pair" is a formalisation of our intuitive understanding that conversations proceed by participants taking up what the last person has said in a regular way - that the two utterances together form what is called an 'adjacency pair'.

First pair parts (FPPs) (like questions, invitations and orders) are regularly followed by certain kinds of responses, or second pair parts (SPPs) (which in these cases would be answers, acceptances, and compliances respectively).

[Apology: I shall use invented data for these very initial examples, which is wrong, but convenient. In the appendix to this lecture, and in future lectures, I'll stick to real extracts of talk]

A: How are you? [greeting]
B: How are you? [reciprocation]


A: Mum? [summons]
B: Yes? [acknowledgement]


A: Have you got any roasted peanuts [request]
B: Sure (puts packet on the counter) [compliance]

And if these don't follow immediately, they follow eventually, after some other sequence has been inserted into its brackets.

A: Have you got any peanuts [request]
B: What, the roasted ones
A: Yes
B: Sure (puts packet on counter) [compliance]

Typical pairs are: greeting/reciprocation, summons/acknowledgement, request/compliance (all of which we saw above), assertion/agreement, question/answer, etcetera. These are all highly predictable.

But looking at conversations we often find that a first pair part (eg a question) is sometimes followed by something that is clearly not an 'answer' in the required sense - it might be a refusal to answer, a redirection to somebody else, a challenge to the questioner's right or competence to ask that question, and so on. It looks as if this destroys the predictiveness of the CA claim. But in fact it turns out that these non-expected SPPs do have some regular features. The clue is in how the 'answer' is given - in what CA calls the preference organisation.

Preferred and Dispreferred

If you look at a collection of 'unexpected' responses you'll find that they are done differently from 'expected' ones. They are not so prompt, and will have a hedge, or a request for clarification, or an account, ort something that alludes to a difficulty or an excuse.

A: "why don't you come to our party on Saturday?"
B: "Well I'd like to but it's Hannah's birthday" [marked rejection]

This latter is an example of what is called a 'dispreferred' response. The rejection is (it is empirically found) marked by hesitation and hedging and an account of why the preferred response wasn't given. The mark is so powerful that it alone will suffice as a rejection:

A: "why don't you come to our party on Sunday?"
B: "Well ..."

And A knows that B is declining the invitation.

Imagine what would happen if you gave the dispreferred reply without marking it:

A: "why don't you come to our party on Sunday?"
B: "No"

That would look strange and rude. You would infer something about what B was saying (e.g. that they were sulking). The informativeness of such deviation shows us that the substance of the dispreferred SPP (e.g. that it is a rejection) and its markers (e.g. a pause, a hedge) normally go together.

So you have four possibilities: (commonly) expected and unexpected answer which can be either marked or unmarked. Commonly expected answers tend strongly to be unmarked.

Psychological or statistical?

It is important to appreciate that 'dispreferredness' is not a psychological evaluation of the response. It's purely a frequency judgment. The more frequent response to a greeting enquiry about your health is 'fine, thanks, and you?'. But it's not meant to be an accurate report. It's just a feature of the system that it has 'standard' responses. It's useful because if you want to communicate that you're not fine, then all you need to do is hesitate and delay. Your listener will work out that you're giving the 'non-standard' response (and, in this case, are therefore not well).

In this extample you can see a speaker calculating what her or his listener's silence means:

[From Levinson]

A: So I was wondering would you be in your office in Monday by any chance
A: Probably not

A is explicitly recognising that the other speaker has not done the proper thing (replied quickly), but A does not simply pass over it; s/he assumes that B has some reason not to respond quickly, that not-responding-quickly means something. Given (as we noted in the last lecture) that preliminary pauses are generally used as markers of dispreferred responses. A infers that what is coming is a rejection and moves to deal with it.

Empirical discovery, not analytic rules

It is important to note that CA presents itself as discovering those kind of patterns empirically. It doesn't start with a theory about what conversationalists are up to; in fact, CA objects to other linguists' theorising before the facts. These facts are regularities, from which the CA will draw inferences about the rules to which the participants are playing. Once those rules are understood by the analysts, they can look at a particular play and make a guess at what function it served the speaker. A reasonable metaphor would be learning the rules of a game by watching it over a period. You pick up certain regularities (for example, the play is stopped if the ball is passed to a striker who is behind the opposition's players) and you suppose that the players knowingly orient to the rule that underpins the regularity. Once you know that, you see why, for example, a team tries to make sure it has all its players in front of the opposition's leading player so that the ball can't be passed to them without 'off-side' being called. 

We've seen patterns of preference organisation - here's another important one, sequential placement.

Sequential Placement.

It matters greatly where, exactly, the words are put in the conversation. Their placement will make their meaning clear. [Edited, from my data; Psy=psychologist, Pat= Patient; here's the notation link if you need it. ]

1 Psy wondered if youäd mi:nd completing this. .h itäs basically
2 itäs about- what >Āsocial activities or recreational activities
3 youäve been up to in the past< three months. .hhh just to
4 see how youäre getting on with things:(.6) okay?
5 (3.1)
6 Pat last three m-(.) months
7 Psy Āyeh just rou:gh(.)ly I know itäs hard to say
8 exactly but- (1.6) if you jus think since (.3) Ea:ster (.6)
9 >whether youäve been doing any of those< things

 The patient's words at line 6 are clear enough semantically - they are a statement in which every word is quite clear. But of course he is not simply saying 'last three months'. The placement suggests something very different. It is in the place you would expect the second pair part of a question-answer pair. It isn't an answer, so it must be relevant to the non-production of an answer. A search in the preceding turn will reveal that these words formed part of the question, so repeating them is presumably a comment that these words are causing some difficulty.

Confirmation and reconstruction in the next turn

It is very important for CA that speakers continuously interpret the previous turn and make that interpretation manifest in their own. It is CA's distinctive contribution to linguistics. It is a very different from any theory of language which looks for the meaning of words in and of themselves.

Abstract examples

If I say

"the washing up needs to be done soon",
you might reply
"I'm sorry, I was going to do it earlier"
(in which case you have constructed the first pair part as a complaint), or
"Ok, I'll do it"
(which would turn it into a request), and so on.

As I say, for CA, you don't get the meaning of what someone says just by looking up what they say in the dictionary. The same word, in different places, means different things. The same sentence in different places, means different things.

To give a less fictional illustration, look again at the last lines of the Psych-Patient extract above.

6 Pat last three m-(.) months
7 Psy Āyeh just rou:gh(.)ly I know itäs hard to say
8 exactly but- (1.6) if you jus think since (.3) Ea:ster (.6)
9 >whether youäve been doing any of those< things

 Line 7 shows that the Psychologist is 'orienting' to the difficulty that the patient is reporting. That is to say, by explaining what his original question meant, he is recognising Pat's turn as not just a simple semantic statement but, in its sequential, a request fro clarification.

 So in CA terms, an utterance:

a) has a range of conventional meanings (fro the dictionary etc)
b) narrowed down by its sequential location ...
c) and open to be confirmed or challenged by the next speaker.


For this seminar: Discussion of some conversational structures

It will be useful to do an exercise in which we examine some transcripts to spot some examples of some of the terms I have been using so far.

You'll find the data in this lecture's appendix file. Look through and see if you can find examples of the following:

adjacency pairs
first and second pair parts
preferreds and dispreferreds
insertion sequences

For the next seminar:

Read more of Hutchby and Wooffitt, and have a look at the CA tutorial (the link will only work if to read this from the CD I will give you; otherwise you can get to it via my home page).