Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2017

Page updated 13 January, 2017

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2017, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

6. Conversation and discourse analysis

6.1 Introduction to discourse analysis
6.2 Conversation analysis

6.2.1 Introduction
6.2.2 Focus and presumptions of conversation analysis
6.2.3 Elements of conversation analysis
6.2.4 Why undertake close analysis of conversational sequences?
6.2.5 Methods of conversation analysis
6.2.6 Examples of how conversation analysis has been used
6.2.7 Analysing power relations

6.3 Genre analysis
6.4 Pragmatics
6.5 Discursive psychology
6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics
6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking
6.8 Critical discourse analysis
6.9 Summary and conclusion

6.2 Conversation analysis

6.2.6 Examples of how conversation analysis has been used

Conversation analysis has been undertaken for its own sake in examining the nature of conversation. However, it has also been applied to studies of particular social settings such as courtrooms (Drew and Atkinson, 1979; Mateosian, 1993) business meetings (Boden, 1994; Cooren, 2004; McPhee et al., 2006) and therapy and health settings (Mitcheson and Cowley, 2003) discussed in more detail below.

In studies of market trading, for example, Clarke and Pinch show how sales rhetoric creates a context that morally constrains prospective purchasers to buy even though they lack basic information such as the price of the product (Clark and Pinch, 1992; Clark, et al., 1994). Hutchby’s (1996) analysis of radio talk shows illustrates how talk-show hosts can take apart the arguments of callers and turn them to their own rhetorical advantage. Atkinson (1984) analysed the way politicians used speeches at rallies and in crowds in the 1983 election in the UK.

Gregory Matoesian (1993) used conversational analysis of tape-recorded transcripts to show how rape trials were conducted in the United States. This was a contentious area at the time and the courts’ approach to rape had only been tackled by a few feminists (Bumiller 1988; Chancer 1987; Schulz 1990). Matoesian analysed the language defence lawyers used in cross-examination as well as the way they interpreted and classified rape. Matoesian argued that cross-examination recasts rape into a seemingly normal form of consensual sex. ‘Through such a transformation, women’s voices and experiences are silenced thereby reproducing the dominance of the patriarchal discourse on sex and sexuality’ (Pierce, 1994, p. 17).

Matoesian undertook a conversational analysis of 2500 pages of court transcripts from three separate rape trials: examining the rules in turn-taking, misunderstandings, mishearing, objection sequences, silences and the syntax in question-and-answer sequences. Matoesian estimated that he spent 50 to 60 hours of careful analysis for every hour of transcript. He acknowledged that he did not examine non-verbal communication but indicated he had to draw the line somewhere. Pierce (1994, p. 17) criticises Matoesian for not providing a wider context.

…a brief discussion of the American adversarial system, the purposes of direct and cross-examination and a review of other studies on the techniques used by trial lawyers would have been useful. This kind of information would have been helpful in locating the micro order of courtroom talk in its social and historical context.

Pierce suggests that lack of context also raises another issue, which is, in effect, the wider sociological impact of the study. She goes on to ask:

What exactly has Matoesian discovered? The defense attorney’s intent matches the way he uses courtroom talk? This does not strike me as a particularly surprising finding. Moreover, because Matoesian does not provide general background about our adversarial system, it is not clear whether he thinks leading questions are features unique to rape trials—or whether they take on a particular form in rape trials (Pierce (1994, pp. 17–18).

She notes that the Matoesian is not the first to analyse how legal ideologies restructure conflicts involving victims and is clearly frustrated by the lack of broader social implications to come out of a study that she acknowledges is ‘an important empirical contribution by using conversational analysis to study the domination of rape victims through courtroom talk’.

Boardroom exchanges have also been the subject of conversation analysis. This has included analyses that suggest that a ‘collective mind’ is generated amongst senior managers through the banal conversation within the boardroom (Cooren, 2004). Critics argue that while the conversation analysis is useful, that collective perceptions are not solely the result of conversation and that to understand the development of a collective mind it is important to take account of external factors and to position conversations in a larger system of interaction (McPhee et al., 2006)

Conversation analysis has also been used to analyse how, in practice, health visitors use assessment tools to target their services. Mitcheson and Cowley (2003) undertook conversational analysis of 10 interactions between health visitors and clients. They revealed that use of the assessment tools resulted in a failure to identify needs that are relevant to the client as well as failing to enable clients to participate in the process, which the tools were designed to do.

The analysis showed that use of the structured instrument simultaneously emphasises the significance of a professional lead, instead of client participation, and minimises the importance of inter-personal relationships and communication. The controlling nature of the interactions, the number of missed cues and the possibility of distress caused by the insensitivity of questioning style are all potentially harmful side effects of using structured instruments to assess needs.

Another medical application has been the use of conversation analysis in the assessment and classification of dysphasic patients. Dysphasic stroke patients have a language disorder resulting from lesions in the left-hemisphere of the brain and they are mostly impaired in their syntactical and lexical abilities. Singh (1997), for example, transcribed one-to-one, thirty minutes interviews, in which patients were asked about their illness, hobbies, previous experiences, and social life, in a conversational setting. The data-set consisted of a total of 96 patterns (66 patients and 30 normal subjects, for comparative purposes). The transcription did not use the conversation analysis techniques mentioned above (CASE STUDY an example of transcription conventions) but reflected normal in-depth interview transcription processes. Singh (1997, p. 830) provides an example:

...will go up in the summer swimming and in October for a we go for a we go dancing I get up in morning I have breakfast I listen to the about nine o’clock on the radio eh local always its good like that I go out to walk eh with Jean walk yeah ... lawns need cutting . . . in evening watch television good film film and the games like football and and snooker and the rugby afternoon on Sunday afternoon we go we go once in a friends have a cup of tea and talk.

Another deviation from the conventional conversation approach was to analyse the text using text analysis software, which lists word-frequencies and provides other necessary statistical information. The aim was to identify the frequency of particular measures and then compute a score based on complex scoring system that would generate a classification of the nature and severity of the dysphasia.

Conversational analysis has been used as an aid in the design of human-computer interfaces, such as the development of the Voice Operated Database Inquiry System (VODIS) designed to be used over the telephone by the general public (Waterworth, 1986). More recently, attempts have been made to use conversation analysis to enhance doctor-patient communication by revealing the way such conversations are sequentially organised (Maynard and Heritage, 2005).

It has also been applied (as noted in CASE STUDY Standard and conversation analysis transcripts) to the analysis of ‘black box’ flight recorders. Nevile and Walker (2005) argued that most analysis of recorded voice data, such as from cockpit voice recorders (CVRs) or air traffic control tapes, has been based on subjective interpretation rather than the use of systematic methods. Such voice data can be an important source of evidence for accident investigation. Conversation analysis uses highly detailed and revealing transcriptions of recorded voice (or video) data that can allow deeper analyses of how people interact.

When analysing recorded voice data, and especially for understanding instances of human error, often a great deal rests on investigators’ or analysts’ interpretations of what a pilot said, or what was meant by what was said, or how talk was understood, or how the mood in the cockpit or the pilots’ working relationship could best be described. Conversation analysis can be a tool for making such interpretations. (Nevile and Walker, 2005, p. vi)


Next 6.2.7 Analysing power relations