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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
6.3 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

6.6 Interactional sociolinguistics

Interactional sociolinguistics is an approach to discourse analysis that studies how people use language in face-to-face interaction; specifically it focuses on how people manage social identities and social activities as they interact.

Interactional sociolinguistics derives from a variety of disciplines including ethnomethodology, conversation analysis, linguistics, pragmatics, linguistic anthropology, sociology, ethnography and dialectology. It is often claimed that Interactional sociolinguistics draws on the work of Erving Goffman and John Gumperz (1982a, 1982b). Goffman showed, amongst other things, how people tried to avoid embarrassment and ‘save face’ when interacting with others. Gumperz, who had the stronger theoretical influence, argued that communication is not a combination of talk and context; they are not discrete elements but rather that context is embedded in talk.

Interactional sociolinguistics has a theoretical approach to language use and an accompanying methodological perspective.

In essence, interactional sociolinguistics takes the view that talk is incomplete: that people are not able to say everything they mean explicitly enough when expressing themselves through talk. As a result, they cannot simply rely on the words that are used to appreciate what is meant, The words used alone are not sufficient to convey the full meaning and background knowledge is necessary to address the incompletion of spoken words.

Put in another way, interactional sociolinguistics holds that because of the incompleteness of talk, all language users rely on other knowledge that is not communicated (but inferred): this is known as extracommunicative knowledge.

Talk is then words in context and the listener effectively hypothesises about how the context conveys what the speaker possibly intends by the words spoken.

Consequently, words can be said to have indexical meaning, (a concept used by Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology (see Section and it is this meaning that interactive conversationalists need to utilise when interpreting talk.

Interactional sociolinguistics thus tries to describe how people in a conversation identify extracommunicative elements. It then analyses conversations to see if the contextualisation has worked in the production and reception of talk and whether that influences subsequent interaction. The concepts of notions of contextualization cues and conversational inferencing makes interactional sociolinguistics useful for exploring how talk and culture come together to create meaning.

The key theoretical contribution of interactional sociolinguistics is to illustrate a way in which social background knowledge is implicated in the signaling and interpreting of meaning.

Interactional sociolinguistics differs from ethnography of communication (see Section 6.7), which also argues that talk is contextually and culturally embedded, because ethnography of communication does not specify ‘how sociocultural and linguistic knowledge are systematically linked in the communication of meaning’ (Bailey 2008, p. 2314).

Interactional sociolinguistics investigates how ‘contextualization cues’ are used to adapt conversational style to different situations. Contextualization cues are indicators, signals or hints (verbal or non-verbal) that contribute to putting the talk into context: that ‘steer the interpretation of the words they accompany’ (Auer 1992, p. 3). Cues thus tend to be words with other vocal (prosodic) features such as volume, accent, intonation, code-switches, sequencing choices, style-shifts, formulaic expressions or non-vocal such as gesture, gaze, posture or mimicry. As Gumperz (1982a, p. 131), who coined the phrase, stated, contextuallization cues are

the means by which speakers signal and listeners interpret what the activity is, how semantic content is to be understood and how each sentence relates to what precedes or follows.

Cues usually involve multiple features that clarify what might otherwise be ambiguous content of utterances.

For example, in the course of a conversation a speaker might say ‘unbelievable’. In one context it might mean that the speaker does not believe in something. In another context, such as a closing of the eyes, a shake of the head and a raising the hands so the finger tips touch the forehead might ‘translate’ ‘unbelievable’ into ‘how astonishingly stupid was that!’.

One might be tempted to think that there is an infinite number of interpretations of talk but in practice talk is rather conventional, with certain words, intonations, sequences and gestures appearing as commonplace within a given context; all of which are part of an individual’s socialisation. People watching a football match are united in using the same exclamation and gesture when a good goal scoring opportunity is missed; the crowd invariable exclaims 'ooohhhh' and raises the flat of their hands to the side of their head.

Cues and inferential patterns are acquired through prolonged and intensive face-to-face interaction in particular cultural settings and contextualization conventions vary across cultures and sub-cultures. For example, in Western Europe a sentence that ends with a rising intonation usually indicates that the speaker is unsure while a falling intonation indicates a degree of certainty.

Jürgen Jaspers (2011) noted that:

Usually, words and cues operate in clusters to help build a social persona or a social role…. The continual operation of such clusters eventually gives rise to what we call registers or styles, such as manager talk, youthful talk, local talk, etc. These registers in their turn colour the words and phrases that are typically used in them, such that ‘perpetuate’, ‘gangsta’ or ‘LOL’ hint at their typical users and user contexts.…. It should be added, however, that social personae, styles and the indexically meaningful resources they are made up of, are not free-floating but are part of a longer-standing but thoroughly hierarchized social world where elites are distinguished from non-elites and semi-elites (Blommaert, 2007). These distinctions are made according to widespread and ideologized standards of appropriateness, articulateness, educatedness and beauty which assign all available resources and their users a higher/lower, better/worse place vis-à-vis the standard; and this exerts a formidable influence on what it means to talk like (and be recognised as) ‘a woman’, ‘a lecturer’, ‘a job applicant’, ‘a manager’, ‘a local’. In particular, it sets limits to the freedom one has to employ words and cues and it imposes penalties for those who are seen to use resources inappropriately or over-ambitiously: one may laugh at a lousy attempt at producing hip hop style, or a tough female CEO may find that what she does to index the suitable context for interpreting her words in (a frequently falling intonation in combination with directives, a hard gaze, a lower or loud voice, etc.) gets interpreted by her male staff as unsexy, since dominant views picture women as submissive and insecure, which needs to be flagged by using rising intonation, a high pitch, and smiling invitingly, among other things (cf. Jaspers 2010). Thus, even if interpretation poses no problems, one may be understood as going off the standard and be presented with the consequences.

The methodology adopted by interactional sociolinguists involves close discourse analysis of video or audio recordings of interaction. Arguably, because of the complex, fleeting and unconscious nature of contextualisation cues it is necessary to have recordings in order to reveal the meaning of interaction, otherwise the signalling could be missed or misinterpreted in real time.

Interactional sociolinguistics imitates conversation analysis (see Section 6.2) in using detailed, line-by-line analysis of recorded talk. In many cases, the transcription of talk resembles the detailed nuanced transcriptions of conversation analysis (CASE STUDY Transcribed conversation). However, Interactional sociolinguistics goes beyond conversation analysis in exploring inferential processes and social and cultural worlds that provide the context for the talk. A key element here is taking into account inequality when examining context.

For a detailed account of an interactional sociolinguistic analysis and comparison to other discourse analysis approaches see the study by Maria Stube, et al. (2003) in CASE STUDY Discourse analysis comparative study.

Although interactional sociolinguistics is a method for analysing how social knowledge and linguistic knowledge intersect in creating meaning in talk, it can also show how inequality (and conflicting interests) are negotiated in talk.

The issue of power relations and structural inequality (alluded to by Jasper (2011) above) has resulted in interactional sociolinguistics being criticised in some accounts for misrepresenting the nature of intercultural miscommunication Critics claim that some problematic interactions are not ‘misunderstandings’ rather they represent communication that reflects different socio-economic perspectives and socio-political interests. In short, inequality in such interactions is ignored. This is not intrinsic to interactional sociolinguistics as such but is a failure of specific studies.

Benjamin Bailey (2008, p. 2317) provides a useful summary

Like other perspectives, such as indexicality, that focus on the intersection of talk, culture, and meaning, interactional sociolinguistics is fundamentally interpretive, rather than predictive. With its eclectic toolbox and unabashedly functional orientation, interactional sociolinguistics lacks the theoretical austerity of many approaches to interaction and meaning. However, it makes up for this lack of theoretical elegance with its usefulness and its insights into the social and cultural nature of communicative action. It helps to account for how different dimensions of communicative behavior are related, e.g., prosody and words, and to explain the achievement, or lack of achievement, of intersubjective understanding in particular instances of interaction


Next 6.7 Ethnography of communication/speaking