Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Conversation analysis

core definition

Conversation analysis describes and explains the competences used by ordinary speakers when participating in intelligible, socially organised interaction.

explanatory context

Conversation analysis is the study of all types of conversations. It began with the work of the sociologist Harvey Sacks in the 1960s and grew out of ethnomethodology.

However, conversation analysis has some unique methodological features: not least it analysises the social organisation of 'conversation' (otherwise referred to as 'talk-in-interaction') by meticulously inspecting recordings and transcriptions of conversations.


Examples of conventional settings in which conversation analysis could take place include interviews, court hearings, diagnosing schizophrenia, telephone conversations, family discussions at dinner card games and guiding a pilot through fog.


Conversation anlysis examines how conversations wok in different settings. Sceptics tend to ask 'why bother?' What does this reveal about the social world? Paul ten Have 2007, p. 9) argues that conversation analysis allows you to 'take into consideration details and subtleties of human interaction that are lost in other practices and that have proven to be important for participants'.

analytical review

Have (1990) explained conversation analysis (CA) as follows:

Most practitioners of CA tend to refrain, in their research reports, from extensive theoretical and methodological discussion. CA papers tend to be exclusively devoted to an empirically based discussion of specific analytic issues. This may contribute to the confusion of readers who are not familiar with this particular research style. They will use their habitual expectations, derived from established social-scientific practice, as a frames of reference in understanding this unusual species of scientific work. But a CA report will not generally have an a priori discussion of the literature to formulate hypotheses, hardly any details about research situations or subjects researched, no descriptions of sampling techniques or coding procedures, no testing and no statistics. Instead, the reader is confronted with a detailed discussion of transcriptions of recordings of (mostly verbal) interaction in terms of the 'devices' used by its participants.
Some of the early articles reporting CA work, such as Schegloff & Sacks (1973), did include some explanations of the purposes of CA, however. And more recently, a growing number of introductory papers and chapters has been published that present an accessible overview of CA's theoretical and /or methodological position and/or substantive findings (2) . An important addition to this literature is an edited collection of fragments from Harvey Sacks' unpublished Lectures that deal with methodological issues in CA (Sacks, 1984a).

The 'methodology' that is presented in these sources is, however, rather different in character from what one can read in the established methodological literature. There are hardly any prescriptions to be followed, if one wants to do 'good CA'. What one does find are summary descriptions of practices used in CA, together with some of the reasons for these practices. What is given may be called, in the terminology of Schenkein's (1978) introduction, a 'Sketch of an analytic mentality'.

The basic reasoning in CA seems to be that methodological procedures should be adequate to the materials at hand and to the problems one is dealing with, rather than them being pre-specified on a priori grounds. While the essential characteristics of the materials, i.e. records of streams of interaction, and the general purposes of study, i.e. a procedural analysis of those streams, sets broad limits to what an analyst can responsibly do, it leaves the researcher with ample room to develop his (3) own best fitting heuristic and argumentative procedures.

Conversation Analysis may then be conceived as a specific analytic trajectory which may be used to reach a specific kind of systematic insight in the ways in which members of society 'do interaction'. In their introduction to a collection of research papers, Heritage & Atkinson (1984) write:

The central goal of conversation analytic research is the description and explication of the competences that ordinary speakers use and rely on in participating in intelligible, socially organized interaction. At its most basic, this objective is one of describing the procedures by which conversationalists produce their own behavior and understand and deal with the behavior of others. A basic assumption throughout is Garfinkel's (1967: 1) proposal that these activities - producing conduct and understanding and dealing with it -are accomplished as the accountable products of common sets of procedures.

Heffernan (undated) described conversation analysis as follows:

This is concerned with the underlying structures of talk in interaction and with the achievement of interaction.

LinguaLinks Library (2004) states:

Conversation analysis is an approach to the study of natural conversation, especially with a view to determining the following:

Participants’ methods of turn-taking; constructing sequences of utterances across turns; identifying and repairing problems, and employing gaze and movement
How conversation works in different conventional settings.

associated issues


related areas

See also


discourse analysis


Researching the Real World Section 6.2


Garfinkel, H., 1967, Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J., Prentice-Hall.

Have, P. ten, 1990, 'Methodological issues in conversational analysis', Bulletin de Méthodologie Sociologique, 27(June), pp. 23–51, available at, accessed 19 March 2013, still available 1 June 2019.

Have, P. ten, 2007, Doing Conversation Analysis (2nd Edition). London: Sage.

Heritage, J. and Atkinson, J.M., 1984, 'Introduction' in: Atkinson, J.M. and Heritage, J. (Eds.) 1984, Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 1–15.

LinguaLinks Library, 2004, 'What is conversation analysis?', last modified 5 January 2004, available at, accessed 19 March 2013, available 17 December 2016, page 'not found' 1 Jume 2019.

Sacks, H., 1984a, 'Notes on methodology', in Atkinson, J.M. and Heritage, J. (Eds.) 1984, Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, pp. 21–27.

Schegloff, E.A., H. Sacks, 1973, 'Opening up closings', Semiotica 8, pp. 289–327.

Schenkein, J.N. (Ed. ), 1978, Studies in the Organization of Conversational Interaction, New York: Academic Press.


Other [non-cited] useful sources:
Hutchby, I. and Wooffitt, R., 2008, Conversation Analysis (2nd Edition), Cambridge: Polity Press. Comprehensive and readable.
Sidnell, J., 2010, Conversation Analysis: An introduction, Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell. Authoritative, well written account.
Robin, W. 2005, Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis: A comparative and critical introduction. London: Sage. Explains the difference between conversation analysis and the different varieties of discourse analysis.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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