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The Mutual Relevance of Conversation Analysis and Linguistics: A Discussion in Reference to Interactive Discourse

Paul McIlvenny & Pirkko Raudaskoski (Department of English, University of Oulu)


The reception of interactional studies of natural, routine language use in social activities from within linguistics has more than often been hesitant and far from warm. In linguistics it is often claimed that conversation analysis (CA) is trivial, obvious, unhelpful and theoretically unsound. From adherents of CA, these criticisms are usually met with the reply that CA has been misunderstood and misappropriated. They claim that CA is a sociological enterprise, not a linguistic one, and thus it is concerned with the organisation of social action and not language structure and function. We will examine this debate to determine to what extent conversation analysis and linguistics are mutually relevant. Reference will be made briefly to two areas of study: computational linguistics and sign language research.


It is increasingly recognised that for linguistics “an understanding of the

structures and processes of conversation is

understanding of language” (Schiffrin 1990b, p. 10). It is undeniable that conversation is the primary domain for socialisation and conversation is speech activity in which all members of a community routinely participate. Also, many syntactic changes and processes of grammaticalisation have been shown to be communicatively motivated. For these and other good reasons an interest in the nature and organisation of conversation is a healthy one. Indeed, this has been the prime focus of the non-linguistic enterprise known as conversation analysis for the last twenty years. However, the reception of interactional studies of natural, routine language use in social activities from within linguistics has more

than often been hesitant and far from warm. Much unnecessary confusion has arisen in the research literature about the methodology of conversation analysis and the status of its claims. We feel that a review of the criticisms and counter-criticisms of conversation analysis is in order and that some perspective on the mutual relevance of conversation analysis and linguistics be drafted. This

fundamental; it is essential to the



paper undertakes the former and attempts the latter by reformulating the claims of both disciplines in the light of recent theories of structure and action.

We will assume that the field of linguistics needs no introduction within the

context of these proceedings. However,

introduction to the principles and practices of conversation analysis before we

make comparisons.

it will rewarding


give a











Conversation analysis is an empirical approach to the study of spoken conversation deriving from the field of ethnomethodology (through the pioneering work of Harvey Sacks, see Sacks 1989), which itself emerged as a reaction to traditional sociology in the 1960’s (Garfinkel 1967/84). It is claimed that conversation is a routine and complex accomplishment carried through by almost all members of society with great skill and transparent ease. 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 senseful conversation. Meaning is not simply built into the codes of language as in structural accounts, nor is it only to be found in the relation of cognitive representations to that which is represented. Meaning is constructed in situ by interactants who are

“simultaneously engaged in fine-grained real time co-ordination of speaking turns tracked predominantly in terms of surface structural

features and

normative expectations bearing on the nature and design of their turns at

talk.” (Heritage 1989, p. 26)

organising their actions in terms of publicly accountable

The early work in the 1960’s has been taken up increasingly in Europe. Indeed, Scandinavian languages have been the focus of research by Hakulinen (1989) and Juvonen (1989), among others. Useful summaries of conversation analysis can be found in Levinson (1983), Atkinson & Heritage (1984), Heritage (1984, ch. 8), Button & Lee (1987) and Nofsinger (1991). Important recent collections include those of Psathas (1990), Boden & Zimmerman (1991) and Watson & Seiler (1992).

In this approach the analysis of conversations is strongly ‘data-driven’. The methodology avoids the use of interviewing techniques, the use of field notes or pre-coded schedules, the use of native intuitions to invent examples, and the use



of experimental manipulation or directing behaviour which may restrict the range and authenticity of the activities which are elicited. Instead, the interest is in revealing the

“organised procedures of talk as they are employed in real worldly contexts between persons in real relationships whose talk has a real consequentiality and accountability.” (Heritage 1989)

Some record of the phenomena is essential in order to study it in detail. However, the record must be of the details that were meaningful for the participants, and constitutive of the activities under investigation. Conversation analysis has shown that audio and video tapings are adequate for investigating spoken conversation on the telephone and in copresence. A recording allows repeated viewing of the event and consequently peer group ratification of a finding. Also, an impressionistic transcription system has evolved, that is now quite complex (Psathas & Anderson 1990). For example, details of overlapping speech, particular speech production characteristics like pace and mid-phrase cutoffs, and split-second timings of pauses are notated. This renders the talk ‘strange’ (but readable) and thus can help expose the everyday accomplishment that is taken-for-granted.

The early interest of conversation analysis was in everyday mundane conversation, particularly on the telephone, with a parallel interest in institutional talk in comparison to the general core findings about multi-party conversations. Findings that are now part of the established body of conversation analytic work are the turn-taking systematics (Sacks et al. 1978), the organisation of adjacency and the mechanisms for dealing with talk troubles. In the last ten years, work has gradually located vocal talk in the context of other activities participants might be engaged in and to culture, see Moerman (1988). This research is still in its infancy but suggests that language, body and perception are intricately interleaved in the interactive achievement and coordination of practical activities (Heath 1986, Goodwin & Goodwin 1987).


So, conversation analysis is in many respects quite different from traditional linguistics. Increasingly though, conversation analysis and linguistics have been seen to be competing for the same territory, viz. an account of conversation. Let us consider just how conversation analysis and linguistics could be mutually relevant. In order to begin, the analyses presented by each of the other may help us understand the interdisciplinary confusions.





Critiques of conversation analysis from linguistics

A range of criticisms of conversation analysis have been made by linguists. It is

often argued that conversation analysis has some interesting findings but that they are not theoretically interesting and are uninformative. For example, Power & Dal Martello (1986) and Brown & Yule (1983) acknowledge the main findings - turn-taking and adjacency pair - but claim they are simple and theoretically they contribute nothing to an understanding for the analyst of how

conversational function is systematically realised in linguistic form; for instance,

of when an interrogative form might serve as a question. Power & Dal Martello

(1986) also argue that conversation analysis does not use quantitative data, that single instances are inadequate, and that intuition is valid as a means of investigating conversation, so natural data is unnecessary. Another opponent, Searle (1986), thinks that conversation does not have an underlying structure about which a relevant theory can be formulated, and that conversations are not subject to rules. Indeed, the turn-taking systematics is not and could not be followed in a conversation. Thus he is arguing that conversation analysis, while

it is descriptively obvious, is not theoretically sound as the rules are not and

could not be followed.

4.2. Rebuttals by conversation analysts

These criticisms have been met squarely by conversation analysts who argue that linguists are trespassing on a quite different territory. For example, Lee (1987) points out that

“the enterprise is sociological and this should stand as a warning to those who have associated CA more with linguistics and have seen it as a possible solution to the problems of linguistics and found it wanting precisely in terms of its inability or refusal to take some of these

problems on board

itself with language as generally conceived by linguistics, it is in fact

concerned with social activities and their organisation

is pervasively a matter of social organisation.” (Lee 1987, p. 50-51)

The point is that whilst CA might appear to concern

language in use

Sharrock & Anderson (1987) also argue that conversation analysis has been misunderstood and misappropriated. They claim that conversation analysis is a sociological enterprise, not a linguistic one, and thus it is concerned with the organisation of social action and not language structure and function.

Specific replies to the charges of Power & Dal Martello (1986) and Brown & Yule (1983) take the following forms. First, the findings of conversation analysis may seem innocuous and uninteresting for theories concerned with



power or ideology in discourse, but the local organisation of action is not irrelevant for the constitution of social structures. Second, theorising was initially abandoned by conversation analysis because of the proliferation of ad hoc categories and unjustified speculations. By taking a naturalistic and inductive approach, regularities and patterns that are not intuitive nor immediately apparent were revealed and built on. Third, conversation analysis cannot say anything about a general set of rules for mapping form onto function because it is a local and circumstantial matter in which conversational sequence is a crucial resource (Sharrock & Anderson 1987). The aim is not to provide analysts with a mechanical procedure for categorising talk, but with identifying and describing the methods which participants themselves use to accomplish senseful talk.

4.3. Criticisms of linguistics from conversation analysis Following from Searle’s misguided comments we should consider the notion of rule and account. To see the differences between conversation analysis and linguistic concerns we can start by looking at the early conversation analysis work which was implicitly critical of linguistics. Levinson (1983) criticised linguistic models of discourse that contained the following four features: a specifiable set of unit acts; utterances that are segmentable; a specifiable procedure mapping utterances onto speech acts; and a set of sequencing rules regulating conversational sequences. Lee (1987) makes another point: that linguists work with a priori theories. Instead, conversation analysis rejects the general procedure of positing putative rules for human activities independently of the fine-grained examination of those doings themselves. Also, Livingston (1989, pp. 65-66) questions the traditional theoretical competence-performance and speech-language distinctions. If competence is an a priori set of objective formal aspects of language, then the postulation of performance is a result of the discrepancies between the rendered structures of conversational practice and the theoretical calculations. The hypothesized distinction is used as a warrant for investigating how conversationalists manage to produce the wealth of constructions and patch up ill formed ones.

At this point it is relevant to ask why linguistics has shown increasing interest in conversation analysis, which conversation analysis has seen fit to reject by maintaining a purity argument. The influence and promise of Sacks’ writings on the ‘technology of conversation’ may be one such reason. Indeed, we have seen the progressive formalisation of conversation analysis to such an extent that Heritage (1989) almost puts forward a rules and units approach. Button (1990a) has argued against such a position with respect to the nature of computation, rules and conversation. And Bilmes (1988) has argued that there is only a




superficial similarity between structural linguistics and conversation analysis - conversation analysis has a distinctive way of categorising items, a distinctive understanding of the rules of arrangement, and a distinctive notion of how rules and categories interact (p. 53).

The deep problems with a linguistic approach to conversation are also characterised in a recent attack by Taylor & Cameron (1987), who claim that many approaches to the analysis of discourse

“take intersubjective agreement, on the conversational units being used and on the rules being followed, to be the essential basis of the coherence and the detailed coordination of action that is characteristic of conversational interaction.” (Taylor & Cameron 1987, p. 123)

They argue persuasively that we should rid our analyses meaning as the goal of all interactive discourse because

of notion o f

goal of all interactive discourse because of notion o f “as long as conversation analysis [general

“as long as conversation analysis [general field] avoids asking questions

about the nature and extent of intersubjectivity

framework will continue to dominate, and the problems it poses will continue to plague analysts trying to construct adequate models of talk.” (1987, p. 162)

the rules and units

These ideas are echoed in the work of Anderson & Garrod (1987). They demonstrate experimentally that participants in dialogue negotiate referential meaning through the dialogue itself and can arrive at competing and divergent meanings.

4.4. Methodological possibilities After all this criticism and rebuttal, we see two major positions that could be discussed in relation to the relevance of CA and linguistics. First, one could argue that a merging of interests is possible if we sort out the conceptual confusions. In other words, after both ‘sides’ have a good knowledge of what the others are doing, and what lies behind their concepts, we should find out whether there is something that linguistics could contribute to CA concerns and also what CA could contribute to the linguistics enterprise. A second, but more radical stance, is that linguistics must revise its methods in the light of interaction studies, but it may be able to explore conversation as a separate area distinct from CA. No doubt the language of conversation is highly contextual. The question is whether linguistics can adapt with respect to accounting in some way for language use, because its methods have traditionally been abstracting



away from situated use of language (eg. grammatical studies). We will discuss the first and second possibilities next. A third position - that linguistics cannot deal with conversational phenomena - will not be mentioned here.

4.5. What can linguistics contribute to conversation analysis?

In a simple way, linguistics can offer its theories as a vocabulary resource for the analyst. But, more relevantly, linguistics has contributed to CA through phonetics. So far, CA has used a sort of impressionistic description of loudness, rising tone, etc. in the transcriptions. However, there are researchers like Local & Kelly (1986) who have looked at phonetic and conversational structure, and they think that:

“ways in which speakers deploy the phonetic resources of their language for interactive purposes is clearly an area which will require careful study.” (Local & Kelly 1986, p. 203).

As a warning about the danger of linguists usurping the claims of CA, Button argues, against Auer (1990), in reference to phonetics that

an analysis a phonetician may not have to reference

social action, though on the other hand it may turn out that she/he does have to. However, if the two domains are invoked together, little is served by scorning one set of interests and to replace them wholesale with other

interests. More would be served by looking to see if the different sets of interests can be aligned.” (1990b, p. 402)

“in the course of

4.6. What is missing from linguistic accounts?

Let us turn to the question of what is missing from traditional accounts of language structure. We can then shift to suggest how CA can contribute to linguistics.

It is maybe appropriate to start with a quote from John Lyons, who states in


“there is much in the structure of languages that can only be explained on the assumption that they have developed for communication in face-to-face interaction.” (p. 638).

To go to more recent research, Bolkestein (1991) introduces the Journal of


special volume on syntax and pragmatics,





“reflects a part of the struggle which results from trying to fruitfully combine the two perspectives on language and language use: grammatical theory and pragmatics”. (Bolkestein 1991, p. 107)

Of individual researchers, Thompson (1990) is interested in:

“research which seeks to understand grammar in terms of the underlying principles of human communicative interaction.” (Thompson 1990, p.















assumption that an understanding of grammatical patterns can only be achieved in terms of the cognitive and social principles of human communicative interaction.” (ibid, p. 114)

4.7. What can conversation analysis contribute to linguistics? So, what could CA then contribute to the linguistics enterprise? There is some research that has taken a new approach to how grammatical phenomena are interactionally achieved.

Fox & Thompson (1990) have looked at interaction and relative clauses, and claim to show that:

“in addition to grammatical and informational considerations, certain facts about the use of relative clauses can be insightfully accounted for in interactional terms.” (Fox & Thompson 1990, p. 183).

They argue that an interactional function of relative clauses is to create and maintain social identities and participant relations. Other studies in a similar vein include Ford & Thompson (forthcoming), who explore the relations between linguistic and interactional resources in the completion of turn constructional units. Tao & Thompson (1991) examine the pragmatic interference from the second language to the mother tongue performance.


reference to repair processes. He shows how repair

(1979) recommends a linguistic study of conversational syntax with



“can order and reorder the arrangement of the components sentences as well as restructure its overall shape.” (p. 280)

of the

He regards conversational language as the starting point for any examination of language structure in interactive discourse. This means that repair work, for example, should not be considered something extra to the syntax of conversations. Thus, traditionally “unsyntactic” forms will have to be accounted for as syntactic. So, what will be important is, for example, the position of a unit in a turn, and also things like pauses and the pace of talk. Ultimately, the syntax-for-conversation may not have too much in common with traditional syntax.

As an example of one feature of a syntax-for-conversation, Lerner (1991) examined collaborative turn completions (which were first introduced by Harvey Sacks). Lerner states:

“the utterance format described here seems to transcend the particulars of context, content, and surface syntactic structure, thus demonstrating what a component of a socially construed, empirically described ‘syntax-for- conversation’ might look like.” (Lerner 1991, p. 454)

Lerner would not use traditional grammatical terms for syntactic structures, as he finds them inadequate to explain what is happening in collaborative turn completions. What he would want to use is the participants’ syntax - an example

of the participant’s interactional orientation to fleeting structures of talk, eg. the

turn, as well as grammatical structures. He claims that:

“ a participants’ syntax (ie. participants’ orientation to talk as segmented

and structured) seems to be shaped by the situated use of language (ie. by the requirements of talk-in-interaction), and therefore the description of this syntax by analysts ought to follow suit.” (Lerner 1991, fn 12, p. 456)

We can begin to investigate the possibility of emergent but locally accomplished and negotiated participants’ orientation to language structures and patterns, which are not necessarily shared but they are temporally contingent and subject

to dispute and retrospective reinterpretation.

4.8. A more radical paradigm shift

A different concern mentioned in the methodological possibilities section is that

each paradigm may not be able to continue as an integral whole that informs the





other: if the criticisms raised earlier are indicative of a general malaise then more radical change may be necessary. For example, the following quotations suggest something of a turmoil in the foundations of linguistics.

Recently, Thompson (1990) and Schiffrin (1988) have reopened the inquiry into how interactive discourse may shape language structure.

“Communicative processes underlying conversation have been shown to guide the emergence and development of syntactic structures in language over both historical time and developmental time.” (Schiffrin 1988, p.


“Grammatical regularities emerge out of recurrent forces in the way discourse is put together.” (Thompson 1990, p. 113)

Importantly, Schiffrin (1990a) also claims that what we are witnessing now is the breakdown of the integrity of the notion of ‘language’ and of shared rules and lexical units. Schiffrin suggests that

“grammatical structures and patterns may be emergent from specific

instances of communication

and they need not be shared.” (p. 149)

So, from these quotations we find a definite trend towards re-evaluating linguistic foundations in terms of a new understanding of the relations between language structure and social action. Talk activity should now be regarded as the locus for language, society and culture, in which structure constrains action, but action also reproduces and shapes structural relations (see the stimulating work of the social theorists: Giddens 1984 and Bourdieu 1977). For example, Ochs (1988) in her work on language acquisition and development has formulated this trend in the following way: participants in routine, everyday verbal activi- ties/practices draw on linguistic and sociocultural knowledge to mutually create and define what is taking place; but also, routine verbal activities/practices are the means through which aspects of linguistic and sociocultural knowledge are reproduced.

We would like to draw together this discussion and note the following major points that must be taken into account if some sort of alignment or accommodation of conversation analysis and linguistics is to be undertaken:

i. language is constituted in social activities, of which conversation is primary.



ii. language structure can no longer be seen in isolation from situated interaction and conversation.

iii. the traditional notion of rule and the intersubjective assumption should



talk-in-progress, both of language structure and social action.













5.1. Sign language research

In reference to sign language research we propose that it is timely and appropriate to reconsider our conceptions of language and to develop new methods of inquiry. Because of the relatively short time that sign language has been studied and also the lack of a indigenous written form, future research has a chance to make a distinct break with the traditional study of spoken languages (with the written language bias). We argue that a more appropriate framework of issues and questions can be formulated, see McIlvenny (1991, forthcoming).

5.2. Computational linguistics

In an earlier part of the paper we discussed the growing interest in CA and its formalisation. Unfortunately some disciplines have taken CA’s results as superficial evidence for a structural, rule-governed model. Indeed, computational linguistics has thought of implementing CA computationally. However, the mistake is to think that CA’s results as they stand are formalisable; it is thus fallacious to argue that because formalisation fails then CA’s accounts are inadequate. Let us expand on this a little.

One of the common misunderstandings of CA and the notion of rule can be found in Hirst (1991). He argues that CA’s rules could be nicely fitted into an AI reasoning system, as they can be represented declaratively (but not procedurally). David Chapman (forthcoming) corrects Hirst by reminding him that rules as CA understands them are not representable at all. Rules are not properties of agents but rather are patterns of interaction.

It has also been argued that CA does not provide an adequate detailed account of how coherence and sequential organisation in discourse is produced and

understood. Computational linguistics has found the systematics



of turn-taking














generation or categorisation is required. This is missing the point. CA findings are not woolly because they do not specify the motivations or mechanisms for producing conduct. That is not the aim of CA. The rules or structures found by CA are predicated on the situated practices of engaging in conversation - they do not specify courses of action. They are used by participants to interactively construct the sense of their actions as accountably engaged in conversation. There is a very real danger of reifying the findings and notions of CA. This is similar to the artificial intelligence conception of ‘plan’, which regards action as the execution of a program. The regularities found in conversational action by CA, eg. the adjacency pair and insertion sequence, are very easily made into rules for classifying or generating. However, they are indeterminate, indexical and constituted within the practice of dialogue.

Besides these confusions we argue that it is unavoidable that interactional and linguistic concerns will have to be mutually addressed in computational linguistics. Interactional demands simply cannot be ignored in spoken language artifact design, for example (see Raudaskoski 1992). If we understand computational linguistics in the broad sense of modelling language use and structure using computers as a tool and with language technology as a product, then it should be clear that interactional concerns are crucial.


Not only will the study of signed and spoken interaction benefit the field of linguistics, but also linguistics itself may have to reflect on its own methods and results as a consequence of interactional findings. If we accept that the interactional pressures of routine language use in everyday social activity reproduce, shape and transform talk and thus language, then what new tools could be used to study the ‘structures of a language’? We conclude that one must not only study the structure of a language, but also how it is constituted, maintained and used in real, practical settings that participants routinely encounter and actively construct in their community. Ultimately, conversation analysis and linguistics - the investigations of action and structure - are mutually relevant if they are studied in the primary context of real knowledgeable participants in situated, routine human activity.




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