Conversation Analysis in Qualitative Research - What’s It All About?

Louise Principe
Oct 17, 2022
two people having a conversation.

Human conversation is complex. While talking, we tend to finish each other’s sentences, speak with intonation, interrupt someone mid-speech, or use filled pauses such as “uh” or “uhm.” As random as these instances may seem, some argue that there is an intrinsic order in discussions and that we don’t just talk “off the top of our heads.”

This is where Conversation Analysis (CA) comes into play. First pioneered by Harvey Sacks in collaboration with Schegloff and Emerson in the 1960s, this approach involves the study of human comprehension and response in the context of social interaction. But what exactly is CA, and how can it be applied in different settings?

Defining Conversation Analysis

At its core, CA is a qualitative methodology that centers on the study of talk-in-interaction or, more specifically, the sequential order of talk. It aims to understand the hidden rules, structures, or meanings that create these sequences in a discussion.

Through his observations in suicide helpline recordings, Sacks designed this methodology to understand the levels of social order uncovered in day-to-day conversations. According to him, discussions are structurally organized phenomena that have some kind of underlying system in place.

Conversational analysts are particularly interested in exploring everyday interactions and institutional activities, such as healthcare, law, or education. These people also examine how these interactions translate to social actions or how people do things through talk.


Applying Conversation Analysis Methods 

The primary method for CA involves recording, transcribing, and analyzing real-life conversations. The key to accurate analysis is to capture interaction as it naturally happens and not through controlled conditions or role-play. This is because the message we communicate externally is not always an accurate depiction of our intended meaning.

For Example: Changing the pitch or intonation of a word could completely change its meaning

Sorry↗ - I did not hear what you said. Can you repeat that?

Sorry↘ - I apologize.

a group of people talking to each other

Some questions that should be considered when analyzing social interaction are:

  • How do people get in and out of conversations?
  • How do you know when it’s your turn to speak?
  • How do you construct your dialogue in a way that is related to what the person before you said?
  • How will you word your message in an understandable manner for the next speaker?
  • How will you choose, introduce, and develop a topic?

Although CA can be implemented across various industries (e.g., anthropology, business, industrial psychology), it has its roots in understanding talk-in-interaction within institutional and procedural settings such as classroom lectures, courtroom trials, and medical consultations.

Conversations Analysts treat these institutional and procedural interactions as active and situated historically, culturally, and socially. This type of talk often occurs in occupational settings wherein speakers have different entitlements and speaking rights (e.g., doctor-patient, teacher-student, lawyer-client, supervisor-subordinate).

Conversation Analysis in Qualitative Research

Collecting respondent data for CA is at a more objective level than most qualitative research. Rather than interviewing people, you’ll be observing real-life conversations or reviewing them through audio or video recordings.

In contrast to controlled focus groups and interviews, your examined interactions will not have been staged for research purposes. However, CA still maintains its qualitative origin, as subjective interpretations of natural conversational data are expected even though the collection method was independent of any influence from the study.

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