Conversation analysis

Conversation analysis (CA) is an approach to the study of social interaction, embracing both verbal and non-verbal conduct, in situations of everyday life. CA originated as a sociological method, but has since spread to other fields. CA began with a focus on casual conversation,[1] but its methods were subsequently adapted to embrace more task- and institution-centered interactions, such as those occurring in doctors' offices, courts, law enforcement, helplines, educational settings, and the mass media. As a consequence, the term 'conversation analysis' has become something of a misnomer, but it has continued as a term for a distinctive and successful approach to the analysis of sociolinguistic interactions.


Inspired by Harold Garfinkel's ethnomethodology[1] and Erving Goffman's conception of the interaction order,[2] CA was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s principally by the sociologist Harvey Sacks and his close associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.[3] It is distinctive in that its primary focus is on the production of social actions in the context of sequences of actions, rather than messages or propositions. Today CA is an established method used in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, speech-communication and psychology. It is particularly influential in interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and discursive psychology.


Conversation analysis begins by setting up a problem connected with a preliminary hypothesis. The data used in CA is in the form of video- or audio-recorded conversations, collected with or without researchers' involvement, typically from a video camera or other recording device in the space where the conversation takes place (e.g. a living room, picnic, or doctor's office). The researchers construct detailed transcriptions from the recordings, containing as much detail as is possible (Jefferson 2004; Hepburn and Bolden 2017; Mondada 2018). This transcription often contains additional information about nonverbal communication and the way in which people say things. Jefferson transcription is a commonly used method of transcription.[4]

After transcription, the researchers perform inductive data-driven analysis aiming to find recurring patterns of interaction. Based on the analysis, the researchers identify regularities, rules or models to describe these patterns, enhancing, modifying or replacing initial hypotheses. While this kind of inductive analysis based on collections of data exhibits is basic to fundamental work in CA, this method is often supported by statistical analysis in applications of CA to solve problems in medicine and elsewhere.

While conversation analysis provides a method of analysing conversation this method is informed by an underlying theory of what features of conversation are meaningful and the meanings that are likely implied by these features. Additionally there is a body of theory about how to interpret conversation.[5]

Basic structures

Conversation analysis provides a theoretical model of conversation that can be used to understand a conversation. A conversation is viewed as a collection of turns as speaking; errors or misunderstandings in speech are addressed with repairs, and turns may be marked by the delay between them or other linguistic features.

Turn-taking organization

The actions that make up conversations are implemented through turns at talk, and turn-taking is therefore a fundamental feature of conversational organization. The analysis of how turn-taking works focuses on two major issues: i) what are the primary units of turns; and ii) how are these units allocated between speakers. The fundamental analysis of turn-taking was described in a paper widely known as the "Simplest Systematics" (Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson 1974).[6]

1) Sacks et al. identify turn constructional units (TCUs) as the fundamental building blocks of turns. TCUs can be sentences, clauses, phrases or single words that can be recognized as units in their own right depending on context. A crucial feature of TCUs is that they are projectable: that is, a hearer can recognize what it will take for a unit to be complete. It is this projectability that enables the split-second timing that is characteristic of ordinary human turn-taking. The completion point of a current TCU is a turn-transition place (or TRP).

2) In the Sacks et al. model, the allocation of units between speakers is implemented through a hierarchically organized set of rules. At any given TRP:

i) If the current speaker selects a next one to speak at the end of current TCU (by name, gaze or contextual aspects of what is said), the selected speaker has the right and obligation to speak next. ii) If the current speaker does not select a next speaker, other potential speakers have the right to self-select (the first starter gets the turn), and iii) if options i and ii have not been implemented, current speaker may continue with another TCU. At the end of that TCU, the option system applies again.

The turn-taking model sketched here is designed to accommodate a wide range of turn-taking possibilities, varying numbers of conversational participants, and circumstances in which the length of turns, and of conversations, and of their topics is not in any way pre-specified in advance. The system is implemented by the parties to the conversation without external regulation (party administered), and on a local unit-by-unit basis. Designed to account for the fact that much conversation takes place without much silence or 'dead time' but also without significant amounts of overlapping talk, the described system has multiple consequences.

1) It defines silences:

  • Pause: A period of silence within a speaker's TCU.
  • Gap: A period of silence between turns.
  • Lapse: A period of silence when no sequence is in progress: the current speaker stops talking, does not select a next speaker, and no one self selects. Lapses are commonly associated with visual or other forms of disengagement between speakers, even if these periods are brief.

2) It provides that speakers wanting a long turn, for example to tell a story or describe important news, must use some form of preface to get a go-ahead that provides that others will refrain from intervening during the course of the telling (the preface and its associated go-ahead comprise a "pre-sequence" (Sacks 1974; Schegloff 2007)).

3) It provides that conversations cannot be appropriately terminated by 'just stopping', but require a special closing sequence (Schegloff and Sacks 1973).

4) It provides that certain types of gaps (following the 'current selects next' option) are accountable.

5) It provides that special resources be deployed in the case of overlapping talk (Schegloff 2000; Jefferson 2004b).

The model also leaves puzzles to be solved, for example concerning how TCU boundaries are identified and projected, and the role played by gaze and body orientation in the management of turn-taking. It also establishes the relevance of problems for other disciplines: for example, the split second timing of turn-transition sets up a cognitive 'bottle neck' problem in which potential speakers must attend to incoming speech while also preparing their own contribution - something which imposes a heavy load of human processing capacity, and which may impact the structure of languages [Refs].

The turn-taking model described by Sacks et al. was a landmark in the language sciences, and indeed it is the most cited paper ever published in the journal Language (Joseph 2003). However it is designed to model turn-taking only in ordinary conversation, and not interaction in more specialized, institutional environments such as meetings, courts, news interviews, mediation hearings. All the latter, and many more, have distinctive turn-taking organizations that depart in various ways from the Sacks et al. model. Nonetheless it is fundamental that we cannot perform social actions of any kind without getting a turn at talk, and hence that turn-taking provides an omnipresent background that shapes the performance of action regardless of the particular turn-taking system in play.

Sequence Organization

Adjacency pairs

Talk tends to occur in responsive pairs; however, the pairs may be split over a sequence of turns. Adjacency pairs divide utterance types into 'first pair parts' and 'second pair parts' to form a 'pair type'. There are many examples of adjacency pairs including Questions-Answers, Offer-Acceptance/Refusal and Compliment-Response. (Schegloff & Sacks:1973)[7]

Sequence expansion

Sequence expansion allows talk which is made up of more than a single adjacency pair to be constructed and understood as performing the same basic action and the various additional elements are as doing interactional work related to the basic action underway.
Sequence expansion is constructed in relation to a base sequence of a first pair part (FPP) and a second pair part (SPP) in which the core action underway is achieved. It can occur prior to the base FPP, between the base FPP and SPP, and following the base SPP.
1. Pre-expansion: an adjacency pair that may be understood as preliminary to the main course of action. A generic pre-expansion is a summon-answer adjacency pair, as in "Mary?"/ "Yes?".It is generic in the sense that it does not contribute to any particular types of base adjacency pair, such as request or suggestion. There are other types of pre-sequence that work to prepare the interlocutors for the subsequent speech action. For example, "Guess what!"/"What?" as preliminary to an announcement of some sort, or "What are you doing?"/"Nothing" as preliminary to an invitation or a request.
2. Insert expansion: an adjacency pair that comes between the FPP and SPP of the base adjacency pair. Insert expansions interrupt the activity under way, but are still relevant to that action.[8] Insert expansion allows a possibility for a second speaker, the speaker who must produce the SPP, to do interactional work relevant to the projected SPP. An example of this would be a typical conversation between a customer and a shopkeeper:

Customer: I would like a turkey sandwich, please. (FPP base)
Server: White or wholegrain? (Insert FPP)
Customer: Wholegrain. (Insert SPP)
Server: Okay. (SPP base)

3. Post-expansion: a turn or an adjacency pair that comes after, but is still tied to, the base adjacency pair. There are two types: minimal and non-minimal. Minimal expansion is also termed sequence closing thirds, because it is a single turn after the base SPP (hence third) that does not project any further talk beyond their turn (hence closing). Examples of SCT include "oh", "I see", "okay", etc.

4. Silence: Silence can occur throughout the entire speech act but in what context it is happening depends what the silence means. Three different assets can be implied through silence:

  • Pause: A period of silence within a speaker's turn.
  • Gap: A period of silence between turns.
  • Lapse: A period of silence when no sequence is in progress: the current speaker stops talking, does not select a next speaker, and no one self selects. Lapses are commonly associated with visual or other forms of disengagement between speakers, even if these periods are brief.
Preference organization

CA may reveal structural (i.e. practice-underwritten) preferences in conversation for some types of actions (within sequences of action) over others. For example, responsive actions which agree with, or accept, positions taken by a first action tend to be performed more straightforwardly and faster than actions that disagree with, or decline, those positions (Pomerantz 1984; Davidson 1984). The former is termed an unmarked turn shape, meaning the turn is not preceded by silence nor is it produced with delays, mitigation and accounts. The latter is termed marked turn shape, which describes a turn with opposite characteristics. One consequence of this is that agreement and acceptance are promoted over their alternatives, and are more likely to be the outcome of the sequence. Pre-sequences are also a component of preference organization and contribute to this outcome (Schegloff 2007).


Repair organization describes how parties in conversation deal with problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding. Repair segments are classified by who initiates repair (self or other), by who resolves the problem (self or other), and by how it unfolds within a turn or a sequence of turns. The organization of repair is also a self-righting mechanism in social interaction (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Participants in conversation seek to correct the trouble source by initiating and preferring self repair, the speaker of the trouble source, over other repair (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks 1977). Self repair initiations can be placed in three locations in relation to the trouble source, in a first turn, a transition space or in a third turn (Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks).

Action formation

This focuses on the description of the practices by which turns at talk are composed and positioned so as to realize one or more actions.

Jefferson Transcription

Gail Jefferson developed a system of transcription while working with Harvey Sacks. Speakers are introduced with a name followed by a colon, as conventionally used in scripts. It designed to use typographical conventions used elsewhere. The transcript system indicates overlapping speech, delays between speech, pitch, volume and speed based on research showing that these features tend to communicate information.[4]

Partial table of annotations added in Jefferson Transcription
FeatureSymbol UsedExample
Very quietly spoken°°...°°
Matt: Shoes °°I love shoes°°_
Quietly spoken°...°
Sue: Have you had any °symptoms°,?
Loudly spokenCapital letters
Sara: Why can't you JUST STOP?
Falling pitches.
Fred: That's a good idea.
Unchanging pitches_
Matt: That's a good idea_
Slightly rising pitches,
Matt: We like to shop, and to eat fish_
Intermediately rising pitches,?
Alex: We're buying shoes,?
Rising pitches?
Bill: Should we open the door?
Stressed syllablesUnderlined letters
Dave: That is a good idea.
Absence of normal pauses=
Lucy: Perhaps we should leave=
William: I don't think that's a good idea_
Noticeable pauses(.)
Lucy: James (.) we need to talk.
Pauses of a specific duration(Duration)
Lucy: James (1.0) we need to talk.
Rushed speech><
Alex: What are you doing?
Jack: >I need to buy the shoes<
Overlapping speech[...]
Dave: Perhaps we should [leave.]
Tom:                    [Go inside,?]

Major dimensions

  1. Action: Organization of actions distinct from outside of a conversation. This could include openings and closings of conversations, assessments, storytelling, and complaints.
  2. Structure: All human social action is structured and has rules, conversation is no different. In order to participate in a conversation the participants must abide by these rules and structures to be an active participant
  3. Intersubjectivity: Concerning the ways in which the participants’ intentions, knowledge, relations, and stances towards the talked-about objects is created, maintained, and negotiated

Contrasts to other theories

In contrast to the research inspired by Noam Chomsky, which is based on a distinction between competence and performance and dismisses the particulars of actual speech, conversation analysis studies naturally-occurring talk and shows that spoken interaction is systematically orderly in all its facets (cf. Sacks in Atkinson and Heritage 1984: 21–27). In contrast to the theory developed by John Gumperz, CA maintains it is possible to analyze talk-in-interaction by examining its recordings alone (audio for telephone, video for copresent interaction). CA researchers do not believe that the researcher needs to consult with the talk participants or members of their speech community.

It is distinct from discourse analysis in focus and method. (i) Its focus is on processes involved in social interaction and does not include written texts or larger sociocultural phenomena (for example, 'discourses' in the Foucauldian sense). (ii) Its method, following Garfinkel and Goffman's initiatives, is aimed at determining the methods and resources that the interacting participants use and rely on to produce interactional contributions and make sense of the contributions of others. Thus CA is neither designed for, nor aimed at, examining the production of interaction from a perspective that is external to the participants' own reasoning and understanding about their circumstances and communication. Rather the aim is to model the resources and methods by which those understandings are produced.

In considering methods of qualitative analysis, Braun and Clarke distinguish thematic analysis from conversation analysis and discourse analysis, viewing thematic analysis to be theory agnositic while conversation analysis and discourse analysis are considered to be based on theories.[9]

Application in other fields

In recent years, CA has been employed by researchers in other fields, such as feminism and feminist linguistics, or used in complement with other theories, such as Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA). MCA was influenced by the work on Harvey Sacks and his work on Membership Categorization Device (MCD). Sacks argues that 'members’ categories comprise part of the central machinery of organization and developed the notion of MCD to explain how categories can be hearably linked together by native speakers of a culture. His example that is taken from a children's storybook (The baby cried. The mommy picked it up.) shows how "mommy" is interpreted as the mother of the baby by speakers of the same culture. In light of this, categories are inference rich[10] – a great deal of knowledge members of a society have about the society is stored in terms of these categories.[11] Stokoe further contends that members’ practical categorizations form part of ethnomethodology's description of the ongoing production and realization of ‘facts’ about social life and including members’ gendered reality analysis, thus making CA compatible with feminist studies.[12]

CA is important in language revitalization.[13] For example, according to Ghil'ad Zuckermann, Western conversational interaction is typically both "dyadic" (between two particular people, eye contact is important, the speaker controls the interaction) and "contained" (in a relatively short, defined time frame).[13][14] Accordingly, if one asks a question, one expects to receive an answer immediately thereafter.[14] On the other hand, traditional Aboriginal conversational interaction is "communal" (broadcast to many people, eye contact is not important, the listener controls the interaction) and "continuous" (spread over a longer, indefinite time frame). Accordingly, if one asks a question, one should not expect an immediate answer.[14][13]

Subject index of conversation analysis literature

The following is a list of important phenomena identified in the conversation analysis literature, followed by a brief definition and citations to articles that examine the named phenomenon either empirically or theoretically. Articles in which the term for the phenomenon is coined or which present the canonical treatment of the phenomenon are in bold, those that are otherwise centrally concerned with the phenomenon are in italics, and the rest are articles that otherwise aim to make a significant contribution to an understanding of the phenomenon.

A process by which interactants allocate the right or obligation to participate in an interactional activity. (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974)
The mechanisms through which certain "troubles" in interaction are dealt with. (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks 1977)
Preference organization
The ways through which different types of social actions ('preferred' vs. 'dispreferred') are carried out sequentially. (Pomerantz 1978, Pomerantz 1984)

See also


  1. Garfinkel, Harold (1967). Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs NJ: Prentice Hall.
  2. Goffman, Erving (1983). The Interaction Order. American Sociological Review 48:1–17.
  3. Schegloff, Emanuel (1992) Introduction. In Harvey Sacks, Lectures on Conversation (Vol.1: Fall 1964 – Spring 1968). Oxford, Blackwell: ix–lxii.
  4. Jack Sidnell; Tanya Stivers (10 August 2012). "4". The Handbook of Conversation Analysis. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 978-1-118-34045-5.
  5. Leslie A. Baxter; Dawn O. Braithwaite (7 March 2008). "13". Engaging Theories in Interpersonal Communication: Multiple Perspectives. SAGE. pp. 175–. ISBN 978-1-4129-3852-5.
  6. Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). "A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation." Language, 50, 696–735.
  7. Schegloff, E & Sacks, H. (1973) Opening Up Closings (p.74)
  8. Jefferson, G. (1972). Side sequences. Studies in social interaction, 294, 338.
  9. Braun, Virginia; Clarke, Victoria (January 2006). "Using thematic analysis in psychology". Qualitative Research in Psychology. 3 (2): 77–101. doi:10.1191/1478088706qp063oa. hdl:2027.42/138221. ISSN 1478-0887. S2CID 10075179.
  10. Steve Kaplan (March 6, 2014), Conversation Analysis, retrieved 4 May 2014[permanent dead link]
  11. Sacks, H. (1992). "Lectures on Conversation, Volumes I and II" Edited by G. Jefferson with Introduction by E.A. Schegloff, Blackwell, Oxford.
  12. Stokoe, Elizabeth (2006). "On ethnomethodology, feminism, and the analysis of categorial reference to gender in talk-in-interaction", Sociological Review 54: 467–94.
  13. See p. 35 in Zuckermann, Ghil‘ad (2020), Revivalistics: From the Genesis of Israeli to Language Reclamation in Australia and Beyond, Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199812790 / ISBN 9780199812776
  14. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2015), Engaging – A Guide to Interacting Respectfully and Reciprocally with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People, and their Arts Practices and Intellectual Property, Australian Government: Indigenous Culture Support, p. 12, retrieved 13 December 2020


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