exploring the relationship between social science and software development methodologies: a blog by Pascal Belouin

Conversation analysis, or CA, focuses on the fine-grain analysis of talk in the framework of actual, day-to-day conversations between social actors. Its aim is to provide practical tools for allowing an understanding of the tacit rules and inherent order of common, day-to-day conversations by using short transcripts or recordings as data. This discourse analysis tradition is usually associated with ethnomethodology, which proposes the study of the tacit, shared knowledge that allows people to engage with the social world, not only by permitting them to understand other people’s utterances and conducts, but also to produce utterances and conducts that make sense in the framework of a particular social interaction. It is in that sense that conversation analysts could be seen as interested in “meaningful conduct, (…) produced and understood based on shared procedures and methods” (Pomerantz and Fehr, 1997). Although the concern of CA was first the study of mundane, day-to-day interactions, this tradition gave birth to another kind of analysis focussing on conversations taking place in the framework of particular institutions. This particular type of CA is given the name Institutional Conversation Analysis, and focuses on how such institutions are built and maintained through actual conversations and what can be called ‘public events’ for example.

From a more epistemological perspective, the theoretical roots of ethnomethodology and CA could be found in the work of Erving Goffman, who introduced the idea that “social interaction is a social organisation in its own rights” (Heritage, 2001). Through the introduction of the concept of ‘interaction order’, Goffman provided a theoretical basis on which conversation analysts can argue that, through the mundane act of conversation, social actors create a joint social reality, making social interaction an autonomous object of study that can be studied in its own rights. By applying such a view towards the study of social phenomena, CA thus relies on the assumption that certain features of talk can be isolated from the particular context within which it takes place.

In this framework, particular patterns in the organisation of conversations can then be identified and studied. This particular aspect could be seen as one of the main strengths of this particular discourse analysis tradition, as it allows analysts to obtain a form of scientific closure, thus providing a strong basis for claiming the validity, objectivity and universality of their findings. Hence, conversation analysts argue that their methods of analysis could be applied to any language. Moreover, since the results of CA could be seen as objective and universal, several isolated researchers working on the same object would end up with more or less the same findings.

Thus, the practical analysis of a particular piece of conversation could be tackled by first trying to identify the devices through which each participant ‘packages’ his or her utterances so as to obtain a desired response from the other participant or participants, and more widely to achieve a particular goal within the framework of the conversation being studied. In the same time, the normative aspect of language comes into play: participants in a particular conversation are held morally accountable for their utterances, as powerful normative rules restrict the choice of acceptable conducts a particular participant can exhibit in particular situations (Pomerantz and Fehr, 1997).

CA therefore provides practical tools for analysing patterns in talk, for instance the way turn-taking is managed by the protagonists of a particular conversation. Features such as “adjacency pairs” formed by questions and answers, pauses of different lengths, or the way some utterances are ‘repaired’ by their originator according to their place and role in a particular conversation become data that can be analysed with the tools provided by CA (Heritage, 2001). This very practical aspect of this tradition and the fact that it can be used for a large number of purposes according to the researcher’s interests and theoretical stance make conversation analysis a rather interesting and popular research technique.


Goffman, E. (1981) Forms of Talk, Reading eight in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., Yates, S.J. (2001) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, Sage Publications.

Heritage, J. (2001) Goffman, Garfinkel and Conversation Analysis, Reading four in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., Yates, S.J. (2001) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, Sage Publications.

Pomerantz, A. and Fehr. B.J. (1997) Conversation Analysis: an approach to the study of social action as sense making practices, in van Dijk, Teun A. (eds.) Discourse as Social Interaction, vol. 2, Londond/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi, Sage Publications, pp. 64-91.

Silverman, D. (1997) Discourses of Counselling: HIV Counselling as Social Interaction, Reading ten in Wetherell, M., Taylor, S., Yates, S.J. (2001) Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, Sage Publications.

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