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

The transcript presented below is a classic piece of data that have been used extensively by numerous conversation analysts to illustrate a rather large variety of CA concepts and notions. Below is a short example of how conversation analysis can be carried out, and what kind of results it can yield.

Transcript: A call to a suicide prevention centre, from Edwards, D. (2000) Extreme Case Formulations: Softeners, Investment, and Doing Non-Literal, Research on Language and Social Interaction, 33(4), pp. 347-73.

1. Desk: Do you have a gun at home?

2. (0.6)

3. Caller: A forty five

4. Desk: You do have a forty fi:ve

5. Caller: Mm hm, it’s loaded.

6. Desk: What is it doing there, hh. Whose is it.

7. Caller: It’s sitting there.

8. Desk: Is it you:rs?

9. (1.0)

10. Caller: It’s Dave’s.

11. Desk: It’s your husband’s hu:h?=

12. Caller: =I know how to shoot it,

13. (0.4)

14. Desk: He isn’t a police officer:r,

15. Caller: No:.

16. Desk: He just ha:s one.

17. Caller: Mm hm, It-u-Everyone doe:s don’t they?

A first step towards the analysis of this particular transcript could be to elicit the aims of the person from the desk. A suicide prevention centre could be seen as a particular social institution. Thus, this particular conversation could be seen as an example of institutional talk, as defined in Silverman (1997). By having a particular role within this institution, the main objective of the person from the desk in this institutional context could be described as trying to assess the ‘seriousness’ of the situation in which the caller finds him or herself into, while in the same time trying to avoid saying anything that would make the situation worst.

Another observation that could be made about the immediate, proximal context of this particular conversation is the fact that the caller is the only person holding the information that could be considered critical by the person from the desk. One could argue that this establishes a rather peculiar – because limited to the immediate context of this interaction – power relationship between the desk person and the caller, which is reflected in the way particular conversation management devices are used by both protagonists. By using concepts such as sequencing, adjacency pairs as well as preferred and dispreferred responses, it is possible to argue that the caller makes it very easy for the person from the desk to assess the seriousness of the situation. However, once this seriousness is established, we can then see particular differences in the way the caller packages is responses and limit the amount of information they choose to provide, as the discussion moves towards more ‘delicate’ matters.

Indeed, one could observe that from line 6 onwards, the conversation evolves from having a rather ‘normal’ sequential structure to a more ‘turbulent’ one as the topic of the conversation becomes more delicate. More precisely, on line 1, the way the desk person tries to elicit the dangerousness of the situation as efficiently as possible is by directly asking for a simple account, in this case does the caller has a gun. After a short pause on line 2, the caller provides a desired response to this request by directly providing the calibre of the weapon. This precision is particularly interesting to note, and could almost be dismissed as irrelevant in the framework of this analysis if the same phenomenon did not appear again on the adjacency pair formed by lines 4 and 5, as the person from the desk’s request for a confirmation of the fact that the caller has a gun is more than satisfied. Indeed, the caller ‘uses’ this turn of the conversation to mention that (s)he does have a gun and that it is indeed loaded.

Once the seriousness of the situation is established, a new phase of the conversation is entered as the next adjacency pair. Instead of providing a desired response to the person from the desk’s demand for an account of the reason why (s)he has access to a loaded gun on line 6, the caller provides an undesired response, a mere ‘it’s sitting there’. The person from the desk’s next demand for account, which reintroduces the subject of the ownership of the firearm on line 8 is followed by a long pause after which the caller provides the name of the owner, utterance which again constitutes an undesired response, as (s)he do not have any information regarding ‘Dave’’s relationship with the caller. A short and a long pause on lines 9 and 13, a repair on line 17 and latching occurring on lines 11 and 12 seem to provide the basis for an argument stating that although it is relatively easy for the person from the desk to assess the situation in which the caller finds himself or herself into, additional information regarding the ‘background’ of the caller is more difficult to get, making it an example of a ‘delicate object’ as described by Silverman (1997). In this framework, it could be seen as interesting to add a last comment about the utterance on line 17, which appears to consist on an attempt from the caller to re-attach the fact that ‘Dave’ has a gun to ‘normality’. This attempt of building an acceptable account of what constitutes a delicate matter presents features such as repair, highlighting the difficulty the caller experiences packaging his or her response so that it makes sense in the overarching framework of this particular conversation.


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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