Conversational Analysis: Exploring Social Interactions

Conversation analysis focuses on the non-verbal aspects of speech acts in order to provide rich context to data analysis, findings, presentation, and dissemination of research in interaction. But how do you conduct conversation analysis? Read more about this approach here.
Roehl Sybing
Content creator and qualitative data expert
  1. Introduction
  2. Conversation analysis: An overview
  3. What are the basic principles of conversational analysis?
  4. Conversation analysis example
  5. How is conversation analysis carried out?
  6. Challenges of conversation analysis


From pauses to thinking words, from changes in volume to emphasis on words, conversation analysis looks at all the different ways meaning is embedded and understood in social interaction. In linguistics, conversation analysis plays a role in discourse analysis by focusing less on what people say and more on how they say it.

That said, there are numerous challenges and complexities relating to how people speak, how speech is understood, and how conversation shapes meaning, social relationships, and cultures. Collecting data to document and analyze the complexity of spoken interactions, as a result, is an equally daunting task, requiring a deep consideration of this analytical approach in detail.

In this article, we will look at conversation analysis, techniques used to conduct conversation analysis effectively, and challenges that researchers face when analyzing social interaction.

Conversation analysis refers to the study of the non-verbal features of social interaction.

Conversation analysis: An overview

Conversation analysis examines concepts of speech acts that are non-verbal in nature such as speaking speed, intonation, word stress, and length of pauses. In contrast, discourse analysis focuses on understanding human communication through analyzing words, their meaning, the intentions behind them, and the underlying assumptions that inform them. Conversation analysis instead focuses on the non-verbal cues in social interactions.

Conversation analysis can analyze things such as speaking speed and intonation to provide rich context to social interaction. Photo by Matt Koffel.

What is the function of conversational analysis?

Conversation analysis theory acknowledges the importance of non-verbal cues present in interaction. Without these cues, interaction looks and sounds very different and perhaps unnatural.

For example, when someone answers a question, how confident are they in their answer? We can infer their level of confidence in the way they speak. Maybe they pause in between words because they are mentally searching for the right words. Perhaps they emphasize certain words in their answer because they are speaking from a place of authority and expertise.

The goal of conversation analysis is to document the ways that speakers interact with each other. The challenge is that the written form used in research papers and presentations does not lend itself to showing non-verbal information embedded in communication. We as research writers use prose and bulleted lists and rely on words to convey meaning.

As a result, it's incumbent on researchers employing conversation analysis to present their research with a strong conversation analysis essay or presentation that visualizes interaction. Searches for communication studies often produce research that provides various conversation analysis examples that make use of notations to mark the various non-verbal cues accompanying interaction.

Details captured in conversation analysis

Undertaking conversation analysis means analyzing the various features and developments of interaction and presenting them in an empirical manner that leads to theoretical development. While many other research inquiries that look at data from interviews and focus group discussions primarily examine the meaning of words and the co-construction of knowledge, conversation analysis acknowledges the importance of the accompanying features of interaction in influencing that meaning.

Some details captured in conversation analysis include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • turn-taking
  • interruptions
  • silences
  • thinking words
  • intonation
  • word stress
  • gestures
  • body language

Think about how each of these details, in isolation or in conjunction with each other, can make an interaction look and sound fundamentally different than an interaction without these details. Their contribution to the nuances of interaction justify the utility of conversation analysis among researchers in linguistics.

Distinguishing conversation analysis from discourse analysis

You can think of conversation analysis and discourse analysis either as complementary approaches or as one being a subset of the other. Either way, they have distinct approaches and objectives that are worth exploring in discrete detail.

Discourse analysis investigates the use of language in all aspects, from the meaning that is conveyed to the way that it is conveyed and why. Understanding discourse means acknowledging the larger context around language and communication and how that context informs meaning, cultures, and social relations.

Another approach is critical discourse analysis, which examines the use of language as an exercise of power. How politicians, business executives, and other people in power communicate messages is an important area of study that captures how ideas are shaped to reaffirm the power of institutions.

On the surface, it may not seem that there is significant overlap between conversation analysis and these other analytical approaches. However, the main thing in common between conversation analysis and discourse analysis is the assumption that the meaning of words is complemented by a whole host of other contextual cues, cultural assumptions, and situational considerations.

Any use of conversation analysis skills acknowledges the understanding of contextual cues in interaction. Photo by Aarón Blanco Tejedor.

What are the basic principles of conversational analysis?

Conversation analysis is more of a broad analytical approach rather than a strict methodology that warrants definition. However, there are a number of guiding principles that researchers should acknowledge when conducting conversation analysis:

  • Empirical focus. There is an understanding among conversation analysis researchers that, given the dynamics of naturally occurring spoken interactions, spoken discourse can be captured and analyzed in a systematic manner. An empirical focus to conversation analysis can capture data and structure it in a way that allows researchers to identify recurring patterns from the interactional data.
  • Context sensitivity. At the same time, researchers also acknowledge that the universal rules for interaction are all but elusive as interactions are informed by cultures, contexts, and individual differences. How speakers interact with each other in one culture is bound to differ from speakers in other cultures, so it is incumbent on researchers to place interactions in their situated contexts to provide sufficient definition to the theoretical developments they propose.
  • Order in interaction. More often that not, people in interaction respond to each other in a process called turn-taking. This is easy to observe in a conversation involving two people, but how does this play out in a situation involving three or more speakers? As a result, researchers also employ conversation analysis to understand power dynamics between speakers, particularly those of different statuses or positions, or those with particular relationships.
  • Indexicality. Research employing conversation analysis often examines the semiotic systems - or the ways in which people communicate and understand meaning - that guide interaction. A major component of semiotics is indexicality, or the concept where meaning is tied to "signs" in interaction such as gestures, pronouns, and accents. Capturing this indexicality thus requires situating interactions in sufficient context at the individual and macro levels.
  • Data-driven analysis. Conversation analysis is primarily an inductive approach to understanding interactional data. While some research inquiries in conversation analysis may involve hypothesis testing or experimental study that can be deductive in nature, theoretical developments in conversation analysis typically arise from the data itself. This is an important feature of this analytical approach, especially when inductively analyzing culture and language.

Conversation analysis example

The concept of Phonetics of Talk in Interaction provides a useful example where conversation analysis can prove relevant. Think about how mothers talk to their babies, and how this talk might be different among adults, or even between adults and children who are able to speak.

At least in Western contexts, mothers tend to repeat the nonsensical utterances their babies might make. They may also exaggerate their pronunciation of words or speak more slowly. Why they do this is fundamental to understanding parenting, making the empirical collection of data that represents these phenomena important to research about parenting and communication.

Baby talk is an often-explored subject of conversation analysis. Photo by Ana Tablas.

Other conversation analysis examples can look at how intonation and prosody inform communication. Consider the question "What did you do last night?" A speaker can emphasize any word in that question and the nuance might change accordingly. If they emphasize "what" or "night," the assumptions we can make about the speaker regarding what they are interested in and what they assume about who they are talking to are bound to change.

Conversation analysis can also look at how communication features like turn-taking, prosody, non-verbal gestures, and facial expressions might change across forms of interaction. Indeed, the way that people take turns in an online meeting can look fundamentally different from the turn-taking in face-to-face communication, prompting researchers to explore how online communication shapes interaction in different ways.

Conversation analysis can be useful to understanding new forms of interaction like online communication. Photo by Dylan Ferreira.

How is conversation analysis carried out?

Conversation analysis typically has an established process that, in many ways, mirrors the process for other forms of qualitative research. That said, researchers should keep some additional considerations in mind while conducting conversation analysis.

  1. Data collection. Observations, interviews, and focus group discussions typically involve data collection by the use of an audio recorder. In addition, you may want to keep track of non-verbal utterances and other developments of note by using a video recorder or taking notes during data collection. Your data collection may also focus on different specific types of interaction, such as speeches, discussions, and dialogues.
  2. Conversation analysis transcription. Transcription is the process of turning raw audio or video into written text representing the words uttered in an interaction. When employing conversation analysis, you will likely want to consider transcribing as much detail as possible to capture spoken interaction subtleties. Thinking words, repetitions, errors in grammar and sentence structure, and other features of interaction that may not be linguistically accurate should all be included for the purpose of analysis. You may also include notations to indicate where relevant non-verbal cues occurred.
  3. Reflections on data collection. Reflections and realizations may come to you during the course of data collection which can inform your analysis. Conversation analysis notes and memos can be a useful component of the research process as they can point to important features of communication that warrant analysis or potentially novel theoretical developments regarding interaction.
  4. Notation of transcripts. A conversation analysis looks to examine spoken interactions closely by presenting utterances in extensive detail. However, when research papers and presentations rely on the written form to convey their findings, it's important to have a system in place for transcribing and marking up interaction data. The Jeffersonian transcription system is a form of notation commonly used in conversation analysis research to mark up details like turn-taking, pauses, and prosody. Other systems such as systemic functional linguistics transcription and phonetic transcription also exist, so you can choose the most appropriate approach for the research question you are exploring.
Taking notes during data collection might be beneficial to transcribing spoken interaction. Photo by Suganth.

Challenges of conversation analysis

Developing expertise in conversation analysis requires an approach to qualitative data that differs from other methods such as thematic analysis and content analysis. A good deal of data organization is necessary to provide the structure that allows for an analysis of interactions that captures conversation analysis concepts in a rigorous fashion.

There are a number of methodological and logistical concerns to keep in mind when conducting conversation analysis.

  1. Equipment for data collection. The tasks of collecting conversational data can prove challenging when they rely on capturing as much granular detail as possible to facilitate writing realistic dialogue in research papers and presentations. A standard audio recorder might accomplish most tasks in conversation analysis, but if your research question relies on specific details in interaction such as intonation and word stress, more sensitive audio or video recording equipment might be necessary.
  2. Transcription. Transcribing natural spoken interactions remains an inherently subjective process despite the growing body of studies that employ conversation analysis. The manner in which you transcribe utterances should aim to be consistent and comprehensive in capturing as much detail as possible. Some people use more thinking words and sounds than others, while others may repeat words or stutter while speaking.
  3. Notation. Marking up research transcripts in a consistent and rigorous manner is yet another subjective component of conversation analysis. How do you measure pauses between words? What constitutes a sufficient rise or fall in intonation to warrant notation? Which syllables in a word does the speaker emphasize? Simply using a standard, established notation is not enough; it's far more important to apply it consistently in a way that your research audience can understand.
  4. Research and writing process. When employing conversation analysis, essay writing becomes a formidable task when it comes to persuading the research audience. A comprehensive conversation analysis essay requires an empirical approach to presenting findings in a manner that is easy for your research audience to understand. If you are presenting examples of your conversation analysis in written form, consider using a common notation that adheres to consistent standards. In addition, be sure to explain your data and analysis thoroughly enough to immerse your audience in the context of your data and the theoretical developments it illustrates.
Choosing the most appropriate equipment is an important step in pursuing conversation analysis. Photo by