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 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 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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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 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.
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.