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Review of  Conversation Analysis

Reviewer: Galina B. Bolden
Book Title: Conversation Analysis
Book Author: Gene H. Lerner
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 16.1007

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Date: Thu, 31 Mar 2005 17:08:34 -0800
From: Galina Bolden
Subject: Conversation Analysis: Studies from the first generation

EDITOR: Lerner, Gene H.
TITLE: Conversation Analysis
SUBTITLE: Studies from the first generation
SERIES: Pragmatics & Beyond New Series 125
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins Publishing Company
YEAR: 2004

Galina Bolden, University of California, Los Angeles

This book is a collection of studies into the organization of talk in
interaction. It presents several investigations in the field
of "conversation analysis" (CA), an interdisciplinary area of research
that explores practices that organize everyday talk in ordinary and
institutional settings. The design of the book suggests that it is
dedicated to the late Harvey Sacks, a scholar who was crucially involved
in the founding of conversation analysis. The defining feature of the
collection is that it contains contributions of "first generation"
conversation analysts, those who were Sack's colleagues and/or students
from the mid 1960s to the time of his untimely death in 1975. It is also a
collection of "first generation" conversation analytic studies conceived
of and/or developed during that period of time. Several of these have
become classic references in the field in spite of having never been

The book contains two brief introductory chapters followed by eight main
chapters divided into three parts: on the turn- taking system, action
formation, and sequencing of actions in conversation.

Gene H. Lerner's "Introductory remarks" provide a very brief historical
sketch of the first years of conversation analysis and describe how the
contributors to this volume first became involved in the study of talk.
Lerner then proceeds to set the articles collected in the book within the
context of important conversation analytic themes: the practice of
transcription, the organization of turn taking, the formation of actions,
and the organization of action sequences.

In the "Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction," Gail
Jefferson, who developed the conversation analytic transcription system,
demonstrates the importance of highly detailed transcripts for
understanding social interaction. In this brief contribution, Jefferson
compares superficial transcripts of speech with painstakingly detailed
transcripts used by conversation analysts and presents several analytical
payoffs of detailed transcriptions. The introduction is followed by the
state-of-the-art glossary of the transcription symbols developed and
adapted throughout the years.

The first part of the volume, "Taking turns speaking," presents two
chapters that deal with the organization of turn taking - ways in which
parties organize orderly exchange of turns at talk. The first contribution
is Harvey Sacks' original, previously unpublished manuscript of what later
became known as the "turn-taking paper" (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson,
1974). The 1974 version published in _Language_ is by far the most well-
known conversation analytic paper, and it helped define CA as a distinct
field of study. The early draft included in the volume ("An initial
characterization of the organization of speaker turn-taking in
conversation") is Sacks' much shorter version of this classic paper. It
compares conversation to other speech-exchange systems and outlines a
systematics for turn taking in conversation that would provide for minimal
gap and minimal overlap between turns.

The second chapter addresses the issue of overlapping talk. In "A sketch
of some orderly aspects of overlap in natural conversation," Gail
Jefferson shows that overlapping talk is orderly organized by reference to
the turn-taking system. The chapter discusses overlap onset, within-
overlap talk, and overlap resolution, focusing on how parties deal with
the aftermath of their simultaneous speech. The study of overlap was a
major influence on the conception of the turn-taking system, and continues
to be an important part of turn-taking research (see, for example,
Jefferson, 1973, 1986; Schegloff, 2000).

The second part of the book, "Implementing actions," presents three
studies that deal with how various social actions are accomplished in

Emanuel A. Schegloff's contribution, "Answering the phone," explores ways
in which the first vocal turn in a telephone conversation - the response
to the ring - is indicative of the relevant social identities and
circumstances surrounding the call. The chapter provides a detailed
characterization and discusses interactional implications of several ways
of answering the telephone: with "yes," "hello," and some form of self-
identification. Additionally, Schegloff places telephone conversation
within a large array of other types of conversations - from those
conversations that are by-products of co-presence to those that are
designed as conversations from the start. This work, a chapter from
Schegloff's 1967 dissertation (Schegloff, 1967), contains numerous
insights into the organization of the conversation as a unit, many of
which have been further explicated in subsequent work (see, especially,
Schegloff, 1968, 1979, 1986; Schegloff & Sacks, 1973).

Anita Pomerantz's chapter, "Investigating reported absences: 'Neutrally'
catching the truants," examines talk of an institutional agent: a high
school attendance office clerk whose job is to telephone the parents of
absent students. Pomerantz's analysis of these telephone calls shows how
the clerk designs her inquiries into students' absences to display
neutrality, especially when an "unexcused" absence is suspected. The
chapter demonstrates that the clerk is careful in not conveying a
presumption of guilt (that the child is truant) and focused on simply
gathering the information that may "clear up" the absence. Overall, the
chapter tackles the issue of how talk-in-interaction may be fitted to
institutional tasks and specific institutional identities. (For further
development of this line of research, see, for example, Drew & Heritage,

Gail Jefferson's next chapter, "At first I thought," examines the use of
the rhetorical device of reporting first, incorrect thoughts when
describing extraordinary events. The collection of instances in the "At
first I thought X, then I realized Y" general format spans more than four
decades and contains excerpts from newspapers and news reports, as well as
from ordinary conversations. Jefferson shows how this rhetorical device is
used to display the speaker's "commitment to the normal" by conveying what
should be considered the ordinary interpretation of the events (which
turned out to be incorrect). The chapter also shows that the "ordinary"
first thoughts may be selected in ways that are sensitive to the local
circumstances and the speaker's categorical membership.

The third part of the book, "Sequencing actions," contains three chapters
that deal with various aspects of sequence organization - that is, how
conversational activities are implemented through sequences of actions.

"Pre-announcement sequences in conversation" by Alene Kiku Terasaki is a
previously unpublished, yet widely cited classic paper on the sequential
organization of announcements - courses of actions designed for conveying
new information. Terasaki demonstrates that the general preference against
telling previously known information shapes the organization of the
announcement sequences. Specifically, announcement turns are often set up
through pre-announcements, whose one important function is to discover
whether the recipient of the potential announcement already knows the
news. Terasaki provides a detailed analysis of the linguistic and
sequential shapes of the pre-announcement sequences and their import on
how (and whether) the announcement is delivered. The chapter argues that
the distinction between "old" and "new" information often made on
linguistic grounds is an interactional problem participants deal with by
employing the sequential resources afforded by pre-announcement sequences.

Gene H. Lerner's chapter, "Collaborative turn sequences," offers a
detailed examination of sequences launched by the recipient's anticipatory
completion of another party's turn constructional unit (Sacks et al.,
1974) currently in progress. Lerner discusses several alternative
responses to such completions: acknowledgement of the completion through
agreement, acknowledgement of the completion through disagreement, and
disregard of the completion via delayed re- completion of one's own turn
constructional unit. The analysis shows that the overt rejection of the
proposed completion only occurs when the completion is being done as a
joke since the speaker can always implicitly reject the offered
anticipatory completion by ignoring it. Together with Lerner's other work
on collaborative completions (e.g., Lerner, 1991; 1993; 1996), this
contribution - originally, a chapter from his dissertation (Lerner, 1987) -
provides important insights into the role of syntax for the organization
of social action.

In the final chapter of the collection, "The amplitude shift in
conversational closing sequences," Jo Ann Goldberg discusses the role of
prosody - and, specifically, the role of amplitude changes - in indicating
the turn's position within sequences of actions. Building on prior work on
conversation closings (Schegloff & Sacks, 1973), Goldberg examines
amplitudinal changes across different closing components and describes the
role of amplitude in displaying engagement with and disengagement from
prior talk. This chapter contributes to our understanding of the role of
prosody in sequence organization and, more generally, in establishing
coherence across turns of talk.

Overall, this volume presents a unique collection of early influential
studies in conversation analysis by leading scholars in the field. The
editor's introduction clearly summarizes the chapters and explicates their
relevance to researchers interested in social interaction. It also
contains interesting personal commentary that conveys the pioneering
spirit of the late 60s - early 70s during which this line of research
started to develop. Other features of the collection - the comprehensive
glossary of the transcript symbols and the subject index - contribute to
its value to students and researchers interested in conversation analysis
and language use more generally.

Those with no background in CA should be warned, however, that most
chapters are rather densely written and assume a great degree of knowledge
of conversation analytic terminology and methods. Jefferson's "At first I
thought" and Pomerantz's "Investigating reported absences" will, however,
be readily accessible to a general reader, and Terasaki's "Pre-
announcement sequences in conversation" is written with a linguistic
audience in mind.

With that caveat, the book is highly recommended to conversation analysts
as well as to other scholars interested in the empirical investigation of
language in interaction. The volume is not only a reference source for
important works in the field, but also an inspiration for much further


Drew, P., & Heritage, J. (1992). Talk at work: Interaction in
institutional settings. New York: Cambridge University Press. Jefferson,
G. (1973). A case of precision timing in ordinary conversation: Overlapped
tag-positioned address terms in closing sequences. Semiotica, 9, 47-96.

Jefferson, G. (1986). Notes on 'latency' in overlap onset. Human Studies, 9
(2-3), 153-183.

Lerner, G. H. (1987). Collaborative turn sequences: Sentence construction
and social action. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of California
at Irvine.

Lerner, G. H. (1991). On the syntax of sentences-in-progress. Language in
Society, 20, 441-458.

Lerner, G. H. (1993). Collectivities in action: establishing the relevance
of conjoined participation in conversation. Text, 13(2), 213-245.

Lerner, G. H. (1996). On the "semi-permeable" character of grammatical
units in conversation: conditional entry into the turn space of another
speaker. In E. Ochs, E. A. Schegloff & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), Interaction
and grammar (pp. 238-276). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest
systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation.
Language, 50, 696-735.

Schegloff, E. A. (1967). The first five seconds: The order of
conversational openings. Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of
California, Berkeley.

Schegloff, E. A. (1968). Sequencing in conversational openings. American
Anthropologist, 70, 1075-1095.

Schegloff, E. A. (1979). Identification and recognition in telephone
conversation openings. In G. Psathas (Ed.), Everyday language: Studies in
ethnomethodology (pp. 23-78). New York: Irvington Publishers.

Schegloff, E. A. (1986). The routine as achievement. Human Studies, 9, 111-

Schegloff, E. A. (2000). Overlapping talk and the organization of turn-
taking for conversation. Language in Society, 29(1), 1-63.

Schegloff, E. A., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8
(4), 289-327.


Galina Bolden obtained her PhD from the department of Applied Linguistics
at the University of California, Los Angeles. Her research interests
include conversation analysis for English and Russian and social
interaction in a variety of institutional settings.