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Conversation analysis (commonly abbreviated as CA) is the study of talk in interaction. CA generally attempts to describe the orderliness, structure and sequential patterns of interaction, whether this is institutional (in the school, doctor's surgery, courts or elsewhere) or casual conversation. Thus, use of the term “conversation” to label this disciplinary movement is misleading if read in a colloquial sense, as many have. In light of this, one of CA’s principle practitioners, Emanuel Schegloff, has more recently identified “talk-in-interaction” as CA’s topic. Perhaps for this same reason, others (e.g., Jonathan Potter) who use CA methods identify themselves as discourse analysts (DA), though that term was first used to identify researchers using methods different from CA (e.g., Levinson, 1983), and still identifies a group of scholars larger than those who use only CA methods.

Inspired by ethnomethodology, it was developed in the late 1960s and early 1970s principally by the sociologist Harvey Sacks and, among others, his close associates Emanuel A. Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. Sacks died early in his career, but his work was championed by others in his field, and CA has now become an established force in sociology, anthropology, linguistics, speech-communication and psychology. It is particularly influential in interactional sociolinguistics, discourse analysis and discursive psychology, as well as being a coherent discipline in its own right.

Basic Structures

Turn-taking Organization

The nature by which a conversation is done in and through turns. Turn-taking is one of the fundamental organizations of conversation. According to CA, the turn-taking is one of three basic components out of which conversation is constructed. The other two components are: the turn-constructional component, that is, the basic units out of which turns are composed, and the "practice component," often called the "rule set" that is administered by parties in interaction. While CA does not explicitly claim that turn-taking is universal, as reasearch is conducted on more languages, it is possible that if there were any basis for a claim to universality in language, turn-taking is a good candidate. The turn-taking model for conversation was arrived at inductively through empirical investigation of field recordings of conversation and fitted to such observationally arrived at fact as overwhelmingly, participants in conversation talk one at a time.

Turn Constructional Component

The turn constructional component are the basic units out of which turns are fashioned. Unit types include: word/lexical item, clause/phrase, and sentence. Note that not all unit types may exist in all languages. Further, it is possible that there are units in other languages, such as particles in Asian languages, that may not exist in English.

Turn Allocational Component

Current Speaker selects Next Speaker (SSN) Next Speaker Self-selects as Next (SS)

Sequence Organisation

This concerns how actions are ordered in conversation.

Adjacency pairs

Talk tends to occur in responsive pairs; how these pairs may be split over a sequence of turns.


Use of sequences of talk prior to purposeful talk.

Preference organisation

There are structural (i.e. practice-underwritten) preferences for some types of actions (within sequences of action) in conversation over other actions.


Repair organization addresses problems in speaking, hearing, or understanding in conversation. Repair has two broad classes: self-repair and other repair.

Action Formation

This concerns the description of the practices by which turns at talk are composed and positioned so as to realize one or another actions.


  • Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. pp 284-370. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29414-2.
  • Sacks, Harvey. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55786-705-4.

Subject index of conversation analysis literature

The following is a list of important phenomena identified in the conversation analysis literature, followed by a brief definition and citations to articles that examine the named phenomenon either empirically or theoretically. Articles in which the term for the phenomenon is coined or which present the canonical treatment of the phenomenon are in bold, those that are otherwise centrally concerned with the phenomenon are in italics, and the rest are articles that otherwise aim to make a significant contribution to an understanding of the phenomenon.

  1. REDIRECT Template:Expand list

A process by which interactants allocate the right or obligation to participate in an interactional activity. (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974)
The mechanisms through which certain "troubles" in interaction are dealt with. (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks 1977)


  • Atkinson, J. Maxwell and Heritage, John (eds) (1984). Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Drew, Paul and Heritage, John. (1993). Talk at Work: Interaction in Institutional Settings. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Enfield, N. J. and Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Person Reference in Interaction: Linguistic, Cultural and Social Perspectives. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heritage, John (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology, Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Hutchby, Ian and Wooffitt, Robin. (1988) Conversation Analysis. Polity Press.
  • Levinson, Stephen C. (1983). Pragmatics. pp 284-370. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29414-2.
  • Local, John. (2007). Phonetic Detail and the Organisation of Talk-in-Interaction. Proceedings of the XVIth International Congress of Phonetic Sciences. Saarbruecken, Germany: 16th ICPhS Organizing Committee.
  • Kelly, John and Local John (1989). Doing Phonology, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
  • Pain, Jean. (2008). Not Just Talking: Conversational Analysis and Psychotherapy. Karnac. ISBN 978-1855756892
  • Pomerantz, Anita M. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessment: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structure of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Psathas, George (1995): Conversation Analysis, Thousand Oaks: Sage
  • Sacks, Harvey. (1995). Lectures on Conversation. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 1-55786-705-4.
  • Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A., & Jefferson, Gail (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.
  • Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2007). Sequence Organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analyis, Volume 1, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Stivers, Tanya. (2007). Prescribing Under Pressure: Parent-Physician Conversations and Antibiotics (Oxford Studies in Sociolinguistics). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Ten Have, Paul (1999): Doing Conversation Analysis. A Practical Guide, Thousand Oaks: Sage.

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