What is applied conversation analysis?

Jessica Lester and Michelle O’Reilly’s new book, Applied Conversation Analysis: Social Interaction in Institutional Settings (Lester & O’Reilly, 2019), provides a guide to how to design, conduct, and present findings using this approach. But first, a little historical background….

Harvey Sacks (1935-1975) met Harold Garfinkel (1917-2011), a sociologist and originator of “ethnomethodology” (EM)   at Harvard University when Garfinkel was on sabbatical from University of California, Los Angeles in the late 1950s. Garfinkel’s interests were in the study of mundane reasoning and “members’ methods” to accomplish social order (Garfinkel, 1967). Sacks went on to complete his PhD in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley in the early 1960s, and remained in touch with Garfinkel, who assisted him in moving to Los Angeles where he was an Acting Assistant Professor of Sociology. With Garfinkel, Sacks served as a fellow at the Center for the Scientific Study of Suicide (Sacks, 1995, Introduction, xiii-xv).

When Garfinkel and Sacks began looking at tape recorded telephone calls from the Center, they were both surprised at the “degree of order exhibited” (Garfinkel, 2006, p. 11). Sacks began to focus explicitly on the social organization of talk, and he boldly asserted in a lecture delivered in 1972 in response to a student’s question that “there’s an area called the Analysis of Conversation. It’s done in various places around the world, and I invented it.” He continued, “There is no other way that conversation is being studied systematically except my way” (Sacks, 1995, pp. Vol. 2, 549). He went on to describe the basic principles of turn-taking with his colleagues Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson (Sacks, Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974), along with phenomena such as “repair”, “recipient design”, and “preference structure” —all basic concepts used in conversation analysis (CA).  Since that time, the field of CA has grown, with practitioners working all over the world in diverse fields. Topics include medical interaction (Heritage & Maynard, 2006), news interviews (Clayman & Heritage, 2002), and children’s talk (Butler, 2008) among others too numerous to list here.

The relationship between EM and CA is a complicated one, since over the last 50 years, CA has grown into a field in its own right, and some scholars do not attend to EM connections. Paul ten Have (2007, pp. 173-174) describes CA in terms of work “for itself” (“pure CA”) and work guided by “ ‘wider’ concerns.” Ten Have draws on ideas discussed by James Heap (1990) with respect to the question of “what is the value of doing ethnomethodology?” Heap describes two approaches to doing ethnomethodology:

  • “A critical news approach”, in which authors’ work serves as “news” that “things are not as they appear” (pp. 42-43); and
  • “A positive news approach”, in which authors’ work serves as “news” that “X is organized this way.” (pp. 42-43).

Following this same line of reasoning, ten Have (2007, p. 195) asserts that both EM or CA studies can be “useful in producing bits of knowledge that may help one to make choices among courses of action.” He goes on to describe two sorts of work in EM and CA – that for:

(1) a “professional audience” (“straight-ahead EM” and “pure CA”) (p. 195); and

(2) “applied EM” or “applied CA”, which has the goal of delivering “news about the organization of valued activities, which may help to generate ideas as to how things may be done differently” (p. 196).

Lester and O’Reilly’s book focuses on the latter approach, in which CA is used to examine institutional talk to produce findings that will explore how social actions are accomplished in talk-in-interaction in various settings, with a view to thinking about how they might be done differently. As one recent example of this work, Antaki, Richardson, Stokoe, and Willott (2015) examined interaction in which people with intellectual disabilities participated in police interviews concerning allegations of sexual assault and rape. This article shows how the interviewees responded to a particular form of questioning (“tendentious questions”).

Applied Conversation Analysis: Social Interaction in Institutional Settings (Lester & O’Reilly, 2019) takes newcomers to conversation analysis through the basic principles of CA, before discussing how to plan and conduct a study and how to analyze data. The book is organized in three parts: (1) Context and planning; (2) Doing a project using applied CA; and (3) Disseminating your work. Organized as a textbook that could be used for an introductory course, the book includes definition boxes, and important points – assuming a readership that has no prior knowledge of CA. Each chapter also includes a short interview with scholars who use CA in their work, as well as recommended readings.

This book adds in unique ways to other introductory texts on CA authored by scholars in sociology, linguistics, and anthropology (Hutchby & Wooffitt, 2008; Liddicoat, 2007; Psathas, 1995; Sidnell, 2010; ten Have, 2007). This book provides guides students through the nuts and bolts of designing and conducting a study using CA in an “applied” way to examine institutional talk (see also Antaki, 2011 for other discussions; ten Have, 2001) — which is one form of scholarly work that uses CA.

With the abundance of texts on the market for those learning to do CA, it is worthwhile pointing out that Harvey Sacks’ Lectures on Conversation became available online in 2010 (see Wiley’s website for details). Wiley has also published the Handbook of Conversation Analysis, which provides a more advanced text (Sidnell & Stivers, 2013). Since the field of CA continues to rapidly develop, it is worthwhile visiting  original texts after working with introductory texts listed here.

Kathy Roulston


Antaki, C. (Ed.) (2011). Applied conversation analysis: Intervention and change in institutional talk: Palgrave Macmillan.

Antaki, C., Richardson, E., Stokoe, E., & Willott, S. (2015). Can people with intellectual disability resist implications of fault when police question their allegations of sexual assault and rape? Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities, 53(5), 346-357.

Butler, C. W. (2008). Talk and social interaction in the playground. Ashgate: Aldershot, England ;.

Clayman, S., & Heritage, J. (2002). The news interview: Journalists and public figures on the air. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Garfinkel, H. (2006). Seeing sociologically: The routine grounds of social action. London, UK: Paradigm Publishers.

Heap, J. L. (1990). Applied ethnomethodology: Looking for the local rationality of reading activities. Human Studies, 13, 39-72.

Heritage, J., & Maynard, D. W. (Eds.). (2006). Communication in medical care: Interaction between primary care physician and patients. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Hutchby, I., & Wooffitt, R. (2008). Conversation analysis (2nd ed.). Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Lester, J. N., & O’Reilly, M. (2019). Applied conversation analysis: Social interaction in institutional settings. Los Angeles: Sage.

Liddicoat, A. J. (2007). An introduction to conversation analysis. London: Continuum.

Psathas, G. (1995). Conversation analysis: The study of talk-in-interaction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Sacks, H. (1995). Lectures on conversation. Oxford UK & Cambridge, USA: Blackwell.

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

Sidnell, J. (2010). Conversation analysis: An introduction. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sidnell, J., & Stivers, T. (Eds.). (2013). The handbook of conversation analysis. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

ten Have, P. (2001). Applied conversation analysis. In A. McHoul & M. Rapley (Eds.), How to analyse talk in institutional settings: A casebook of methods (pp. 3-11). London: Continuum.

ten Have, P. (2007). Doing conversation analysis: A practical guide (2nd ed.). London, UK: Sage.


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