What qualitative interviewers can learn from studies of epistemics in conversation

Sociologist John Heritage (Heritage, 2012a, 2012b, 2013, 2018; Heritage & Raymond, 2005) has been writing about epistemics in naturally occurring conversation for over a decade. This work draws on the work of other scholars. These include Erving Goffman’s idea of “territories of the selves” (Goffman, 1971) in which people tend the boundaries of knowledge that they possess; Akio Kamio’s (1997) work on “territories of information” – in which speakers possess domains of information to which they have a “close” to “distant” relationship; Anita Pomerantz’s (1980) concept of Type 1 and Type 2 knowledge in which speakers are assumed to possess “direct” knowledge (Type 1) about their selves (e.g., their name, their everyday work), and have less accountability for knowledge that is learned through intermediary sources (indirect knowledge), and Charles Goodwin’s (1981) work on recipient design (i.e., how people craft their talk in particular ways for their recipients).

Heritage and other scholars who use conversation analysis have closely examined talk for how speakers acknowledge what they know and what they believe others to know in talk, and how that is made apparent in how talk is designed. This work has not been without debate.  In a 2017 special issue of the journal Discourse Studies, a group of ethnomethodologists take what they call the “Epistemics Program” to task. A rebuttal issue was published early in 2018, with another group of scholars, Heritage included, refuting arguments put forth in the earlier issue. Laying aside this debate, how has the concept of “epistemics” been discussed, and how can this be applied in doing the work of qualitative research?

Geoffrey Raymond (2018, p. 64) outlines basic terms used in this work. First is the idea of epistemic status. Raymond points out that speakers “take into account their relative access to, and/or rights to know about, the states of affairs relevant for the matters formulated in it.” People occupy different positions on what Heritage (2013) has called an “epistemic gradient” from more knowledgeable [K+] to less knowledgeable [K−] about any given topic. This epistemic gradient can vary from a slight to a steep incline. Second, the term epistemic stance captures the idea that speakers orient to others’ epistemic status in the way utterances are formulated. For example, Raymond (2018, p. 64) points out that when composing a the first-pair part of an adjacency pair (what conversation analysts use to refer to paired utterances such as greeting-greeting or question-answer sequences), speakers can “select one of the two basic alternative grammatical forms that adopt contrasting epistemic stances: declaratives, which in their default usage assert information, and interrogatives, which in their default usage request information.” Paul Drew (2018) argues that epistemics is

evident in the ways in which knowledge claims and attributions of knowledge to self and other (1) are embedded in turns and sequences, (2) inform the design of turns at talk, (3) are amended in the corrections that speakers sometimes make, to change from one epistemic stance to another (e.g. from K+ to K−), and (4) are contested, in the occasional ‘struggles’ between participants, as to which of them has epistemic primacy (p. 163).

Analysis of interaction has found that speakers typically work to maintain epistemic congruence in interaction. That is, “speakers with a K− status pose interrogatives (which request information) and persons with a K+ status use declaratives (which convey information)” (Raymond, 2018, p. 64).  Of course, epistemic incongruence can also occur. Since qualitative researchers frequently make use of question-answer sequences in their work, work on epistemics holds promise for examining interview talk.

In a forthcoming chapter (Roulston, 2019), I show how epistemic incongruence can easily occur between an interviewer and interview. In some instances this comes off as “interactional trouble” or problematic in some way. For example, for an interview to come off as “authentic”, than an interviewer needs to pose questions for which they do not already know the answers. Yet, occasionally, an interviewer can pose a question “for the record” (the audio recorder), even though they may already know the answer to the question from having had a prior relationship with a participant, or from earlier fieldwork. In these sorts of instances it is likely that both parties to the talk will acknowledge this in the formulation of talk. For example, to pose a question for which the interviewer already knows the answer, the interviewer might preface a question with something like this: “I know that we’ve talked about this earlier, but could you tell me again…” To pose a known-answer question without doing so risks being heard by the participant of a research project as “not having listened.” And who wants to be interviewed by someone who has clearly not listened? Conversely, interviewees can flag their responses to known-answer questions with utterances such as “earlier I said…”, or “I already told you…”, “as you know…” and so forth. This is just one example of how work from epistemics in conversation can be used to explore interview talk in qualitative studies – that is, to examine how interviewers and interviewees acknowledge what one another are thought to know in the asking and answering of questions. Stivers, Mondada, and Steensig (2011) have also discussed the moral implications to do with persons’ rights and responsibilities to know. Applied to qualitative interviews, this means that by simply being asked a question in an interview setting, interviewees can hold themselves accountable to responding to a question even if they have not considered the question prior to participating in an interview.

Over the last couple of years, I have been thinking about how this work can be used to apply to the practice of conducting research interviews, and you’ll see some initial thoughts on epistemics and interviewing sketched in the this article (Roulston, 2018).

What have you noticed about your assumptions as an interviewer with respect to what your participants are thought to “know”? Have you experienced moments in which you’ve asked questions of participants that they were not able to answer? What happened next? These sorts of moments are ripe for further exploration using what has been learned from epistemics in conversation.

Kathy Roulston


Drew, P. (2018). Epistemics in social interaction. Discourse Studies, 20(1), 163-187. doi:10.1177/1461445617734347

Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York: Basic Books.

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers. New York: Academic Press.

Heritage, J. (2012a). The epistemic engine: Sequence organization and territories of knowledge. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 45(1), 30-52. doi:10.1080/08351813.2012.646685

Heritage, J. (2012b). Epistemics in action: Action formation and territories of knowledge. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 45(1), 1-29. doi:10.1080/08351813.2012.646684

Heritage, J. (2013). Epistemics in conversation. In J. Sidnell & T. Stivers (Eds.), Handbook of conversation analysis (pp. 370-394). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.

Heritage, J. (2018). The ubiquity of epistemics: A rebuttal to the ‘epistemics of epistemics’ group. Discourse Studies, 20(1), 14-56. doi:10.1177/1461445617734342

Heritage, J., & Raymond, G. (2005). The terms of agreement: Indexing epistemic authority and subordination in talk-in-interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68(1), 15-38. doi:doi:10.1177/019027250506800103

Kamio, A. (1997). Territory of information. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Pomerantz, A. (1980). Telling My Side: “Limited Access” as a “Fishing” Device. Sociological Inquiry, 50(3/4), 186-198.

Raymond, G. (2018). Which epistemics? Whose conversation analysis? Discourse Studies, 20(1), 57-89. doi:10.1177/1461445617734343

Roulston, K. (2018). Qualitative interviewing and epistemics. Qualitative Research, 18(3), 322-341. doi:10.1177/1468794117721738

Roulston, K. (2019). Research interviewers as ‘knowers’ and ‘unknowers’. In K. Roulston (Ed.), Interactional studies of qualitative research interviews (pp. 59-78). Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Stivers, T., Mondada, L., & Steensig, J. (2011). Knowledge, morality and affiliation in social interaction. In T. Stivers, L. Mondada, & J. Steensig (Eds.), The morality of knowledge in conversation (pp. 3-24). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


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