Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
AUTHORS: Heritage, John and Clayman, Steven TITLE: Talk in Action SUBTITLE: Interactions, Identities, and Institutions SERIES: Language in Society PUBLISHER: Wiley-Blackwell YEAR: 2010
Beatrice Szczepek Reed, Department of Educational Studies, University of York, UK
Heritage's and Clayman's book is a comprehensive introduction to the conversation analytic approach to institutional talk, focusing on emergency telephone calls, doctor-patient interactions, interaction in court, and news interviews / mass communication. It is presented in 5 parts, which are outlined, and subsequently critically evaluated below.
Following an introductory chapter, which gives an overview of the book, Part 1 serves as an introduction to Conversation Analysis (CA) (chapter 2) and institutional talk (chapters 3 and 4). Tracing the origins of CA back to Goffman's 'interaction order' (Goffman, 1983) and Garfinkel's ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967), the authors detail some of the central tenets of the discipline: the primacy of ordinary conversation, the use of recordings of naturally occurring data, and the structural analysis of conversational practices. Chapter 2 ends by introducing two conversation analytic research traditions: the study of ordinary conversation, and that of institutional talk.
The third chapter introduces the conversation analytic approach to institutional interaction. The authors suggest what they call a 'Yellow Brick Road' perspective on social context: rather than assuming -- like some more traditional sociological theories do -- that interaction is entirely shaped by context, CA takes the view that interaction plays a defining role in the constantly emerging creation of context. 'Persons are continuously creating, maintaining, or altering the social circumstances in which they are placed (…) and they do so in and through the actions they perform.' (p. 21).
The authors then turn to adjacency pairs as the simplest case scenario of a conversational sequence. In particular, they describe question / answer sequences, and show how they can be structured in four different types of institutional settings. The analyses are convincing evidence for the way in which participants 'talk institutions into being' (p. 32). The direct comparison between the four sequences brings up both the specifics of each institutional setting, and also allows deeper considerations of interaction as such. This second, more global stance is sadly missing from later parts of the book, where the authors no longer put their analyses in relation to one another.
The fourth chapter describes the main characteristics of institutional talk, while maintaining that a definition as such is not possible, given the large variation and varying scope of institutions. However, the main features as described by the authors are specialised systems of turn and sequence organization; the structure of interactions into recurrent phases of specific activities; specialised turn design; and specialised lexical choices.
Part 2 is the first collection of chapters focusing on a specific institutional environment: 911 emergency calls. The first chapter in this section, chapter 5, describes the overall structure of emergency calls: opening -- request -- interrogative series -- response -- closing. The chapter details two sequence types in particular, openings and requests, and shows how they differ from ordinary conversation. For example, emergency calls do not typically contain greetings and how are you-s; and the slot following the opening phase is heard by call takers as a request for assistance, even if it is ambiguous or even silent. The following chapter (ch. 6) turns to the negotiations that occur in emergency calls over the entitlement of the caller to emergency services, and the gate keeping role played by the call takers. The chapter discusses the accountability experienced by callers, evident from their accounts of why they are placing their call. It subsequently goes on to present two primary gate keeping considerations: first, is the call genuine, and linked to that, what is the callers' epistemic access and motivation for calling; and, second, is the matter raised by the caller indeed relevant. Overall, the chapter details participants' sense making and negotiation over relevance and entitlement. The last chapter on emergency calls (ch. 7) deals with calls in which participants display strong emotions. One call in particular is analysed in detail, showing that differing assumptions and orientations by caller and call taker lead to the eventual death of a person. The authors show precisely how the caller's turns, although containing important emergency-related information, are not treated as actionable because of their embeddedness in oppositional conversational moves.
Part 3 contains four chapters on doctor-patient interaction. The first two focus on the first sequential slot in a typical medical encounter in primary care: the patient's presentation of his/her medical issues. The first chapter (ch. 8) throws light on this issue from the perspective of the doctor, focusing particularly on the brevity of patients' descriptions, and doctors' strategies for transition to the next sequential slot. The second chapter (ch. 9) approaches patients' presentations of their medical issues from the patient's side. It focuses on three types of medical problems and the strategies for their presentation: medical problems that are 'known' because they are routine problems, such as colds; medical problems that are 'known' because they are recurrent; and medical problems that are 'unknown'. It is shown that while the presentation of the first two can be relatively straightforward, the third typically result in more complex activities. The third chapter in this section (ch. 10) turns to the next sequential slot in doctor-patient interactions, history taking by the doctor. The chapter shows that, while during the problem presentation the patient was very much in control of the interactional floor, the doctor takes over the interactional initiative in this second phase. The chapter centres around the types of questions asked by the doctor, and their interactional features, such as agenda setting, presuppositions regarding the patient, epistemic stance and preference. The chapter then shows how questions by doctors follow the 'principle of optimization' by allowing 'patients to confirm favourable framed beliefs and expectations about themselves' (p. 144). This principle is explored in a number of extracts, and shown to be inappropriate when patients' health or other circumstances are clearly not favourable. The remaining part of the chapter focuses on the issue of interrogative question design and its impact in terms of preferring a yes or no answer. The final chapter in this part (ch. 11), focuses on the last two phases of doctor-patient interaction, diagnosis and treatment recommendation. The chapter describes how previous research has shown that patients remain relatively passive during doctors' diagnosis. This is in contrast to their behaviour during treatment, where they engage much more in the interaction. The authors show how different types of interactional behaviour, such as recipient responses, may be lacking during diagnosis but may be frequent during the treatment sequence, with absences of responses being treated as noticeable only during treatment recommendations. The chapter ends by calling for international comparisons of doctor-patient interaction.
Part 4 contains three chapters on three aspects of court interaction: cross-examinations, jury deliberations and dispute resolution. The strong variations between these topics means that each of the three chapters stand very much on their own. Chapter 12 on trial examinations shows, firstly, that as a form of talk examinations in courts are designed for an overhearing audience, i.e. the judge and the jury. For example, attorneys produce no recipient tokens or other signs of recipiency during examinations. After mentioning the specialised turn taking system of courtroom interaction, the chapter details how within the dynamics of cross-examinations, witnesses can resist the line of attorneys' questions, and even material evidence. The second point is shown by reporting on the Rodney King trial, where material evidence -- a videotape of the beating -- is broken up into shorter sequences, which are individually categorized, and then individually justified. (At this point the reader is uncomfortably reminded that this division of talk into short sequences, which are then categorized and interpreted as such, is exactly the practice of Conversation Analysis itself). While this chapter contains some interactional analysis, the section on the Rodney King trial focuses primarily on the way a line of argumentation is being built. The chapter ends with the rather obvious remark that 'ways of formulating the facts are at the same time ways of seeing, frameworks for perceiving and interpreting the events in question' (p. 185). This less interactional, and more argument-based perspective continues in the remaining two chapters in this part of the book.
Chapter 13 on jury deliberations has by its own account very limited previous research to go on, and so focuses for the most part on a single case analysis. In this particular case, a jury arrives at a not guilty verdict after starting out with two jurors in favour of a guilty verdict. The chapter details the arguments that convince first one, and then the other juror. These arguments are presented as knowledge focused, allowing jurors to back down within their method of reasoning, and maintaining their notion of justice. Chapter 14 on dispute resolution proceedings is once again based on a small amount of research. The authors show that story telling strategies play an important part in the formulation of and negotiation over events by disputants. The chapter then shows that third parties can facilitate negotiation either passively, simply by way of disputants addressing them rather than each other; or actively, by making suggestions for concessions. Out of all the chapters in the book, this one is perhaps the least 'institutional', in that the practices described here are those of ordinary conversation, and their use in this context does not seem noticeably different from everyday talk.
Finally, Part 5 comprises three chapters on news interviews and one chapter on political speeches. Chapter 15 on turn taking in news interviews gives an overview of the specialised turn taking system of interviews, based on sequences of questions and answers. As interviewers have various strategies at their disposal for the construction of questions, particularly in terms of the degree of elaboration, interviewees, too, have different ways of constructing answers. Both participants typically remain silent during the talk of the other, a sign of adherence to the special turn taking system, and the design of the interview for the overhearing audience. Chapter 16 on question design in news interviews discusses the two -- often conflicting -- demands on journalists to be objective but also adversarial. As with the doctor-patient interactions, journalists' questions are interpreted according to the features agenda setting, presupposition and preference. All are practices for adversarialness, with questions being formulated in a neutral fashion at the same time. The highly adversarial nature of some questions can be weakened by justifications of the question, and attributing the adversarial statement to a third party. Chapter 17 turns to interviewees and their answers, and in particular to their strategies for resistance and evasion. Such strategies can be deference to the interviewer in asking for permission for certain conversational moves, downplaying the agenda shift, and justifying the resistance. More covertly resistant answers may be given the 'veneer of an answer' (p. 254), or involve adjusting the question itself. The final chapter (ch. 18) focuses on political speeches. The authors report that in order to coordinate an audience's response in the form of clapping, successful public speakers use specific linguistic formats, such as contrasts, three-part lists, and puzzle solutions.
In their conclusion (ch. 19), the authors take their introductory statement of context being interactionally created to another level by arguing that the interaction order is an institution in itself, while also being a part of other institutions. The chapter ends by stressing newly emerging practical applications of the CA research described in the book, enhanced by statistical validation gained through large databases.
In their introduction, the authors mention that their book is based on a lecture course. This may explain some of the best features of the book, and also some of the less fortunate ones. Among the great assets of this publication is the comprehensive coverage of research on the areas in focus, conversation analytic or otherwise. This makes the book a perfect starting point for anyone interested in institutional interaction of the varieties described here. True to its conversation analytic roots, the book manages to combine this large-scale overview of the literature with detailed analysis, which is always highly relevant and revealing. On many occasions, the data themselves take centre stage, and rather than just being introduced as examples of previously described concepts, they are treated and displayed by the authors as the primary source of knowledge, and as the basis for all their claims and interpretations. In most cases, analyses of data extracts remain admirably within the framework of the extracts themselves; on a few occasions, interpretations of data involve cultural assumptions, which are difficult to substantiate from outside the extracts. For example, an extract in which a mother and father respond differently to a health worker's remark is interpreted in terms of an assumption that the mother has primary responsibility for the child (p. 46). While on the one hand a small number of analyses display a taking for granted of certain cultural interpretations, on the other hand, there are a small number of occurrences where the obvious is being stated a little too much, as in the lengthy explanation for the accountability of 911 callers as based on police departments being publicly financed (p. 71).
Aside from these minimal issues, there are two larger weaknesses. Firstly, it is a pity that the broad, and widely researched area of classroom interaction has been left out of the book, when other, far less interactional types of talk, such as political speeches, have been included. Chapter 3, in which a single case analysis of classroom interaction is compared with analyses from other institutional settings, gives a flavour of the way in which this topic would have enriched the book.
A second criticism concerns the great variation in chapter structure and content. Part 2 on emergency calls and Part 3 on doctor-patient interaction differ greatly in terms of scope, most probably due to the large amount of research on medical interaction, and the comparatively little work on emergency calls. Aside from this difference, however, they share a primary focus on depicting and making sense of social interaction. They are full of turn-by-turn analyses, and focus strongly on how participants collaboratively achieve -- institutionally framed -- interactional goals.
Part 4 on court interaction does not consistently display such a focus. Chapter 12 on cross examinations is slightly disappointing in that here in particular, the conversation analytic approach could be expected to bring to light previously hidden strategies. However, most prominently chapter 13 does not seem to fit in with the overall conversation analytic framework of the book. Rather than showing how jury members' interaction and collaborative sense making strategies result in their decisions, what is being presented instead is an analysis of their line of argumentation. This part would have benefited from clearer explanations of how the three chapters combine to enhance our understanding of courtroom interaction.
Following on from this last point, the entire book would have benefited from a final chapter in which the highly divergent parts and chapters are being put into a greater context and perspective. In particular, given the many overlapping sequential structures, such as question and answer sequences, comparisons between their deployment in different institutional environments, and the resulting overarching perspective are missing from the book (although a brief section along those lines appears in chapter 15, p. 222).
Overall, however, this book is an impressive scholarly achievement, spanning a vast amount of research and a wide variety of institutional settings. Any student of talk -- institutional or otherwise -- will find this an indispensable source of conversation analytic insight.
Garfinkel, H. (1967): Studies in Ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Goffman, E. (1983): The interaction order. American Sociological Review 48. 1-17.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Beatrice Szczepek Reed is Lecturer in TESOL at the Department of
Educational Studies, University of York, UK. Her research focuses on
structures of natural interaction, the phonetics and prosody of
conversation, cross-cultural communication, and teaching methods for
speaking skills and pronunciation. Her recent publications include the
monograph 'Prosodic Orientation in English Conversation' (2006, Palgrave),
the textbook 'Analysing Conversation: An Introduction to Prosody' (2010,
Palgrave), as well as numerous scholarly articles and book chapters in the
fields of conversation analysis, interactional linguistics and TESOL.