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Review of  Talk in Action

Reviewer: Beatrice Szczepek Reed
Book Title: Talk in Action
Book Author: John Heritage Steven Clayman
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 21.4627

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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:

Goffman, E. (1983): The interaction order. American Sociological Review 48. 1-17.

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.

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