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Review of  Conversation Analysis

Reviewer: Giampaolo Poletto
Book Title: Conversation Analysis
Book Author: Jack Sidnell
Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Subject Language(s): Chinese, Mandarin
Issue Number: 22.1182

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EDITOR(S): Sidnell, Jack
TITLE: Conversation Analysis
SUBTITLE: Comparative Perspectives
SERIES: Studies in Interactional Sociolinguistics 27
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2009

Giampaolo Poletto, Doctoral School, University of Pécs, Hungary


The present collection of papers, written by both notable and younger, emerging
researchers, has three parts: repair and beyond, aspects of response, and action
formation and sequencing. One goal is to render the diversity of conduct of
sociocultural and linguistic communities, as well as the traceable and
remarkable commonalities. The features of various discursive constructs are
analysed based on real interactions from very different languages. Another goal
lies in the commitment to comparative investigations in the field of
conversation analysis. Such a perspective keeps into account the affinities,
differences and interrelations with respect to contiguous but not concurrent
disciplines in the broad field of linguistics. The final part, by Emanuel
Schegloff, presents a critical review of the contents, perspective and goals of
the volume.

Part I: Introduction

In his introduction ''Comparative perspectives in conversation analysis,'' Jack
Sidnell discusses how Conversation Analysis (CA) shows that actions in
talk-in-interaction rely on the same abilities to solve the same organizational
problems, by means of specific and significantly varied sets of semiotic
resources. The volume approaches the question of how the former are influenced
by the latter, through evidence of talk in English, Finnish, German, Italian,
Japanese, Mandarin, Tzeltal (Mayan), Russian, Swedish and Yélî Dnye, an East
Papuan language. Detailed analyses cover surfaces of grammar and prosody, as
well as constituents of complete turn units and recognizable actions, such as
particular words or phrases. “This book offers a complementary view, in which,
at some given time, the semiotic resources of any particular language –
especially grammar – essentially define the possibilities for social action
accomplished through talk” (p. 5).

The theoretical issues follow Schegloff and Sacks (1974) and the analyses are
largely developed within the framework of Conversation Analysis (CA), which
focuses on the practical activities in which language is deployed and on generic
interactional problems whose solutions attain to the local resources of
particular languages and social systems. “We can look across communities and
languages to see how local resources are mobilized to solve the recurrent,
generic problems of interaction within human groups” (p. 20).

Part II: Repair and beyond

Ruey-Jiuan Regina Wu's paper, ''Repetition in the initiation of repair,'' falls
within the body of research that explores how repair operates not just in
English, but also in German, Japanese, Thai, Mandarin Chinese, among others. The
author investigates two repair initiations in Mandarin conversations, within the
framework of CA and based on a corpus of telephone and video-taped conversations
in familiar and friendly environment, collected in China, Taiwan and the USA.
The author points out how “like other-initiation of repair in English, the two
Mandarin repair-initiation formats under examination can similarly serve not
only to initiate repair but also as vehicles for accomplishing additional
negatively valenced projects” (p. 57), such as disbelief and nonalignment.

The next contribution was written by a team of authors: Barbara Fox, Fay Wouk,
Makoto Hayashi, Steven Fincke, Liang Tao, Marja-Leena Sorjonen, Minna Laakso and
Wilfrido Flores Hernandez. In ''A cross-linguistic investigation of the site of
initiation in same-turn self-repair,'' they deal with the process through which
speakers abort, recast or redo the utterance they have just stopped. In what
appears to be “the first study of site of repair initiation from a
cross-linguistic perspective” the authors propose “that there are indeed
universal principles at work in shaping site of initiation patterns
crosslinguistically” (p. 99). The site of initiation, that is when speakers do
initiate repair, is theoretically and practically presented and explained. The
analysis is based on data from seven languages, the Austronesian Bikol, spoken
in the Philippines, the Oro-Manguean Sochiapam Chinantec, spoken in Mexico, the
Finno-Ugric Finnish, the Austronesian Indonesian, Japanese, classified either as
a language isolate or as Altaic, English, the Sino-Tibetan Mandarin.

In ''Repairing reference,'' by Maria Egbert, Andrea Golato and Jeffrey D.
Robinson, intersubjectivity ties the exam of referencing, which is crucial to
sustain it, and repairing, which is crucial to re-establish it. The authors
compare commonalities and differences in repair-initiation actions in English
and German, through trouble-source speakers who target underspecified
‘thing’-referents. In detail, they turn out to be organized around and activated
through open-class repair initiators, such as ‘Was denn’, ‘Was’, ‘What’. One
methodological and theoretical issue is raised, concerning the universal and
specific dimensions of human sociality, in relation to particular linguistic
communities (see Hanks, 2007, among others). The goal of the authors is “to make
transparent how methodological decisions and procedures in conducting a
comparative analysis may influence the analysis and thus potentially impact the
theoretical development” (p. 131).

Part III: Aspects of response

In the conclusions of her paper, ''Projecting nonalignment in conversation,'' Anna
Lindström suggests “that the curled ‘ja’ may be more closely related with slight
nonalignment than outright disagreement or rejection” (p.157). This confirms the
assumption established by CA with reference to nonaligning actions. They are
typically delayed and projected through turn-initial objects, with a specific
attention to the use of curled ‘ja’ in Swedish conversation. Nonaligning actions
provide a resource for recipients, as they can both anticipate interlocutors’
responses and revise their prior actions.

The distribution and negotiation of knowledge among participants in interaction,
as “the primary, fundamental embodiment of sociality” (Schegloff, 2006: 70), is
a major focus of CA, and is examined by Trine Heinemann in ''Two answers to
inapposite inquiries,'' with reference to the practices of Danish speakers. The
focus is above all on the use and function of the modal adverb ''da.'' The
identification of analogies or parallels in English, German and Dutch could
contribute to laying the ground for a cross-linguistic comparison. “The
existence of a specific practice in these three languages does not entail that
all (or any other) languages would have to be able to do the same” (p.183). The
practices under scrutiny concern the recipient’s treatment of the interlocutor’s
failure to take into account pre-existing knowledge when framing a question.
These are two separate practices in Danish, but they might as well be single
ones in other languages.

In their contribution, ''Gaze, questioning, and culture,'' Federico Rossano,
Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson account for gaze behaviour in
conversation, through data from three unrelated cultures – or speech
communities. The goal is to find out possible universal as well as culturally
specific patterns of gazing. It is a pervasive conversational practice when
speakers look at one another in the course of a conversation. The study of
gazing addresses crucial issues of CA. Given the focus, descriptive statistics
play a major role. “The use of large corpora […] is necessary […] to develop a
comparative analysis of the systematicity of specific practices practices across
different cultures” (p.238). Research findings, results, tables, figures are
displayed in the core part of the chapter. The three languages and cultures
involved are completely unrelated and refer to the following speakers: Italians
of northern Italy; speakers of Yélî Dnye, a language isolate spoken on Rossel
Island, off Papua New Guinea; speakers of Tenejapan Tzeltal, a Mayan language
spoken in an indigenuous community in the highlands of southern Mexico.

''Negotiating boundaries in talk,'' by Makoto Hayashi and Kyung-eun Yoon, offers
insights on minimal vocalizations, ‘un’ in Japanese and ‘mhmm’ in English, which
enable the recipient to respond to co-participants prior or ongoing talk. A line
of research on these “response tokens” (p. 250) have already developed within
the framework of CA, in relation to the sequential and interactional contexts
for their deployment. Hayashi and Yoon focus on the practice and function of
third-position deployment. “The discussion […] seems to provide some basis for
arguing that the usage of third position minimal response as a turn-exit device
is particularly fitted to the type of turn-constructional practices described
for Japanese and Korean” (p. 272). In detail, their “meanings” (p. 251) depend
on their placement within the ongoing sequence of actions and activity. In the
end, the situated meaning and the ‘semantics’ of minimal response tokens in
Japanese and Korean, compared with English, also intend to contribute to
cross-linguistic analysis and investigations on the matter.

Part IV: Action formation and sequencing

In ''Alternative responses to assessments,'' Marja-Leena Sorjonen and Auli
Hakulinen examine the paradigm of utterance types. Their research (on Finnish
data) focuses on those utterances that are expressed in agreement with a prior
assessment. Such responses are accomplished by the recipient through the partial
and selective repetition of the prior assessment. There are three alternative
ways, with different interactional functions. “The three response types […]
analyzed show that participants in interaction do not merely express agreement
in terms of its strength” (p. 300). According to a schema developed by the
authors, there are six alternative response types, but just two initiate with an
element other than the verb in Finnish, which reflects two of its traits. In
contrast with English, for instance, but also on a comparison with Japanese and
Estonian, neither the presence of the subject as a clausal element nor the
subject-verb grammatically constrained order turn out to be mandatory (see,
e.g., Helasvuo, 2001, among others).

The starting assumption of ''Language-specific resources in repair and
assessments,'' another chapter by Jack Sidnell, is that, given the relevance and
features of social action, talk-in-interaction builds it up out of the character
and prosodic, lexical and grammatical resources proper of a given language.
Sidnell examines findings about the use of ‘if’-prefaced repeats that are
deployed as second assessments, through evidence from two communities of
speakers of Caribbean English Creoles, with particular reference to the
practices of other-initiated repair. An example is “if Zaria is wild” (p. 315).
It introduces a question in repair of a previous turn, which is partly repeated,
eventually to make sure it really was a question. Patterns and practices seem to
be language specific, in the sense that native speakers are endowed with tools
that provide unique resources to face a range of interactional contingencies.
Admittedly, this “local instantiation of a generic interactional practice […]
takes its local character from the grammatical features of the variety” (p. 322).

Using the methodology of CA, Galina Bolden, in her ''Implementing delayed
actions,'' focuses on a language-specific (here, the language in question is
Russian) solution to a generic and likely universal issue. She does so by
keeping a basic comparison with English. The discourse action under scrutiny is
what Sacks calls ''skip-connecting'' (1995: II, 349-351, 356-357), which refers to
a situation in which an ongoing utterance is connected to a non-contiguous prior
one. It is examined through a corpus of recorded interactions of native
speakers. The connector is the Russian discourse particle ‘-to’. The sentence
that translates “How did they make rain?” (p. 332) is a request for
clarification. It ties to the issue of the ‘rain’, and targets a turn other than
the one that immediately preceded the above question. “The analysis suggests
that this discourse particle helps parse the ongoing stream of interaction by
instructing the interlocutor to understand the current turn by reference to some
earlier, not immediately preceding talk” (p. 350).

Part V: Conclusion

Emanuel Schegloff’s closing chapter, ''One perspective on Conversation Analysis:
Comparative Perspectives,'' critically reviews the papers in the volume and
evaluates the implications and relevance of the adopted comparative approach in
the domain and for the characterization of CA position, in two directions. One
is the way in which the theoretical perspective has factually been developed in
the present collection. Most studies fall into the mainstream of a readership
drawn from social and human sciences, along with a distinction between
comparative in nature and in context. Therefore, more dimensions should have
been taken into account, given the nature and orientation of the volume, which,
according to Schegloff, do not turn out to be as unique as announced in the
introduction. Another direction of his critique concerns methodological issues
raised paper by paper, namely, for instance, participants’ availability, role,
function and significance in the accomplishment of comparative research; the
different orientations emerging from the chapters; comparability across data;
problems in analysis and findings. What matters to Schegloff is a shift in CA,
“what can currently be achieved in CA comparative analysis in which the terms of
comparison are linguistic or cultural” (p. 398). “Might it not be these
contingencies of interactional organization that will underwrite CA comparative
studies in a fashion that will not elevate or demean one culture vis-à-vis
another but will take the measure of each be by reference to the organization of
interaction for the human species?” (p. 399).


Emanuel Schegloff provides a thorough critical evaluation of the volume, which
is complementary to the perspective displayed by the editor in the Introduction.
In this way, two authoritative views implement the design towards a more solidly
structured framework of CA.
The volume makes an affirmative step towards insights that take into account
languages other than English, which raises the question of methodological
reliability of CA. This means that the multiple orientations of CA have to be
able to confront issues of comparativeness, interdisciplinarity, and
multilingualism. The scenario is definitely wide open, as stressed by Schegloff,
because even more dimensions could rightly have been included in the analytical
framework, in order to pinpoint the interrelations and independence of
communities, languages, resources. The focus is on interactions in a perspective
that unfolds around the centrality of the participant. The corpora presented in
the papers display a multifarious set of everyday situations and contexts, where
the protagonist is the group of interactants, their individual verbal acts and
their interrelations. In this sense, all the ethnic communities involved,
Russian, Caribbean English Creole, Finnish, Danish, Japanese, Korean, and all
the others, seem to suggest that “commonalities” (p. 3) actually exist and have
a given consistence. Apart from the richness of data that have been collected
and investigated, what is remarkable is that affinities are often pinpointed and
stressed in relation to the function, role, position, deployment and meanings of
discourse particles, of minimal speech units, such as Russian ‘-to’, Caribbean
English Creole ‘if’, German ‘was’, Swedish curled ‘ja’, Japanese ‘un’ and
English ‘mhmm’, among others. They represent concrete and practical research
targets that are diffusedly and commonly used, in reason of their interactional
multifunctionality, therefore they can be accurately detected, observed, and
described. They instantiate the dynamic aspects of language in communication.
They help the effort to move away from research exclusively focused on English.
Now, they should constitute a stimulus also towards the detection, observation
and description of larger speech chunks.


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ABOUT THE REVIEWER Giampaolo Poletto is a doctoral candidate in Applied Linguistics at the Doctoral School of Pécs University, in Hungary. He has published in journals and online and participated in international conferences. His interests range from Pragmatics to Discourse Analysis, from Applied Linguistics to Second Language Teaching. He is the author of the book 'Humor in the language classroom. A discursive analysis of interactions in an educational environment,' Lambert Academic Publishing (2010).

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