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LINGUIST List 19.1486

Mon May 05 2008

All: Obituary: Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)

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        1.    Susan Ervin-Tripp, Obituary: Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)


Message 1: Obituary: Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)
Date: 05-May-2008
From: Susan Ervin-Tripp <ervintrippberkeley.edu>
Subject: Obituary: Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)
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Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)
"Born to transcribe Watergate"

Erving Goffman concluded his presidential address to the ASA in 1982 with the
injunction that "human social life is ours to study naturalistically" and that
as sociologists we should "sustain in regard to all elements of social life a
spirit of unfettered, unsponsored enquiry." No one's work better exemplifies
unsponsored enquiry than that of Gail Jefferson, who has died in Rinsumageest,
The Netherlands, two months short of her 70th birthday. Over four decades, for
the majority of which she held no university position and was unsalaried,
Jefferson's research into talk-in-interaction has set the standard for what
became known as Conversation Analysis (CA). Her work has greatly influenced the
sociological study of interaction, but also disciplines beyond, especially
linguistics, communication, and anthropology. It would not be so much true that
her work was inter- or multi-disciplinary as that disciplinary boundaries were
irrelevant to her enquiries into what Goffman referred to as the interaction order.

In the spring of 1965, to fulfil a requirement for graduating at UCLA as a dance
major, Jefferson enrolled in a course Harvey Sacks (1935-1975) was teaching.
Having had some previous experience in transcribing when she was hired in 1963
as a clerk typist at the UCLA Department of Public Health to transcribe
sensitivity-training sessions for prison guards, Jefferson began transcribing
some of the recordings that served as the materials out of which Sacks' earliest
lectures were developed. Later she did graduate work under his supervision, by
which time she was already beginning to shape the field conceptually as well as
through her transcriptions of the really fine details of interaction, including
the detail of laughter, capturing as closely as possible precisely what is said
and how it is said, rather than glossing things in the talk as, for instance
((S laughs)). The distinctiveness of Jefferson's research, in contrast to the
more 'structural' (sequence pattern) work in CA, was to focus on the machineries
through which interaction is constructed and how they are deployed in the
moment-by-moment shaping and re-shaping of interaction. Her special contribution
was to reveal how interaction is endlessly contingent. For almost the last
decade, and right up to her death, Jefferson has been transcribing the Watergate
tapes. Jefferson's last paper, delivered at a conference in Sweden in July last
year - the month that her cancer was diagnosed - was about the machinery for
laughter. Much of the data for that paper were from the Watergate materials; in
it, she resumed the dialogue she'd had with Sacks more than 40 years previously.

The warmth of the reception when she entered the packed auditorium in which she
delivered that last paper was like that accorded to a rock star, conveying the
very considerable admiration scholars had for her and her work. So many people
in CA and beyond felt a profound regard for her work. She was sometimes feared
for the uncompromising standards of scientific rigour she maintained and
insisted upon, but she was loved in equal measure. She held a teaching position
for only 4 years (1974-1978), yet she was known as an exceptionally fine
teacher, in part through summer schools and training workshops, in part also
through her comments on people's work (Goffman wrote to the editor of Language
about her review of a paper - a critique of CA - he had submitted: "Her eleven
pages of specific suggestions ...were really quite remarkable, a product of a
closer and more loving reading than anyone deserves").

Jefferson was born on April 22 1938 in Iowa City, and after re-locating to New
York for a short while, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended high
school, then UCLA (B.A., Dance, 1965). After completing her Ph.D. (Social
Sciences) at UC Irvine in 1972, she had temporary appointments at the
Universities of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and California (UCSB, UCI and UCLA),
then research positions at the Universities of Manchester (UK) (1978-1981),
Tilburg, Netherlands (1981-1983), and an honorary position at York (1984-1985) -
after which she moved (back) to the Netherlands and married (1987) Albert
Stuulen. She was the most incorruptible of scholars, whose work has contributed
inestimably to our understanding of a key area of social life and conduct - our
ordinary socially situated interactions with one another.

Submitted by Paul Drew, John Heritage, and Anita Pomerantz.


Linguistic Field(s): Not Applicable
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