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Review of  Emotion in Interaction

Reviewer: José Ignacio Aguilar Río
Book Title: Emotion in Interaction
Book Author: Anssi Peräkylä Marja-Leena Sorjonen
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.2103

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“Emotion in Interaction” presents eleven original studies of emotion display in natural contexts where oral interaction episodes occur. The focus is on a) the (non-)verbal and (non-)vocal means to construct, express, and manage emotional stance; b) how emotion and action intertwine in interaction; and c) the role of emotions in institutional interaction. Emotion is ultimately characterized as a pervasive, multimodal, social phenomenon that is constructed in social action.

In the introductory chapter, the editors state the aim is to observe how emotion is expressed, made observable and “publicly accessible” (p. 5), and “responsible to interactional context” (p. 4). The focus is on the various “emotional resources” (p. 6) available to the interactants -- (non-)verbal and (non-)vocal. Emotion is depicted as a multimodal social phenomenon. Interactants combine multiple resources in order to index emotion -- body, facial expressions, gaze, gesture, hand movement, head movement, posture, among others. The editors are agnostic as to the possibility of elucidating any causal links between action and emotion. Four research questions are announced: a) How do emotional stances come to be expressed (non-)verbally, (non-)vocally during social interaction? b) How does this expression participate in the construction of action sequences? c) How is emotion regulated, managed in institutional contexts? d) How does the study of emotion display contribute to the development of language and social theories? Chapter 1 concludes with an outline of the contributions.

Chapter 2, by Marjorie Harness Goodwin, Asta Cekaite, Charles Goodwin, and Eve Tulbert, is entitled “Emotion as stance”. The authors depict “emotion display [as] situated practice” (p. 16). In order to make emotion recognizable by other fellow interactants, individuals utilize their face and body, as well as vocal means, such as prosody. Studies on face use for emotion display are reviewed. The authors claim that this literature has isolated the face from the rest of the ecology of individuals participating in social interaction. They aim at integrating these observable data -- the face, the body, and vocal means -- into one complex framework that informs about emotion display. They achieve this by presenting interaction transcripts that combine Praat voice measurements, discourse, and kinetic depictions. The scope of emotion analysis is thus limited to what is directly observable, which suits the definition of emotion as a “public form of action” (p. 17). The data presented come from videotaped observations of four girls’ lunchtime break at school. The thorough and complex transcripts effectively integrate the various sources of information claimed by the authors to give insight into the study of emotion display.

In chapter 3, “Distress in adult-child interaction”, Anthony J. Wootton distinguishes “display of emotion and talk about it” (p. 42) as two separate phenomena, which has profound epistemological and methodological implications. The author focuses on “breaches of expectations” (p. 43) of a 3 year-old girl -- the author’s daughter. The author refers to such breaches as “distress”, which is expressed by crying. Two sets of data are presented. The first comprises videotaped observations of the author’s family’s routine household situations. The second presents an autistic child’s classroom situation, and expands on the study of the link between breached expectations and distress expression. Wootton aims for a “functional analysis of emotion” (p. 58), which allows him to “identify practices involved in composition of emotional displays” (p. 60).

Chapter 4, “Facial expression and interactional regulation of emotion”, is by Anssi Peräkylä and Johanna Ruusuvuori. Quoting Ekman (2009), the authors analyse the use of the face to communicate information at closures of tellings in dyads’ interaction. The authors focus on the observed participants’ “interactional regulation”, rather than on their “emotional regulation”. The idea here is that the participants’ actions “influence each other’s emotions in situ” (p. 65). The authors identify how the observed individuals having the floor accomplished “facial pursuit[s]” when confronted with the recipient’s “delayed responses at closures of tellings” (p. 66).

Douglas W. Maynard and Jeremy Freese are the authors of chapter 5, “Good news, bad news and affect: Practical and temporal ‘emotion work’ in everyday life”. The authors’ research paradigm is social constructivism. Emotions are depicted as conventional phenomena, rather than the result of biology or determinism. The focus is on the display of emotions. The authors are agnostic as regards emotions as “internal accompaniments” (p. 94). The object of research is prosody. Specific prosodic features are associated with different types of tellings. However, no deterministic relations may be established between prosody and meaning. The prosodic features of the interlocutor who holds the floor are describe as elements that help other fellow interactants assess the valence that the latter attribute to their experience as local participants in a social episode. “Prosodic devices” are said to be “highly multifunctional”, interlocutors use them to accomplish “systematic relationships with lexical, sequential, situational information” (p. 99). Ultimately, the authors deny any systematic correlations of prosody and emotional display.

Chapter 6, by Elizabeth Couper-Kuhlen, is “Exploring affiliation in the reception of conversational complaint stories”. The object of study is “the recipient’s task in storytelling” (p. 115). Stivers’ (2008) distinction between “alignment” and “affiliation” is invoked. Affiliation indicates understanding, not quite a cognitive achievement, but a recipient’s display of an empathic attitude towards the teller. As regards “response cries” (Goffman, 1981), it is hard to determine whether those produced by the story recipients indicate their affiliation. Response cries are described as emotional display tokens that need more definite lexical elements if they are to be linked with whatever observable actions the individuals are seen to perform. The same applies to other non-verbal pseudo-affiliative tokens, such as head nods, which the author describes as “insufficient affiliative markers” (p. 142).

Chapter 7, by Auli Hakulinen and Marja-Leena Sorjonen, is “Being equivocal: Affective responses left unspecified”. This chapter focuses on the expression of affect. The approach can be described as lexical, insofar as the authors analyse the functions of the Finnish response cry token “Voi etta” (p. 159). The authors conclude that this token allows story recipients to express an implicit affective stance, thus orienting to a certain ambivalence of the affective character of prior talk.

Markku Haakana’s chapter is “Laughter in conversation: The case of ‘fake’ laughter”. A reference to Jefferson’s (1987) transcripts of laughter opens the chapter. The multimodal character of laughter is emphasized. There is much more to laughter than “symbolic conventionalized forms of laughter” such as “hu” or “he” (p. 175). The concept of “fake laughter” - that which is not a spontaneous response to a previous action - is divided into “forced” and “lexicalized” laughter. “Forced laughter” is that which sounds real yet is delivered in an explicitly unnatural manner. “Lexicalized laughter” is that which is delivered as distinct, lexical units, such as “hu” or “he”. The focus is on the latter. The analysis of 20 hours of telephone conversation suggests that fake lexicalized laughter “signal[s] various affective stances”, as it is deployed in “slots in which real laughter could occur” (p. 184). Fake lexicalized laughter appears as a practice among young male adults -- however, the corpus of data is insufficiently large to draw sociolinguistic conclusions. Future research should help to identify other fake affect display tokens.

Chapter 9, by Alexa Hepburn and Jonathan Potter, is “Crying and crying responses”. The object of research is emotion, that is, as an observable and communicable object. Psychological approaches to emotion are ruled out. Crying is understood, not quite as a feeling, but as a stance that may be locally made recognizable. The data present telephone conversations from a Child Protection helpline in the UK. Somewhat echoing Jefferson’s (1987) focus on laughter, the authors try to determine the features of crying, as well as define a transcription procedure that allows them to capture its multimodal complexity. The focus is also on the recipients’ response(s) to crying, both in mundane and institutional settings. The authors conclude that the recipients may show both sympathetic and empathetic attitudes to crying.

Chapter 10, by Christian Heath, Dirk vom Lehn, Jason Cleverly, and Paul Luff, is “Revealing surprise: The local ecology and the transposition of action”. Emotion expression can be both occasioned by and sensitive to the local circumstances of the context at hand. The focus is on “surprise as an emotion” (p. 212). Surprise is both constituted by and constitutive of whatever objects and/or events inhabit the ecology of those participating in a social episode. The authors choose museums as the (institutional) context. The data comprise videotaped observations of various museums in Britain, where visitors react to the exhibited works. Surprise is always supported by a secondary emotion (disgust, horror, humour, curiosity). The display of surprise has the double function to “appreciate and encourage further inquiry” (p. 218), and to ask an interlocutor to align with felt emotion (p. 232).

Liisa Voutilainen is the author of chapter 11, “Responding to emotion in cognitive psychotherapy”. The data come from 57 audio-recorded cognitive therapy sessions, made during a patient’s two-year long therapy. The focus is on the “[therapist’s] responses that function as empathic” (p. 235). The data show instances where the patient’s disclosure of her feelings is addressed by the therapist, who displays actions that resemble “affiliating responses to trouble telling/complaints” (p. 236). Such affiliation may however not be associated with that of non-institutional contexts. The therapist’s affiliative responses aim at interpreting/challenging her patient’s beliefs. The institutional objective seems thus maintained.

Chapter 12, by John Heritage and Anna Lindström, is “Knowledge, empathy and emotion in a medical encounter”. The focus is on the expression of emotion by a nurse during an institutional medical encounter. The patient’s “disclosure of anxiety and depression” (p. 257) is responded to with personal disclosure by the medical professional. The latter’s responses are described as attempts to display an empathetic attitude towards the former. The data come from “self-administered audio-tape recording” (p. 258) by the medical professional.

The final chapter of the book, by co-editor Anssi Peräkylä, is “Epilogue: what does the study of interaction offer to emotion research?”. The four research questions laid out in chapter 1 are repeated, as she assesses how the eleven contributions have answered the questions. Peräkylä states that “no unified social-psychological theory of emotion” (p. 277) has been accomplished, yet various conceptualizations of emotional phenomena have been put forth. A conversation analytical approach, such as the one that unifies the contributions, does not allow the researchers to study basic emotions, but blended ones. A conception of emotion such as that of the contributors does not entail “a reflection of inner states but a multimodal situated practice” (p. 279). Ultimately, “emotion” and “feeling” are presented as virtual synonyms, which may become observable as “interactional ‘mechanisms’” (p. 288). Future research should address the question of the universality/cultural specificity of emotions, as well as the scope of emotions within the individual’s evolution.

A thorough transcription convention can be found at the end of the volume, plus a list of references and a useful index.


“Emotion in Interaction” accomplishes the chief objective to “[explore] emotion in naturally occurring spoken interaction” (p. 3). The attention of the contributors to the complex unfolding structure of interactions is extremely detailed, their capacity to scrutinize the data is thorough. The most impressive highlight is the contributors’ ability to show emotion as a multimodal phenomenon. The complexity and ingeniousness of certain transcripts allow the reader to consider specific observable emotional elements from different angles, and to reintegrate these into a complex, detailed, multilevel model of emotional expression.

Some flaws may however be pointed out. Throughout the volume this reader kept wondering what the authors meant by “emotion” and “affect”. As pointed out in the concluding chapter, “no unified social-psychological theory of emotion” (p. 277) was aimed for, so none was to be expected. However, it is surprising to see that no reference be made to the work of Antonio Damasio, whose research aims partly at the distinction between the many concepts that inhabit the lexical field of emotion. Damasio (2003), for instance, attempts to distinguish “affect”, “feeling” and “emotion”, by situating them within public or private realms of experience. The contributors to “Emotion in Interaction” claim agnosticism concerning whatever value emotion may have insofar as an intimate, non-observable, psychological process. This notwithstanding, the epistemological question concerning the possible ways to study emotion raises a methodological one: what is emotion, and how can it be accessed, according to a conversation analytical approach? Other than emotional actions such as “laughter” (chapter 8), “crying” and “sobbing” (chapter 9), or “tearfulness” (chapter 3), the volume studies specific emotions, among them “disgust” (chapter 2), “distress” (chapter 3) and “surprise” (chapter 10). It is unclear how some of these emotions have come to be named. Conversation analysis takes an emic approach (ten Have, 1999). As far as categorizing, identifying and naming emotions in the current volume is concerned, a fairly clear emic approach can be identified in Goodwin et al.’s chapter -- which analyses the expression of disgust -- insofar as one of the children does actually utter the word “disgusting” (p. 19). This emic approach seems somewhat less clear in Wootton’s study of the expression of distress by a 3-year-old. In effect, there are no specific, definite, lexical indications in the transcripts that suggest that the emotional expression accomplished by the little girl is precisely “distress”. To what extent is this “distress” the result of a partial etic approach taken by the author? Is it possible that the author’s reading of an emotion partly originates from the analyst’s own intuition (ten Have, 1999) -- who happens to be the child’s father?

Another significant absence is that of Anita Pomerantz, whose conversation analytical works are extensively quoted, but not some of her recent methodological approaches. Pomerantz (2005) advocates administering videotaped data to the interlocutors and interaction participants whose discourse is analysed. This may assist the analyst “to gain access to the thoughts, feelings, concerns, interpretations, reactions, etc. that were oriented to by the participants” (ibid., p. 96). This does not quite equate to the critique made above of Wootton’s auto-analysis practices. In effect, as Pomerantz suggests (2005, p. 112), having the observed participants become occasional co-analysts may shed light on unclear events, as well as suggest hints for further analysis. Such recall practices may have clarified extract 3 in chapter 10 (p. 223), where one of the interlocutors attending an exhibition refers to a plastinated foetus as “that little thing that makes you feel so sick” -- this reviewer understood the implicit idea of suffering from nausea during pregnancy.

These recall procedures would justify the use of “in” in the volume’s title. The conversation analytical, detached approach to affect, emotion and feeling taken by the authors does not quite justify the implicit notion that experience is both inside and outside, as the volume’s title seems to suggest. Since the authors claim that they understand emotion as “interactional mechanisms” (p. 288), a more adequate title may have been “Emotion as Interaction.” The psychological dimension to emotion is certainly not denied by the authors, but neither is it explicitly taken into account, with the exception of Wootton, who takes into account interactive practices “which the [analyzed] child has a basis for treating as having been established in the recent past” (p. 55). The object of research and the research paradigm seem to have been somewhat reformulated along the way. Chapter 1 promises an “exploration of emotion in naturally occurring spoken interaction” (p. 3), whereas chapter 13 concludes “what does the study of interaction offer to emotion research?” (p. 274). Indeed, the notion of “experience” retained does not seem compatible with recall practices, such as those among researchers in ergonomics (Cahour & Licoppe, 2010), whose chief objective is to study the intimate point of view of individuals who interact with their fellow interlocutors and contexts.

Other than the lack of conformity among the authors concerning their terminological choices of key concepts such as “affect”, “emotion” and “feeling”, insufficient systematicity is also observed as regards the authors’ methodological choices. For instance, a section concerning the participants, data production and processing, would have been useful -- this is the case with some chapters, whereas others simply give a brief account in a final note. Finally, the hints for future
research seem appropriate and promising, especially as regards the universal or culturally-specific value of emotions. Concerning this point, it may also be useful to reflect on how representative the data presented may be. In effect, one could argue that what can be concluded -- or incidentally learned -- about studying emotion in naturally occurring interactions in Britain, the US and Finland, is necessarily limited. This diversity does not seem to allow for comprehensiveness. However, is this methodologically valid from the point of view of strict conversation analysis? It may be appropriate to have more sociolinguistic analytic categories -- such as class, or gender – that help account for a larger representativeness. This of course, presents a major methodological problem for conversation analysts and researchers who adhere to membership categorization analysis methods. Yet, if the universality or cultural specificity of emotions is what the research is about, valid methodological choices must be found.

“Emotion in Interaction” is a thorough and thought-provoking editorial accomplishment. It certainly clarifies minutely how action, context, emotion, experience, individuals and interaction, determine and are determined by one another, in a way that can be accessed and directly observed by means of careful analysis. Readership accustomed to conversation analytical methods will find the volume enlightening and inspiring. Those unfamiliar with this methodology risk a certain disappointment at the way emotion is studied, and may be left wanting a more social-behaviourally encompassing approach.


Cahour, B., & Licoppe, C. (2010). Confrontations with traces of one’s own activity. Revue d’anthropologie des connaissances, Vol 4, 2(2), a-k.

Damasio, A. (2003). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain. Harcourt.

Ekman, P. (2009). Introduction to the third edition. In C. Darwin, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. (Introduction, afterword and commentaries by Paul Ekman) (3rd ed., pp. xxi-xxxvi) Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Jefferson, G. (1987). Notes on laughter in the pursuit of intimacy. In G. Button, & J. R. Lee (Ed.), Talk and Social Organisation (pp. 152-205). Clevedon: Multilingual Matters Ltd.

Pomerantz, A. (2005). Using participants’ video stimulated comments to complement analyses of interactional practices. In H. T. Molder & J. Potter (Ed.), Conversation and Cognition (pp. 93-113). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stivers, T. (2008). Stance, Alignment, and Affiliation During Storytelling: When Nodding Is a Token of Affiliation. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 41(1), 31-57.
Jose Ignacio Aguilar Río is a Senior Lecturer at Sorbonne Nouvelle University in France. He teaches undergraduate and post-graduate courses in education, applied linguistics and research methodology. His research interests are in classroom interaction, foreign language teacher education and research methodology. He has presented papers at international conferences in Europe. His works have been published in international reviews.

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