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When we study the theory of media and communication, there are some questions we cannot neglect, such as how does the public opinion form? How people to communicate with each other? Or, how social network is constructed? These questions share a similarity that they all have a tight connection with conversation. Systematically and cross disciplinarily studying the conversation, therefore, serves as an explicitly useful method to explore the answers further. One the one hand, conversation is the indispensable method for people to achieve successful communication. On the other hand successful communication always gives forth to the formation of public sphere and public opinion. Consequently, conversation theory becomes an inherent part of studying public and opinion, on which sociologists and communication theorists focus most. The relationship of conversation and media discourse is also inalienable. They share common features while hold apparent difference. To understand conversation in media can help the media to function more efficient. The present essay will start from the introducing two traditional conversation approaches and then look for the importance to understand conversation from the perspective of doing media and communication research.
â…¡. Brief introduction to multidisciplinary studies of conversation
In linguistic sphere, systematically and scientifically studies about conversation give many hints to the theorists in communication and media studies. One of the most important achievements is conversation analysis, which emerged in 1960s in the work of Harvey Sacks, Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. This approach aims to answer the question about categories of social organizations used as resource when people communicate through talk-in-interaction.
Conversation analysis exams, from an interactional perspective, the inherent principles and practices through the talk or dialogue and analyzes them by studying the real-life interactions recordings. The method is based on the assumption that 'the sense-making devices that participants in talk in interaction orient to can be understood as forms of situated, interactional reasoning' (cf. Heritage, 1984; ten Have, 1999). In the analytical process, data collecting and analyzing from the conversation is essential, because this step provide direct description of the participants. By creating and doing experiments with the Embodied Conversational Agents (virtual humans capable of having talk with real humans), four properties of face-to-face conversation can be categorized: (1) the distinction between conversational behaviors (e.g. eyebrow raises) and conversational functions (e.g. turn-taking), (2) the importance of timing among conversational behaviors, (3) the distinction between interactional and propositional functions of conversation, and (4) the planning of how to convey a concept with maximal efficiency (J. Cassel, 2006: 163-165). These properties all involve with both verbal and nonverbal state of the conversation, in terms of the face-to-face talk. Through conversation, people usually use every possible means to make their meaning understood by the counterparts. They may use body language or facial express simultaneously when things may be difficult to express merely by speech. Face-to-face conversation, therefore, turns out to be a highly efficient way to exchange ideas and bring about new concepts. By detailed and step by step identifying conversation properties, concrete and whole idea about the conversation can be formed, thus push forward the study to wider and more distributed ground, such as the field of anthropology, psychology and communication studies.
Gordon Pask developed conversation theory in great scope. The theory regards social systems as symbolic and language-oriented system in which the interpretation of others' behaviour decides certain response from the conversation. Pask pointed out that conversation is actually the process of decoding and agreement of the meaning. 'When two people come to an agreement based on understanding, then even if the agreement was built upon transient elements which changed, the conversant can re-create from their understandings new agreements to replace the old ones' (Pask, 1975¼š91). In his view, conversations can be conducted in three logical levels: natural language, object language and Metalanguages. In these three levels, the first level is for general discussion that acting as the small talk at the very beginning of the conversation; the second level is for discussing the subject matter. Individuals can use object language to initiate and activate an idea and illustrate it; as for the third level, it means the conversation can be conducted with questions, answers and commands to develop and explain the idea or concept. As a result, agreements and meaning decoding can be generated between the conversation actors, when one person's explanation is consistent with the other's points. At last, understandings are able to be produced as long as the conversing parties are capable of providing explanations of oneself and that of the counterpart. The fundamental idea of the theory was that learning occurs through conversations about a subject matter which serves to make knowledge explicit.
These two aspects of conversation studies can serve as the guideline for further research. Also they both indicate a common agreement that the conversation plays a very important role in the formation of public sphere and public opinion, thus build up strong relationship with the media and communication theories. The following part, therefore, will focus on the relationship between conversation and public sphere, conversation and public opinion as well as conversation in media discourse.
â…¢. The importance for media and communication theorists to understand conversation
1. Conversation as key factor of the formation of public opinion
The formation of public opinion starts from the agreement and understanding between individuals. And understanding between people is one of the determinant factors for conducting efficient communication. In other word, communication succeeds 'only when the audience correctly understands the communicators, when he or she correctly interprets what the communicator intended him or her to come to believe or do' (Hunter, 2006:656).
Thus, conversation can serve as the key component of the public opinion forming process. As what the former chapter has discussed, the conversation is actually the process of coding and decoding meaning or sense of the participants. By conducting conversation, the degree of misinterpreting or misunderstanding can be largely reduced, even though disagreement still exists. In fact, the purpose of conversation is to reach agreement and foster mutual trust, for meaning. In this respect, when more people involve in certain conversation, more social member will understand or accept one certain idea or concept. Public opinion is formed in public sphere. Public sphere is a social place where individuals and groups can get together and discuss and express freely, thus find mutual interest, reach common agreement and formulate public opinion. Therefore, when the conversation happens in this sphere, public opinion can be gradually and basically formulated through rational discussion as well as idea exchange. If we want to initiate the public opinion, make someone to believe or accept certain concept, we can put them into the conversation. And if we understand the inherent mechanism and skill of conversation, the result can possibly be what we expect.
In Herbert Blumer's "symbolic interactionism", conversation is the central metaphor for society. In the theory, he illustrated three core principles for people to put self and socialization into a larger community. The first one is the meaning. Blumer states that based on the meanings that people have given to other people or things, humans can show corresponding reaction and response to them. This principle can be regarded as the determinant one to judge the human behavior. The second principle is language. Language provides us with a means to negotiate meaning through symbols. By involving in speech interaction with others, participants are able to identify meaning and develop discourse. Language is the direct reason for investigating a conversation. The third principle is the thought. Thought is 'a mental conversation or dialogue that requires role taking, or imagining different points of view."(Lindsey D. Nelson, 1998) It is constituted and formed by intrapersonal and internalized conversation. It modifies each individual's interpretation of symbols. Blumer pointed out that the interaction between people is not simply based on the reacting to each other's behaviors, but on the interpreting or defining each other's actions. That is to say, the meaning embedded in the process of communication is the source of correct response. He then demonstrated: "human interaction is mediated by the use of symbols and signification, by interpretation, or by ascertaining the meaning of one another's action" (Blumber 1962). Conversation, in social ground, plays a major role for people to interact or communicate with each other. In larger sense, the interpretation of the meaning of the action is actually the interpretation of the conversation.
In addition, conversation as an essential determinant of the formation of the public opinion can be put in the culture sphere. According to Harvey Sacks (1992), culture can be defined as a "system for generating recognizable actions". Although actions or speech in different culture may differ, similarities still exist. After examination of conversation in different language systems (such as the Antiguan Creole conversation and Caribbean turn-taking), linguists find that conversational turn taking is not subject much to cross-cultural differentiation. With this regard, public opinion can be formulated in public group compromised by social members from different cultures. A number of ethnographers even describe social group or culture as the organization of conversational practices. Marjorie Goodwin (1990), after observing the behaviors of African-American children, analyzed how social groups were constructed and realized within a set of practices of speaking. In fact, when we look into the practical work of legal and archeological ground, we can find that the work of these professional settings is actually constituted by conversational practices.
2. Conversation analysis as a key component of media discourse
'The media have long been focus amongst those working with language and communication, as well as others working within the broader field of media studies' (Peter Garrett and Allen Bell, 1998). Media discourse, as a consequence, is developed in various areas. Sociologists, linguists and physiologists all leave particular space for media discourse analysis.
In general, media discourse is related to the language use in the social contexts. It can be studied, on the one hand, from the external part of language such as from the perspective of social structures, social practices and social events; on the other hand, studies can be focused on the internal analysis, including the approaches like semantics, grammar and vocabulary, phonology of speech and graphology of writing. The reasons for media discourse to attract multidisciplinary studies due much to (a) the rich source of readily accessible information of media, (b) the influence of media on the attitudes and application of language in a speech community, (c) the social meaning and stereotypes projected through language and communication through media use and (d) the effect of media on the formation and expression of culture, politics and social life. (Bell, 1995a: 23)
When we analyze the conversation in the media discourse, we aim to explore the situational micromechanics of verbal interactions and translated conversational written text from the within, and the way speakers manage topic development and topic change as well as the social influence from the without.
Conversation analysis of media discourse is mainly circled on the analysis of the conversational practices and conventions in news interview, broadcast talk and even the conversational text in written media, like online charting room or software, forum, and blog. Through detailed and qualitative studies of various speech and behavior production in media present, conversation analysis is not only applied to "explicate the practices and reasoning which speakers use and rely on in producing their own behavior and interpreting the dealing with the behavior of others" (Greatbatch, 1998), but also has gradually been used to describe recurrent patterns of interaction. As is illustrated above, conversation is a dynamic interactive process. So is the broadcast interview. More specifically, when the interview is put on the media, it is embodied with the features and properties of the ordinary conversation. Broadcast interviews or talks are usually made to reflect the reality in people's daily life or the major public concerns. However, the biggest difference between the broadcast interview or talk and common conversation lies in that the media have their audience. That is to say, conversation put in media is no longer a simple turn-taking interactive process, but has to cause influence and reach certain ends. In this sense, the skillfully and scientifically design of conversation discourse and text in media can be regarded as the basic condition for media to exercise their functions in informing, providing a forum for public discussion as well as serving the political system.
Consequently, conversation analysis research needs to reveal "the ways in which participation in broadcast program is shaped and constrained by interactional practices" (Greatbatch, 1998). The interactive practices of broadcast talk are always in consistent with the tasks and constraint of the media organization, thus affect the audience's opinion and options. Therefore, it can be safely concluded that conversation analysis of media of discourse can help media to function more efficiently.
The present essay starts from the brief and overall introduction of two traditional approaches towards conversational studies. In linguistic approach, conversation is analyzed in a scientific and micromechanical way, in which the specific methods of conversation analysis and conversation properties are clearly identified. In conversation theory approach, Gordon Pask tends to bring conversation studies into a social ground. He focuses on the meaning, agreement and understanding in conversation, thus extend them to larger social sphere.
The second part of the essay the author tries to explain the importance for media and communication theorists to understand conversation in two basic points. The first point is that since conversation can serve as the basic condition of the public opinion formation, to understand conversation is the premier step to understand public opinion. In the author's view, conversation can help social members to foster mutual respect, trust and understanding, thus lays a basic foundation of the further develop of the understanding in order to form public opinion at last. Conversation is also an action happening in public sphere, so it is subject to social behaviours and culture. However, to some extend, conversation is also the essential component of social group and culture. It influences the public opinion to great degree. The second point is to relate conversation analysis to media discourse. Media discourse can be a multidirectional subject. We can exam it from the external and internal. When we put conversation into the media and study the corresponding media discourse and text, we will find that media conversation and ordinary conversation are almost the same except that the media conversation has its audience. This difference relates news interview and broadcast talk program in grant social level, combined with the detailed and qualitative studies of the conversation its self. These two aspects actually decides two basic media function, namely, informing and providing a forum for public discussion.
All in all, the importance of studying the conversation is by no means to above to points. Further effort can be focused on the conversation in new media and other related area like audience studies and media economy.