Issues of Conversation Analysis and Critical Discourse Analysis

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“Conversation Analysis (Sacks, 1995; Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, 1974; Goodwin, 1981; Atkinson and Heritage, 1984; Sidnell, 2010) focuses on the ways in which discourse is organized “sequentially” as a series of responses to immediately preceding discourse rather than as the result of strategic choice.”

“People who work in the theoretical context of Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough, 1992; Wodak, 1996) focus on the ways in which people’s discursive behaviour is less the result of free choice, and more the result of external sociopolitical pressures, than people are led to believe.” [Johnstone, B. (2018) Discourse Analysis (3rd Ed.). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 28 – 29.]

In considering these descriptions of CA and CDA, compare and contrast the ways in which they focus on discourse at a level that is beyond the control of rhetorical agents.


Sociologists are dependent on data for study materials, much of what is sociological knowledge is fashioned from analysis of verbal and textual accounts. Conversation Analysis (CA) offers a sociology focussing on talk-in-interaction, it goes to where the activity is and analyses it in a balanced way that stays true to how the individuals have taken what has been said and what their responses are. What is studied is what participants make relevant in conversation and how participants treat one-another’s turn-at-talk. However, unlike Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) the analysis is not based on the analyst’s assumptions (Hutchby and Wooffitt, 1998). Critical Discourse Analysts and Critical Linguistics share the idea that the selections that speakers make concerning vocabulary and grammar are consciously or unconsciously principled and systematic, and ideologically based. Words are never neutral, they convey how people see themselves, identity, knowledge, values and beliefs, reflecting the interests of those who speak (Fiske, 1994).

This essay will explain how CA focuses on the ways in which discourse is organised sequentially as a series of responses rather than as the result of strategic choice. It will use Goffman (1971) and Garfinkel (1967) to show CA’s sociological roots, why Sacks’ studies showed the importance of studying language and turn-taking conversation, why the ‘The Jefferson system’ is an important tool for studying transcription, and criticisms of CA. The essay will also explain how CDA focuses on the ways in which people’s discursive behaviour is less the result of free choice, and more the result of external sociopolitical pressures, than people are led to believe. It will use Van Dijk’s ideas to explain what CDA is and what it is used for, Fairclough’s CDA three-dimensional framework methodology, Foucauldian discourse analysis and how discourse creates knowledge, Schegloff, Billig and Wetherell’s respective critiques of CA and CDA, and finally it has compared and contrasted the ways in which CA and CDA focus on discourse at a level that is beyond the control of rhetorical agents.

What is CA?

Conversation analysis (CA) is derived from ethnomethodology which studies the methods that people use to build a reality of social life. CA is a research method that observes verbal interactions and the conversations that people use in real life settings and uses them as an object of detailed study. It is used as a window on to the roles, social relationships and power relations of those involved. CA emphasises how interaction is the theatre of human action. To accomplish the business of everyday life, people interact with one another. CA looks to discover and explain the underlying norms and practices that make interaction an orderly system. Talk is analysed at the ‘micro’ level and CA is concerned with the sequential structure of conversations (Sidnell, 2010).

CA is about what participants do in terms of conversation interaction, what they make relevant, not the analysts. Therefore, the varieties of interactional phenomena chosen for CA should not be nominated on the basis of preformulated theory, which may stipulate matters of superior or lesser significance. Rather the first stage of CA research is characterized as ‘unmotivated looking,’ where data is obtained from any available source; the only necessity is that it should be occur naturally (Psathas, 1995).

The focus of CA then, is on the structure, cadences and characteristics of verbal interactions, which usually occur in dyads or small groups. Unlike content analysis, the subject matter however, is not the prime focus of analysis, the detailed analysis instead is usually on recordings of conversations, where research findings are useful in explaining hidden aspects of human behaviour and interactions, for example, how people take turns during conversation; durations of pauses during speech and when interruptions are used (Sidnell, Stivers, 2013).

Origins of CA

The origins of Conversation Analysis (CA) is in the work of Goffman (1971) and Garfinkel (1967) who opposed the idea that everyday details of the world are too disorderly to research. Their viewpoints have been united in order to create the social science paradigm of CA, which looks to unlock important structural and processual features of social interaction. From Goffman, CA took the notion that talk-in-interaction is a fundamental social domain that can be studied as an institutional entity in its own right (Hutchby & Wooffitt, 2008). According to Goffman, social interaction is a form of social organisation, which he argued, represents a moral and institutional order; to be treated like other social institutions.The ‘institution of interaction’ has what Goffman called a ‘syntax;’ a socio-logic of interaction that provides for the sequential ordering of actions (Goffman, 1971).

Garfinkel argued that human actions and institutions, including Goffman’s interaction order, lie on the basic fact that people can make and act on a shared sense of their circumstances. Coordinated and meaningful actions; whether they are based on cooperation or conflict, are impossible without shared understandings. Therefore, conceptualisations of social action remain incomplete without analysing how individuals use shared ‘common-sense’ knowledge and methods of reasoning in the conduct of their joint affairs (Garfinkel, 1967).

Influenced by the ethnomethodology tradition, Harvey Sacks founded detailed studies of the way people use language. His main focus was on the basic issue of how language can work as culturally learnable and publicly understandable.  According to Schegloff (1992) – (in Wooffitt, 2005), Sacks examined a corpus of recorded telephone calls to the Los Angeles suicide prevention centre, where callers did not want to disclose their names. Sacks however, discovered another problem that categorised his work – where in the conversation was it possible to tell that somebody did not want to give their name? Consequently, Sacks became interested in the opening section of one of the phone calls, where the caller seemed to have trouble with the agent’s name. Sacks examined the caller’s utterance of ‘I can’t hear you,’ and wondered if this utterance was used to avoid the caller giving their name. From this Sacks investigated ‘utterances’ as objects, which can be used to get things done during the course of interacting with others. Sacks then observed the norms involved in conversation where certain activities should happen, an example of this was in the case of the caller and the agent, where ‘I can’t hear you,’ was used as a ‘repair sequence;’ a method where he did not have to provide his name, without refusing to do so (Shegloff, 1992 cited in Wooffitt, 2005:11).

Developed by Harvey Sacks in association with Schegloff and Jefferson, CA developed in the 1960s at the intersection of Goffman and Garfinkel’s perspectives. The study by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974), ‘A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation,’ was a pioneering research paper that laid out an account of turn-taking in conversation and provided an example of the conversation analytic method. It also brought CA to the attention of linguists and those involved in the study of language (Sidnell, 2010).

Conversation analysts and many discourse analysts use ‘The Jefferson system’ of transcription notation, which is a system used for the transcription of talk as social action. Transcription in CA is important, as transcription is designed to integrate both what the people involved both said and how they said it. Therefore, the production of a high-quality transcript is an essential precondition of CA, as transcripts provide a detailed version of the complex nature of interaction. ‘The Jefferson system’ analyses speech patterns and offers a method for explaining speech with details of performance, acts, texts, movement, interaction between actors, content and context. Two examples from the Jefferson system are: (.) A full stop inside brackets denotes a micro pause, a notable pause but of no significant length. (0.2) A number inside brackets denotes a timed pause. This is a pause long enough to time and subsequently show in transcription. (Jefferson, 2004. in Lerner, 2004). Jefferson’s transcription conventions intend to represent on paper what is taken from field audio recordings in a way that preserves and brings to light the interactionally relevant elements of the recorded talk (Hutchby & Wooffitt, 2008).

The general idea of CA is to leave out preconceptions in the form of political or ideological theories, to focus on the orientations of participants and their interactions (Sidnell, 2010), because of this, criticisms of CA tend to cluster into two broad types. The first critical objection is that CA either does not, or cannot, address the topics fundamental to sociological analysis: e.g. analysing conflict, manifestations of power, inequalities in social relationship, and disadvantages centred around gender, ethnicity and class. The second dispute is the inadequate methodological procedures of CA, as it does not account for the confrontational nature of commonplace discourse. It instead focuses on management of interpersonal harmony and consensus, its attention is towards ‘technical’ features of the sequential organisation of turn-taking; meaning that it is not possible for CA to address wider historical, cultural and political circumstances and meanings; produced and reflected in the words and phrases used in commonplace communications (Wooffitt, 2005).

Critical discourse analysis

Critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a theory and a method of analysing the use of language by individuals and institutions. The focus of CDA is on social problems, with a particular emphasis on the role discourse plays in producing and reproducing abuses of power (Van Dijk, 1993). CDA begins with the identification of a social problem from the perspective of those who are suffering. Its purpose is then to critically analyses those responsible; who are in a position of power and have the means to relieve these problems (Van Dijk, 1996, in Wodak, 2001). Responding to social inequality and abuses of power, CDA stresses an involvement in political research with an emancipatory need (Titscher et al, 2000). CDA was first developed by the linguists Fairclough and Wodak, who pioneered using social theory to examine ideologies and power relations involved in discourse. Language is used to link to the social through being the primary area of ideology and through being both a site of, and having a stake in, power struggles (Fairclough, 1995).

An example of CDA methodology is Fairclough’s (1989, 1995), Three-dimensional framework. In order to study discourse, Fairclough’s method maps three forms of analysis onto one another: Analysis of language texts, analysis of discursive practices, and analysis of discursive events; as examples of sociocultural practice, which combines: micro, meso and macro level interpretations. According to Fairclough each of these dimensions requires a different kind of analysis: text analysis (description), processing analysis (interpretation), and social analysis (explanation). Fairclough’s approach to CDA provides multiple analytic points, where which kind of analysis an analyst begins with is irrelevant, as long as they are all included and are shown to be mutually explanatory. The interconnections provide the analyst interesting patterns to find and disjunctions to be described, interpreted and explained (Fairclough, 1989, 1995).

Fairclough argues that to understand what discourse is, and how it works is to use a textual analysis, which should look to draw out the form and the function of the text – The way the text relates to how it is produced and consumed, and how it relates to wider society. Van Dijk (1999) shares much of Fairclough’s analytic methods, he states when adopting a textual analysis, discourse must be analysed at various levels, or several dimensions. Each of these may be involved directly or indirectly in discriminatory interaction, or biased discourse against disempowered individuals and groups (Van Dijk, 1999).  Van Dijk however, stresses the necessity for a broad, diverse, problem-oriented CDA, where theory formation, description, problem formulation and applications are closely intertwined and mutually inspiring (Van Dijk, 2001).

Discourses are more than just ways to think and producers of meaning. They constitute the ‘nature’ of the body, unconscious and conscious mind and emotional life of the subjects they seek to govern (Weedon, 1987, p. 108). Discourses are a form of power that circulates in the social field and can attach to strategies of domination as well as those of resistance (Diamond and Quinby, 1988, p. 185).

The word ‘discourse’ is connected to the writings of Foucault and Derrida, where due to the analytic attention of written texts, objects and categories are constructed and sustained. There is a focus on how knowledge and power are inseparable and are key to understanding the ways in which people are cast into ‘subject positions.’ Foucauldian Discourse Analysis (FDA) focuses on the power relationships in society, articulated through language practices. By concentrating on what discourse means the typical characteristics of this method is in its emphasis on relations of power, expressed through language and discourse and the relationship between language and power. FDA studies how expressed through language, the social world is affected by various sources of power. A Foucauldian idea of discourse is of a culturally created depiction of reality; not a precise reproduction. Discourse creates knowledge, and therefore governs, by producing categories of knowledge and collections of texts, what it is acceptable to discuss and what is not. It produces and reproduces power and knowledge at the same time, as discourse describes subjects; framing and positioning who it is possible to be and what it is possible to do. FDA asks ‘what is being represented as truth? How is it created? What evidence is used? What is excluded? What interests are mobilised and served and what are not? What is normalized and what is pathologised? (Wooffitt, 2005).

Compare and contrast

CDA takes an overtly moral and political position with regards to analysing social problems, which some CA scholars have objected to. It should however, be recognised that all scholarly discourse is produced in social interactions and is part of a social structure, therefore, it is socio-politically situated. Research such as CA, that takes a neutral approach in regard to social injustices does not help to resolve problems. It is argued that taking a non-aligned stance academically only contributes to the continuation of injustice (Richardson, 2007).

Schegloff (1997) argues points of disagreement between the focus of CA and research in CDA. He notes that talk-in-interactions will provide a sense of understanding of what is going on for participants, these are evidently relevant to the participants who conduct these activities. Whilst, CA looks to define the social organisation of these interpretative processes, Schegloff argued that the theoretically oriented approach of CDA risks imposing an interpretationof these interactions that only reflect the analysts’ theoretical or political orientations; obscuring analysis of what is relevant to the participants(Schegloff, 1997).

Schegloff illustrates this criticism with an examination of data from a telephone conversation between a man and a woman, where the man begins to speak while the woman is speaking. While this interruption can be understood to reflect wider unevennessof power relations and status between men and women, particularly through CDA. Schegloff argues that the moments of overlapping speech are not interruptive. They instead flow from the sequential implications of a type of social activity; offering and responding to assessments. This is where the participants’ conduct is oriented, not their gender identity (Schegloff, 1997). Schegloff asks: ‘Can compelling critical discourse analysis sacrifice that?’ (Schegloff, 1997: 178).

In response to Schegloff, Billig (1999a, 1999b) presented a critique of CA which mirrored his interest in the power of rhetoric, and the confrontational nature of commonplace discourse. Billig wrote that CA’s terminology and the explanation of its practice obscures the conflictual and confrontational characterof dialog, through which power and ideologies become mobilised and then influence lives (Billig, 1999a, 1999b).Wetherell (1998) offered an alternative critique. She acknowledged that theoretical analyses of discourse frequently results in baseless analytic claims. But also appreciates the rigorous description of the coordination of interactional activities offered by CA. Wetherell however, believes that focusing on the details of interaction does not offer a whole appreciation of how talk is organised. In order to offer a rounded account, it is essential to draw from post-structuralist approaches and investigate the role of the wider discourses which occupy talk, and to examine how participants turn to and negotiate the significance of subject positions. Which are made accessible by those discourses in the routine turn-by-turn unfolding of interaction (Wetherell, 1998).

CA differs vastly from CDA in the way that it maintains distance from convention by avoiding resources of social importance. Conversation analysts try to discover, define and scrutinise structures of social action, or, features of naturally occurring, interactional incidences. Their job is to question these occurrences and persistence’s, which are not perceived to be grounded in explicit properties of the participants, but rather on the ‘methods’ used (Ten Have, 1997).

Advocates of critical approaches like CDA and FDA argue that this makes CA too limiting. This approach makes the phenomena of power and oppression unseen and make it seem that CA is in support of dominant societal forces. This contrast can be linked to what is called CA’s ‘bottom-up’ versus CDA’s ‘top-down’ analysis (Wooffitt, 2005).

For different reasons, CA and CDA show how language can be studied in its own right. Conversation analysts demonstrate that everyday language can be analysed to look at how interpersonal actions are performed and socially organised. The function of language in CA is narrow and is restricted to the design of utterances and their position within the sequential development of interaction (Sidnell, 2010). Whilst Critical Discourse analysts highlight how language, texts, and communication should be considered in their social context, as they both shape and are informed by wider processes within society. In CDA, the function of discourse is much broader, Whilst, it has some interest in conversational actions and sequential contexts, it is not limited to this (Fairclough, 1992).


This essay has shown how CA focuses on the ways in which discourse is organised sequentially as a series of responses rather than as the result of strategic choice. It used Goffman (1971) and Garfinkel (1967) to show CA’s sociological roots, Sacks’ studies showed the importance of studying language and turn-taking conversation, the importance of ‘The Jefferson system’ for studying transcription, and CA criticisms. The essay also explained how CDA focuses on the ways in which people’s discursive behaviour is less the result of free choice, and more the result of external sociopolitical pressures, than people are led to believe. It used Van Dijk’s ideas to explain what CDA is and what it is used for, Fairclough’s CDA three-dimensional framework methodology, Foucauldian discourse analysis and how discourse creates knowledge, Schegloff, Billig and Wetherell’s respective critiques of CA and CDA, and finally it compared and contrasted the ways in which CA and CDA focuses on discourse at a level that is beyond the control of rhetorical agents.

CA is a method for studying social interaction, it is not designed to analyse texts, or contexts where activities are advanced by means other than social interaction. Instead, it is intended to unload the essential organisation of social action and interaction, and to link findings about how the organisation of action and interaction to other features of social actors and the settings they act in. CA’s strengths and weaknesses should be respected in these terms.


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