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Qualitative Research: Conversation Analysis Guidelines

The following guidelines are provided for submissions using an ethnomethodological approach to conversation analysis (CA) as originated by Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974) and Schegloff, Jefferson, and Sacks (1977). From this perspective, the principal goal of CA is to explicate and interpret how participants achieve everyday courses of action by orienting to the underlying structural organization of talk-in-interaction.


CA studies submitted to TESOL Quarterly should exhibit an in-depth understanding of the ethnomethodological philosophical perspectives and methodologies of CA research (see Firth, 1996; Firth & Wagner, 1997; Markee, 1994, 1995, 2000; Schegloff, Koshik, Jacoby, & Olsher, 2002; Seedhouse, 1997, 1999; Wagner, 1996). Utilizing these perspectives and methods in the course of conducting CA research helps ensure that studies represent credible accounts of participants' orientations to the behaviors they display to each other and therefore to analysts. Reports of CA studies should meet the following criteria:

  1. The kinds of data analyzed should include naturally occurring data from either ordinary conversation (i.e., ordinary chatting among friends) or institutional talk (e.g., ESL classroom talk, oral proficiency interviews, writing conferences).
  2. The report should focus on the usual topics of CA research (see Drew, 1994). These topics include, but are not limited to, the organization of sequences (i.e., courses of action), turn-taking and repair practices, syntax-for-conversation, the structure of speech events, and the integration of speech and gesture. Analyses should demonstrate how native speakers/users of English, nonnative speakers/users of English, or both deploy these aspects of interactional competence to communicate in or learn this language.
  3. The research should aim to uncover an emic perspective. In other words, the study focuses on participants' contextualized perspectives and interpretations of behavior, events, and situations rather than etic (outsider-imposed) categories, models, and viewpoints (van Lier, 1988).
  4. The primary data in the study should be the conversational and other behaviors that participants produce for each other in real time. The notion of context is principally understood as the talk that immediately precedes and follows the conversational object under study (Heritage, 1988); this is sometimes referred to as the cotext of talk(Brown & Yule, 1983). Other important aspects of context include the integration of embodied action and gesture with talk (Schegloff et al., 2002).
  5. The conversational analysis may be supplemented by ethnographically oriented notions of context that entail the use of triangulated secondary data (such as think-aloud protocols, interviews, or diaries; see van Lier, 1988). The study may establish theoretical links to other perspectives on talk-in-interaction, such as Vygotskyan analyses of learners' zones of proximal development (Ohta, 2001).
  6. Data collection strategies include the collection of videotapes, audiotapes, or both of talk-in-interaction, which are then transcribed according to the conventions of CA developed by Gail Jefferson (see Atkinson & Heritage, 1984; Boden & Zimmerman, 1991; Goodwin, 1981). Videotapes are strongly preferred because of the importance of embodied aspects of interaction.
  7. In all cases, the recordings are considered to be the definitive source of information about the behaviors that were observed. Transcripts are understood as a tool for analysis to be used in conjunction with recordings.
  8. External materials, such as classroom materials, interview schedules or drafts of papers, may be introduced into the database when relevant and appropriate, such as when participants themselves orient to these materials.

Data Analysis

Data analysis is guided by the ethnomethodological philosophy, methods, and goals of CA research.

  • You should provide a comprehensive treatment of the data under discussion by demonstrating how participants collaboratively co-construct their talk. This entails analyzing prototypical examples of talk-in-interaction, which may consist of either single cases or collections of particular types of conversational objects. Ensure that you can warrant your claims by pointing to a convergence of different types of textual evidence and, where relevant, by demonstrating the characteristics of a particular practice across a variety of contexts (Jacobs, 1986, 1987).
  • You may use CA findings to generate hypotheses for subsequent experimental research. However, this is not the principal aim of CA research (Schegloff, 1993). If you use quantification, ensure that it only follows careful analysis of the individual cases that are being quantified, with categories for quantification emerging from this analysis of individual cases (Stivers, 2001, 2002). However, the quantification of data is rarely an important issue in CA research.

The CA Report

CA reports submitted to TESOL Quarterly should include the following information:

  • a clear statement of the research issues
  • a description of the research site, participants, procedures for ensuring participant anonymity, and data collection strategies
  • an empirically based description of a clear and salient organization of patterns found through data analysis–including representative examples, not anecdotal information
  • interpretations in which you trace the underlying organization of patterns across all contexts in which they are embedded
  • a discussion of how the data analyzed in the study connect with and shed light on current theoretical and practical issues in the acquisition and use of English as an L2

References and Further Reading on Conversation Analysis

Atkinson, J. M., & Heritage, J. (1984). Transcript notation. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. ix-xvi). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Boden, D., & Zimmerman, D. H. (1991). Transcription appendix. In D. Boden & D. H. Zimmerman (Eds.), Talk and social structure (pp. 278-282). Cambridge: Polity.

Brown, G., & Yule, G. (983). Discourse analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Drew, P. (1994). Conversation analysis. In R. E. Asher (Ed.), The encyclopedia of language and linguistics (pp. 749-754). Oxford: Pergamon Press.

Firth, A. (1996). The discursive accomplishment of normality: On "lingua franca" English and conversation analysis. Journal of Pragmatics, 26, 237-259.

Firth, A., & Wagner, J. (1997). On discourse, communication, and (some) fundamental concepts in SLA research. The Modern Language Journal, 81, 285-300.

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational organization: Interaction between speakers and hearers. New York: Academic Press.

Heritage, J. (1988). Current developments in conversation analysis. In D. Roger & P. Bull (Eds.), Conversation: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 21-47). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Jacobs, S. (1986). How to make an argument from example in discourse analysis. In D. G. Ellis & W. A. Donohue (Eds.), Contemporary issues in language and discourse processes(pp. 149-167). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Jacobs, S. (1987). Commentary on Zimmerman: Evidence and inference in conversation analysis. Communication Yearbook, 11, 433-443.

Markee, N. (1994). Toward an ethnomethodological respecification of second language acquisition studies. In E. Tarone, S. Gass, & A. Cohen (Eds.), Research methodology in second language acquisition (pp. 89-116). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Markee, N. P. (1995). Teachers' answers to students' questions: Problematizing the issue of making meaning. Issues in Applied Linguistics, 6, 63-92.

Markee, N. P. (2000). Conversation analysis. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Ohta, A. S. (2001). Second language acquisition processes in the classroom. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking in conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.

Schegloff, E. A. (1993). Reflections on quantification in the study of conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 26, 99-128.

Schegloff, E. A., Jefferson, G., & Sacks, H. (1977). The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation. Language, 53, 361-382.

Schegloff, E. A., Koshik, I., Jacoby, S., & Olsher, D. (2002). Conversation analysis and applied linguistics. American Review of Applied Linguistics, 22, 3-31.

Seedhouse, P. (1997). The case of the missing "no": The relationship between pedagogy and interaction. Language Learning, 47, 547-583.

Seedhouse, P. (1999). The relationship between context and the organization of repair in the L2 classroom. International Review of Applied Linguistics, 37, 59-80.

Stivers, T. (2001). Negotiating who presents the problem: Next speaker selection in pediatric encounters. Journal of Communication, 51, 252-282.

Stivers, T. (2002). Presenting the problem in pediatric encounters: "Symptoms only" versus "candidate diagnosis" presentations. Health Communication, 14, 299-338.

van Lier, L. (1988). The classroom and the language learner: Ethnography and second language classroom research. New York: Longman.

Wagner, J. (1996). Foreign language acquisition through interaction–A critical review of research on conversational adjustments. Journal of Pragmatics, 26, 215-236.

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