When you analyze something, you break it up into smaller pieces, examine those smaller pieces, and discover how those smaller pieces work together to create the whole. Conversation analysis is basically that process applied to a conversation. In conversation analysis, you take a transcript (or written version) of a conversation and find its smaller pieces or building blocks. These pieces could be particular words, syntax, conversational turns, specific sounds, parts of a narrative structure, or whatever you deem important. Then you examine those smaller pieces and how they relate to the whole (the conversation).
Sociolinguists, linguistic anthropologists, and linguists use conversation analysis. Linguistic anthropologists take the analysis one step further: they see the conversation as a smaller piece of its own that reflects larger sociocultural processes. As a linguistic anthropologist, I used conversation analysis to examine the tutoring sessions in a university writing center. The analysis led to several discoveries that benefited the university writing center.
#1: Discover Discrepancies in Enacting Policies
One of the discoveries I made in the university writing center was a discrepancy in how people applied the word, “Plagiarism.” All the tutors were introduced to the exact same definition of plagiarism, yet during the tutoring sessions they each drew different lines between helping students and over helping (and thus plagiarizing for) students.
This discrepancy in ideas of plagiarism led to misunderstandings between tutors, students, and teachers. Writing teachers would blame tutors for doing the work for students while tutors thought they were following the policies on plagiarism. Conversation analysis allowed me to define where exactly in conversations between tutors and students the line was blurred. This discovery led to an important revision in the orientation materials for tutors concerning plagiarism.
#2: Reveal Assumptions of Power Dynamics
Power dynamics tend not to be straightforward and can be in flux though out a conversation—even in a workplace where power statuses are supposed to be in stone. For instance, a tutor-student pair in my study was prone to misunderstandings because of the power structure they were unaware of. On one hand, the student expected the tutor to act like the expert guiding the session. On the other hand, the tutor took on a common educational philosophy amongst writing tutors: that student should be treated as a peer of equal power and authority.
The struggle between these two different assumptions of power dynamics manifested within the structure of their conversations. The student kept asking the tutor to share her expertise, and the tutor kept dodging his questions by taking on a more psychoanalytical approach and asking, “What do you think?” Although research on teaching writing justified the tutor’s approach, the student became frustrated and ended his sessions with the tutor. He couldn’t explain why he was frustrated, but conversation analysis shed some light on his frustration.
#3: Identify Effective Communication Tactics
Conversation analysis isn’t always about identifying problematic patterns. You can also find effective communication tactics. There was a tutor from my study in particular that was adored by her students. They reported significant improvement over the course of the semester and credited her. Through conversation analysis, I was able to identified with tactics the tutor used that were the most effective.
This tutor phrased her questions a specific way that made the power struggle less frustrating to the students. She also used gestures that made her appear friendlier without compromising her expert status. Her most effective trick she did without being conscious of it (and thus wouldn’t have been able to simply teach the trick to someone else). She and her student had only one pen which they passed between each other: when she was talking about general advice, she had the pen, and when she was guiding the student in terms of ideas of what to write, the student had the pen. This technique became the key to solving the earlier discussed problem with drawing the line between helping students and plagiarism.
To Sum Up:
- Analysis is the process of breaking something up into smaller parts, analyzing those parts, and discovering how they work together to create the whole.
- Conversation analysis is the analysis of a conversation.
- Linguistic anthropologists use conversation analysis to discover reflections of larger sociocultural processes.
- Researchers can use conversation analysis to discover discrepancies in enacting policies.
- People can have the same definition of a word, but understand and enact that word in completely different ways.
- Researchers can use conversation analysis to reveal assumptions of power dynamics.
- Conflicting ideas of power relations lead to feelings of frustration.
- Researchers can use conversation analysis to identify effective communication tactics.
- Communication is like the rainforest: made up of little critters/details that can either be dangerous or the key to saving the world.