Conversation and all that jazz

If social analysis must construct a person, it is more apt to imagine him as a surfer whose practiced body moves unthinking with wave, wind, and board, or as a martial artist whom empty mind (mu-shin) – by virtue of its very freedom from thoughts and decisions that precede action – makes expert. Such an actor with ‘No thinker behind the thoughts; no doer behind the deeds,’ better captures the agent of actual interactive events. (Moerman, p. 67)

Why are things that seem so simple so complicated?  Or is it that we make things complicated?  Or maybe some things are truly complex?  Well, if there is one thing that can rightfully be viewed as complex, then human conversation is one of them.

Linguistics has neatly divided language up into manageable bits to digest, some syntax here, some morphology there, a little prosody there and a sprinkle of phonology there.  And the relationship between these areas is becoming more interesting to study as well with research into morphosyntax, or the syntax/discourse interface.  But when we are trying to understand how people make meaning, why something makes sense, then some argue that these distinctions in language, while perhaps useful to study separately to answer certain questions, are less useful when it comes to understanding meaning in conversation; we need to take a more inclusive approach.

As the anthropologist Michael Moerman writes,

“Any verbal event of ethnographic notice – a kinship term, dialect shift, price agreement, insult, etc… – exists as the living creature of social interaction.  Unless we know how occasions of speech are socially organized, we can neither fully understand nor properly evaluate our data.  We collect cultural artifacts that come mounted in context that gives them their momentarily enlivened meaning.  We must preserve their interactional matrix, not pretend to scoop nuggets from a swamp” (1988, p. 9).

So when certain researchers develop their tools to study some phenomenon, in this case conversation, sometimes other researchers peak over their shoulder and say, “Ooo, that’s cool, I wonder if I could use that to?”  Moerman looked over his anthropological shoulder and saw these conversation analysts with their noses in recorded conversations, painstakingly noting down all the intricacies of conversation.  The degree to which different methodological tools can be used across fields could be seen as whether a bag of tools is ‘interdisciplinary,’ where the theories of other fields can be mixed and matched to make a great final product along the lines of a certain creative Manhattan bartender for example, or perhaps similar to a Spanish molecular gastronomist.  Other tools might be considered ‘transdisciplinary,’ meaning that you can use them, but they are only useful in their original theoretical environment, like a computer program that will only run on Macs.

Conversation analysis is a field that most often opts for the second option.  Moerman describes this field in the following way,

“The specks of talk visible through the lens of conversation analysis swarm with life, are packed with meanings, and are artfully constructed in recognizably human ways.”

But it’s not just what is said, it’s when it’s said.  Conversation doesn’t just happen all at once, we have to take turns, more or less and the act of taking turns has huge consequences for how language is used: this is what conversational analysts are interested in when they talk about ‘sequential organization of talk-in-interaction.’

This is a way to get at what we mean by context, but what is it exactly, this amalgamation of things we call context? Moerman goes on to say,

“Analysis of the sequential organization of conversation permits locating interactive events in the context that gave them their meaning.  To the social sciences, “context” usually means something like vague surrounding features that cannot be stated except, perhaps, in retrospect.  Sequential analysis provides some foothold on the technical specification of context as significant place…”

and he interestingly concludes the chapter with this comment:

“…We build our experienced, lived in, significant social reality out of a mesh of interactive process too tiny and too quick for the thinking, planning, “I” to handle.”

This spontaneity of conversation, the quickness of our “uh-huh’s” when listening to someone’s story, or when and how people interrupt each other (or actively and enthusiastically overlap their participation in conversation, depending on who’s interpreting) in talk, while seeming to have a consciously planned path at some higher level, may be less conscious than we might think.  This spontaneous yet artful performance of conversation in human interaction has not just been noticed by researchers.  Other  ‘researchers’ have also noticed this spontaneity of conversation:

“As far as playing jazz, no other art form, other than conversation, can give the satisfaction of spontaneous interaction” – Stan Getz

The main source for this post was Talking Culture: Ethnography and conversation analysis by Michael Moerman (1988).

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