Conversation Analysis

What is Conversation Analysis?

            Conversation analysis is used to better understand how people communicate with each other verbally in casual settings (Beach, in press).  Conversation analysts must only look at naturally occurring conversation to be considered valid (Beach, in press).  Naturally occurring conversations are conversations that would take place regardless if the people being studied knew they were being studied or recorded. 

The conversations studied should be recorded to thoroughly look at the “detailed features and contingencies of interaction events” (Beach, in press, p.1).   Conversations that are studied through self-reported data or observer’s notes are considered to be ineffective because it is nearly impossible to adequately report details and important information found in the conversation (Beach, in press).  The conversations that are self-reported or studied through observer’s notes could be reported significantly different than the conversation that actually happened.  Each person involved in the conversation could interpret the conversation in different ways.  A conversation analysis on a conversation that is self reported and/or studied through field notes has a greater chance of being invalid because the actual conversation that occurred is not being studied.  Instead, people’s interpretations of the study are being studied.

The actual conversation analysis of recorded conversations takes place in “data sessions” (Beach, in press, p. 1).  Data sessions consist of colleagues gathering together to “repeatedly hear and view recordings, closely examine transcribed excerpts, and provide increasingly refined observations” regarding each specific word that was said in the conversations (Beach, in press, p.2).  The data sessions provide a place for conversation analytics to look at pieces of conversations that are typically overlooked in the initial conversation because those pieces are thought of as irrelevant (Beach, in press).   Conversation analysts look at such things as interaction during  “telephone openings, the systematics of turn taking and overlapped speech, agreeing and disagreeing” as well as things like “blaming, complaining, complimenting, gossiping” and  “delivering and receiving good and bad news” (Beach, in press, p.2).   The list of different things studied continues on and on including any and all interactions that can occur during a conversation.  A successful data session will result in the conversation analytic adequately being able to “warrant claims, progressively advance evidence about the organization of social interaction, and seek to establish consensus about the most compelling depictions” of the communicative behavior that took place in the conversations (Beach, in press, p. 2).

Conversation Analysis in Case Studies

            Beach’s (2002) study on the delivery of bad news about cancer demonstrated the use of conversational analysis.  Beach’s (2002) study looked at sixty recorded calls over thirteen months recorded by the son of mother with cancer, to look for findings regarding the interaction between family members when there is an illness in the family. Each conversation was carefully examined to “identify patterned orientations to moment-by-moment contingencies of interaction comprising everyday life situations” (Beach, 2002, p. 275).   This study examined each conversation in data sessions, and broke down the conversations line by line, describing what tones of the voice were being used, answers and other things such as pauses could possibly represent.  Through the use of conversation analysis, Beach’s (2002) study provided important information about health communication in the home environment. 

         Similar to Beach’s 2002 study, Beach, Easter, Good, and Pigeron’s 2004 study looked at health communication through conversation analysis, but focus on the cancer patients’ reactions to conversations about cancer they had with their doctors.  This 2004 study looked at video-excerpts of conversations where doctors diagnose patients with cancer.  The conversations were broken down and examined sentence by sentence.  The finding showed most patients demonstrated fear in their conversation, but the doctors “exhibit minimal receptiveness to patients' lifeworld disclosures and demonstrations” (Beach, Easter, Good, & Pigeron, 2004, p. 893).   Through the use of conversation analysis the authors were able to show there is a need for oncologists to be educated on how to respond better to patients’ fearful questions and concerns. 

Rhetorical Study

What is rhetorical study?

A rhetorical study consists of describing symbols to create explanations, according to Dr. Renegar (personal communication, March 27, 2008).   Rhetoricians look at artistic artifacts such as movies, art, music, and quilts and provide persuasive reasonable explanations and responses about that artifact (Renegar, personal communication, March 27, 2008).  The rhetorician picks any artifact that interests them and analyzes it to make sense of its purpose. Dr. Renegar defines rhetoric as the “ability in any given situation to be able to identify all evidence (personal communication, March 27, 2008).  Rhetoric is the process of finding all evidence to support claims being made about an artifact.

  Rhetoricians write persuasively to show their audience a new way of looking at an artifact.  According to Foss (1986) a rhetorical response to an artifact consists of a “critical, reflective analysis of the work or a cognitive apprehension of it” (as cited in Skow & Dionisopoulos, 1997, p. 396).  Lancioni (1996) explains the analysis of the artifacts is based on the rhetorician’s “own life experiences” (as cited in Skow & Dionisopoulos, 1997, p. 396).  Rhetoricians should not write persuasively based on their own “predispositions, [or] prejudices” because those may not match the audience’s predispositions or prejudices, which makes their argument weak (Zarefsky, 2006, p. 402).  Biases are formed in rhetoric because knowledge can be treated as a product, a psychological process or a sociological process (Crable, 1982).  These three ways of looking at knowledge result in three very different perspectives “for viewing the relationship among rhetoric” (Crable, 1982, p. 251). The analysis of the artifact is not meant to change the minds of the audience about the artifact, but rather to provide the audience with a different perspective on the artifact. 

In rhetorical studies there is not one answer researchers are looking for.  Rather there are interesting answers that come from asking the right questions (Dionisopoulos, personal communication, April 10, 2008).  Often rhetoricians find it hard to start researching because they do not know specifically what they are looking for (Renegar, personal communication, March 27, 2008).  The rhetorician picks an artifact that interests them and then they research to find out what the artifact says about communication.  Regardless of the findings the research brings, all rhetoricians have one common purpose.  They do research because they want things to be different or better (Renegar, personal communication, March 27, 2008). 

Rhetorical Study in Case Studies


         Sowards and Renegar’s 2006 study looks at feminist activism from a rhetorical point of view.  The “rhetorical exigencies of contemporary feminist activism” and “examples of rhetorical activism that play an integral part in contemporary feminism, such as creating grassroot models of leadership, using strategic humor, building feminist identity, sharing stories, and challenging stereotypes” are studied throughout the article from a rhetoric perspective (Sowards & Renegar, 2006, p. 57).    Activism was the artifact that was studied.  Through rhetorical studies the study concluded that activism plays an important role in feminism.  Activism was shown to be necessary to use to change the stereotypes feminists face.

         In Renegar and Soward’s 2003 study they claim that third wave feminism is not clearly defined.  They used a rhetorical approach to attempt to explain what third wave feminists stand for so that new feminists could have a better understanding when forming their believes.  In this study third wave feminism was the artifact being studied.  Through rhetoric, this study came to the conclusion that the definitions must be clearly defined to pursue a “liberal community through communication” (Renegar & Sowards, 2003, p. 350).

Comparison of Conversation Analysis and Rhetorical Studies


            Both conversation analysts and rhetoricians use the qualitative method for research.  For this reason, I thought it would be appropriate to compare the two, with the thought the two methods would have many similarities. The most prevalent similarity between the two researchers was the logical reasoning they used to reach their conclusions.  The second similarity was both of the methods are used for similar reasons.  Finally the way research is started in when using both methods are vey similar.

            Conversation analysts record conversations and then examine and pick apart each sentence/word that was said.  After the conversation analysts look at each piece of the conversation they make logical conclusions, by using common sense and conducting research on human interaction behaviors, to determine what is being conveyed through the conversation.   Rhetoricians come to their conclusions in very similar ways to conversation analysts.  Rhetoricians examine their artifact and then come to logical conclusions about their artifact by using common sense and past research on artifacts similar to the artifact they are studying.  Both methods come to their conclusions using logical evidence that they believe to the best of their knowledge to be true. 

            The other similarity that stands out is the purposes each method is used for.  Both conversation analysis and rhetoric methods are used in research to find a way to make something better.  Conversation analysts look at conversations to determine the problems with verbal interaction and provide ways to improve those problems.  Similarly, rhetoricians examine an artifact to point out flaws and give ways to help make those flaws minimal.  Both methods are used to show there is a problem and then further research shows different ways of how to fix the problem.   

            Conversation analysts start research by recording a conversation in an area of study they have interest in, where they feel might be problems.  Conversation analysts do not necessarily know what they are looking for in their research.  They find out the purposes of their research after they conduct their study.  Rhetoricians start their research by looking at an artifact they have interest in.  Rhetoricians have no idea what they are looking for in their studies.  Rhetoricians find out the purpose of their study at the end as well.


            Although conversation analysis and rhetorical studies use similar rationale to reach their conclusions, have similar purposes and start the same way, they still have differences.  Differences include the way data is collected, and what counts as data.  Conversation analysts collect data by observing conversations and recording and/or videotaping them.  They have to physically go retrieve the data.  Rhetoricians find data that already exists and examines it.  They do not have to collect their own data.  They use data that is found in either artistic forms or data retrieved in past studies.  Conversation analysts consider their recorded conversations to be their data.  Typically a conversation analysts works with the people having the conversations they recorded to come to their conclusions.  A rhetorician considers their artifact to be their data.  A rhetorician does not need to work with any people because all the information they need comes from their artifact.  

My Confusion

            I believe I chose to look at conversation analysis and rhetorical studies for the right reasons.  I can see myself using both of these methods in future, but I still have some confusion about the methods.  The conversation analysis process is clearer to me than rhetorical studies process.

            I prefer the conversation analysis method to the rhetoric method because it has a clear format to follow.    I really like that conversation analysis provides a place to start the research, which is go out and record conversations.  The problem I have with conversation analysis is the way the conversation analysts come to their conclusions.  I understand they do research to support their conclusions, but how do they come to conclusions like - a pause means the speaker is scared?  I would find it hard to figure it out what message each individual sentence is conveying.  I can see that some sentences are easier than others, but I would definitely need the help of an expert to determine what specific things mean in conversations if I conducted research using conversation analysis.

            It is important to be an efficient persuasive writer when using rhetorical methods of study.  Although I am interested in using rhetoric, I am afraid I do not have the powerful persuasive writing skills to persuade an audience to see an artifact from my point of view.  Also, I do not understand how a rhetorician can use an artifact such as a quilt, and write twenty-five or more pages describing the messages it conveys.  I am not imaginative or creative enough at this time to take on such a task.  The last thing I am confused about is the process of conducting a rhetoric study.  I understand you find an artifact that interests you, but then what happens?  You just do research and hope to find something of interest?  I feel that I would have to go through many different artifacts before I could find one with something significant to learn about.  It seems as though rhetoric studies can waste valuable time, you should be of spending on researching, in the beginning of the study.