Following Rod Munday’sSacks Lexicon, and in the interests of demystifying what can seem like an impenetrable field of technical Conversation Analysis (CA) terminology, I’m assembling a glossary of CA terms that crop up repeatedly in papers and seem useful for getting to grips with the basic methodology.

The Data Session

The ‘data session’ has become my favourite research activity since starting to work with ethnomethodology (EM) and conversation analysis (CA). However, this crucial bit of analytic trade-craft seems poorly documented as a research process – with minimal references scattered throughout textbooks, articles and course materials. This post pulls together some of the descriptions and tips I’ve found relating to the practical activity of doing data sessions, followed by a short account of why I am so fond of this wonderful research practice.

Early CA work

I can’t find any direct references to data session practices in any of the early CA literature from Sacks, Schegloff or Jefferson. However, there are some very interesting methodological discussions that provide insight into how data is prepared and collected prior to a principled collection being established in the following two papers:

I can only assume that the trade craft of CA was being established at this time, so the practice of the data session was not yet at a point where it was stable, well understood and ready to be written up for instructional purposes. I’ve heard stories (but can’t find any write-ups) of how Gail Jefferson was particularly involved in its development as a pedagogical/analytic practice. I would be very interested in reading these stories – and particularly learning about any rules / procedures for doing data sessions that may have been established in these early days.

First instructional descriptions

Paul ten Have’s “Doing Conversation Analysis” first published in 1999 provides one of the first instructional descriptions of the data session I can find – and lays out the essentials of what the data session consists of very clearly:

“The data session can be seen both as a kind of playground to mutually inspire one’s understanding of the data, and as an environment that requires a rather specific ‘discipline’. A ‘data session’ is an informal get-together of researchers in order to discuss some ‘data’ – recordings and transcripts. The group may consist of a more or less permanent coalition of people working together on a project or in related projects, or an ad hoc meeting of independent researchers. The basic procedure is that one member brings in the data, for the session as a whole or for a substantial part of it.”

He then provides – as far as I can find – the first description of the actual practical activity in the data session, and how it functions as a pedagogical as well as an analytic practice:

“This often involves playing (a part of) a tape recording and distributing a transcript, or sometimes only giving a transcript. The session starts with a period of seeing/hearing and/or reading the data, sometimes preceded by the provision of some background information by the ‘owner’ of the data. Then the participants are invited to proffer some observations on the data, to select an episode which they find ‘interesting’ for whatever reason, and formulate their understanding, or puzzlement, regarding that episode. Then anyone can come in to react to these remarks, offering alternative, raising doubts, or whatever. What is most important in these discussions is that the participants are, on the one hand, free to bring in anything they like, but, on the other hand, required to ground their observations in the data at hand, although they may also support them with reference to their own data-based findings or those published in the literature. One often gets, then, a kind of mixture, or coming together, of substantial observations, methodological discussions, and also theoretical points. Data sessions are an excellent setting for learning the craft of CA, as when novices, after having mastered some of the basic methodological and theoretical ideas, can participate in data sessions with more experienced CA researchers. I would probably never have become a CA practitioner if I had not had the opportunity to participate in data sessions with Manny Schegloff and Gail Jefferson.”

Have, P. Ten. (2007). Doing conversation analysis: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). London: Sage Publications. pp. 140-141.

He also mentions that these sessions are poorly documented, writing (in the 1999 and 2007 editions of his book) that he can only find one real description in Jordan & Henderson (1995) quoted below. They also note that the data session – which they call the “Interaction Analysis Laboratory” is both vitally important, and difficult to describe in formal/procedural terms:

“Group work is also essential for incorporating novices because Interaction Analysis is difficult to describe and is best learned by doing. Much in the manner of apprentices, newcomers are gradually socialized into an ongoing community of practice in which they increasingly participate in the work of analysis, theorizing, and constructing appropriate representations of the activities studied.”

They also provide a great description of the actual mechanics of presenting data, and how specific heuristics in the organisation of the data session can mitigate against rambling, ungrounded theoretical speculation:

The tape is played with one person, usually the owner, at the controls. It is stopped whenever a participant finds something worthy of remark. Group members propose observations and hypotheses about the activity on the tape, searching for specific distinguishing practices within a particular domain or for identifiable regularities in the interactions observed. Proposed hypotheses must be of the kind for which the tape in question (or some related tape) could provide confirming or disconfirming evidence. The idea is to ground assertions about what is happening on the tape in the materials at hand. To escape the ever-present temptation to engage in ungrounded speculation, some groups have imposed a rule that a tape cannot be stopped for more than 5 min. This means in practice that rambling group discussions are discouraged and that no single participant can speculate for very long without being called upon to ground her or his argument in the empirical evidence, that is to say, in renewed recourse to the tape.

Jordan, B., & Henderson, A. (1995). Interaction analysis: Foundations and practice. The Journal of the Learning Sciences, 4(1), 39–103.

Recent accounts and empirical work

More recent instructional publications have included tips on data sessions. For example, in Heath, Hindmarsh & Luff (2010), there is one tip section, and one appendix on data sessions. They introduce the basic idea, and also mention its pedagogic function, as well as highlighting the opportunity for its use in interdisciplinary / workplace studies that involve practitioners from other fields:

“[Data sessions] can also be used to introduce new members of a team or research group into a particular project and can be very important for training students in video based analysis. On occasions it can also be helpful to have ‘practitioners’, personnel from the research domain, participate in data sessions, as they can provide distinctive insights, and can often help to clarify events that have proved difficult to understand. in data sessions it is important to avoid overwhelming participants with too much material. A small number of brief extracts of, say, no more than 20 seconds or so is fine. it is also helpful to provide transcripts of the talk as well as any other materials that may be useful for understanding the extracts in question.”

They also add a number of key points about the distinct benefits and caveats of running data sessions, paraphrased here:

  • identifying candidate phenomena for more detailed study.
  • Enforcing evidential demonstration of analytic claims.
  • Revealing issues/challenges in demonstrating analytic findings.
  • Eliciting alternative/complimentary perspectives.
  • Generating new analytic ideas/issues and suggesting improvements for future data collection.
  • Keeping one’s ‘hand in’, i.e. practising analysis on other people’s data to maintain a fresh eye/ear for your own research.

Then they say something explicit about the data session as a collaborative practice which I haven’t seen anyone else mention, but it seems absolutely crucial to me. The fact that this almost never comes up also reinforces my sense that EM/CA and its research practices in general are much less fraught by this particular problem than many other research contexts, which speaks extremely well for it as a community and its empirical/epistemic commitments in general:

“Data sessions are a collegial activity and are based on mutual trust. They should be treated as such and discussions of intellectual Property and the like should be avoided. It is up to individual participants to reveal or withhold ideas that they have, if they do or do not want others use those ideas in future analytic work.”

The appendix with more tips on data sessions (pp.156-157) has more very useful practical advice. To paraphrase:

  • Limit the numbers to no more than 20 or so.
  • Presenters should select 3-6 clips, ideally under 30s each.
  • Do bring transcripts – even rough ones are helpful.
  • Bring any supplementary material that is relevant/necessary for understanding the action.
  • Look at one fragment of data at a time – approximate ratio of 20-30m on each 5s of recording.
  • Don’t cheat and look ahead, or rely on analyst’s information exogenous to the clip itself.
  • When it’s done, sum up, take notes and get general reflections.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in qualitative research: analysing social interaction in everyday life. Sage Publications. pp. 102-103.

There is a wonderfully reflexive EM/CA analysis of a data session in a chapter by Harris, Theobold, Danby, Reynolds & Rintel (2012) in a volume on postgraduate pedagogical practices that presents the analysis of a data session by the authors and data session participants themselves. They focus on the collaborative / peer pedagogical aspects of the session, and highlight the “fluidity of ownership of ‘noticing'” with reference to clear evidence of how these noticings can be done in this way.

Harris, J., Theobald, M. A., Danby, S. J., Reynolds, E., & Rintel, S. (2012). “What’s going on here?” The pedagogy of a data analysis session. In A. Lee & S. J. Danby (Eds.), Reshaping doctoral education: International Approaches and Pedagogies (pp. 83–96). London: Routledge.

A participant-observer account

Finally, my favourite description of work practices in the data session was written by John Hindmarsh in the affectionate and humorous Festschrift publication he and his colleagues edited for Christian Heath. In an uncharacteristically participant-observer style, he nonetheless describes the detail of both pedagogical and analytic processes of “Heath’s natural habitat: The data session” very vividly. He includes:

  • Delicate interrogations: where researchers are subtly probed as to why they selected specific clips.
  • Occasioned exclamations: in which the seasoned analyst will hoot with infectious laughter or joy at a clip – infectious partly because it can leave less experienced researchers either shamefully nonplussed or scrambling to find a grounding for the source of the laughter.
  • Transcription timings: opportunities to (delicately) rectify transcription errors.
  • Re-characterisations: moments where a banal, if well-targeted observation is picked up and re-packaged as an elegant and insightful analysis – a form of agreement with some extra pedagogical/analytic impetus.
  • Troubled re-characterisations: same as above, but done as an (initially veiled) disagreement, demonstrating poor targeting or a flawed analysis – again, always analytically useful and instructive, but less pleasantly so.

Hindmarsh, J. (2012). Heath’s natural habitat: The data session. In P. Luff, J. Hindmarsh, D. vom Lehn, & B. Schnettler (Eds.), Work, Interaction and Technology: A Festschrift for Christian Heath. (pp. 21–23). London: Dept. of Management, Kings College London.

Finally – some of my own reflections on the data session – and why it constitutes such an important methodological and pedagogical practice.

Why I love data sessions and why you should too

The last description of the trade craft of a particular researcher’s data session is my favourite because it shows what an excellent apprenticeship situation this is. Whereas instruction in environments where empirical data is less straight-forwardly ready-at-hand, there is a latency between the teaching moment and the understanding moment that is frustratingly difficult to bridge. In this situation, the data is really doing the teaching, but the skilled analyst elicits both the observation and its pedagogical thrust from the same few seconds of interaction that has been in plain sight all along.

Furthermore, this public availability of the data as a mutually assessable resource to the group provides a constant check on authoritative hubris. More than once I’ve seen a junior analyst grasping and holding onto a powerful observation that provides irrefutable counter-evidence to a more experienced analyst’s position on some piece of data. There is honesty and accountability that flows in each direction in the data session, which is what makes it such a wonderful occasion for learning, analysis and – literally – serious fun.

I also like Jon Hindmarsh’s description because it really captures what it’s like to attend data sessions with different people who love the practice. I’m new to it, but thanks to the generosity of my supervisor Pat Healey and his enthusiasm for this work I’ve had the great pleasure of analysing data with pros such as Steven Clayman, Chuck Goodwin, Christian Heath, John Heritage, Yuri Hosoda, Shimako Iwasaki, Celia Kitzinger, Dirk vom Lehn, Gene Lerner, Rose McCabe, Tanya Stivers, Liz Stokoe and Sandy Thompson, not to mention my fellow students in these sessions from whom – given the peer pedagogical structure of the data session – I was able to learn just as much.

My experience has been that everyone approaches data very differently, and each person has a very distinctive style, analytic focus and approach. Nonetheless, the dynamics and epistemic arrangements of the situation allows for an amazingly rich exchange of ideas and empirical observations between disciplines, across interactional contexts, cultures, languages and focal phenomena. I am convinced that it is one of the most crucial factors in how EM/CA projects have made such robust findings in studies of interaction, language and culture, and that there is a great deal more to be understood and appreciated about how they function.

I am also convinced that the data session has a very important place in disseminating EM/CA findings and practices beyond studies that centre onits traditional sociological/anthropological/linguistic contexts of study. There are sure to be ways of adapting some of its pedagogical/analytical dynamism to working with other contexts and types of recorded materials – although it’s debatable whether this form of analysis would really work with anything other than interactional data. In any case, as I mentioned at the beginning – I am very curious about other data session practices and would like to know more about the similarities and differences in how people run theirs, so, I would be very grateful if you would send me your data session experiences/tips/formats and training materials.

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A continuing state of incipient talk

I was trying to find a way of describing the conversational situation I was recording last summer in which people were leaning on the rail of the first floor balcony of the Tate Modern, talking to each other while watching people below as they mill about, with some of them occasionally behaving in ways that might be considered performance art .

Then I remembered my supervisor Pat Healey giving me a paper on video-mediated-communication that used the phrase ‘a state of incipient talk’ and went looking for it, then got sucked into a rabbit hole tracking this formulation down through various bibliographical dependencies: it’s interesting.

“In consequence, the relatively delicate ways in which individuals subtly move from disengagement to engagement in face to face environments, especially when they are in a ‘state of incipient talk’, appear to be rendered problematic in video mediated co-presence.”

Heath, C., Luff, P., & Sellen, A. (1997). Reconfiguring media space: Supporting collaborative work. Video-mediated communication, 323–347.

Heath, Luff and Sellen use it to contrast the experience of co-present and remote office workers using EuroPARC’s Media Space video conferencing system. Oddly, although they put it in quote marks, they don’t attribute the phrase in their paper, and they don’t cite Schegloff and Sacks’ Opening Up Closings, in which, as far as I can tell, it first appears:

“What we are really dealing with is the problem of closing a conversation that ends a state of talk. It does not hold for members of a household in their living room, employees who share an office, passengers together in an automobile, etc., that is, persons who could be said to be in a ‘continuing state of incipient talk’. In such circumstances, there can be lapses of the operation of what we earlier called the basic features; for example, there can be silence after a speaker’s utterance which is neither an attributable silence nor a termination, which is seen as neither the suspension nor the violation of the basic features. These are adjournments, and seem to be done in a manner different from closings. Persons in such a continuing state of incipient talk need not begin new segments of conversation with exchanges of greetings, and need not close segments with closing sections and terminal exchanges. Much else would appear to be different in their conversational circumstances as compared to those in which a conversation is specifically ‘started up’, which we cannot detail here.”

Schegloff, E., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8(4). pp. 289-327.

However, even in this paper, it appears in single quotes which makes me wonder if that’s just an artefact of the turn of phrase “could be said to be” used to introduce it, or whether it’s an unattributed quote from somewhere else.

Chuck Goodwin quotes a section of the above, and adds:

“Such talk differs from a single conversation in that it does not require exchanges of greetings or closings and permits extended lapses between talk.”

Goodwin, C. (1981). Conversational Organization: interaction between speakers and hearers. New York, London: Academic Press. pp. 23.

He devotes parts of chapter 3 of Conversational OrganisationNotes on the Organisation of Engagement” to “Talk within Disengagement” and “Accounting for Withdrawal” that I have to re-read with this question in mind.

Lorenza Mondada uses it to describe co-workers in adjoining desks in an open-plan workspace engaged in different foci, but occasionally formulating announcements and responses for each other prompted, as she has it, by silences following phone calls or other episodes of variously manifest solo engagement.

“This takes place in a situation of “continuing state of incipient talk” (GOFFMAN, 1963; SCHEGLOFF & SACKS, 1973), typical of open-plan workplaces, which favor various types of multi-activity (such as working while chatting with a colleague, helping somebody while continuing to work on the computer, etc.).”

Mondada, L. (2008). Using Video for a Sequential and Multimodal Analysis of Social Interaction, 9(3). pp. 27.

This is intriguing as she cites Ervin’s Goffman Behaviour in Public Spaces but gives no page reference and I can’t seem to find the phrase in there. However, Goffman is a compelling candidate for a source – as his chapter on unfocused interaction describes these kinds of situations, citing passengers on a  train and co-workers sharing an office:

“As might be expected, when the context firmly provides a dominant involvement that is outside the situation, as when riding in a train or airplane, then gazing out the window, or reverie, or sleeping may be quite permissible. In short, the more the setting guarantees that the participant has not withdrawn from what he ought to be involved in, the more liberty it seems he will have to manifest what would otherwise be considered withdrawal in the situation.”

Goffman, E. (1963). Behavior in public places. New York: The Free Press. pp. 58-9

However, this description frames the situation in terms of reverie or withdrawal, rather than the maintenance of a continuing state of incipient talk as such.

Goffman does talk about neighbouring office workers working to maintain “due disinvolvement” over long stretches of time with what he calls “subordinate involvements” with their work materials:

“This may even be carried to the point where one individual allows himself half-audible “progress grunts” such as, “What do you know!” “Hm hm,” “Let’s see,” without excusing himself to his co-worker.”

Goffman, ibid, pp.63.

But again, this seems to focus on the maintenance of accountable withdrawal rather than characterising the situation in more detail – although this is understandable given that Goffman’s analysis is framed by a situational and somewhat interpretative account of social propriety rather than Sacks and Schegloff’s empirical extrapolation into the detailed sequential orderliness of talk-in-interaction.

Finally Jeffrey D. Robinson quotes Schegloff quoting himself and Sacks in Opening up Closings in the relatively new Handbook of Conversation Aanalysis chapter on ‘Overall Structural Organisation’. I really like this quote because it suggests that these situations are particularly resistant to conversational unit segmentation by analysts, which seems to me (if conversationalists face the same challenges) to point to the importance of participants working to attribute and manage lapses in these situations. That’s definitely what I observe in the interactions I overhear at the Tate.

“Units or orders of organization of all sorts (or of only many sorts perhaps) can have — perhaps must have — both: a local organization, which operates via progressivity from one sub-unit to a next, at various levels of granularity; and an overall structural organization. The latter, of course, can only get its work done in the places provided by the former. The former — the local organization — can only get its emergent shaping by reference to the latter — or the several ‘latter’s which operate on it — for example, the overall structural organization of TCUs, of turns, of sequences, of courses of action or activities such as telling or answering, of the unit ‘a single conversation’, and of that sprawling marvel we call ‘a continuing state of incipient talk’ (Schegloff and Sacks, 1973 : 325 – 6), as though we understood it.”

Schegloff, E. A. (2011). Word repeats as unit ends. Discourse Studies, 13(3), 367–380., quoted in Robinson, J. (2012). Overall Structural Organization. The Handbook of Conversation Analysis, (i).

So – my search ended without a conclusion as to where that quote originally comes from, some clues point towards Goffman but I can’t find that phrasing or an unambiguously similar account of the situation. I think I’m going to email Schegloff and ask. In any case, if he thinks it’s a “sprawling marvel”, then I’m happy to use it to characterise the situation of standing in front of These Associations.

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Recipient Design

Following Rod Munday’sSacks Lexicon, and in the interests of demystifying what can seem like an impenetrable field of technical Conversation Analysis (CA) terminology, I’m assembling a glossary of CA terms that crop up repeatedly in papers and seem useful for getting to grips with the basic methodology.


By recipient design we refer to a multitude of respects in which the talk by a party in a conversation is constructed or designed in ways which display an orientation and sensitivity to the particular other(s) who are the co-participants.

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

Although reference and relevance are related topical issues, knowledge of the referent is not sufficient for establishing relevance. An object referenced not only has to be recognizable, but also has to be transformed into an object for this conversation, for these participants, a feature that Sacks et al. (1974:727) call “recipient design.”

Maynard, D. & Zimmerman, D. Topical talk, ritual and the social organization of relationships Social Psychology Quarterly, 1984, 47, 301-316


Recipient design is a very useful analytical term that could be well applied to fields beyond CA – to refer to any shaping of an action for an intended recipient. It’s a particularly useful term to use in the study of interaction because it focuses analysis on the demonstrable competences, knowledge and situational awareness of the interactants themselves.

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