PhD viva preparation checklist

My PhD viva in November 2016 involved a challenging, rich and rigorous two hour conversation with Professors Christian Heath and Lorenza Mondada. I wasn’t nervous going in and was lucky enough to really enjoy it, probably because during the 6 months between submission and viva I tried to answer at least one of the generic viva questions on the list I’m posting here every day.

It was comforting to know I’d tried to cover lots of bases, and it gave me a way to get my head out of the intense detail of the thesis and make sure I had stepped back to consider the angles I imagined might come up. The answers I wrote were also really useful later because free-writing narrative responses to generic questions daily (and often quite repetitively) helped me think through how to explain my work to non-specialists (although you couldn’t find two people more expert in my area than my two examiners).

Thanks to Drs. Jo Cordy and Steve Hutchinson (via Jo Cordy) and Trafford & Leshem (2002) who came up with some of these questions – assembled from multiple sources. If you’re here because you have your PhD viva coming up – good luck! I hope you enjoy yours as much as I did mine.

  • Pre-viva preparation checks:
    • Read the relevant literature in your specific niche published since submission.
    • Read any relevant and recent work by each examiner.
    • Think of their specific concerns and intellectual bugbears.
    • Ask yourself: have I referenced anything that I can’t really remember anymore?
      • What do I rely on in terms of those references? Can I defend them? Can I summarize each source and what I take from it?
  • 108 Questions to prepare
    • 10 most common questions 
      • Value-added and originality
        • What are the most original (or value-added) parts of your thesis?
        • Which propositions or findings would you say are distinctively your own?
        • How do you think your work takes forward or develops the literature in this field?
        • What are the ‘bottom line’ conclusions of your research? How innovative or valuable are they? What does your work tell us that we did not know before?
      • Origins and the scope of the research
        • Can you explain how you came to choose this topic for your doctorate What was it that first interested you about it? How did the research focus change over time?
        • Why have you defined the final topic in the way you did? What were some of the difficulties you encountered and how did they influence how the topic was framed? What main problems or issues did you have in deciding what was in-scope and out-of-scope?
      • Methods
        • What are the core methods used in this thesis? Why did you choose this approach? In an ideal world, are there different techniques or other forms of data and evidence that you’d have liked to use?
      • Data or information
        • What are the main sources or kinds of evidence? Are they strong enough in terms of their quantity and quality to sustain the conclusions that you draw? Do the data or information you consider appropriately measure or relate to the theoretical concepts, or underlying social or physical phenomena, that you are interested in?
      • Findings
        • How do your findings fit with or contradict the rest of the literature in this field? How do you explain the differences of findings, or estimation, or interpretation between your work and that of other authors?
      • What next?
        • What are the main implications or lessons of your research for the future development of work in this specific sub-field? Are there any wider implications for other parts of the discipline? Do you have ‘next step’ or follow-on research projects in mind?
      • Most common general questions
        • What is it about
        • What’s the original aspect of the thesis
        • What are the weaknesses?
        • What would you do different next time?
      • General practice questions
        • Briefly, what have you most enjoyed about research so far?
        • Briefly, how did you get interested in your area of study?
        • Briefly, which part of your work are you most pleased with?
        • How did your research question arise?
        • What inspired you to tackle this research problem?
        • Provide us with a brief ‘abstract’ of your thesis in 9 sections:
          1. big picture problem / widely debated (1-2 sentences)
          2. brief sketch of literature (2-3 sentences)
          3. gap in approaches to date (without criticism) (1 sentence)
          4. how my project fills the gap (1-2 sentences)
          5. specific matereials examined in the diss (1-2 sentences)
          6. theoretical orientation employed (one sentence)
          7. summary of chapters (2-3 sentences per chapter)
          8. original conclusion / argument (1-2 sentences)
          9. brief concluding paragraph on significance (2-3 sentences).
        • If you had to summarise the main findings of your work to a non-specialist, what would you say?
        • In one sentence, what is your thesis?
        • Why is the problem you have tackled worth tackling?
        • What is original about your work?
        • What is the key contribution of your thesis to increased knowledge?
        • What have you done that merits a PhD?
        • Aside from your supervisor who are the main academic influences on your work, and how does your work compare to theirs?
        • How would you describe your methodology and why did you decide to use it?
        • What methodologies / approaches did you also consider and why did you reject them?
        • What are the strongest and weakest points of your work?
        • Generally, which sections of the thesis are the most publishable and in which journals do you intend to publish them?
        • What did you find most technically or theoretically difficult about your work?
        • What literature searching strategy did you adopt, and how can you be sure you haven’t missed anything significant?
        • What are the ethical implications of your work?
        • What do you see as being the societal or economic impacts of your work (may be potential impacts only at this stage)?
        • If you could start again, what would you change?
        • How have you developed as a researcher?
        • What training have you done while a researcher and how did it help you?
        • What skills and competencies do you still need to develop in order to be a ‘complete’ researcher?
        • How has your supervisory relationship changed over time and what has this taught you about academia?
        • How would you supervise a PhD student?
        • What is your publishing strategy?
        • Given the rate of development in your research area, for how long will your contribution be relevant?
        • How could your work be improved?
        • From your experience, what have you learned about research?
        • What aspect of the work did you find most frustrating?
        • How did the thesis compare with what you set out to do?
        • Did you achieve your initial goals?
        • Given the recent advances in your subject what would you change in respect of your methodology?
        • What new approaches would help you take this work further?
        • If you had five years full funding money and twenty researchers, what would you do?
        • Where will this research area be in 10 years?
        • Do you see yourself in research in 5-10 years’ time and in what position?
  • Question clusters
    • Opening Questions
      • Why did you choose this topic for your doctoral study?’
    • Conceptualisation
      • What led you to select these models of …..?
      • What are the theoretical components of your framework?
      • How did you decide upon the variables to include in your conceptual framework?
      • How did concepts assist you to visualise and explain what you intended to investigate?
      • How did you use your conceptual framework to design your research and analyse your findings?
      • How did you arrive at your conceptual framework?’
    • Research Design
      • What other forms of research did you consider?
      • How would you explain you research approach?
      • Why did you select this particular design for your research?
      • What is the link between your conceptual framework and your choice of methodology
      • and how would you defend that methodology?
      • Can you explain where the data can be found and why your design is the most appropriate way of accessing that data?
      • How did you arrive at your research design?’
    • Research Methodology
      • Please explain your methodology to us.
      • Why did you present this in the form of a case study?
      • What choices of research approach did you consider as you planned your research?
      • Can you tell us about the ‘quasi-experimental’ research that you used?
      • I did not watch your video until after reading your thesis. I wish that I had viewed it earlier ~ it was very good. Why did you decide to include a video in your thesis? What was its role?
      • How would you justify your choice of methodology?’
    • Research Methods
      • How do your methods relate to your conceptual framework?
      • Why did you choose to use those methods of data collection?
      • What other methods did you consider and why were they rejected?
      • How did you handle the data that came from open-ended questions?
      • Tell us how you managed to achieve a 100% response rate from your respondents ~ who, as adolescents in schools, are not known for complying with such requests!
      • Why did you decide to use XYZ as your main instrument(s)?’
    • Sampling
      • How did you decide upon your research boundaries?
      • What was the Universe from which your sample was selected and how did you define it?
      • What is the relationship between your respondents, the research design and the conceptual framework?
      • Why did you choose these respondents rather than other respondents ~ how do you justify that choice?
      • How did you select your respondents/materials/area?’
    • Conceptual conclusions
      • What are your conceptual conclusions?
      • Were you disappointed with your conclusions?
      • How do your conclusions relate to your conceptual framework?
      • How did you distinguish between your factual and conceptual conclusions?
      • How did you arrive at your conceptual conclusions?’
    • Fundamentals
      • How did you triangulate your data?
      • Were you objective or subjective in your role as a researcher?
      • How did you relate the various stages of your research one to another?
      • How did you analyse your data, and how did you arrive at meanings from that analysis?
      • How generalisable are your findings~ and why?’
    • Contribution
      • How important are your findings ~ and to whom?
      • How do your major conclusions link to the work of Dr. X?
      • The absence of evidence is not support for what you were investigating, neither is it
      • confirmation of the opposite view. So how do you explain your research outcomes?
    • What is your contribution to knowledge?’
      • How else might you have undertaken your research?
      • What are the strengths and weaknesses of your research?
      • What would you do differently if you repeated your research?
      • We would like you to critique your thesis for us.’
    • Returning to the Beginning
      • So why did you really want to undertake doctoral study?
      • How is gaining your doctorate going to help your career?
      • What are you going to publish from your thesis?
      • What are you going to do after you gain your doctorate?’
      • Is there anything else that you would like to tell us about your thesis which you have not had the opportunity to tell us during the viva?’

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Two forms of silent contemplation – talk at ICCA 2014

For the International Conference on Conversation Analysis 2014 I gave a talk on some work derived from my PhD: Respecifying Aesthetics. It looked at two forms of silent contemplation – and two sequential positions for bringing off silences as accountable moments for subjective contemplation and aesthetic judgement.

The talk looked at where this conventional notion of aesthetic judgment as an internal, ineffable phenomenon might come from in practical terms. In philosophical terms the idea comes from Kant, who gets it from Hume, who draws on Shaftesbury. I think Hume puts it best.


But this talk isn’t about philosophical aesthetics – it’s about the practical production of contemplation in interaction. It points to the kinds of practical phenomena that we can observe in people’s interactional behaviors that might have inspired philosophers to hypothesise that aesthetic judgments are ineffable, internal, psychological activities.

The empirical crux points to two positions in sequences of talk that people can use to present something as arising from contemplation. The first is done as an initial noticing or assessment, launched from first position without reference to prior talk or action. The second is produced as a subsequent noticing – launched in first position as though responsive to some tacit prior ‘first’.

By studying the practical structure of these ostensibly internal, ineffable events, we can develop more plausible hypotheses about how aesthetic experiences function in theoretical or psychological terms.


  • Coulter, J., & Parsons, E. (1990). The praxiology of perception: Visual orientations and practical action. Inquiry, 33(3).
  • Eriksson, M. (2009). Referring as interaction: On the interplay between linguistic and bodily practices. Journal of Pragmatics, 41(2), 240–262. doi:10.1016/j.pragma.2008.10.011
  • Goodwin, C. (1996). Transparent vision. In E. A. Schegloff & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), Interaction and Grammar (pp. 370–404). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, M. (1987). Concurrent Operations on Talk: Notes on the Interactive Organization of Assesments. Papers in Pragmatics, 1(1).
  • Goffman, E. (1981). Forms of Talk. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Heath, C., & vom Lehn, D. (2001). Configuring exhibits. The interactional production of experience in museums and galleries. In H. Knoblauch & H. Kotthoff (Eds.), Verbal Art across Cultures. The aesthetics and proto-aestehtics of communication (pp. 281–297). Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag.
  • Heritage, J. (2012). Epistemics in Action: Action Formation and Territories of Knowledge. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 45(1), 1–29.
  • Heritage, J., & Raymond, G. (2005). The Terms of Agreement: Indexing Epistemic Authority and Subordination in Talk-in-Interaction. Social Psychology Quarterly, 68(1), 15–38.
  • Kamio, A. (1997). Territory of information. J. Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Leder, H. (2013). Next steps in neuroaesthetics: Which processes and processing stages to study? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 7(1), 27–37.
  • Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in Conversation Analysis (pp. 57–102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (1996). Some Practices for Referring to Persons in Talk-in-Interaction: A Partial Sketch of a Systematics. In B. Fox (Ed.), Studies in Anaphora (pp. 437–85). Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction: Volume 1: A primer in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ Press.
  • Schegloff, E. A., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semiotica, 8(4), 289–327.
  • Stivers, T., & Rossano, F. (2010). Mobilizing Response. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 43(1), 3–31.
  • Vom Lehn, D. (2013). Withdrawing from exhibits: The interactional organisation of museum visits. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility. Language and the Body in Motion (pp. 1–35). Berlin: De Gruyter.

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What can cognitive science tell us about art, and vice versa?

How do people make sense of Tuner Prize nominee Tino Sehgal’s These Associations? And what can cognitive scientists learn from the way they do it?

The result of the Turner prize 2013 has been reported worldwide as a shock win – mostly because this year, the chosen artwork is less shocking than usual.

French artist Laure Prouvost’s madcap films overturned both critical expectations and the bookie’s 6/1 odds against her to win. While William Hill and Ladbrokes had David Shrigley’s mischievous peeing sculptures as a 2/1 favourite, the critics had fancied Tino Sehgal’s live conceptual/performance artworks.

The Turner prize and its contestants have become famous for creating controversy and public discussion about the limits of what artists, galleries and critics consider worthy of aesthetic judgement. However, new research from Queen Mary University of London’s Cognitive Science Group suggests that audiences are generally unfazed by this kind of issue. In ordinary conversations between visitors to the Tate Modern, one of the most supposedly ‘experimental’ artworks in this year’s Turner Prize was immediately and unproblematically subjected to complex processes of aesthetic judgement by the viewing public.

To find out how (and if) people made sense of Tino Sehgal’s Turner Prize-nominated artwork These Associations, I recorded and analysed over two hundred ordinary conversations between visitors to the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall.


I collected recordings of visitors’ conversations over the duration of Sehgal’s performance piece for which the artist trained 300 participants (including the researcher himself) to engage in a series of coordinated movements on the floor of the 3400m² Turbine Hall.

Throughout gallery opening hours in the summer of 2012, up to 70 of these participants at a time would blend into the crowds of tourists, gallery-goers and school children that usually fill the hall. Sometimes Sehgal’s participants would engage visitors in one-to-one conversations, at others they would break out into songs or chants, run in a flocking pattern, or slow-walk through the hall as a large group. For the visitors on the balcony overlooking the hall, this was quite a spectacle, and they would often stand in couples or small groups talking and watching.

Although the But is it art? question is always in the headlines when the Turner Prize is announced, visitors to the Turbine Hall seemed not to care one way or the other. While the question was frequently invoked, and many guests simply assumed that what they were witnessing was an unauthorized and spontaneous ‘flashmob’, most conversations quickly moved on to discussing and describing the action unfolding in front of them—more like sports commentary or a nature documentary voice-over than art criticism.

People’s commentaries were often funny, insightful and playful. “Standing… Standing’s really contemporary right now” was a young American woman’s description of one of Sehgal’s living tableau scenes. “A bit like watching paint dry isn’t it” was one older English woman’s assessment, although she and her friend then discussed what they were observing in detail for half an hour. Several groups of children also learned to play ‘Pooh sticks’ with the piece: as Sehgal’s participants marched under the viewing bridge, they would pick favourites and then run to see whose would walk out first on the other side.

Even negative assessments of the work were then justified in discussion of the details of the piece: how it worked, what it looked like, who the trained participants were and how to tell them apart from ordinary gallery visitors, and what underlying rationale might account for different patterns, behaviours or movements.

Many visitors who arrived on the balcony talking to each other would lapse into long comfortable silences (quite unusual in normal conversation), while others would make ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ noises like people watching firework displays. However, both noisy and silent watchers would then explain their reactions to each other in terms of their analysis of the piece. Most striking was how people would seamlessly switch between talking about the artwork and talking about other aspects of their lives: work, music, London, the events of their day, etc., then back to the piece. Often assessments of the artwork were bound up in practical issues about whether to move on or stay watching, what to eat for lunch or what to view next.

The initial findings of this research suggest that seeing something as art—whether good or bad—is an ordinary, everyday social activity. Aesthetic judgements of Sehgal’s work did not come out as individual’s lofty ‘judgements of taste’, but were embedded in people’s everyday social activities. So the humour and skill with which people explained what they were experiencing to one another other was central to their enjoyment of Sehgal’s work – whether or not they categorized it as art.

The study of aesthetics in psychology, neuroscience and artificial intelligence has tended to concentrate on how people’s reactions to formal properties of traditional artistic objects or images, on survey data, or on tests of people’s basic perceptual or cognitive capabilities. These approaches tend to avoid dealing with artworks which—like many that are nominated for the Turner Prize – use non-conventional art forms because they may not be perceived ‘correctly’  as art outside of a gallery context.

But by looking at how people spontaneously explain their own perceptions of new and unfamiliar art forms to each other while in the process of experiencing them, this research explores how judgements of taste constantly adapt to changing social contexts. Finding out how interaction shapes the contexts in which aesthetic judgements ordinarily happen may be key to a more general understanding of how human cognition and perception adapt to constantly changing social situations and norms.

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Two forms of silent contemplation – abstract for ICCA 2014

Here’s the abstract of my upcoming presentation at ICCA 2014.

There’s a video of the talk with slides here.

Two forms of silent contemplation

  • Saul Albert (
  • Patrick GT Healey (
  • 25/07/2013
Image from
Image from

Silent contemplation is often thought of as the canonical form of aesthetic appreciation, a process of solitary reflection during which the qualities of an artwork are apparently absorbed and considered. The ostensibly private, ineffable nature of such moments naturally suggests analysis in terms of individual neural, physiological or cognitive processes. However, one of the earliest achievements of conversation analysis was to show that silences can also be public conversational moves, used to achieve a variety of social actions.

This paper explores the structure of interactional silences in fragments of naturalistic conversation between people discussing artworks in galleries, at home or work, often in a “continuing state of incipient talk” (Schegloff and Sacks 1969). We distinguish between the sequential organisation of two common forms of contemplative silence: one pre-emptively prepared for by a speaker in advance of the silence, and one accounted for and in effect claimed as a contemplative silence by a speaker after the silence has occurred. Here we present an example of the latter form and outline the analytical context.

Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson (1974) introduce silence as a salient feature of conversation especially in relation to turn-taking. They distinguish between the ‘pause’ as an intra-turn silence and the ‘gap’ as a proper occasion for speaker transition, though they also show how these silences are ‘transformable’ in subsequent talk. If a potential gap opens up when a speaker stops talking, it may be transformed into a pause by that speaker resuming. Alternatively, if the gap is allowed to continue in silence, it may occasion a conversational ‘lapse’, which they illustrate with the following fragments in which pauses of 1 and 2 seconds are followed by lapses (indicated by arrows) of 16 and 14 seconds respectively.

(1)                             (C-J:2)

C: Well no I’ll drive (I don’ m//in’)
J: hhh
-> (1.0)
J: I meapt to offah.
--> (16.0)
J: Those shoes look nice when you keep putting stuff on 'em.
C: Yeah I 'ave to get another can cuz cuz it ran out


C: Yehhh=
J: =(ok) (2.0) I haven’t not. done anything the whole weekend.
C: (okay)
--> (14.0)
J: Dass a rilly nice swe::der,(.hh)'at's my favourite sweater 
   on you, it's the only one that looks right on you
C: mm huh.

Both lapses are terminated by J’s assessments of C’s clothes. These are hearable in their sequential positions as ‘first assessments’  (Pomerantz 1984), initiating a sequence of talk by projecting the relevance of some form of second assessment such as C’s minimal agreements “Yeah …” and “mm huh”. Although the first silence in fragment (1) is both started and ended by J, and the second starts with one speaker and ends with another, neither of J’s first assessments post-silence or C’s responses seem to orient to prior talk, suggesting that these silences are heard as discontinuous lapses ended with new topical sequences.

By contrast, in fragment (2), a conversation between Katherine, an art buyer and Stefan, a gallerist, ends in a 7.4 second silence. Katherine re-starts the conversation with a first assessment: “That is beautiful”.

(2)                             (BNC/KCV/003603)

KAT:    a- (.) an o̲l̲d̲er person rings and (1.3) you 
        sort of:f (1.7) tch .hhh (1.8) haff more 
        p̲a̲t̲ience wizz him or something. 
KAT:    So 
KAT:    .hhh Ah I was .hh That is beautiful. 
STE:    Yes.

The initial assessments in both fragments (1) and (2) are not randomly inserted into the talk. Rather, as Mondada (2009) suggests in her analysis of food-talk in dinner conversations, such assessments are systematically used as a resource for relaunching conversation after a lapse or a troublesome spate of talk.

However, a closer look at fragment (2) demonstrates that while Katherine’s assessment accomplishes re-initiation of talk, prompting a minimal acknowledgement from Stefan, it does so in a way that seems to orient towards the preceding pre-lapse talk. Her initial “So”, suggests an incipient development of the prior topic [@Raymond2004], then her halting self-repair seems to be initiating a retrospective self-attributed account: “.hhh Ah I was .hh”. Finally Katherine produces “That is beautiful” hearable as both a first assessment, but possibly also as an account for the potentially troublesome 7.4 second lapse.

This post-lapse initial assessment can be seen to accomplish several actions simultaneously, including re-launching the conversation, but also asserting a retrospective claim to the prior lapse as a silence that is attributable and accounted for as contemplative.

This brief outline concentrates on only one way in which one form of contemplative silence is produced. Building on this analysis, we propose that silences in conversation can, in some circumstances, be shaped in different ways and to different extents for response (Stivers and Rossano 2012) and are treated by recipients as distinctively cognitive events in that ostensibly private internal processes are made manifest on the surface of the conversation.

A short review of other analytical approaches to conversational silence informs a discussion of whether contemplative silence may be seen as specific to contexts such as the joint viewing of artworks. We conclude that social practices of contemplation are generally available to participants in everyday conversation, and sketch out some of the implications for empirical and theoretical research into aesthetic response.


Mondada, Lorenza. 2009. “The methodical organization of talking and eating: Assessments in dinner conversations.” Food Quality and Preference 20 (dec): 558–571.

Pomerantz, A. 1984. “Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes.” In Structures of social action: Studies in Conversation Analysis, ed. J. Maxwell Atkinson and John Heritage, 57–102. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond, Geoffrey. 2004. “Prompting action: The stand-alone ’so’ in ordinary conversation.” Research on Language and Social Interaction 37: 185–218.

Sacks, H., E. A. Schegloff, and Gail Jefferson. 1974. “A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation.” Language 50: 696–735.

Schegloff, E. A., and Harvey Sacks. 1969. “Opening up closings.” Contract 49.

Stivers, Tanya, and Federico Rossano. 2012. “Mobilising response in interaction: a compositional view of questions.” In Questions: Formal, Functional and Interactional Perspectives, ed. Jan Peter de Ruiter, 70–90. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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Respecifying Aesthetics

Accounting for taste in everyday talk

How do we do evaluations in general, and aesthetic judgments in particular? This research project explores these actions as practical procedures in conversation.

Empirical investigations of evaluations where there are no clearly established standards for judgment often turn to aesthetic philosophy to answer questions about how people make subjective yet normative judgments. Studies tend to adopt combinations of ‘internalist’ theories of aesthetic experience, which suggest subjective judgments are normatively produced via universal cognitive or psychological processes, or ‘externalist’ theories, which suggest normativity is habituated by social or cultural factors. The problem for both is how to identify the relevant processes or factors involved in evaluations in any given situation on an empirical basis.


This study uses conversation analytic methods to explore naturally occurring evaluations between visitors to the Tate Modern as they encounter an unconventional artwork. This identifies the interactional procedures of noticing and assessment they use to establish which processes and factors are normatively relevant to participating in each evaluation. These procedures are compared to examples of similarly structured patterns of talk from a large corpus of conversations in diverse settings and demographic groups based on a conversation analytic version of the British National Corpus of Spoken English. The findings show how participants use equivocation as a strategy to involve others in evaluations that can generate the normativity of a judgment through the reflexive accountability of its interactional process. Assessments are also shown to function as evaluative practices alongside noticings and other actions produced via specific retro-sequential patterns in talk as interactionally relevant displays of participants’ cognitive/perceptual states.  This thesis provides a respecification of aesthetics as an interactional practice that enables empirical studies to generalize findings between evaluative contexts, factors and processes by exploring how people establish normative, relevant standards for evaluation in any interactional situation.

This project was supervised by Pat Healey and Graham White and funded by the EPSRC through the Media and Arts Technology Programme, a Research Councils UK Centre for Doctoral Training EP/G03723X/1.

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Aesthetic Assessments in the BNC

Thanks to Hari Kunzru for this one.
Thanks to Hari Kunzru for this one.

I am writing a thesis entitled “Accounting for Taste, the Pragmatics of Aesthetic Assessments in Conversation”. The project is to show how people ‘do’ aesthetics interactionally; how they express and negotiate about their tastes, how they describe the world and make certain aspects of it intelligible to themselves and one another as aesthetic resources.

(Not) Defining Aestheics

One of the initial problems is coming up with a useful sense of what ‘aesthetics’ means in this context. Starting with negative definition: I am not talking about the discourse of aesthetics that evaluates art and cultural artefacts in a way that would be recognisable to Art History. What I am doing is looking at concrete examples of people negotiating about issues of personal taste and trying to see how they are accomplishing those interactions.

Various existing attempts have been made to do something a bit like this – notably by Heath, Luff and vom Lehn in their studies of the ostensibly aesthetic context of museums 1.

These studies have thrown a fascinating light on how visitors to museums and galleries negotiate their attention to and awareness of these contexts. Some of their most elegant findings show, based on close observation of video recordings, how visitors’ body position and gaze indicate that their experience is constituted by a continuous and fragmentary noticing of multiple objects, artworks and other visitors. The kind of singular, fixed-position spectatorship of one object at a time that curators and artists may assume to be the case is conspicuously absent from their findings. Similarly, their studies of how groups of people, including strangers and family groups, organise their movement around the spaces and exhibits show how noticing – paying attention – is often accomplished interactionally. Specific objects, perspectives and ways of behaving in gallery spaces that again, question assumptions about the primacy of individual or ‘individualistic’ spectatorship in the gallery context.

By demonstrating the difference between the production imperatives indicated by the plans and stated intentions of curators, galleries and museums on the one hand, and the observable clues to visitors interactional experiences in museums and galleries on the other, this body of work provides a basis for their ongoing experiments with interactive exhibits and different museological approaches.

Heath et. al’s definition of aesthetics in this case seems motivated by a straight-forward decision to approach anything that happens in museums and galleries as aesthetic. By making this decision, based on initial assumptions and their own familiarity with certain traditions and cultural institutions, they were then able to expand a critical understanding of what cultural institutions are, how people behave in them, and how the context and the exhibits are used as interactional resources.

Aesthetics in Hagberg’s Wittgenstein

I’m doing something similar: I’m looking for a broader notion of aesthetics outside of the contextual frame of the musuem, or at least, not only within this frame. Wittgenstein 2 points out that aesthetics as an area of human concern is both ‘very big’ (in that it is involved in so many areas of life and action), and ‘entirely misunderstood’, by which he means, often limited to the study of a very small subset of things with which aesthetics might be ‘done’ (ie. Art) 3.

This ‘very big’ range of situations will have profoundly different pragmatic implications for a working understanding of aesthetics in each context, which might constitute completely different activities. The only way to find out is to look at each situation, and see it as a different pragmatic context for an understanding of a set of interactional exchanges that can be thought of, in an analytic context, as aesthetics. With this approach in mind, Not having a consistent or even coherent definition of aesthetics as an operational or contextual constant is not a problem. In fact, having to continually re-assess what we might mean by aesthetics by looking at how people negotiate various specific contexts is a major project of this research.

Looking at regularities that emerge from the data drawn from each context will then begin to generate a sense of what is general and what is particular about different interactional contexts and how various notions of aesthetics become relevant to the people involved.

Aesthetics in the context of Conversation Analysis

In the first paper I co-wrote on the subject, we reviewed foundational Conversation Analysis (CA) literature for everyday conversational devices used in accomplishing aesthetic assessments. For that study we sampled data from papers in the CA literature that dealt with ostensibly aesthetic topics such as the evaluation of an artwork. Specifically, the framing of aesthetics in the context of CA emerged from the selection of a conversational sequence from Anita Pomerantz’ paper on agreeing and disagreeing with assessments in which participants negotiate the assessment of one of the participants’ recently purchased artistic prints.

This approach and the use of readily available conversational data helped to ground my observations in the CA literature, while giving me a sense of how the mechanisms and devices of conversation such as turn-taking, preference organisation, and topic-shifting are used in the accomplishment of aesthetic assessments.

In the process of evaluating this print, I observed that the participants made all kinds of things relevant to their assessments including:

  • authorship,
  • knowledge of the author,
  • monetary value,
  • scarcity,
  • knowledge about the print,
  • correct spelling,
  • how ‘realistic’ it is, and
  • how much like a magazine advert it is.

So in the context of that conversation, the ways in which these topics are negotiated emerged as what I am thinking of as the practice of conversational aesthetics.

The next step is now to look at various other contextually specific practices of conversational aesthetics, which may well have different characteristics and regularities. The project is then to attend to the different ways in which some of these concepts may or may not be made relevant interactionally, as well as seeing what other kinds of topics and practices become evident.

Building up a vocabulary of conversational aesthetics by looking at the data and working up from there, I can interrogate specific interactional situations to see how they are accomplished and whether they relate to each other, without resorting to a grab-bag of pre-existing high level theoretical constructs.

Aesthetics in the context(s) of the Demographic BNC

The initial CA study has informed how I am approaching a different, if related, set of interactional situations. Looking outside the seemingly evident aesthetic context of Heath et. al’s art gallery or the evaluation of an artwork from Pomerantz’ paper (which could both fit into the narrow ontology of aesthetics that Wittgenstein thought ‘entirely misunderstood’) the purposive sampling of these conversations is geared towards opening up the question of how people do something that can be called aesthetics in their daily lives and interactions.

A lexical approach

Adopting a lexical, rather than a contextual or conceptual selection rationale, I searched for the word ‘beautiful’ in the demographic sections of the British National Corpus (BNC), a searchable archive of over 700 hours of naturalistic conversations, recorded by 124 people wearing tape recorders while going about their daily lives in the early 90s. The recent publication of the Audio BNC has enabled me to find and transcribe the original audio from these conversations, vastly improving on the accuracy of the existing transcriptions, and applying the detailed orthography required for CA-style analysis (I’ve written more about this on this blog).

The word ‘beautiful’ was chosen from a list of keywords picked intuitively as being likely to bring up conversations with a dimension of aesthetic assessment. Searches for domain-specific keywords such as artist names or art-related terms such as ‘artist’, ‘painting’ or ‘sculpture’, had very few hits in the demographic data (33, 153 and 13, respectively). By contrast, these specialist terms were frequently present in transcriptions of TV broadcasts, lectures and formal settings, but hardly at all in more everyday contexts such as having a cup of tea at home, or out shopping. ‘Beautiful’, however, was ubiquitous and plentiful in search results from both formal and informal contexts.

Because of their availability and broad distribution across the corpus, the results from the search for the word ‘beautfiul’ were selected for analysis. To try and focus on the most naturalistic interactions available, all conversations from formal settings such as classrooms, interviews, lectures and TV studios were discarded, leaving just under 200 conversations in 50 different files. Looking through these conversations one by one, conversations in which the word ‘beautiful’ occurred in longer, multi-party sequences rather than short statements or non sequiturs were selected to provide the most interactional data for analysis.

Objections to this approach

Sampling rationale is a significant issue in any Conversation Analytic project, as the sampling of data in CA tends to consist of a range of data, sampled from across a corpus, picked out for the analytic potential to thematise a specific conversational device. Paul Ten Have has said that “many researchers in CA emphasise that transcriptions should not be made with a specific research problem or hypothesis in mind […] The ideal would be to have a large corpus of very detailed transcripts that can be used to locate and analyze specific phenomena.” 4. Although the existing transcripts of the BNC are not sufficiently detailed or accurate to enable CA-device-level phenomena to be picked out, the transcripts make the phenomenon of word selection available for this kind of approach.

It may seem problematic to use a straight-forward lexical search term as a way of selecting data for a CA-informed analysis given that CA as a methodology looks for the “formal and anonymous” apparatus of conversation 5. Firstly, the practice of aesthetics in many contexts might well have nothing to do with the word ‘beautiful’, and even if it did, why not the noun form: ‘beauty’, or some other synonym? Similarly, there is very little hope that a lexical search would be able to distinguish between very different pragmatic uses of the same word (descriptive, bathetic, sarcastic etc.).

However, if Heath et al.’s sampling of what happens interactionally in the “perceptual range of the event” 6 – in their case, the museum or gallery context, can be the basis of what they call a “pragmatic aesthetics” 7, the same might be said of the instance of the word beautiful in everday talk. The lexical aspects of their talk might have a far less obvious impact on their interaction than its temporal and physical context, but as an almost arbitrary placeholder for sampling from an otherwise potentially boundless corpus of naturalistic interactions, it can serve a similar purpose.


  1. See, for example, Heath, C. (2004). Configuring Reception: (Dis-)Regarding the “Spectator” in Museums and Galleries. Theory, Culture & Society, 21(6), 43–65., Lehn, D. vom, & Heath, C. (2001). Configuring exhibits. The interactional production of experience in museums and galleries. Verbal Art across Cultures. Aesthetics 44(0), 1–19, or Lehn, D. Vom, Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2007). Engaging constable: revealing art with new technology. Proceedings of the SIGCHI.
  2. Wittgenstein, Ludwig. Wittgenstein: Lectures and Conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. University of California Press, 2007.
  3. Hagberg, G. (2008). Wittgenstein’s Aesthetics. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2008.). Retrieved from
  4. Have, P. Ten. (1990). Methodological Issues in Conversation Analysis. Bulletin de méthodologie sociologique, (1), 1–24.
  5. See Sacks, Harvey. “On the preferences for agreement and contiguity in sequences in conversation.” Talk and social organisation 54 (1987): 69.
  6. Goffman, Erving. Forms of talk. University of Pennsylvania Press, 1981. p.3
  7. vom Lehn, Dirk. “Die Kunst der Kunstbetrachtung: Aspekte einer Pragmatischen Ästhetik in Kunstausstellungen.” Soziale Welt (2006): 83-99.

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The Pragmatics of Aesthetic Assessment in Conversation

Here’s the presentation I just gave at Semdial 2012 in Paris.

Here’s the accompanying paper.
The Pragmatics of Aesthetic Assessments in Conversation
From the proceedings of Semdial 2012.


Judgements of taste are an intrinsic part of everyday conversational interactions: people make assessments and agree and disagree with them as a core part of how they participate in activities, create and share knowledge, and manage their relationships with one another. However, these conversational assessments can seem resistant to some forms of analysis in ways that are summed up neatly in the Scholastic idiom “there’s no accounting for taste”.

This paper approaches the difficulty of analysing judgements of taste in dialogue by looking at them in terms of the pragmatics of talk-in-interaction. An as-yet-unanalysed example of a conversation about an artwork is drawn from Anita Pomerantz’ seminal Conversation Analytic (CA) paper on conversational assessments, and examined in order to build up a picture of the mechanisms people use when making aesthetic assessments.

This analysis suggests that seemingly high-level aesthetic judgements are accomplished using the same ordinary mechanisms of conversational assessment ubiquitous in everyday talk. Some curious features of topic shifting within assessments are discussed, highlighting some methodological issues for this use of CA, and further research into naturalistic aesthetic assessment is proposed.

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Anita Pomerantz and Sister Corita Kent in Conversation



I found this conversation in Pomerantz’ paper over a year ago, and began to examine the detail of the exchange: how the participants manage thier assessments of the print, and what kinds of conversational devices and mechanisms they use to do so.

I never really thought to find out what they were talking about until I started working on the Audio BNC (my post about that here) and kept hearing lots of mis-transcribed names of artists and musicians in people’s conversations.

I had started searching for Mary Kerrida (sic) and even thought it might be a mistranscription of ‘querida’, and they were looking at some kind of religious print or icon of the Virgin. It just never occured to me, reading their conversation, that they might be talking about a piece by Sister Corita Kent, the peacenick pop-art nun.

When I found this print ‘Life’, I was struck by how little relevance the image seemed to have to the conversation, and how few identifiable descriptions appeared in talk. The only reference that enabled me to identify it (or so I think) was the question from participant E, querying the spelling of the word ‘life’ – a conversational/perceptual repair of sorts.

In fact when analysing this conversation, Pat Healey and I had to accept that there was no real evidence that E’s question was even part of the overall conversation at all.

That’s still the case I guess, and I can’t prove that they’re talking about this image, but this process, of reading a decontextualised transcript of a critique first, then finding the artist, then finally the image being critiqued, has been a useful case in point for a conversational aesthetic approach.

Anita Pomerantz and Sister Corita Kent in Conversation Read More »