Getting a backchannel in wordwise: using “big data” with CA

Here’s the abstract to an ICCA 2018 paper I’m working on with J.P. de Ruiter at the Human Interaction Lab at Tufts. The goal is to use computational linguistic methods (that often use the term ‘backchannel’) to see if all these responsive particles really belong in one big undifferentiated ‘bucket’.

Many studies of dialogue use the catch-all term ‘backchannel’ (Yngve ,1970) to refer to a wide range of utterances and behaviors as forms of listener-feedback in interaction. The use of this wide category ignores nearly half a century of research into the highly differentiated interactional functions of ‘continuers’ such as ‘uh huh’ or ‘wow’ (Schegloff, 1982, Goodwin, 1986), acknowledgement tokens such as ‘yeah’, ‘right’ or ‘okay’ (Jefferson, 1984; Beach, 1993) and change-of-state markers such as ‘oh’ or ‘nå’ (Heritage, 1984; Heinemann, 2017). These studies show how participants use responsive particles as fully-fledged, individuated, and distinctive words that do not belong in an undifferentiated functional class of ‘backchannels’ (Sorjonen, 2001). For this paper we use the Conversation Analytic British National Corpus (CABNC) (Albert, L. de Ruiter & J. P. de Ruiter, 2015) – a 4.2M word corpus featuring audio recordings of interaction from a wide variety of everyday settings that facilitates ‘crowdsourced’ incremental improvements and multi-annotator coding. We use Bayesian model comparison to evaluate the relative predictive performance of two competing models. In the first of these, all ‘backchannels’ imply the same amount of floor-yielding, while the second CA informed model assumes that different response tokens are more or less effective in ushering extended turns or sequences to a close. We argue that using large corpora together with statistical models can also identify candidate ‘deviant cases’, providing new angles and opportunities for ongoing detailed, inductive conversation analysis. We discuss the methodological implications of using “big data” with CA, and suggest key guidelines and common pitfalls for researchers using large corpora and statistical methods at the interface between CA and cognitive psychology (De Ruiter & Albert, 2017).

References (including references for the final talk – which has many more references than this abstract).

  • Albert, S., De Ruiter, L., & De Ruiter, J. P. (2015). The CABNC. Retrieved from 9/09/2017
  • Albert, S., & De Ruiter, J.P. (2018, in press), Ecological grounding in interaction research. Collabra: Psychology.
  • Beach, W. A. (1990). Searching for universal features of conversation. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 24(1–4), 351–368.
  • Bolden, G. B. (2015). Transcribing as Research: ‘Manual’; Transcription and Conversation Analysis. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 48(3), 276–280.
  • de Ruiter, J. P., & Albert, S. (2017). An Appeal for a Methodological Fusion of Conversation Analysis and Experimental Psychology. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 50(1), 90–107.
  • Goodwin, C. (1986). Between and within: Alternative sequential treatments of continuers and assessments. Human Studies, 9(2), 205–217.
  • Greiffenhagen, C., Mair, M., & Sharrock, W. (2011). From Methodology to Methodography: A Study of Qualitative and Quantitative Reasoning in Practice. Methodological Innovations Online, 6(3), 93–107.
  • Hayashi, M., & Yoon, K. (2009). Negotiating boundaries in talk. Conversation Analysis: Comparative Perspectives, 27, 250.
  • Hepburn, A., & Bolden, G. B. (2017). Transcribing for social research. London: Sage.
  • Heritage, J. (1984). A change-of-state token and aspects of its sequential placement. In M. Atkinson & J. Heritage, M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. 299–345). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heritage, J. (1998). Oh-prefaced responses to inquiry. Language in Society, 27(3), 291–334.
  • Heritage, J. (2002). Oh-prefaced responses to assessments: A method of modifying agreement/disagreement. In C. E. Ford, B. A. Fox, & S. A. Thompson, C. E. Ford, B. A. Fox, & S. A. Thompson (Eds.), The Language of Turn and Sequence (pp. 1–28). New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Hoey, E. M., & Kendrick, K. H. (2017). Conversation Analysis. In A. M. B. de Groot & P.Hagoort, A. M. B. de Groot & P.Hagoort (Eds.), Research Methods in Psycholinguistics: A Practical Guide (pp. 151–173). Hoboken, NJ: WileyBlackwell.
  • Housley, W., Procter, R., Edwards, A., Burnap, P., Williams, M., Sloan, L., … Greenhill, A. (2014). Big and broad social data and the sociological imagination: A collaborative response. Big Data & Society, 1(2).
  • Jefferson, G. (1981). On the Articulation of Topic in Conversation. Final Report. London: Social Science Research Council.
  • Jefferson, G. (1984). Notes on a systematic Deployment of the Acknowledgement tokens ’Yeah’ and ’Mmhm’. Papers in Linguistics, 17(2), 197–216.
  • Kendrick, K. H. (2017). Using Conversation Analysis in the Lab. Research on Language and Social Interaction , 1–11.
  • MacWhinney, B. (1992). The CHILDES project: Tools for analyzing talk. Child Language Teaching and Therapy, (2000).
  • Nishizaka, A. (2015). Facts and Normative Connections: Two Different Worldviews. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 48(1), 26–31.
  • Nosek, B. A., Ebersole, C. R., DeHaven, A. C., & Mellor, D. T. (2018). The preregistration revolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 115(11), 2600–2606.
  • Ochs, E. (1979). Transcription as theory. In E. Ochs & B. B. Schieffelin, E. Ochs & B. B. Schieffelin (Eds.), Developmental pragmatics (pp. 43–72). New York: Academic Press.
  • Potter, J., & te Molder, H. (2005). Talking cognition: Mapping and making the terrain. In J. Potter & D. Edwards, J. Potter & D. Edwards (Eds.), Conversation and cognition (pp. 1–54).
  • Sacks, H. (1963). Sociological description. Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 1–16.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (1982). Discourse as an interactional achievement: Some uses of ?uh huh?and other things that come between sentences. In D. Tannen, D. Tannen (Ed.), Analyzing discourse: Text and talk (pp. 71–93). Georgetown University Press.
  • Schegloff, E. A. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction: Volume 1: A primer in conversation analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Steensig, J., & Heinemann, T. (2015). Opening Up Codings? Research on Language and Social Interaction, 48(1), 20–25.
  • Stivers, T. (2015). Coding Social Interaction: A Heretical Approach in Conversation Analysis? Research on Language and Social Interaction, 48(1), 1–19.
  • Rühlemann (2017). Integrating Corpus-Linguistic and Conversation-Analytic Transcription in XML: The Case of Backchannels and Overlap in Storytelling Interaction. Corpus Pragmatics, 1(3), 201–232.
  • Rühlemann, C., & Gee, M. (2018). Conversation Analysis and the XML method. Gesprächsforschung–Online-Zeitschrift Zur Verbalen Interaktion, 18.
  • Wittenburg, P., Brugman, H., Russel, A., Klassmann, A., & Sloetjes, H. (2006). ELAN: a professional framework for multimodality research. In 5th International Conference on Language Resources and Evaluation (LREC 2006) (pp. 1556–1559).
  • Yngve, V. (1970). On getting a word in edgewise. Chicago Linguistics Society, 6th Meeting, 566–579. Retrieved from

Presidential addressing

See the offprint: Albert, S., & Raymond, C. W. (2019). Conversation analysis at the ‘middle region’ of public life: Greetings and the interactional construction of Donald Trump’s political persona. Language & Communication, 69, 67–83.

We’re contributing this talk to Josh Raclaw‘s panel at the AAA 2017 Toward a transdisciplinary coalition in sociocultural linguistics: A collaborative analysis of presidential discourse in Trump’s Black History Month Listening Session. The panel invites scholars from a variety of methodological orientations to address the same bit of data. Our EM/CA-oriented contribution to the panel focuses on the greeting sequences in the first few moments of the meeting.

Chase Wesley Raymond & Saul Albert

This paper is designed as a contribution to an inter- and trans-disciplinary panel investigating President Donald Trump’s Black History Month Listening Session. Here we adopt the theory and method of conversation analysis (CA) to examine the first minute of this multiparty interaction—from Trump’s entrance into the room, to the launch of his prepared remarks. Greetings and other phenomena that occur during interactional openings have been widely studied from a conversation-analytic perspective (see, e.g., Schegloff, 1968), and yet here we see them occurring in a very particular institutionalized setting, with very particular participants, and in the presence of an overhearing audience (i.e., at-home viewers). In this paper, our aim is to unpack Trump’s initial interactions with those present in the room: whom does he greet, and in what ways, and how is he greeted in return? Moreover, we ask how these greeting practices contribute to the business of “‘doing being’ president” (cf. Sacks, 1984), and thus we will discuss the various membership categories (Sacks, 1992) that are made relevant in and through these brief introductory exchanges. Our analysis therefore offers insights not only into this specific individual’s interactional style and this particular setting, but also into how greetings operate more broadly in multiparty discourse of this sort. 


Albert, E. (1964). “Rhetoric,” “logic,” and “poetics” in Burundi: culture patterning of speech behavior. American Anthropologist, 66, pt 2(6), 35-54.

Billig, Michael. (1999a). Conversation Analysis and the claims of naivety. Discourse & Society, 10(4), 572-576.

Billig, Michael. (1999b). Whose terms? Whose ordinariness? Rhetoric and ideology in Conversation Analysis. Discourse & Society, 10(4), 543-582.

Bolinger, Dwight. (1961). Contrastive Accent and Contrastive stress. Language, 37, 83-96.

Clayman, Steven E., & Heritage, John. (2002). The News Interview: Journalists and Public Figures on the Air. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

Clift, Rebecca, & Raymond, Chase Wesley. (2018). Actions in practice: On details in collections. Discourse Studies.

Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth. (1984). A new look at contrastive intonation. In R. J.  Watts & Urs Weidmann (Eds.), Modes of Interpretation: Essays presented to Ernst Leisi on the occasion of his 65th birthday (pp. 137-158). Tübingen: Gunter Narr.

Couper-Kuhlen, Elizabeth, & Thompson, Sandra A. (2005). A linguistic practice for retracting overstatements: ‘Concessive repair’. In Auli Hakulinen & Margret Selting (Eds.), Syntax and Lexis in Conversation: Studies on the use of linguistic resources in talk-in-interaction (pp. 257-288). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Drew, Paul, & Heritage, John. (1992). Analyzing Talk at Work: An Introduction. In Paul Drew & John Heritage (Eds.), Talk at Work (pp. 3-65). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heritage, John. (1984). Garfinkel and Ethnomethodology. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Heritage, John, & Clayman, Steven E. (2010). Talk in Action: Interactions, Identities and Institutions. Oxford: Blackwell-Wiley.

Hough, Emerson. (1917). The man next door. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Hansen, A. D. (2005). A practical task: Ethnicity as a resource in social interaction. Research on Language and Social Interaction38(1), 63-104.

Jefferson, Gail. (1978). What’s In a ‘Nyem’? Sociology, 12, 1, 135-139.

Jefferson, Gail. (1981). The Abominable ‘Ne?’: A Working Paper Exploring the Phenomenon of Post-Response Pursuit of Response. Occasional Paper No.6, Department of Sociology,: University of Manchester, Manchester, England.

Jefferson, G. (1989). Letter to the editor re: Anita Pomerantz’ epilogue to the special issue on sequential organization of conversational activities. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 53, 427-429.

Kendon, Adam. (1990). Spatial Organization in Social Encounters: The F-Formation System. In Adam Kendon (Ed.), Conducting Interaction: Patterns of Behavior in Focused Encounters (pp. 209-238). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Pomerantz, Anita M. (1984a). Agreeing and Disagreeing with Assessments: Some Features of Preferred/Dispreferred Turn Shapes. In J. Maxwell Atkinson & John Heritage (Eds.), Structures of Social Action: Studies in Conversation Analysis (pp. 57-101). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pomerantz, Anita M. (1984b). Pursuing a Response. In J. Maxwell Atkinson & John Heritage (Eds.), Structures of Social Action (pp. 152-164). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Raymond, Chase Wesley. (2017). Indexing a contrast: The ‘do’-construction in English conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 118, 22-37.

Raymond, Chase Wesley. (Frth). Category accounts: Normativity in sequences of action. Language in Society.

Raymond, Chase Wesley, & Stivers, Tanya. (2016). The omnirelevance of accountability: Off-record account solicitations. In Jeffrey D. Robinson (Ed.), Accountability in Social Interaction (pp. 321-353). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raymond, Geoffrey. (2018). Which epistemics? Whose conversation analysis? Discourse Studies.

Rossano, Federico. (2009). Gase as a method of pursuing responses. Paper presented at the Annual Meets of the American Sociological Association, San Franciso.

Rossano, Federico. (2013). Gaze in Social Interaction. In Jack Sidnell & Tanya Stivers (Eds.), The Handbook of Conversation Analysis (pp. 308-329). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Sacks, Harvey. (1984). Notes on Methodology. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of Social Action (pp. 21-27). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Edited by Gail Jefferson from various lectures).

Sacks, Harvey. (1987 [1973]). On the Preferences for Agreement and Contiguity in Sequences in Conversation. In Graham Button & John R. E. Lee (Eds.), Talk and Social Organisation (pp. 54-69). Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.

Sacks, Harvey. (1992). Lectures on Conversation (2 vols.). Oxford: Blackwell.

Sacks, Harvey, Schegloff, Emanuel A., & Jefferson, Gail. (1974). A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation. Language, 50, 696-735.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1968). Sequencing in Conversational Openings. American Anthropologist, 70, 1075-1095.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1987a). Analyzing Single Episodes of Interaction: An Exercise in Conversation Analysis. Social Psychology Quarterly, 50(2), 101-114.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1987b). Between Macro and Micro: Contexts and Other Connections. In Jeffrey C. Alexander, Bernhard Giesen, Richard Münch, & Neil J. Smelser (Eds.), The Micro-Macro Link (pp. 207-234). Berkeley: University of California Press.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1997a). Practices and Actions: Boundary Cases of Other-Initiated Repair. Discourse Processes, 23(3), 499-545.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1997b). Whose Text? Whose Context. Discourse & Society, 8(2), 165-187.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1998). Reply to Wetherell. Discourse and Society, 9(3), 457-460.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1999a). Discourse, Pragmatics, Conversation, Analysis. Discourse Studies, 1(4), 405-435.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (1999b). ‘Schegloff’s Texts’ as ‘Billig’s Data’: A Critical Reply to Billig. Discourse and Society, 10(4), 558-572.

Schegloff, Emanuel A. (2007). Sequence organization in Interaction: A Primer in Conversation Analysis Volume 1. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Schegloff, Emanuel A., & Sacks, Harvey. (1973). Opening Up Closings. Semiotica, 8(4), 289-327.

Stivers, Tanya. (2005). Modified Repeats: One Method for Asserting Primary Rights from Second Position. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 38(2), 131-158.

Stivers, Tanya, & Rossano, Federico. (2010). Mobilizing Response. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 43, 3-31.

Assessments in the production of routine (rhythmical) closings

Here these are the references for my talk on terminal assessments and performance evaluations in a partner dance workshop at LANSI 2017

I’ve given up trying to fit them all onto one slide at the end – so here they are on this web page. A recording of the talk is to follow – here’s one of the slides for now:

A slide from the talk showing some of the normative dimensions of accountability that emerge through students' terminal performance evaluations and how they're involved in teachers' routine, terminal assessments.
A slide showing some of the normative dimensions of accountability that emerge through students’ terminal performance evaluations and how they’re involved in teachers’ routine, terminal assessments.


  • Albert, S. (2015). Rhythmical coordination of performers and audience in partner dance. Delineating improvised and choreographed interaction. Etnografia E Ricerca Qualitativa, 3, 399–428.
  • Antaki, C. (2002). “Lovely”: Turn-initial high-grade assessments in telephone closings. Discourse Studies, 4(1), 5–23.
  • Antaki, C. (2000). “Brilliant. Next Question…”: High-Grade Assessment Sequences in the Completion of Interactional Units. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 33(3), 37–41.
  • Broth, M., & Mondada, L. (2013). Walking away: The embodied achievement of activity closings in mobile interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 47(1), 41–58.
  • Broth, M., & Keevallik, L. (2014). Getting Ready to Move as a Couple: Accomplishing Mobile Formations in a Dance Class. Space and Culture, 17(2), 107–121.
  • De Stefani, E., & Mondada, L. (2013). Reorganizing Mobile Formations: When “Guided” Participants Initiate Reorientations in Guided Tours. Space and Culture, 17(2), 157–175.
  • De Stefani, E., & Gazin, A.-D. (2014). Instructional sequences in driving lessons: Mobile participants and the temporal and sequential organization of actions. Journal of Pragmatics, 65, 63–79.
  • Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. America. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Halll.
  • Goodwin, C., & Goodwin, M. H. (1992). Assessments and the construction of context. In C. Goodwin & A. Duranti, C. Goodwin & A. Duranti (Eds.), Rethinking context: Language as an Interactive Phenomenon (Vol. 11, pp. 147–189). Cambridge: Cambridge University Pressess.
  • Harness Goodwin, M., & Goodwin, C. (1986). Gesture and coparticipation in the activity of searching for a word. Semiotica, 62(1–2), 51–75.
  • Keevallik, L. (2010). Bodily Quoting in Dance Correction. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 43(4), 401–426.
  • Keevallik, L. (2013). Here in time and space: Decomposing movement in dance instruction. In P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile, P. Haddington, L. Mondada, & M. Nevile (Eds.), Interaction and Mobility: Language and the Body in Motion (pp. 345–370). Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter.
  • Oshima, S., & Streeck, J. (2015). Coordinating talk and practical action: The case of hair salon service assessments. Pragmatics and Society, 6(4), 538–564.
  • Pomerantz, A. (1984). Agreeing and disagreeing with assessments: Some features of preferred/dispreferred turn shapes. In J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage, J. M. Atkinson & J. Heritage (Eds.), Structures of social action: Studies in conversation analysis (pp. 57–102). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Schütz, A. (1951). Making music together: A study in social relationship. Social Research, 18(1), 76–97.
  • Stivers, T., & Rossano, F. (2010). Mobilizing Response. Research on Language & Social Interaction, 43(1), 3–31.
  • Thompson, S. A., Fox, B. A., & Couper-Kuhlen, E. (2015). Grammar in Everyday Talk: Building Responsive Actions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,.
  • Wiggins, S., & Potter, J. (2003). Attitudes and evaluative practices: Category vs. item and subjective vs. objective constructions in everyday food assessments. British Journal of Social Psychology, 42(4), 513–531.
  • Weeks, P. (1996). Synchrony lost, synchrony regained: The achievement of musical co-ordination. Human Studies, 19(2), 199–228.
  • Wittgenstein, L. (1967). Lectures and conversations on Aesthetics, Psychology and Religious Belief. (C. Barrett, C. Barrett, Ed.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Beginning to dance: methods of mutual coordination between novice dancers

Expert dancers can move together in seamless flows of joint action. They initiate and complete sequences of movement, and anticipate and counterbalance the momentum of one another’s bodies in ways that can appear both effortlessly coordinated and spontaneously responsive to changes in the music and their local environment.

(This paper was written for the 7th Joint Action Meeting in London with Dirk vom Lehn as part of the dance as interaction project.)


While this close coordination is a compelling spectacle, it is designed to be difficult to analyze: audiences are not meant to see how it is done, so analysts of joint action have tended to focus on rehearsals or classes that involve teaching and learning to dance together. However, most studies have focused on advanced students (Keevalik & Broth, 2014) or professional dance rehearsals (Muntanyola-Saura, 2015) and the teaching and learning practices they develop for achieving complex choreographies. This talk explores the coordination of the first few moments of initial steps learned by novices at the start of an introductory partner dance workshop. Using qualitative video analysis and by studying the procedural structure of interaction during the workshop, we show how novice dancers’ joint actions are coordinated using mundane conversational practices and rhythmical entrainments, suggesting a similarly interactional basis for expert dance coordination.


  • Broth, M. & Keevallik, L., (2014), Getting Ready to Move as a Couple: Accomplishing Mobile Formations in a Dance Class Space and Culture, 2014, 17, 107-121
  • Muntanyola-Saura, D., (2015), Partnering in dance rehearsals. The place of listening and rhythm Etnografia e ricerca qualitativa, Società editrice il Mulino, 8, 429-45

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.

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.