Thinking through a Critical Conversation Analysis

The perennial debate about criticality as applied to methodologies that were not intended for critical use is to what degree we should assume that, say, gender oppressive ideologies are affecting the data (top-down) versus looking for evidence of such ideologies in the data (grounded). In DP, the latter felt tenable to me; if indeed oppression is relevant to the data, that relevance will surely show up in the data because participants will orient to it.

But I was left seeking to explain that which was absent. As learning scientists, we want to be able to understand participation in discourse. If a particular learner is not engaged/contributing to a conversation, can we really find evidence to explain that lack of participation in the data? For example, suppose we witness a collaborative learning interaction in a group of four high school students, three men and one woman. In the talk, there are almost no turns from the woman but many from the men. One’s knee-jerk reaction is to assume that something else is in play (perhaps calling on societal understandings of misogyny or “women’s talk” in the Tannen sense). A grounded approach might note treat this silence as part of the data, a conversational feature that is available for analysis. Alternatively, it might seek to understand what features of the men’s talk so effectively left the woman out of the conversation. Even with these approaches in mind, from an LS perspective this perhaps does not feel sufficient to really understand participation in the discursive sense.

Moreover, it feels obvious now that societal norms, especially along gendered/racialized/etc lines, surely must impact the way that conversation unfolds. To treat the identities of the participants as irrelevant in talk is to ignore the insidious, erasable ways in which those identities inform how that interaction unfolds.

Here is a link to the interview between Piers Morgan and Dr. Condoleeza Rice about marriage that is discussed in Speer (2017, p. 139-140). In the clip, Morgan asks Dr. Rice questions about her marriage eligibility that Morgan retrospectively understood as flirting. Speer’s analysis acknowledges the sexualized comments and other key semiotic aspects of the interaction that contributed to its being understood as flirtatious in nature.

The predatory nature of the interaction, though, is itself uncomfortable. It is difficult to take at face-value Dr. Rice’s putting her head down as an understanding of her bashfulness, if for no other reason than it is difficult to picture her having actually been flattered or moved by Morgan’s overtures. It seems more likely to me that Dr. Rice is used to this sort of thing and treated it as easier to “play along” than to contest. Given the interaction order – a televised interview that she presumably consented to with the intent of spreading a particular message – it is possible she did not want her intended message to be overshadowed by making a scene. There is perhaps a “historical body” (my MDA is showing) to these interactions – this cannot be the first nor the last time Dr. Rice has been in this situation.

With that in mind, we are back to the question of intent. Did Dr. Rice demure because she was moved or flattered, or because she was intentionally seeking to bring the interaction to a close as expediently as possible? Surely both of these interpretations are equally possible taken the data – and so it may be necessary to bring other lenses to the talk to find one more compelling than the other.

Is it possible to overlook the demographics in this interaction? Morgan, a heterosexual white man, Rice a Black woman. I have no clear sense of how exactly these identities play in, but it seems that they fundamentally must, or at least it seems more likely that they do than that they don’t.

One of the key links I will be attending to this semester is to understand a critical conversation analysis; how can CA be leveraged as a methodology to understand slights at the micro-level. I anticipate that this will be quite powerful – as the microaggression is to the systemic violence, might CA be to critical theory? But the question remains, at the level of method: how? I hold at hope that CA can do critical work while remaining grounded in the empirical data, and I do so because in my and other fields, work that proceeds from the data out is generally taken more seriously than work that proceeds with a critical theory in (although to enter with no theory is frowned upon – so it’s just this particular brand of theories that are hard to get behind). CA, I anticipate, will also provide tools for the design of collaborative conversational learning environments. But to leverage it for these purposes, I will have to come and understand how critical CA would tackle this same debate as played out in DP (e.g., Weatherall, 2016).


2 thoughts on “Thinking through a Critical Conversation Analysis

  1. Thought provoking post, Suraj. I can see where you are headed here and think there are some emerging (and fairly “old”) examples of critical CA (Kitzinger is a classic example, of course). Anyway, I think the issue at hand that we always must consider around “intention/intent” is whether we have access to this, while noting that in fields/practices where we have assumed we do, we often have seen a development of all encompassing explanations for human actions/behaviour (sociology is a great example of this — particularly American sociology, which has generated a load of theories to explain human-ness grounded in macro conceptions). I think, though, that as most qualitative researchers note — histories matters, but which histories matter is perhaps not for the analyst to be the sole decider of. Anyway, I look forward to seeing where you head with these ideas and how you lead us to new conceptions of doing critical CA. I’m convinced you will!

  2. Hi Suraj! I enjoyed reading your post. You’re writing about something I’ve also been thinking through/struggling with with regard to “visible” or known-by-participants identities (race, gender, status, etc.) and contexts. Specifically, how are these identities, contexts, etc. made relevant in interaction and within what courses of action? I look forward to learning from you as you explore critical CA.

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