Thinking Through an Applied Conversation Analysis

I have grown quite used to the distinction between “pure” and “applied” iterations of particular disciplines. As an undergraduate studying mathematics, “pure” math and “applied” math were constantly at loggerheads. For reasons that now feel inane to me, we felt such a strong pull towards the pure iteration of the discipline. This, we reasoned, was the one for true scholars, where logic, proof, and a quest for the truth reigned supreme. Those applied folks, we thought, get bogged down with the practical. They cannot ascend like us to the astral plane, the clouds of thought. I now regret this. I think there is a great deal to be gained from applied mathematics and its potential solutions to complex, thorny problems.

Problem-solving is nourishing. In pure and theoretical scholarship, we often think of ourselves as solving pure or theoretical problems. But to some degree, the solution leads – we do whatever we want – and the problem follows, that is, we go out of our way to find the problem we are solving. In what is ostensibly the domain of “applied,” the problem leads and we solve it. In math the comparison is sensible, but the difference in motivation is illuminating. How we define problems is as good a way as any to tell if the math you are doing is pure or applied.

I find that the analogue from math to method is not sensible here – what is a pure method versus an applied method? Aren’t methods by their very nature meant to be applied? Antaki notes, “The most ambitious sense of the phrase ‘applying CA’ is that it refer to what people in some neighbouring field of study do when they look across to CA, are attracted by it, and try to import it into their own field in the hope of encouraging their colleagues to rethink some basic intellectual foundations and (in consequence) solve some problems in the superstructure” (page 3). This makes some sense, I suppose, when thinking about CA’s relationship to sociology, but it remains an odd thing to bring a method in as a “change maker.” What is actually doing the shifting work is the methodology, right? The theoretical assumptions the methods make! I could no more apply CA than I could “apply” statistics. In these cases, the application part is natural – the pure statistics is the outlier in the sense that most uses of statistics are not for the sake of using statistics.

It is fortunate that CA – at least from my perspective – doesn’t bring with it a ton of theoretical baggage. It does focus on the micro, sure, and follows ethnomethodology in not trying to tease out macro-level rules by which humans abide. But compared to DP which fundamentally seems to be in tension with most of cognitive science, CA feels more flexible, more movable from one place to another. This makes it ripe for application.

I rant on this because I wonder whether or not it really makes sense to distinguish between pure CA and applied CA. And if it does – if – than surely the applied CA is most of CA, since by nature of being a method that a person can use to answer questions about the world it is almost always being used by people to answer questions about the world.

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Let us return now to the critical conversation analysis discussed last week to explicate the relationship between critical work and applied work. Is all critical work applied? In some sense, yes, because even its theoretical motive is pre-determined to a degree. At the same time, it has explicit goals as a research tradition. Antaki mentioned Kitzinger and Firth’s (1999) fascinating study about the “just say ‘no’” campaign and its conversational implications. Should we treat this work as critical? Should we treat it as applied? If work is useful to someone who is not a CA researcher, should we treat it as applied…even if it wasn’t intended to be applied?

I am being pedantic in the service of a larger point. As we try to understand various strands of a particular research tradition, we are constantly looking to bifurcate the work, Critical or not? Pure or applied? Early/foundational or recent/contemporary? Traditional or controversial? These categories can be useful, perhaps, for understanding bodies of work, but I wonder to what degree they are useful for interrogating individual pieces or researchers.

Taking a page out of the participant orientation playbook, I wonder how these researchers who do applied work think about their work. Would they themselves defined their work as applied? Or do they think they are doing CA – no more or no less CA than the “pure” scholar? And further – it seems to me that it is most fruitful to call work applied if that means it is subjected to different validity criteria, focusing on utility, practicality, sensibility, and robustness. If applied work and pure work are meant to be considered “good” by the same ruler, then why bother separating them?

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It is both horrifying and fascinating to see my preference for the “pure” over the applied” be flipped almost entirely since graduation.

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