Critical Conversation Analysis and Theoretical Commitments

Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith’s (1999) piece, “Just say no? The use of conversation analysis in developing a feminist perspective on sexual refusal,” is enormously compelling. This is a wonderful example of “applied” CA, and it draws upon all sorts of data, including literature review, focus groups, and re-analysis of talk collected by other scholars.

One thing that has always fascinated me about CA is the way in which prior studies are taken up or used. We have talked about how referencing other, previous CA work in the line-by-line analysis is an important validity move. Moreover, it can illuminate analytic turns that seem sensible. In this sense, “reviewing the literature” seems to take on a special analytic relevance in CA. I think this is demonstrable in Kitzinger & Firth (1999), where a thorough survey of the conversation analysis literature allows for a robust argument about refusal that requires almost no data for the reader to accept, given its reliance on an extant body of literature.

It seems as though this paper has been relatively well-received by the CA community. Ann Weatherall draws upon it in her (2016) discussion of criticality in discursive psychology, and Antaki praised it as a “rare” direct confrontation of a social problem by applied CA. According to Google Scholar, it has been cited more than 300 times. And yet…this paper does not look at all like what we expect a CA paper to look like. It is, as you’ve said, “more theoretical” – but how so? It seems to do the opposite of what a more theoretical paper might do, and make an explicit, grounded, triangulated argument about the world. If anything, its scope is broader, rather than narrower.

To do so Kitzinger and Frith draw upon a feminist orientation. Yet they seem to avoid the rather thorny problem that has marked the debate about criticality in DP & CA: can you find evidence for its relevance in the talk? To some degree, critical orientations are about locating and articulating the local instantiations of a larger hegemonic society, and so they do seek to “unearth,” say, sexism. This tendency has led to a critique of critical theories as not grounded in data, or suggests that “of course if you are looking for racism you are going to find it!” (Never mind that this latter critique is itself revealing – is it true for other things? If I am looking for self-assessments, will I always find those? If not, then this critique is accidentally an argument that validates and supports the use of critical theory.) What is perhaps unusual about Kitzinger and Frith’s analysis is that it bypasses this debate almost entirely, because it does not look for evidence of sexism in the talk, it looks for evidence of sexism is in the “Just say no” paradigm, and uses what we know about talk to argue that the paradigm is inappropriate and oppressive.

This move, where the talk is the evidence for rather than the site of sexism, is key. This is a really different kind of critical conversation analysis than what one might think. Moreover, its implications are prolific when you account for the larger tendencies by oppressive systems to police and regulate how people talk. If we were to do a variant of this study for, say, racism, we would want to look for current, societal Discourse and analyze it from the perspective of local, situated discourse. An example that comes to mind is that of #BlackLivesMatter. This hashtag constantly receives a rebuttal, a next-turn, of #AllLivesMatter. This in turn gets a response from BLM activists who note that this is a perversion of discourse; nowhere in Black Lives Matter is the argument made that white lives or other lives don’t, and so it hardly bares repeating. And yet by responding with #AllLivesMatter, white folks orient to the #BlackLivesMatter as tacitly arguing that other lives don’t. Can conversation analysis explain why this is? I conjecture that it could if we dug into turn construction and preferred responses.

This is hardly the contentious “move to the macro” because the analyst is not looking to see how the macro is made manifest in the micro. Rather, the analyst is looking to see how the micro is made manifest in the macro. I find this deeply resonant although I am not always inclined to agree with critiques of macro-moves in the first place.

Notice that focus groups were key to the argument here. While noting quite explicitly that because focus groups are interactional events and so coding should not be used or reported, the authors nevertheless approached focus group talk in a decidedly not-CA way, not looking to understand how particular turns were solicited or taken up. I wonder how “pure” CA analysts reacted to this move, and whether or not it is necessary to make the larger argument, for it seems there is at least a small theoretical contradiction therein.

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One thought on “Critical Conversation Analysis and Theoretical Commitments

  1. Indeed this is a really compelling piece and show a different way to get at socio-political concerns (away from a Fairclough move or Gee move, for instance). One thing I’d note though is that this is not really the critique of CDA work historically: If you look for racism you’ll find it? It is actually more around the idea that if you apply sociological categories (with race being only one of many examples) a priori how these categories are evoked (if indeed they are) is often missed with such a priori moves. This is not a critique unique to CDA but also of qualitative analyses that take more etic analytic orientations. Also, it is not to suggest that when we analyze particular data sources that particular categories are not already foregrounded. This is the case in most of the data I work with, as disabilities identities are often institutionally relevant period. Nonetheless, all this to say, I think the critique about applying sociological categories a priori is a layered one and one that invites us to think about how we go about drawing upon our commitments while generating a grounded analyses. Kitzinger and Frith – across Kitzinger’s work really — have given one such body of literature to point to.

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