Guest blog: Jacob Davidsen and Paul McIlvenny on Experiments with Big Video

How good are your video records? One angle? Two? Wide-angle? Was the camera static or did you move to catch things – and miss other things? How good was the sound? All of us have occasionally been frustrated with what we find on the screen when we come to analyse it, but Jacob Davidsen and Paul McIlvenny have some more fundamental concerns. Just how “big” should data be? 


Paul McIlvenny (l.) and Jacob Davidsen

At Aalborg University over the last year, we have been experimenting with new technologies and enhanced methods for EMCA and video ethnography, supported by our respective departments and the Digital Humanities Lab 1.0 national infrastructure project. We’ll talk about some of the methodological ups and downs we’ve come across. That should interest anyone thinking of dipping their toes in what we call “big video“.

Very few EMCA papers discuss data collection in itself. The general assumption is that once the ‘Tape’ is made – and it is often made fairly automatically and locked into a ‘block box’ functionality (eg. auto-gain, auto-focus, auto-white balance) – it is an unquestionably accurate record. There is often a simple faith that as little interference with, and understanding of, the operation of the technology as possible is more conducive to collecting better recordings, despite the algorithmic normativity of default functions. Ashmore & Reed (2000) have indicated how naïve such a realist view can be, especially when considering the relationship between ‘the Tape’ and ‘the Transcript’.

Some history

Intriguingly, in 1987, ROLSI published a paper by Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz that sifted through the unpublished records of some of the early experiments with audio and film recordings as ‘data’ for microanalysis by a multidisciplinary research group started at Stanford University in 1955-56. Publications and records of these experiments and proto-‘data sessions’ (“soaking”) are not easily accessible, eg. the 16-mm family therapy ‘Doris’ film with synced sound that Gregory Bateson brought in 1956 to the group. (It is a crying shame that in this digital age there is not a free, open-access, online archive of core and marginal publications, unpublished documents and recordings from the 1950s and 60s – Sacks’ transcribed lectures being a prime exception.)

This multidisciplinary group, which included Ray Birdwhistell, focused on the ‘natural history of an interview’ over a number of years (according to Frederick Erickson, Erving Goffman met with Bateson and other members of the group in the late 1950s). In hindsight, Erickson (2004) suggests that the differing affordances of film (for example, for this Palo Alto group) versus video (and cassette audio) for later scholars may have had an impact on the routine seeing/looking and listening/hearing practices of scholars in each period, a difference that may have privileged sequentiality over simultaneity. We could ask: are we at a similar juncture today?

What’s new

In the past, there were a few papers published that brought readers up-to-speed on new technological developments and best practices, and though they are now anachronistic, they were important pedagogically (eg. Goodwin, 1993 and Modaff & Modaff, 2000). However, the impact of digitalisation is so pervasive now that their specific analogue concerns are mostly irrelevant. From our experiments and reflections, we contend that today there are a set of paradigm shifts that are important to note:

  • From analogue to digital: eg. computationally intensive;
  • From singular to plural: eg. multiple recording devices, such as cameras and microphones;
  • From sound as secondary to sound as covalent, eg. in-built microphones versus spatial audio;
  • From frame to field of vision: eg. 16:9 versus 360°;
  • From flat to depth: eg. 2D versus stereoscopic 3D;
  • From spectator to POV: eg. cinema versus VR.

With the complexity of the recording scenarios, and the increasing use of computational tools and resources, we position ourselves in what we call BIG VIDEO. We use this rather facile term to counter the hype about quantitative big data analytics. Basically, we are hoping to develop an enhanced infrastructure for analysis with innovation in four key areas:1) capture, storage, archiving and access of digital video; 2) visualisation, transformation and presentation; 3) collaboration and sharing; and 4) qualitative tools to support analysis.

What have we been doing in Aalborg?

One key focus has been to collect richer video and sound recordings in a variety of settings. And this means developing a sense of good camerawork/micwork (with both existing and new technologies) in order to collect analytically adequate recordings. We have used swarm public video (see McIlvenny forthcoming), 4k video cameras, network cameras, stereoscopic 360° cameras, S3D cameras, spatial and ambisonic audio, multi-track video and audio, GPS and heart rate tracking, and multi-track subtitling and video annotation, and we are beginning to work with local positioning systems (LPS) and beacons, as well as biosensing data, to see what is relevant to our EMCA concerns.


A 2-D visualisation comprising 6 video cameras and 10 multi-track audio channels from a recording of a guided nature tour

Since January 2016, we have collected video recordings in a variety of settings, including, in chronological order, dog sledding, architecture student group work, disability mobility scootering, live interactive 360° music streaming to a acquired brain injury centre, mountain bike off-road racing, guided nature tours on foot and mountain bike, home hairdressing (hair extensions), a family cycle camping holiday and just lately, Pokemon Go hunting. Taking the latter of these as a case study, we will elaborate a little on what we did. Unfortunately, given the sensitivity of the recordings, we cannot illustrate with video examples on a public website.

In order to collect some mobility data in new ways, especially in relation to sound, it was desirable to move away from a reliance on the GoPro cameras that many of us now use to collect recordings. GoPros, and other action cameras, are fine for reliable wide-angle video recording in auto-mode, but the in-built audio quality is poor, especially when the camera is encased in its waterproof housing and mounted on a vibrating vehicle or a human body. Also, there are certain constraints when trying to document such a complex activity as a Pokemon Go hunt.

Catch them all!

In the summer of 2016, streets, parks and other public spaces that were previously unnoticed for many people turned into inhabited places for Pokemon Go players around the globe.

In Aalborg, many people gather in parks and close to a previously forgotten part of the harbour area near the city’s railway bridge. At any time of day or night, players congregate at these locations in small groups. Sometimes many people gather as one big group to hunt a rare and desirable ‘Dragonite’ or ‘Pichachu’.

From our perspective, the game and the behaviour of the players serve as an interesting case study for EMCA, but how can we record what each individual is doing with their smartphone and still capture how the whole group is being mobile together? In this case, five players wore GoPros on their body pointing at their individual smartphones as well as  lavalier microphones. In addition, one of us (wearing spy glasses) walked around the city with a 360° camera mounted on a long pole.


With this setup, we captured high quality video and audio from the individuals and a 360° recording of the surroundings and the mobility of the group. Some persons walking by asked what was on the pole and tried to hide when we told them it was a camera! It is getting easier to capture Big Video, but the post-editing is getting more complex, richer and more fun. Questions such as how can we transcribe 360° data or what microphone to privilege in the post-editing become crucial to address. With the Pokemon Go data, we experienced that the composite stereo image of all the audio sources presented too much information. For instance, the group of five persons in a ‘mobile with’ split into two subgroups at one point, and to make this analysable, multi-track audio channels are needed. Thus, we cannot rely on one microphone to capture such complex data – each microphone gives a highly selective record of the interaction unfolding (as does the video camera). In a recent data session, the general reaction was something like “I don’t know what to make of it” or “it is to complex, I don’t know what to look at”.

But when we started moving around in the 360° recording with embedded 2D recordings from the GoPros and 2D transcripts – some of the participants started to notice “what one otherwise cannot see”, namely how other people oriented to the Pokemon Go players on the hunt as they walked by. For EMCA researchers the opportunities of 360° are thought provoking on methodological, theoretical and practical levels, eg. what to transcribe, what to select for presentations and what to make of the context.

The pros and cons of this new view

We have ascertained that there are distinct advantages to using some of these new technologies. First, we can capture the situated relevancies of more extreme and complex multi-party practices. Second, there are new phenomena to study that were unavailable to enquiry or unimaginable before. Third, there are new modes of presentation and visualisation. Lastly, we have found it necessary to re-examine and rethink what ‘data’ is. There are also dangers and disadvantages, including the idiosyncrasies of human perception, the illusion of presence and the problem of sensor and computational artefacts, as well as the question of the reliance on a surveillance architecture, and other ethical problems. Methodologically, we are grappling with issues of perspectivation, incommensurability and epistemic adequacy.

The future?

For the future, we speculate that some emerging technologies have potential. For example, virtual reality and augmented/mixed reality are being hyped by the computer and gaming industry at present. They boast of its capability to enhance ‘immersion’. These technologies could be used to visualise, navigate, annotate and share data in new ways, what we call inhabited data. In addition, they provide the means for an investigation of the taken-for-granted in a setting, in a similar vein to Garfinkel’s tutorials for students who tried to follow instructions while wearing inverting lenses. Another example is ‘light field’ technology, which promises a revolution in imaging that virtualises the camera (eg. position, depth of field, focus and frame rate). This could be used to explicitly challenge or problematize the objectivity of the ‘recording’ (or the ‘Tape’). A rediscovered conception of sound in three-dimensions – nth order ambisonics – allows computationally effective representations of a sound field. This could enhance our sense of where in space an utterance or sound comes from. And lastly, there are bio-sensing devices, developed under the banner of the ‘quantified self’ (we prefer the ‘qualifiable we’), that may bring all the senses and more subtle perceptions of embodiment into our enquiry.

If you are engaged in similar experiments, then contact us, or consider a sabbatical at Aalborg University on the cutting edge of the periphery.


Ashmore, Malcolm & Reed, Darren (2000). Innocence and Nostalgia in Conversation Analysis: The Dynamic Relations of Tape and TranscriptForum: Qualitative Social Research 1(3). [Online].

Erickson, Frederick (2004). Origins: A Brief Intellectual and Technological History of the Emergence of Multimodal Discourse Analysis. In LeVine, Philip & Scollon, Ron (Eds.), Discourse and Technology: Multimodal Discourse Analysis, Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.

Goodwin, Charles (1993). Recording Interaction in Natural Settings. Pragmatics 3(2): 181-209.

Leeds‐Hurwitz, Wendy (1987). The Social History of the Natural History of an Interview: A Multidisciplinary Investigation of Social Communication. Research on Language and Social Interaction 20(1-4): 1-51.

McIlvenny, Paul (forthcoming). “Mobilising the Micro-Political Voice: Doing the ‘Human Microphone’ and the ‘Mic-Check’.” Journal of Language and Politics 16(1).

Modaff, John V. & Modaff, Daniel P. (2000). Technical Notes on Audio Recording. Research on Language & Social Interaction 33(1): 101-118.


Guest blog: Saul Albert and colleagues on the “Conversational Rollercoaster” EM/CA exhibition

Conversation Analysis is hardly known as a spectator sport, yet it offers a great way to involve members of the public to see what interactional research might look like. Saul Albert organised a superb demonstration, lasting over four days, of CA analysts from Queen Mary, Loughborough, Keele, York, Oxford, and Roehampton working at a major London science exhibition. This is his report.


Saul Albert, Queen Mary University of London

New Scientist Live is one of the largest science festivals in the UK, so when they asked our Cognitive Science group at Queen Mary University to propose a hands-on public engagement activity, I challenged myself to come up with a way to ‘demo’ EM/CA.

I wrote a brief event outline inviting analysts from around the UK to help develop an EM/CA demo format. Along with some great advice and feedback from many, the CARM and Loughborough EM/CA groups offered to partner with us. Soon Charles AntakiBogdana HumaRein SikvelandLiz Stokoe and I were in Fortnum’s café in St. Pancras developing a plan.

We named the format the ‘Conversational Rollercoaster’ because we hoped people would get engrossed in some real-time talk, and would then encounter our instant analysis with the feeling of recognition and surprise you get from seeing a photo of yourself after a rollercoaster ride. Matt Jarvis and I built some custom software, the design team at A Dozen Eggs did some great signage, and we sent out an invitation to participate and a detailed event outline. This gathered a brilliant team of analysts from KeeleLoughboroughOxfordQueen MaryRoehampton, and York.

What sort of real talk?

The centrepiece of the event was  The People Speak‘s mobile Talkaoke pop-up talk-show. The Talkaoke (rhymes with karaoke) host sits in the middle of a doughnut-shaped table holding a microphone and facilitates a conversation between whoever decides to sit down and talk. This would be our ‘data source’. Here is how the table looked, with the analysts looking on, surrounded by computer screens (for analysis) in front of large overhead screens (for displaying looping clips to the public). And there’s more photos and videos on my website.


It was this team effort that made the demo work in the first hours after opening, amidst the chaos and crowds, and with Talkaoke in full flow. And things got better and better over the four days of the show.

Explaining EM/CA to the public

The basic format of the event was that the Talkaoke hosts would use a variety of methods to get passers-by to sit and talk. It turns out that lots of people like the idea of speaking into a microphone, and the hosts had no great difficulty in getting people, once seated, to air views on anything and everything. This provides a multitude of phenomena for analysis: the ways the host cajoles people to the table and their methods for joining, avoiding, or leaving – not to mention the many details of the intervening conversations.

While all that was happening, the analysts would be selecting clips, transcribing them and getting them ready for delivery back to the public via posters and screenshots. As the event developed over the four days, the analysts got more comfortable with that they were doing and began to reach out to the audience and invite them to watch the analysis unfold on their screens, and indeed to nominate  conversational practices for analysis. That was a big hit, especially with younger people.

Participants’ reflections

Here are some reflections from the team about the procedures they created, how they saw the event working, and a report by two visitors who tried it.

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-25-20Elizabeth Stokoe (who gave a well attended talk at New Scientist Live) reflected on the event as a public engagement process: “I’ve done a lot of public engagement over the past few years, from radio (BBC 4 Life Scientific) and public science events (TED, Royal Institution, Wired) to wacky settings like Tatler magazine. And, of course, CARM takes CA research to large audiences directly. During this time, I’ve become more and more convinced that conversation analysts need to get out there, and get people thinking scientifically about talk. We need to dispel common myths about ‘communication’ built up over the years.

But what was wonderful about the ‘Conversational Rollercoaster’, was to have immediate engagement with members of the public who could, quite simply, start analysing and transcribing with us, right there, doing science live. The opportunity for folks to stay with us for as long as they wanted to, asking us as much as they wanted, and get engaged practically in the process of CA, was something that I really hope we will be able to reproduce in other festivals as often as possible. For me, the most effective thing was having people observe the Talkaoke – especially when they probably didn’t want to sit down and join in the chat – and encourage them to start spotting interactional things. Guiding them to spot things we know they would be able to see, but in a way that they discovered for themselves, worked wonderfully to get people interested in what is often written off as the minutiae of talk.”

Toby Harris described how this set-up enabled him to “show a scientific process happening live. A production line almost. With the Talkaoke table, not only did we have a source of conversation, but something where you could spot patterns, capture those moments, and pore over the detail.”

Screen Shot 2016-10-03 at 14.26.35.pngJohn Rae and Rein Skiveland were also enthusiastic about how visitors easily picked up on EM/CA observations.

John: “It was great fun sharing our observations about “What’s your name”? with visitors. The Conversational Rollercoaster, was an effective way of curating conversation analytic work. It supported doing and displaying CA in a way that allowed for visitors to get involved in multiple ways.

People’s curiosity was a  very gratifying aspect of the whole event,. Admittedly, this was an exhibition for people already interested in science, but nevertheless the ready interests people had in how to analyse talk suggests that this is the kind of thing that could be tried in many other venues.

Getting people directly involved

Emily Hofstetter noted how our analytical process segued into getting visitors involved: “The most successful way to engage the public was to invite them into our analysis. [We only needed a few hours] for the team to unify our observational interests, and to find points of interest and have findings to report on. Once we invited the public to see these findings with empirical examples, they were delighted.”

Charlotte Albury helped develop a process for getting visitors to try EM/CA for themselves: “I encouraged visitors to get involved in observing the table, and saying what they noticed. For example, we would watch the table, spot requests for the mic, and hypothesise which strategies would be successful…I provided materials, showed them how to note down what they saw, and offered support for the first few noticings…Once they had finished I explained what would normally happen next in terms of analysis. I then directed them towards the transcription station to find out more.”

Veronica Gonzalez Temer, who established the transcription station began showing visitors what they could do with the data they had just ‘spotted’. “[This process] allowed the audience to engage with our work, see how CA is done and become aware of language as a social phenomenon. It also gave us analysts the opportunity to prove once more that our spotting of phenomena and analysis of data can be rigorous and objective.

Sam Duffy used some meta-observations to refine the layout of the transcription station and by Sunday, was constantly busy showing visitors the finer points of transcribing with ELAN: “Sitting with my back to the people watching or waiting to take a turn at the Talkaoke table, my screen was visible…As I worked, people wandered over to see what I was doing, perhaps realising that the footage was from the set up that they were watching…I put an empty chair next to me, and a sign on the back saying “Come and talk to me about transcription”.

Performing EM/CA as a scientific practice

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-31-12After three full days, stalwart of the conversational rollercoaster Emily Hofstetter had begun to consider how we were now engaged in ‘doing being analysts’:  “What behaviours of visitors am I now glossing as ‘positive reception’? How did the analysts in days 2-4 improve on enacting ‘please interrupt me to learn more’, as compared to the analysts on day 1? Overall, we learned a lot about how to be scientists at a science festival. This is not to say that we did not transmit our findings, or increase interest in CA – I think we did, and very successfully! – but that part of that process is not really ‘simplifying’ CA for the public so much as finding ways for the public to see CA as science, and as worthwhile science.

A functional research lab, in the middle an exhibition hall

However, Alexandra Kent also emphasized that this was not just a science-performance: “What made it special for me was the fact that it did genuinely feel like we were analysing the Talkaoke interaction. We did come up with real insights about what made this unusual format for interaction different to other face-to-face multiparty conversations. So this wasn’t just a public performance or pedagogical device; it was a functional research lab.”

Jessica Robles noted how Talkaoke and the analysis worked together and showed us: “how willing people were to take seriously the idea of a “science” of looking at conversation. They were really open to the process and wanted to learn more… It was also an unexpected pleasure to see people getting so much out of the “being-the-data” part too.”

Marc Alexander pointed to how this let visitors look ‘under the hood’ of EM/CA and see how: “the inner workings are revealed in an accessible way, as opposed to a lot of the methods and approaches to doing ‘science’, such as the use of statistics.

Final thoughts – from two members of the public

While each of the participating analysts had a lot more useful feedback, especially about the analysis of Talkaoke itself (data and findings will be available soon), perhaps the most useful evaluation of the Conversational Rollercoaster was emailed to us after the event by A-level students Basimah Malik (a future medic) and Ashleigh Morgan (a future biochemist).

“As we were walking past numerous stalls at New Scientist Live we were particularly intrigued by ‘Talkaoke’. Tempted as we were to join in, we decided to watch before we threw ourselves in at the deep end. Whilst we were watching people sitting down and sharing their views at a circular table, a cognitive scientist explained the conversation analysis session that was going on. On that day they were observing how people obtained the microphone; some examples we saw included people raising a hand, making eye contact with the person in possession of the microphone and tapping the table. Not only this, but it was also interesting to see how people were unsuccessful in being passed the microphone.

An example of this was a gentleman who was very persistently attempting to get the microphone by sticking his hand out and signalling. When he failed to grasp the attention of others, he awkwardly retreated, touching his glasses and nose. We have all experienced something similar, but it was fascinating to see how individuals react to the same circumstances. We were then given the opportunity to edit clips of some examples we had spotted.  It was really interesting to see how people use their body language to communicate what they may be too apprehensive to say verbally.”

In conclusion

screen-shot-2016-10-03-at-14-40-55In conclusion, Emily Hofstetter’s summary really highlights how Basimah and Ashleigh’s evaluation shows what this kind of demo format could mean for the bright future of EM/CA: “We have a long way to go in explaining CA and creating a CA-informed world. Our findings are exciting and wonderful, but the public (if the visitors to New Scientist Live are in any way representative) are 40-60 years behind us.

Many visitors would exclaim ‘Oh! So you take body language into account’ or ‘This sounds just like neuro-linguistic programming. I did that at a work seminar recently.’ As contrary to our efforts as these phrases sound, they were indications that the visitor in question was engaging with the material, and relating it to their frame of reference. It will not be a matter of telling people their information is out of date, and that CA has much to say to update them, but of using these commonly understood pop psychology ideas to our advantage.”

The Conversational Rollercoaster is only one way to get EM/CA ‘out there’. but it worked (after a certain amount of technological and logistical challenges) and it looks highly portable. Let’s hope we see more of this kind of thing, as part of our efforts at outreach to the public.

Guest blog: Stuart Ekberg on digital psychotherapy

Can psychotherapy really be offered online, without seeing or hearing the other person? Is rapport possible? What does the therapeutic conversation look like? These are increasingly topical questions as therapists explore the affordances of the internet and email. In this fascinating guest blog, Stuart Ekberg introduces us  to the world of digital therapy in his report on the article in the new issue of ROLSI that he wrote with Alison R. G. Shaw, David S. Kessler, Alice Malpass and Rebecca K. Barnes.


Stuart Ekberg, QUT, Brisbane

Talk is supposed to be central to psychotherapy – so much so that therapy has been described as ‘the talking cure’ since the 1890s. However central, this basic format has not been immune from digital disruption. Continue reading

Guest blog: Lucas Seuren on reading classic CA

One of the pleasures of PhD work is the chance to browse in the dustier corners of the digital library. Lucas Seuren reports on finding books and articles which pack a remarkable punch, even many years after first publication.


Lucas Seuren, Groningen University

A few years ago, before I had started as a PhD student, I attended a few talks by Trevor Benjamin who at the time had just finished his dissertation on other-initiation of repair. During these talks he would point out that while conversation analytic research has developed much over the past few decades, there was still so much we did not know about what he called the ‘boring topics’. Continue reading

Guest Blog: Lisa Mikesell on repair in conversation with dementia patients

Readers of the journal will often see Conversation Analysis applied to real-world problems, and in this guest blog, Lisa Mikesell reports on her work with patients with dementia. The full story is in her article in the current issue, and here she asks how   caregivers manage the delicate task of monitoring patients’ actions – and on occasion, correcting them when things go wrong.

Mikesell photo.png

Lisa Mikesell, Rutgers University

I often work closely with clinicians, from neurologists to psychiatrists. I take a keen interest in how communicative and social behaviors are typically measured, and what those measures end up meaning clinically and practically to both providers and patients. Continue reading

Guest blog: Andrew Carlin on the ‘Directions in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis’ series

Several publishers have series devoted to interactional studies, and among them is the ever-lively collection Directions in Ethnomethodology & Conversation Analysis. Andrew Carlin has kindly agreed to give us an account of the scope and range of the series, and what the collection is trying to do.

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Andrew Carlin

With the closure in 1994 of George Psathas’ Studies in Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, there was a need for a new book series that was recognized as an outlet dedicated to high quality ethnomethodological and conversation-analytic research. Continue reading