I am neither a linguist nor a sociologist by training. I have a Masters in communication studies, which got me interested in interpersonal communication and meaning making. I first stumbled upon CA during my doctoral research. I was trying to figure out if we could develop Gricean kind of maxims for casual conversations (or what Malinowski called “phatic” communion). I had collected internet chats for the purpose, but soon realized that natural conversations are too unwieldy to be dealt with by Gricean theory or speech act theory – which is when conversation analysis really proved useful. So far, I have used CA only to look at textual interactions and have not really confronted the beast of oral conversations! The transcriptions are scary as they are for monolingual English interactions, I cannot imagine the nightmare of dealing with Indian data where speakers constantly switch between multiple languages. Not only that, as my disgruntled colleagues have often complained, neither do we wait for others to finish! So I will be transcribing overlapping speech for about 4-5 speakers at a time!
Cultural norms do differ
There is much to be said in terms of the content of our interactions too. Last year when I was attending Loughborough’s wonderful training sessions in CA, we were discussing interactions between intimates and strangers. And much to the amusement of the other participants I shared that the conventions are very different in India. Once I was travelling by train and three aunties who had known me for less than five minutes bombarded me with a range of what you would call personal questions – are you married? Do you have kids? The next I knew, they had taken it upon themselves to convince me the importance of having kids at the right age! (Ok, I am exaggerating – but only a bit!)
Jokes aside, it is true that there is a wealth of extremely rich interactional material that has not even caught the analyst’s attention. I have no doubt that looking at this material is going to deepen our understanding of conversation and remind us that many of what we consider right now as speaking conventions are just conventions in one part of the world (as much research on non-western data has already shown).
Conversation Analysis in India
Surprisingly and unfortunately however, CA has not yet found its place in Indian academia. To put things in perspective – there are more conversation analysts in the town of Loughborough than there are in my country of a billion people. One reason for this, I believe, has to do with the fact that university curriculum here is still very straight-jacketed. Sociologists and Linguists are by and large still pursuing more traditional agendas and human interaction has for some strange reason escaped the academic’s attention! I am hopeful that things will change and if reading this blog post has excited you about Indian data, come lets go and get some data!