As Conversation Analysis is increasingly taken up by researchers across the world, we are seeing efforts to bring the approach to their wider local communities. There are several initiatives in Brazil, and I’m delighted that Fabio Ferraz de Almeida, currently working in Finland, has sent in this report of an inaugural workshop in Sao Paulo.
The idea of organising an introductory CA workshop in Brazil began to take shape last year, while I was talking to a colleague, Bruna Gisi, professor of Sociology at the University of São Paulo (USP). Bruna was developing a postgraduate course on EM and Goffman and invited me to participate in one of the lectures. According to her, several sociologists in Brazil often talk about ethnomethodology but they rarely show how to put it to use. Her suggestion was that we discuss a particular EM concept and show how to ‘apply’ it in empirical research.
In this lecture, we set out reading Garfinkel & Sacks (1970) and then a paper I co-authored with Paul Drew on formulations in police interviews (Ferraz de Almeida & Drew, 2020). What followed was an insightful debate on how EM and indeed CA could be useful for the postgraduate students in their research. The course captured the interest of several people and a few months later, Bruna asked me if I would be willing to deliver an online workshop for their department, an invitation I immediately accepted.
Preparing the workshop was much more demanding than I could have anticipated and posed an unusual challenge. All my conversation analytical work has been done outside Brazil, and the data I have used for both my PhD thesis and postdoc research are in English.
Nonetheless, Bruna and I had agreed that the workshop material would be presented exclusively in Portuguese in order for the activities to be more inclusive. My initial idea was to use extracts in Portuguese from Brazilian CA publications and transcribe Brazilian audio/video recordings that were publicly available (e.g., YouTube). However, as this alternative proved to be far too complex (considering the time I had to prepare the workshop), I ended up focusing on translating data extracts from CA intro collections and from my PhD thesis into Portuguese.
The audience Considering the audience, mostly sociologists and a few anthropologists, another main concern I had was presenting CA as a methodological approach that not only originated within sociology, but as one that remains sociologically grounded. In doing so, I refrained from going into much technical jargon and focused on hands-on activities for identifying and discussing what participants were doing and how they were conducting their actions and activities. After all, as I keep reminding myself and colleagues, CA is first and foremost a social science of action.
As is common among other CA training courses, my main goals over the workshop were to present some of the key principles and methods associated with CA and give an overview of the sorts of analysis and research one can conduct through this approach. In order to do this, I divided the course into four sessions: 1) CA origins in sociology, the use of naturally occurring data and the system of transcription; 2) key principles in CA; 3) CA in institutional settings: activities and inferences; 4) CA in legal settings: law-in-(inter)action.
Making sense of CA to a wide audience
The first day For the first encounter, I presented an introduction to CA and its roots in sociology. We then discussed the advantages of working with naturally occurring data, a concept which generated some interesting questions, particularly from anthropologists, for whom issues concerning accessing ‘what actually happens’ rather than ‘representations of what happens’ had never been a problem. On the first day, we looked at a couple of transcripts and addressed questions of ‘why so much detail?’, a topic that popped up a few times throughout the meetings. We ended the day with a provocative comment from a participant implying that CA would be a ‘realist’ and positivistic approach due to its take on recordings and transcripts and to what she called ‘a quest for objectivity’.
On the second day, we focused on the key principles which underlie CA research: context, social action, turns and turn design, sequence and sequence organization, and intersubjectivity. Not surprisingly, questions and comments regarding CA’s limitations – that is, due to its unorthodox understanding of context – dominated the debate. For some participants, one could only understand what interactants were doing if there was enough contextual information – external to the interaction – available, and if the analyst was a member of that particular culture. This methodological debate goes back to the early 1990’s (Moerman, 1988) but has waned since then, since people have realized that relevance of external context depends fundamentally on the research questions one is setting up to answer.
Talk-at-work For the second half of the workshop, we moved to the study of talk-at-work. During the third day, we focused mostly on identifying the activities and models of inference which are particular to different institutional settings, such as doctor-patient consultations, police interrogations and emergency calls. As we talked about very specialized settings and activities, the debate revolved around how to ‘accurately’ identify what interactants were doing while respecting their point of view. Even though we had briefly discussed a possible solution for that, i.e., fundamentally relying on the next-turn proof procedure, some participants argued that the CA answer seemed insufficient for understanding professional goals and practices which were not straightforwardly observable through examining data extracts (for the case of legal practices, see D’hondt et al., 2021).
I reserved the final day to discuss transcripts from police and judicial settings, contexts in which several participants were conducting their research. Among other extracts, we analysed material from criminal trials and discussed how lawyers and witnesses (and defendants) build alternative versions of the same event. Whereas there was nothing much original – at least for sociologists and anthropologists – about the idea of multiple interpretations of reality, participants seemed quite fascinated by the detailed and precise observations one can produce about that issue by bringing together the main principles of CA when looking at interactional material.
CA in Brazil – what now?
To say that CA occupies a marginal place in Sociology departments in Brazil would be a massive understatement. Goffman? Yes, his place is indeed marginal there. CA is practically non-existent! In this scenario, I was taken by surprise when Bruna emailed me saying that 30 participants had already enrolled in the workshop only one the day after the registration was open. It is difficult to know precisely how many of them will continue their training in CA and embrace its unique analytical ‘mentality’ when conducting their research. In any case, that by simply offering an intro workshop generated some buzz in an large and highly influential institution such as USP goes to show the importance of seeking out un(der)explored territories and indicates that CA can still achieve its potential as a sociological enterprise.
D’hondt, S., Dupret, B., & Bens, J. (2021). Weaving the threads of international criminal justice: The double dialogicity of law and politics in the ICC al-Mahdi case. Discourse, Context & Media, 44. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dcm.2021.100545
Ferraz de Almeida, F., & Drew, P. (2020). The fabric of law-in-action: ‘formulating’ the suspect’s account during police interviews in England. International Journal of Speech, Language and the Law, 27(1), 35–58. https://doi.org/10.1558/ijsll.38527
Garfinkel, H., & Sacks, H. (1970). On formal structures of practical actions. In J. C. McKinney & E. A. Tiriakyan (Eds.), Theoretical sociology: perspectives and developments (pp. 337–356). Appleton-Century-Croft.
Moerman, M. (1988). Talking culture: Ethnography and conversational analysis. University of Pennsylvania Press.