Jessica Robles

Some societal ills seem to lie beyond the reach of interactional analysis – but in this topical and thoughtful guest blog, Jessica Robles gives us an insight into how an interaction analyst might tackle the complex issue of racism as a research topic.


Jessica Robles, University of Washington

I never thought I’d write on racism. My research interests do revolve around morality, but generally of a much more mundane, less contentious sort—for example, using vagueness in doing disagreement, and the demands of praising gifts.

I stumbled into looking at racism by accident. Over the years I’ve collected “favorite” bits of interactional data that I repeatedly inflict on data session attendees and students. In one such snippet, a participant makes a categorical reference to Mexicans that she (mid-utterance) attempts to “take back,” apparently because the recipient has a Mexican boyfriend.

This snippet intrigued me for a number of reasons, chiefly among them the signs of trouble that suggest moral work may be underway; and how empirically clear it was, without needing to know the history or particulars of the participants, that Chinese foodsome race-related derailment had occurred. And yet the sequence was played out in a humorous frame, with the “aggrieved” party not only never seriously taking her friend to task, but instead joining in with the mocking of her boyfriend’s race.

A research topic was born

I began to collect similar instances across previously-gathered data, and soon a research project was born.

sweet tea

Participants do indeed treat race categories as delicate matters most of the time. But I was especially interested in how participants respond to apparently-racist comments. While a range of responses occurred in the data, one that seemed to arise again and again involved repeating the race category formulation—partially, completely, or as an upshot—in an upgraded form. This seemed to be doing the work of extreme case formulation (or rather, extreme case re-formulation) as a way to surface the racist implications of an utterance by ironizing the apparent stance in a non-serious tone. This made the utterance’s problematic nature more hearable and offered the speaker an opportunity to repair it while avoiding more direct reproaches or serious uptake of the implications of what was said.

Motivated or unmotivated looking?

Using CA in analyses of how race and racism (as well as other “-isms”) become relevant in talk is not wholly new but it is also not terribly common, perhaps because of the injunction not to go into data looking for something like that. But CA seems to me uniquely positioned to substantiate, “on the ground”, so to speak. the ideological analyses of critical scholars as well as to be empirically persuasive to social scientists. Examining race-referring membership categories and signs of interactional trouble through conversation analysis also elucidates the lay sense that certain utterances “sound racist.” Thus, this sort of work can provide insight into the anatomy of racism and its interactional production at the sort of fine-grained level needed to do the work of taking racism apart.


Robles, J. S. (2015). Extreme case (re)formulation as a practice for making hearably-racist talk repairable [special issue on –isms in interaction]. Journal of Language and Social Psychology. (Online publication ahead of print.)