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Conversation analysis is part of discourse analysis—the study of naturally occurring, language in use. Scholars of discourse analysis, like Brenda Farnell and Laura Graham (1998:412), see discursive practices—all the little things that make our utterances uniquely our own—as concrete manifestations both of the culture we share with others and of our very selves. What we do in traditional ethnography, according to Joel Sherzer and Greg Urban (1986:1), is distill discourse into a description of a culture. What we ought to be observing—and describing—they say, is ordinary discourse itself, since culture emerges from the constant interaction and negotiation between people (box 18.3).

BOX 18.3


Here's an example of how much of culture can be encapsulated in an ordinary discourse event. I went to Japan for 4 months in 1991 to work at the National Museum of Ethnology in Osaka. I didn't speak Japanese, so I was limited to studying things that I could observe directly and about which I could hold discussions, in English, with my colleagues at the museum. I noticed that many Japanese bowed when they said good-bye to someone on the telephone and I became interested in the cultural artifact of bowing.

I rode the bus to work every day. Most regular riders of the buses in Osaka buy blocks of tickets in advance, at a discount. When people leave the bus, they drop one of their fare tickets into a hopper next to the driver. As the bus rolled to a stop one day, a boy of about 5 implored his mother to let him drop off her ticket as they left the bus. The mother gave him the ticket, left the bus, and watched from the sidewalk as the toddler dropped off the ticket and scampered, grinning, down the bus's stairs to her.

The mother gave the child a stern look and said something that I couldn't hear. The child scampered back up the stairs, faced the driver, and bowed deeply from the waist. "Arigato gozaimashitaaa," said the boy to the driver, with heavy, lengthened emphasis on the final syllable. The driver bowed slightly and acknowledged the boy, saying “Doozu," while smiling at the mother who waited at the bottom of the stairs for her son.

It turns out that the child was mimicking, in phrase and diction, the formal way that an adult man might say thank you with great emphasis in Japanese. Had I been able to tape that one small discourse event, I'm sure that there would have been enough exegesis by my Japanese colleagues at the museum to have produced a book on socialization of men and women into the ways of bowing and of saying thanks.

Formal discourse analysis involves taping of actual interactions and careful coding and interpretation. Howard Waitzkin and his colleagues (1994:32) taped 336 encounters involving older patients and primary-care internists. (The physicians included some in private practice, some who worked in a teaching hospital, and some who worked both in private practice and in hospital outpatient departments.)

Waitzkin et al. randomly chose 50 of these encounters for intensive study. They had each of the 50 encounters transcribed, verbatim—with all the ‘‘uhs,’’ pauses, and whatnot that occur in real discourse—and two research assistants checked the accuracy of the transcriptions against the original tape.

During the interpretation phase, research assistants read the transcripts and noted the ones that dealt with aging, work, gender roles, family life, leisure, substance use, and socioemotional problems—all areas in which the researchers were interested at the time. The assistants read through the transcripts and tagged instances where either the doctors or the patients ‘‘made statements that conveyed ideological content or expressed messages of social control’’ (Waitzkin et al. 1994:328).

To illustrate their interpretive approach to discourse analysis, Waitzkin et al. go through two texts in detail. They use the same method as that used in biblical exegesis: A chunk of text is laid out, followed by commentary involving all the wisdom and understanding that the commentators can bring to the effort. For example, Waitzkin et al. produce this snippet of interaction between a doctor (D) and his patient (P), an elderly woman who has come in for a follow-up of her heart disease:

P: Well I should—now I’ve got birthday cards to buy. I’ve got seven or eight birthdays this week—month. Instead of that I’m just gonna write ’em and wish them a happy birthday. Just a little note, my grandchildren.

D: Mm hmm.

P: But I’m not gonna bother. I just can’t do it all, Dr.—

D: Well.

P: I called my daughters, her birthday was just, today’s the third.

D: Yeah.

P: My daughter’s birthday in Princeton was the uh first, and I called her up and talked with her. I don’t know what time it’ll cost me, but then, my telephone is my only connection.

Waitzkin et al. comment:

At no other time in the encounter does the patient refer to her own family, nor does the doctor ask. The patient does her best to maintain contact, even though she does not mention anything that she receives in the way of day-to-day support. Compounding these problems of social support and incipient isolation, the patient recently has moved from a home that she occupied for 59 years. [Waitzkin et al. 1994:330-31]

When they get through presenting their running commentary on the encounter, Wait- zkin et al. interpret the discourse:

This encounter shows structural elements that appear beneath the surface details of patient-doctor communication.... Contextual issues affecting the patient include social isolation; loss of home, possessions, family, and community; limited resources to preserve independent function; financial insecurity; and physical deterioration associated with the process of dying. . . . After the medical encounter, the patient returns to the same contextual problems that trouble her, consenting to social conditions that confront the elderly in this society.

That such structural features should characterize an encounter like this one becomes rather disconcerting, since the communication otherwise seems so admirable. . . . The doctor manifests patience and compassion as he encourages a wide-ranging discussion of socioemotional concerns that extend far beyond the technical details of the patient’s physical disorders. Yet the discourse does nothing to improve the most troubling features of the patient’s situation. To expect differently would require redefining much of what medicine aims to do. (Waitzkin et al. 1993:335-36)

Waitzkin et al. make clear that alternative readings of the same passage are possible and advocate, as part of their method, the systematic archiving, in publicly available places, of texts on which analysis is conducted. When the project was over, Waitzkin filed the tran?scripts with University Microfilms International so that other researchers could use the data for later analysis.

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