Saturday, February 12, 2011

My understanding of Heritage Ch 4,5,8

Heritage, J. (1984). Garfinkel and ethnomethodology. Cambridge: Polity Press.

I'm new to conversation analysis and I kind of hesitate to write on CA here because I'm afraid that my understanding might not be correct. But I would like to share my "understanding in progress" anyway. I will be happy if you correct me where I'm mistaken. So here it goes.


In these chapters, Heritage compares Parsons’s rule governed view of interaction with Garfinkel’s model of interaction as “families of cases” and explains why rule governed approaches cannot account for talk-in-interaction. First, rule governed accounts of interaction cannot successfully explain interactions because rules are by definition reductionist since they highlight some aspects of the phenomenon while undermining others. There is not a principled way of telling which aspects of the interaction are relevant and thus if we want to develop a rule to explain anything, we have to specify it indefinitely. Since rules are always underdetermined they lose their explanatory power as an analytical tool. In other words, rules are useful for daily purposes because they are abstractions or generalization but they are not useful for developing scientific explanations because they are always underdetermined. Second criticism of ruled governed explanations is that such systems can be helpful in describing a specific situation to some degree, but they fail to explain how rules come into being in the first place, or how rules change over time for that matter. I think Heritage is right in pointing out that time is a crucial element in Garfinkel’s model. Parsons’s rule governed model does not seem to take into account time, and as a result change. Not only Parsons’ rule governed model does not account for how rules are acquired or how they change, but it also ignores that people have some choices, as limited as they might be. If Parsons were right, then all interactions by all people who are socialized the same way would be exactly the same way all the time, which is obviously not the case.
For conversation analysts, context is endogenous to the phenomenon under investigation. It is not something that precedes the social interaction but rather the interaction between the participants constructs the context. In chapters 5 and 8, the reflexive properties of talk-in-interaction are seen as evidence supporting the claim that the interactional contributions to talk-in-interaction by the participants are “contextually oriented,” that is, these interactions are not only “context-shaped” but also “context renewing” (p. 241). They are context shaped because each turn in talk allows a limited number of next moves thus previous utterances serve as context for the ones following it. Similarly, they are context renewing because each turn in talk gives a new meaning to the previous ones by allowing the participants to check, and consequently correct or confirm, each other’s understanding. This intertwined nature of sequences can easily be observed during conversation analysis since participants display their own analysis of the previous utterances by responding accordingly and in return respond to the analysis of the other participant appropriately. It is my understanding that this process is what makes intersubjectivity possible and people have a strong tendency to conform to the mechanism of interaction and to create intersubjectivity. I think this is why not conforming to expectations leads to such strong reactions as the breaching experiments illustrate (On a personal note, now I understand why people react to my wearing one earring--even strangers stop and tell me that I'm missing an earring. I have never understood why people do that. After all wearing one earring is not such an odd thing, or so I thought. Apparently, this constitutes a breaching for many people since it does not conform to expectations. It is tiring to give them all an explanation. I sometimes wonder if wearing one earring is worth the trouble ^_^).
I would also like to add that the understanding of context in conversation analysis is quite different from how context is understood in other fields, such as sociology and second language acquisition. For instance, in second language acquisition, context is seen as something that precedes interactions between language learners. In articles related to second language acquisition, it is quite common to refer to educational contexts, foreign language context as opposed to second language context, classroom context, etc. According to this conceptualization of context, language learners merely traverse in and out of these contexts. Not only the context exists before language learners enter the scene but it continues to exist after they leave it. In this view, the role of the participants in generating the context is limited and as an extension it is difficult, if not impossible, to talk about co-constructive nature of context and interaction. Perhaps more importantly, in this view context gains an identity of its own, which in turn creates the illusion that context can be treated separately from the phenomenon under study. Ironically, even though context seems to have an autonomous identity independent from whatever happens “in” it, it is such a vague and amorphous concept that it ceases to be meaningful since you can put anything and everything in that definition—the country, the institution, the social, political, or ideological ecology, etc. This conceptualization of context as a container in second language acquisition studies is quite different from the understanding of context in conversations analysis studies as a constitutive element of interaction. Maybe the distinction of context by conversation analysis and second language acquisition studies corresponds to the local context and larger context distinction Heritage mentions on page 282. 

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