Yakety-Yak

Frank Cioffi

  • Lectures on Conversation: Vols I-II by Harvey Sacks, edited by Gail Jefferson
    Blackwell, 1520 pp, £35.00, January 1995, ISBN 1 55786 705 4

An unfortunate student who had been attempting to attract Harvey Sacks’s attention:

HS: Are you asking a question, or are you bidding or what?

Q: Well I was just wondering if we are ever going to get round to the topics of conversation.

HS: That’s an amazing question … What do you have in mind?

Q: I just feel we should get some content. I feel very frustrated about it … I expected at least that you’re going to analyse conversations, or have something a little more interesting …

HS: … as weird as it may be, there’s an area called the Analysis of Conversation. It’s done in various parts of the world and I invented it. So that if I tell you that what we’re doing is studying conversation then there is nowhere to turn … There is no way that conversation is being studied systematically except my way. And that is what defines, in social science now, what talking about conversation would mean … Where I end is where knowledge on these things ends.

These two volumes consist of transcripts of university lectures delivered between 1964 and 1973 by Harvey Sacks, who died, prematurely, shortly thereafter. There are also introductory essays by Emanuel Schegloff, a colleague and occasional collaborator. It is easy to see why Schegloff and others were so taken with Sacks and why they should want to secure a wider audience for his work. However, the attempt to show that he was laying the foundations for ‘a striking new vision of how to study sociality’ is unconvincing.

The protesting student was reacting to a lecture on the topic of ‘adjacency pairs’ – utterances which succeed each other in such a way that the first is normally incomplete without the second. A common pair is a question and answer: for example, ‘What did you say?’ is the first part of a pair normally followed by a repetition of what was said. On these and related issues, such as ‘next speaker selection’, ‘turn-taking’, ‘collaboratively built sentences’ and so on, what Sacks claims for himself is not extravagant. And when Sacks addresses the topics Schegloff has in mind when he describes the provenance of these lectures as ‘interaction and the social fates played out in it’ – topics which the protesting student was anticipating and was disappointed not to find addressed – Sacks’s claim that knowledge ended where he ended compels us to ask what kind of knowledge this could be.

Sacks himself makes a distinction between his more severely ‘technical’ discussions and his ‘more readily accessible’ ones. But the difference is more profound than just their relative accessibility. Take his rationale for what he describes as the ‘overall structure of organisation of conversation’: it deals with ‘beginnings and endings and how beginnings work to get to something else and how from something else endings are gotten to’. Much of what Sacks does can plausibly be described in such terms but we are left to wonder how ‘technical’ enquiry into ‘the organisation of conversation’ is related to the more substantive issue of ‘interaction and the social fates played out in it’.

There appears to be a diversity within ‘conversation analysis’ which makes it doubtful that it constitutes a coherent enterprise. Often, it is not the rules of sequence which engage Sacks but the subject of the conversation and what it moves him to reflect on. At one point he observes: ‘We can read the world out of conversations as well as we can read it out of anything else we are doing.’ Sacks seems to find in conversation what Dr Johnson found at Charing Cross: ‘the full tide of human existence’. A good rule of thumb for detecting his departures from pure analysis is that his observations become particularly arresting. Consider what Sacks describes as ‘an awfully neat scene’ – a conversation in which a recently widowed man in his sixties, Max, is repeatedly invited to eat some herring, which he just as repeatedly declines:

for 35 years someone had been telling him what to eat and when to eat, and now that he doesn’t have his wife to tell him what to eat he’ll damn well eat what he wants. But as soon as he happens to be in that position somebody else figures ‘he’s all by himself, somebody has to watch out for him’ … What for them is that Max has no one to take care of him is for Max a situation in which he can do what he wants.

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