As with any defence symposium, I had the honour of giving the first talk. But before I could start it was clear that I had made a slight error: I had seriously underestimated the number of people who would attend. There were well over thirty people and of course I only had twenty handouts. It’s a problem well known to many researchers in CA, and it happens all the time, but not a great way to start the day you have to defend your dissertation.
Back to the Future
I took the opportunity to present some new work. Typically a graduating PhD will talk about their dissertation. I remember Trevor Benjamin giving a very interesting talk about how little we know about repair, which is all the more surprising considering repair is such a fundamental part of social interaction. But I went a different path, and picked up a small topic I had worked on as a visiting graduate student at UCLA: past tense.
These cases showed in a lovely way that knowledge is first and foremost social: when you violate your epistemic responsibilities, when you should know but don’t, you have to in some way show that you’re aware of this violation. In other words, you have to show that you know that you should know the answer. And indeed, I demonstrated that when people ask questions to which they should know the answer without a practice that shows this awareness, they are sanctioned for it.
Giving advice in interaction
Up next was Betty Couper-Kuhlen who presented collaborative work with Sandy Thompson on suggestions. While they have been studied a lot in institutional settings, such as psychotherapy where the goal is to offer advice, suggestions have been somewhat ignored in casual conversation. She neatly demonstrated that there are various ways in which people can do suggestions, and that these suggestions can be elicited or volunteered.
After Betty we moved from syntax to phonetics, with Richard Ogden who presented on clicks. As anyone who has ever seen Richard present knows, he can very simply demonstrate the importance of clicks in everyday interaction. They are often not simply affective, where we display our disapproval by providing a few clicks, but have a significant role in turn-taking and turn construction. Clicks can be used to show that you are going to speak or they can be used in the process of a work search. While one might argue that in these cases they arise naturally—you have to open your mouth to produce words—they are understood as meaningful.
The weirdest cases are of course where multiple clicks are produced in close succession. These can be the typical dental clicks, but also lateral clicks, you know, the ones we use for horses. While they lack a clear semantic meaning, they can be used by participants in a way that shows a clear intersubjective understanding of their function. Clicks present a world of meaning, and one that Richard keeps revealing bit by bit.
In the final talk we moved away from conversation almost entirely, as my daily advisor, Mike Huiskes, presented on interaction during orthopaedic surgery. This was collaborative work with Lotte van Burgsteden, currently a PhD student at the University of Wageningen. Mike showed that while there is very little talk during surgery, the physicians are continuously monitoring each other for interpretable behaviour. A surgeon who can be seen to be doing looking, will be understood to be doing looking for a reason, which can subsequently be interpreted by others as for example an assessment. As Goffman argued that you are always seen to be taking a line through talk, so Mike showed that even if you’re not talking, you can be seen to be taking a line.
Through his talk he raised the question, inspired by recent work by Nick Enfield and particularly Jack Sidnell, about what action is? Is social interaction about action or is it primarily about behaviour? The distinction between the two is about whether or not specific intentions are explicitly ascribed, and as Mike likes to repeat: action is conduct under a description. A view like this clearly clashed with long-held views in CA where Sacks argued that it should be a systematic science of social action. But it’s a very interesting debate that certainly will lead to inspiring new ideas about social interaction.