2012 Keynote 1: Associate Professor Michael Emmison

‘Epistemic Engine’ versus ‘Role-Play Method’: Divergent trajectories in contemporary conversation analysis

Associate Professor Michael Emmison

School of Social Science, The University of Queensland

In one of his final publications Goffman took the then fledgling CA perspective, in particular his protégés Sacks and Schegloff, to task for its allegedfailure to take adequate note of the ritual aspects of dialogic interaction. For Goffman CA focussed only on the system requirements for achieving orderly communication and in this sense he likened them to ‘communication engineers’ concerned only with the flow of conversational traffic. Nearly fifty years later the engineering metaphor seems every bit as apt as a description of CA’s focal concerns, most notably in the form of John Heritage’s recent proposal that there is an ‘epistemic engine’ – essentially an imbalance between K+ and K- knowledge states which interactants strive to resolve – which drives conversational turns. At the same time as this technical inquiry into sequence organization is assiduously being prosecuted a very different set of issues is also being explored by other CA practitioners which has as its focus the need for CA to make its findings more relevant for lay practitioners. Elizabeth Stokoe’s development of CARM – the Conversation Analysis Role-Play Method – is perhaps the most significant of these developments. For the first time since its inception, then, there appears to be something of a choice regarding the direction in which our discipline should proceed In this address I use these two competing tendencies to offer some reflections on the state of contemporary CA. I look at the enduring attraction which metaphors draw from the world of machinery, technology and the like, appear to have for describing conversation and offer some reasons why they might have this appeal as well as some possible limitations which might accompany the ‘machine’ metaphor – and, to a lesser extent, the claim that the engine only works on ‘epistemic fuel’. I access the work currently being done in ‘Applied Conversation Analysis’ and consider which of these divergent approaches might offer the best prospects for our discipline in the current academic climate.

See the program for the time of this keynote address.

About Associate Professor Michael Emmison

Associate Professor Emmison obtained his PhD from the University of Queensland in 1983. He has held visiting appointments at the University of Manchester, St Andrews University, The University of Tasmania and Aalborg University, Denmark. Associate Professor Emmison is emeritus faculty at the School of Social Sciences in Sociology having recently retired after 39 years of service at the University of Queensland. His farewell address on the benefits of a cumulative social science was titled “Sociology, Discovery and Progress: lessons from the study of naturally occurring talk-in-interaction“.

His current research interests are primarily informed by ethnomethodology and are largely focussed on the analysis of conversational interaction, particularly talk in institutional settings. He has long been considered an expert in visual communication research, and is on the editorial boards of Visual Communication and the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography and is one of the co-authors of a soon to be updated (due December) textbook on visual methods Researching the visual (2nd ed).

Between 1999 and 2002 he was a recipient of a large ARC grant investigating expert-lay communication on a computer software helpline. In 2005 he published an edited collection of original studies of telephone advice seeking and advice giving — Calling for help: Language and social interaction in telephone helplines (John Benjamins) — with the late Carolyn Baker and Alan Firth. He is currently working with Professor Susan Danby on an ARC funded project examining the impact of technological modality on troubles telling and advice giving on Kids Help Line, the national children’s helpline.

He has also been involved with a couple of major studies of Australian culture which have drawn on the work of Pierre Bourdieu and published a book on this — Accounting for tastes: Australian everyday cultures — with Tony Bennett and John Frow.

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