Sequence organisation


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Sequence organisation

  • Adjacency pairs

  • Preference structure


Controller: I’m talking to 274. Right?

Driver: Yes. That’s me.

Controller: Your ignition’s not on the blink?

Driver: No.

Harold Pinter, Victoria Station

These are examples of adjacency pairs, linked utterances whose first part projects the production of a relevant second part - greetings and question-answer sequences are often cited as examples. In Victoria Station the Controller’s questions expects an answer - in CA terms the answer is a relevant next action. If one is not forthcoming or if a greeting is not returned then this creates a hiatus and the absence becomes noticeable and accountable in the analysis.

Adjacency is the most common way in which action sequences are linked in conversation and are therefore the building blocks around which interactional speech episodes are constructed (Hutchby and Wooffitt 1998: 39-47). The importance of closing out an adjacency pair is dramatically illustrated when Macbeth is unable to make the appropriate response to a prayer by one of his sleeping servants:

Macbeth: One cried, "God bless us!" and "Amen" the other,

As they had seen me with these hangman's hands.

Listening their fear, I could not say "Amen,"

When they did say, "God bless us!"

Lady Macbeth: Consider it not so deeply.

Macbeth: And "Amen"

Stuck in my throat. But wherefore could not I pronounce

"Amen"? I had most need of blessing

W. Shakespeare, Macbeth, II.ii.26-33

Macbeth knows that the ritual closing for “Amen” is “Amen” and holds himself accountable for his inability to respond to the prayer.

Both of the adjacency pairs in Victoria Station involve preferred responses by the Driver. A typical example is an “agreement” response to a question. Although the Driver’s replies are quite different (A is affirmative and B is negative), they are both preferred because they are in agreement with the previous speaker. This is the default response because it “follows the established norms, is socially affiliative, and promotes reciprocity of perspectives” (Seedhouse 2004: 24).

A dispreferred response is quite the opposite. When we disagree with or refuse something or somebody, we are carrying out a disaffiliative action, which goes against social norms and indicates that the speakers do not have the same perspective. This action will therefore be marked differently. An important characteristic of preference is that it is usually brief and unhesitating - agreement does not tend to require explanation and none tends to be given. Dispreference, on the other hand, is non-affiliative and therefore noticeable and accountable. For this reason a dispreferred response tends to require a more extended, i.e. marked, explanation to justify it.

Preference structure in storytelling episodes sheds light on the degree of affiliation between speakers, which can then be used for dramatic purposes. In the following example from Macbeth a dream announcement is not turned into a story but is used as a pretext for discussing Macbeth’s state of mind:

Enter Macbeth and Servant with a torch

Banquo: All’s well. I dreamt last night of the Three Weird Sisters. To

you they have show’d some truth.

Macbeth: I think not of them; yet when we can entreat an hour to serve,

We would spend it in some words upon that business,

If you would grant the time.

W. Shakespeare, Macbeth, II.ii.20-25

Overlap, interruption and repair
Overlapping talk is unusual in naturally-occurring speech. Levinson (1983: 296) reports that “less than 5% of the speech stream is delivered in overlap”. There are occasions when talk can be “designedly simultaneous” (Schegloff 2000: 48), for example when a speaker is in agreement with a previous speaker, but generally turn-taking takes place on the basis of one speaker at a time. “Troublespots” are areas in which speakers judge that talk is being impeded and the way in which speakers deal with this kind of problem is termed “repair”. In literary discourse overlap time is never overtly marked in terms of seconds as it would be in a normal CA transcript. Instead it can be signalled by the author’s use of brackets or a stage direction such as simultaneously. In this case the overlap can be safely regarded as marked and therefore a sign of disaffiliation, which in interactional terms is an indicator of trouble.

A very straightforward example of repair is shown in the story below (Villain) as Edmund attempts to tell Gloucester how Edgar had tried to persuade him to murder him:


Gloucester: Where is the villain, Edmund?

Edmund: Fled this way, sir. When by no means he could--

Gloucester: Pursue him, ho! Go after. [Exeunt some Servants]

- By no means what?
Edmund: Persuade me to the murder of your lordship;

W. Shakespeare, King Lear, II.i.42-45

Gloucester interrupts Edmund’s narrative to tell his servants to go after Edgar but immediately repairs the interruption by repeating Edmund’s words verbatim (by no means). This signals that he had been listening to the story and would like him to continue from where he left off. Once the repair is complete, speaker and listener are realigned and Edmund can resume the story where he had finished.

The following extract (What woman?) shows more complex examples of interruption and repair during a storytelling episode in Death of a Salesman:

What woman?

1 Linda: He’s dying, Biff.

Happy turns quickly to her, shocked.

2 Biff, after a pause: Why is he dying?

3 Linda: He’s been trying to kill himself.

4 Biff, with great horror: How?

5 Linda: I live from day to day.

6 Biff: What’re you talking about?

7 Linda: Remember I wrote you that he smashed up the car again?

In February?

8 Biff: Well?

9 Linda: The insurance inspector came. He said they have

evidence. That all these accidents in the past year –

weren’t – weren’t accidents.

10 Happy: How can they tell that? That’s a lie.

11 Linda: It seems there’s a woman …

She takes a deep breath as Biff, sharply but contained:

What woman?

12 Linda: simultaneously: … and this woman …

13 Linda: What?

14 Biff: Nothing. Go ahead.

15 Linda: What did you say?

16 Biff: Nothing. I just said what woman?

17 Happy: What about her?

18 Linda: Well, it just seems she was walking down the road …

story continues

Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman, Act 1

In this truncated episode there are two repair sequences. Linda starts her story by identifying a familiar starting point (Remember I wrote you …) but her attempts to produce the story are immediately put on hold by Biff in Turn 8, who questions the tellability of this memory (well?). In answering the objection Linda continues her story but becomes hesitant. She pauses after the word year, adds weren’t and then repeats weren’t again. This is a form of “self-repair”. Happy then self-selects in Turn 10 (that’s a lie), questioning the truthfulness of Linda’s narrative and hence its justification as an explanation for attempted suicide. Linda continues her story at Turn 11 (it seems there’s a woman), takes a deep breath, makes to continue (and this woman) but is interrupted again by Biff, this time in overlap (what woman?). Linda stops the story (What?) inviting Biff to repair the trouble. Biff replies non-committally (Nothing) asking her to go ahead with the story but she repeats her question (what did you say?). Biff’s reply (Nothing. I just said what woman) answers the question but is not sufficient to return Linda to the story trajectory. Happy continues the repair with an adroit conversational manoeuvre which takes up Biff’s explanation (I just said about the woman) using the pronoun her to move the topic focus of the story to common ground between Biff and Linda - the woman. Linda accepts this cue and continues her account using the marker well to indicate that repair has been carried out and the story is being resumed.

Once a troublespot has been identified, the analyst can trace the source of the difficulty. For example, in Villain Gloucester has heard the story and deliberately interrupted it, whereas in What woman? the simultaneous overlap between Biff and Linda means that she has not heard what Biff has said. In storytelling, as in other forms of conversation, this kind of mishearing is not the only cause of interactional problems. A speaker may make a slip of the tongue or choose the wrong word or a listener may misunderstand a stretch of talk. Having identified the cause of the trouble, the analyst can then assess who or what it is attributable to, whether or not it has been repaired and what its implications are for the interaction on stage. For example, Gloucester’s interruption and repair add a certain conversational realism and convey his sense of urgency, whereas the longer repair sequence between Linda and Biff convey his suspicion about the story’s contents and Linda’s sensitivity to his suspicion.

Interruption and repair can therefore be symptoms of difficulty in conversation and analysis of their underlying causes and consequences can be helpful in the overall evaluation of relationships in a play. Completion or failure of repair can both indicate the degree of affiliation between characters at a particular moment.
How to analyse turn taking

  1. Locate a storytelling episode in the dialogue

  2. Characterise the action sequences within the episode.

  3. Examine the organisation of turn-taking in the action sequence(s) using Herman’s 1988 checklist, focusing especially on any disturbances in the working of the system:

  • who speaks to whom

  • who is not spoken to

  • who listens or doesn’t listen

  • whether listeners are responsive in turn or not

  • whether those who respond are those targeted by the speaker or not

  • length of speeches

  • linguistic style and texture of a character’s speech

  • how changeovers are effected

  • the use of silences, whether intra- or inter-turn

  1. Examine the action sequence(s) in terms of sequence organisation. Look at adjacency pairs and preference organisation and more widely at any action undertaken in response to other actions. Look closely at the positioning of teller(s) and listener(s) in relation to each other.

  1. Examine the action sequence(s) in terms of the organisation of overlap, interruption and repair (there may not be any).

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