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Wednesday, 24 August 2005 00:24

While non-verbal cues can come into play when observing social interaction, words are the very essence of human communication. With words, we can paint pictures of our subjective experience, share intimate and not so intimate information with others, identify common interests, provide consolation, and even entertainment. Words are the mechanism by which we share knowledge. Although it is said a picture paints a thousand words, verbal communication can evoke profound emotions. Consider, for example, poetry, prose, or speeches, such as Martin Luther King Jr's "I have a Dream" speech, which energized people to a cause. Understanding how and why various words may evoke both emotional and/or action responses allows us to better understand what it means to be human. Words define the essence of our individual and shared experience. And they can paint pictures that may be both poignant and sweet, while at the same time resulting in a reminiscence of times past. Enter conversation analysis.

Conversation analysis, the study of words and how they are used in conversation and writing, arose from the field of ethnomethodology in the 1960s, during the height of the humanist and existentialist era drawing interests from sociologists and linguists alike. While various psychology researchers explored this area in relation to interactionist theories, it was not until the late 1990s, that conversation analysis gained significant scientific acceptance as a viable research approach to human behavior. Jonathan Potter and Derek Edwards established the field of Discursive Psychology in 1997.[1] Since the late 1990s, conversation analysis has been used to explore relationships and interactions in the areas of marriage and family therapies, social and work situations, as well as its original linguistic application.

Unlike psychoanalysis, underlying interpretations are not assigned, at least in the sense of the Freudian Id or Jungian archetypes, to the spoken or written words. Nor are non-verbal cues attended to, as conversation analysis focuses on words and how they are used in the context of conversation. Word patterns may represent themes of a single or group of individuals. For example, the vocabulary of a depressed individual is likely to contain a higher degree of negative, self-defeating word patterns whereas a non-depressed or happy individual will generally use a larger number of neutral or positive words, respectively.[2] Furthermore, subject matter differences between two or more discussants, may signal cross or miscommunication, wherein subjects may be talking at or past each other.[3] Some conversation analyst even argue that word patterns can indicate ulterior motives, such as emotion evoking words commonly used to sell a product or promote a political agenda.[4] [5]

In the scientific arena, researchers may use words to test memory, such as those words used on the Deese/Roediger-McDermott memory test. Other researchers may look at metaphors and attempt to qualify how their use plays in an individual's world-view. The majority of this type of research falls within the cognitive sciences. This is unsurprising considering cognitive psychology focuses on thought process, which are in turn revealed through verbal communication, and wherein negative patterns are identified, and cognitive distortions corrected through the use of challenging negative self and/or other-defeating, or even self-aggrandizing, statements.

In summary, words are powerful. They can define an individual's world-view, evoke emotion, or move people to action. We use words to describe the essence of our experience, to give others a view into our life-books. We use words to share information, reminisce, play, and sometimes quarrel. We use words to define who we are and what we hope to be. And we judge others, to some degree, based upon the words they use. In this sense, we are all conversation analysts.


Footnotes:

  • Edwards, Derek; Potter, Jonathan. [1993]
    Language and causation: A discursive action model of description and attribution
    Psychological Review
    Volume 100 Issue 1, Jan 1993, 23-41.

  • Drew, Mary L.; Dobson, Keith S.; Stam, Henderikus J. [1999]
    The negative self-concept in clinical depression: A discourse analysis
    Canadian Psychology
    Volume 40 Issue 2, May 1999, 192-204.

  • Diamond, Guy; Liddle, Howard A. [1996]
    Resolving a therapeutic impasse between parents and adolescents in multidimensional family therapy
    Journal of Consulting & Clinical Psychology
    Volume 64 Issue 3, Jun 1996, 481-488.

  • MacMartin, Clare; Yarmey, A. Daniel. [1999]
    Rhetoric and the recovered memory debate
    Canadian Psychology
    Volume 40 Issue 4, Nov 1999, 343-358.

  • MacMartin, Clare. [2004]
    Judicial Constructions of the Seriousness of Child Sexual Abuse
    Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science
    Volume 36 Issue 1, Jan 2004, 66-80.

 

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