School of Media, Communication and Sociology

Conversation Analysis Research in Autism (CARA)

Conversation Analysis Research in Autism (CARA) is a forum for researchers who use conversation and/or discourse analysis to explore autism.

We welcome new members. If you would like to join our group please email us. We are also happy to advertise research projects, conferences, books or other activities if they relate to CA/DA and autism. If you have something for the newsfeed, please drop us an email. If you have a new related publication, then we would like to add it to your membership profile.

Learn more about the people involved in the project


What is autism?

The term ‘autism’ is long-standing and was first used by Paul Bleuler in 1910 when describing schizophrenia. In 1943, Leo Kanner developed the term further to characterise children with cognitive and affective symptoms, extreme aloneness and the preservation of sameness.

More recently, autism has been referred to as ‘Autistic Spectrum Disorder’ (ASD), first coined by Lorna Wing in 1981, to reflect the diversity of presentations, which is more generally accepted now in the DSM-5. ASD is a complex condition which presents with various difficulties in daily functioning. It often described as a neuro-developmental condition as it indicates impairments in the brain or central nervous system.

ASD is considered a life-long condition with no known cure or universally agreed upon cause. It presents in different ways in an individual’s life and in some cases can be difficult to diagnose. ASD encapsulates a range of different presentations with some individuals being high functioning and others having severe learning difficulties and developmental delay.

Nonetheless, it is fairly well-established that the condition is characterised by a ‘triad of impairments’ which are used to help with diagnosis.

This triad consists of:

  • Qualitative impairments in reciprocal social interaction (difficulties in social interaction/understanding).
  • Qualitative impairments in communication.
  • Restricted repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests and activities (limited flexibility in thinking).
Learn more from National Autistic Society.

What is CA?

Conversation analysis was pioneered by Harvey Sacks in the early 1970s, and his work was continued by Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson. In his pioneering work, Sacks noted that there is an underlying organisation in the way interaction unfolds on a turn-by-turn basis. It was the turn-taking nature of conversation that was of primary interest.

Conversation analysis gives attention to detail in naturally occurring activities and analyses mundane and institutional talk as a systematic and organised phenomenon. Thus, conversation analysis is the study of talk-in-interaction. Conversation analysis, in recent times, has developed an interest in institutional talk and has a lot to offer in terms of how we understand institutions.

Our answer to this question is based on materials found in the book by Robin Wooffitt. You may find this to be a useful reference:

  • Wooffitt, R. (2005). Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis: A Comparative and Critical Introduction. London: SAGE Publications.

Other useful references for conversation analysis include:

  • Antaki, C. (2011). Applied Conversation Analysis: Intervention and Change in Institutional Talk. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan.
  • Hutchby, I. and Wooffitt, R. (2008). Conversation Analysis (Second Edition). Oxford: Blackwell  Publishers.
  • Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on Conversation (Vols. I & II, edited by G. Jefferson). Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

What is DA?

Discourse analysis grew out of concerning questions regarding the sociology of scientific knowledge and was interested in exploring the social processes that informed the ways in which the scientific community made knowledge claims as objective or factual.

Early discourse work is credited to Gilbert and Mulkay who noticed that talk is full of contradictions and variability. Thus key features of discourse analysis (DA) are that it focuses on the functional orientation of language use and acknowledges variability in accounts. It also examines broad regularities in the way in which such accounts are constructed.

Discourse analysts claim that the language we use and the way we use it is not determined by an objective set of properties of the events. They argue that language is performative in the sense that people ‘do’ things with words, such as complain, invite, question, account, justify and so forth. There are many different types of discourse analysis, with different epistemological and ontological assumptions. These include critical discourse analysis, Bhaktian discourse analysis, discursive psychology, and Foucauldian discourse analysis, among others. We recommend you consult a textbook for further information.

Our answer to this question is based on the materials found in the book by Robin Wooffitt. You may find this a useful reference:

  • Wooffitt, R. (2005). Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis: A Comparative and Critical Introduction. London: SAGE Publications.

Other useful references for discourse analysis include:

  • Fairclough, N. (1999). Linguistic and intertextual analysis within discourse analysis within discourse analysis. (pp: 183 – 212). In A. Jaworski, and N. Coupland, (Eds). The discourse reader. London: Routledge.
  • Potter, J. (1996). Representing Reality: Discourse, Rhetoric and Social Construction. London: SAGE Publications.
  • Potter, J. (2011). Discursive psychology and the study of naturally occurring talk. In D. Silverman (Ed). Qualitative Research (Third Edition). (pp: 187 - 207). London: SAGE Publications.
  • Willig, C. (1999). Applied Discourse Analysis: Social and Psychological Interventions. Buckingham: Open University Press.

What are the similarities/differences between CA and DA?

For different reasons, discourse analysis and conversation analysis show that language can be studied in its own right. Conversation analysts show that ordinary language can be analysed to look at how we perform interpersonal actions and how these actions are organised socially. Discourse analysts show that language is a consequence in that accounts and descriptions cannot be treated as neutral representations of an objective social reality.

In conversation analysis, the function of language is looked at in terms of the design of utterances and their location within the turn-by-turn development of interaction. In discourse analysis, the function of discourse is much broader. While they have some interest in specific conversational activities and the sequential context, they are not restricted to this technical level.

Both discourse analysis and conversation analysis are qualitative in nature and analyse the functional and sense-making properties of language. However, these similarities stop at this broad level, and when examined in depth the intricate differences emerge.

Both conversation and discourse analysis reflect the concerns of ethnomethodology. Ethnomethodology, pioneered by Garfinkel (1967), is primarily concerned with how social action is accomplished through the competencies of participants. Much of social life is mediated through spoken and written communication, and, therefore, language is central to ethnomethodology in sociology. However, the conversation work of Sacks focuses on the communicative competencies that inform ordinary conversation and looks more objectively at the structures of interaction, whereas ethnomethodology is somewhat interpretative.

Our answer to this question is based on the materials found in the book by Robin Wooffitt. You may find this a useful reference:

  • Wooffitt, R. (2005). Conversation Analysis and Discourse Analysis: A Comparative and Critical Introduction. London: SAGE Publications.

Why are CA and/or DA useful for researching autism?

The use of CA and/or DA is a relatively new way by which to methodologically and theoretically approach the study of autism and its various associated symptoms.

Historically, autism has been studied through the lens of methodological perspectives that have assumed it to be an ahistorical ‘thing’, existing outside the discursive field. More generally, in the broader autism literature, autism has primarily been represented as consisting of a set of ‘scientific facts’, which can be identified and treated by ‘experts’.

From a CA and/or DA perspective, autism can be reframed as a construct bounded within and contingent upon the discursive practices that make its naming, treating, and representing possible. Taking up a CA and/or DA approach allows an analyst to examine how everyday discursive practices make possible identifying, labelling, and treating children and adults diagnosed with ASD. Furthermore, such an approach can provide a nuanced understanding of the interactional practices that take place between individuals with autism and others, potentially impacting our understanding of how ‘behaviours’ come to be identified as ‘abnormal’ or ‘normal’ and are ultimately managed in everyday talk and text.

A useful resource for considering how a more social constructionist orientation may inform the study of autism is:

  • Nadesan, M. H. (2005). Constructing autism: Unraveling the ‘truth’ and understanding the social. New York, NY: Routledge.

What is the Jefferson transcription system?

Conversation analysts and many discourse analysts employ the Jefferson system of transcription notation. This is because in conversation analysis the transcripts are designed not only to capture what was said, but also the way in which it is said. Therefore the transcripts provide a detailed version of the complex nature of interaction.

Useful references for Jefferson transcription include:

  • Jefferson, G. (2004). Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction. In G. H. Lerner (Ed). Conversation Analysis: Studies from the First Generation. (pp: 13-31). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.
  • Hepburn, A. and Bolden, G. B. (2013). Transcription. In Sidnell, J. & Stivers, T. (Eds). Blackwell Handbook of Conversation Analysis (pp 57-76). Oxford: Blackwell.

There are many symbols used in the Jefferson transcription system and we provide you with some of the most common.

Transcription notation

  • (.) A full stop inside brackets denotes a micro pause, a notable pause but of no significant length.
  • (0.2) A number inside brackets denotes a timed pause. This is a pause long enough to time and subsequently show in transcription.
  • [ Square brackets denote a point where overlapping speech occurs.
  • > < Arrows surrounding talk like these show that the pace of the speech has quickened
  • < >  Arrows in this direction show that the pace of the speech has slowed down
  • (  ) Where there is space between brackets denotes that the words spoken here were too unclear to transcribe
  • ((  )) Where double brackets appear with a description inserted denotes some contextual information where no symbol of representation was available.
  • Under When a word or part of a word is underlines it denotes a raise in volume or emphasis
  • When an upward arrow appears it means there is a rise in intonation
  • When a downward arrow appears it means there is a drop in intonation
  •   An arrow like this denotes a particular sentence of interest to the analyst
  • CAPITALS where capital letters appear it denotes that something was said loudly or even shouted
  • Hum(h)our When a bracketed ‘h’ appears it means that there was laughter within the talk
  • = The equal sign represents latched speech, a continuation of talk
  • :: Colons appear to represent elongated speech, a stretched sound

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