Centre for Research in Communication and Culture


11 December 2020

Sequential and Socio-Historical Contexts in Talk-in-Interaction: The Case of Racial Self-Categorization in Post-Apartheid South Africa

Presented By Professor Kevin Whitehead as part of the CRCC Seminar Series

About this event

Conversation analysts have long advocated a distinctive approach to context that privileges the orientations and conduct of participants as a basis for characterizing the context(s) relevant for analyzing interactions (see, e.g., Schegloff, 1987, 1991, 1992a, 1992b, 1997; Whitehead, 2020). Critics of this approach have suggested that this privileging of evidence internal to the interaction is “overly myopic” (Korobov, 2001, p. 10), and that it renders “‘translocal’ phenomena…hard to incorporate in CA analyses” (Blommaert, 2001, p. 13; also see, e.g., Billig 1999; Cameron, 2008; Wetherell, 1998). In this presentation, I draw on recordings of calls to South African “talk radio” shows to take up the question of whether and how claims regarding the relevance of particular socio-historical contexts can be grounded in evidence of participants’ orientations to them in unfolding sequences of action-in-interaction. Specifically, I examine how racial self-categorization by participants at particular places within sequences can expose their orientations to aspects of the social organization of race relating to South Africa’s apartheid history and/or post-apartheid present. In the process, I consider some systematic features of the relationship between so-called “micro” and “macro” contexts in the analysis of social action.

Kevin Whitehead's primary research interests for over the past 15 years have been at the intersection of social interaction and race/ethnicity. Specifically, he has worked to develop a research agenda and approach that applies an ethnomethodological, conversation analytic approach to the study of race and the other social categories and forms of social organization with which it intersects. The focus of this research is the fine-grained examination of some ways in which the social organization of race is produced and reproduced through the locally organized, everyday practices of people in interaction with one another.

More recently, he has been working in collaboration with a multi-disciplinary and multi-methodological group of colleagues at UCSB and the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa on a project focused on advancing research and theory on conflicts and violence. His role in this research involves using ethnomethodological and conversation analytic approaches to examine ways in which conflicts, especially those with violent outcomes, unfold in naturally occurring video recorded interactions. In particular, he has focused on examining how membership categories (including race, gender, and others) are made relevant and managed in these interactions, and how violent conflicts emerge from the moment-by-moment sequential unfolding of interactions.

In addition to these areas of “applied” conversation analytic research, his research has also contributed to more “basic” understandings of social interaction and social categories more generally, and his collaborations with colleagues and students have focused on a range of topics that intersect with various features of social interaction in ordinary conversational, research, and text-based (e.g., online) settings.

Contact details

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