The insight that language and other social behavior should be analyzed sequentially – unit-by-unit, turn-by-turn, action-by-action – is arguably the central methodological innovation of conversation analysis. The force of this insight motivated early investigations into the sequential organization of phenomena such as laughter (Jefferson et al. 1977), jokes (Sacks 1974a, 1978), and story-telling (Sacks 1974b; Jefferson 1978). Although sequentiality is a general concern in all conversation-analytic research, it has been the primary object of study in a line of work on one specific form of sequence organization, the adjacency pair (Schegloff 1968, 1972, 1980, 1988, 2007; Schegloff and Sacks 1973). An adjacency pair is a sequential structure of two actions, produced by two participants, where the second action is contingent upon and normatively obliged by the production of the first (e.g., greeting-greeting, question-answer, request-acceptance/rejection). Though not all courses of action are organized through adjacency pairs, adjacency pairs are used to manage many basic social and communicative contingencies, including the transfer of goods, services, and information (offers, requests, statements, questions), and the initiation and termination of social encounters (openings, closings), among others (Schegloff and Sacks 1973).
The rich tradition of research on the adjacency pair and its organization has been based almost exclusively on audio and video recordings of social interaction made in the U.S. and U.K. Psychologists warn us that research on WEIRD people, that is, people form Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic societies, may not generalize beyond this niche of outliers to the species as a whole (Henrich et al. 2010). While previous comparative research gives us reason to suspect that, unlike some psychological experiments, the core findings of conversation analysis successfully generalize beyond Anglo-American culture (see, e.g., Sidnell 2007, 2009; Stivers et al. 2009; Dingemanse and Floyd, in press), the linguistic and cultural universality of sequence organization remains an open question.
In this talk, we report on a collaborative investigation of sequence organization in 12 languages from distinct linguistic stocks and different geographical areas. We begin with a basic empirical question: Is sequence organization, as described by Schegloff (2007), universal? To answer this, we draw on video recordings of everyday social interaction made in fieldsites across the globe, with speakers of the following languages: ǂAkhoe Haiǀǀom (Khoisan; Namibia), Cha’palaa (Barbacoan; Ecuador), English (Germanic; U.S. and U.K.), Italian (Romance; Italy), Japanese (Japonic; Japan), LSA (sign language; Argentina), Mandarin Chinese (Sinitic; Taiwan), Siwu (Kwa; Ghana), Turkmen (Turkic; Turkmenistan), Tzeltal (Mayan; Mexico), Yélî Dnye (isolate; Papua New Guinea), and Yurakaré (isolate; Bolivia).
With the model of sequence organization in English as our point of departure (Schegloff 2007), we examine the structures that the speakers of these languages use to construct courses of action – unit-by-unit, turn-by-turn, action-by-action. While the primary object of study is the adjacency pair and its systematic expansion (Schegloff 2007; Levinson 2013), we also explore culture-specific forms of action-sequencing, such as the proliferation of repetitional post-expansions in Tzeltal, which can span six turns or more, and “broadcasting” in ǂAkhoe Haiǀǀom, in which speakers produce multi-unit tellings that neither occasion displays of recipiency nor solicit responses from those around them.
The results of our preliminary investigation reveal that all languages in the sample make use of the basic machinery of the adjacency pair and its expansion. In each language, we observe not only base adjacency pair sequences, but also pre-expansions, insert expansions, and post-expansions, as well as subtypes of these (see Schegloff 2007). The occurrence of these structures across a diverse sample of unrelated languages and cultures leads us to conclude that the structures do not belong to “language” or “culture” per se, but rather to a universal infrastructure for social interaction, an interaction engine (Levinson 2006) that all humans and human societies have in common and for which precursors may even be found among our nearest cousins, the apes (Rossano 2013). In agreement with Schegloff (2006), we propose that these structures emerge as solutions to recurrent socio-interactional problems, which are themselves basic to human sociality.