In Memoriam Hanneke Houtkoop-Steenstra


On Sunday, December 22, 2002, Hanneke Houtkoop-Steenstra died. In September 2001 she was diagnosed for cancer and since last October she knew that treatment had failed. She was our friend and colleague as a member of the Dutch talk-in-interaction community (Paul) and even as a member of the same department (Tom).

Hanneke studied General Linguistics at the University of Amsterdam, which she completed with a thesis on 'yes-but' constructions. She often illustrated the point of it with a sentence like 'you may be right, but I still do not agree with you', said with a small amused smile. What mattered to her, then and later, was what people actually do in conversations, not what they are supposed to do according to some theory. After her MA she worked on a project on turn-taking initiated by Doro Franck. Later she worked at Tilburg University under the direction of Konrad Ehlich, where she was being coached by Gail Jefferson, at that time also employed in Tilburg. She did her PhD at the University of Amsterdam, supervised by the late Simon Dik and Paul Drew. Then she took a position at Utrecht University.

Reviewing her research work and publications (see here) one can conclude that she started with making herself familiar with the principles and methods of conversation analysis, before she applied these to various kinds of data. One of the central themes in these applications can be described as the tension between 'rules' and 'practices'. In the 1980s, for instance, she wrote a paper on a medical interview in which the physician used a lot of summaries of what the patient had just said. This  was often recommended in those days in order to prevent misunderstandings. In the case at hand, however, she showed how this practices actually did lead to substantial misunderstandings. Actual practices may turn out to work differently from what was intended and therefore simple recipes may be counter-productive.

In her later research she has investigated such tensions especially in standardized research interviews. In those situations, interviewers have to read out questions and possible answers from a printed questionnaire or computer screen, but quite often they deviate from the text because that fits better in the actual course of the conversation; for instance because an upcoming question has already been answered before. Hanneke did a substantial part of that research at the Free University in Amsterdam, on a detachment basis. It has resulted in a large number of published papers and a book, published by Cambridge University Press. Lately she worked on Call Centre calls, which again show the kinds of tensions mentioned above, in this case between the requirement to fill in computer-based forms and the actual flow of the telephone conversation.

She has done a lot to bring people in contact with each other, especially to talk in formal or informal settings about the work they were doing. She initiated the Inter-university Group on Interaction Analysis (IWIA) for researchers in the Netherlands and Flanders, and the Conferences for Interaction-Analytic Research (CIAO), that were meant to let advanced students present their work. A large number of non-Dutch conversation analysts have stayed at her Burmanstreet house. Over the years she has collaborated with a number of colleagues, at times leading to shared publications including those with Harrie Mazeland, Harry van den Berg, and Charles Antaki.

Hanneke was constantly looking for  order in social life as it came, not just in conversations or language matters. In her published papers as well as in her oral presentations she knew very well how to restrict herself to what she wanted to bring across on that occasion, which she did in clearly structured ways within the limits of the time and space available to her. She was industrious, careful, inventive, but all that with a particular lightness. She was enthusiastic and sober, social, concrete and practical. She knew very well what she wanted and what she was able to do, and she communicated her opinions and wishes in an often very direct manner.

We have used terms like sensible and practical and talked about a certain lightness. Travelling light was also her motto when going to conferences, always elegantly dressed in black-and-white combinations, with minimal baggage in a small backpack.

Paul ten Have
Tom Koole

Note: Together with Charles Antaki we have initiated a publication in Hanneke's honour, and with her consent, which we hoped would appear while she was still with us. Regretfully, this will no be so.

From a message by Alan Firth:

I am shocked and very saddened to hear of her death, and would just like to say a few words about her, in this public forum.

To me, Hanneke was a good friend, a respected colleague, and a committed, creative, exceptionally gifted and an inspirational
scholar of Conversation Analysis. I first came across her work (on responses to requests) in 1987, and that work was, and remains, a model of clear, rigorous, insightful scholarship. Hanneke has always produced work of exceptional quality. Recently (although suffering from cancer) she submitted a paper to a collection I am working on (with Michael Emmison and Carolyn Baker), and it too is a superb piece of scholarship.

I will not only remember Hanneke for her publications, however. She was an avid conference goer, and one could always bet on seeing her at conferences - whether in Japan, Mexico, Australia, Denmark, or wherever. At conferences, I will remember her as a serious questioner and an intense listener; she seemed always to be in the room before anyone else. She was serious, open, generous, sociable, and enjoyed people's company.

I will miss her very much, and the field of Conversation Analysis will greatly miss her scholarship.

Alan Firth
Aalborg University

Discourse Studies has published a Special Issue in Honour of Hanneke Houtkoop

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