Membership categorization, sequencing, and inference:

working towards 'the anchor point' (draft 1.1)

by Paul ten Have©, University of Amsterdam

[Technical note: If you want to download this file, you should als download the arrow files:
arup.gif & ardown.gif !]

Paper for the panel 'Cognition-in-Action: Ethnomethodology', 7th International Pragmatics Conference, International Pragmatics Association (IPrA), Budapest, Hungary, 9-14 July 2000

Preliminary remarks
Case 1: Co-parents
Case 2: Making a medical appointment
Case 3: A survey interview
Case 4: A medical consultation: picking up a relationship
Case 5: A medical consultation: using the record
Case 6: A radio phone-in call
Case 7: Opening up chat room encounters

We ask what it is about natural language that permits speakers and auditors to hear, and in other ways to witness, the objective production and objective display of commonsense knowledge, and of practical circumstances, practical actions, and practical sociological reasoning as well.
Garfinkel & Sacks, 1970: 342

Preliminary remarks*

In this paper, I will consider some examples of conversational openings, to explore the situated use of 'cognitive' resources to reach the point at which the actual 'business' of the encounter can be started. In this effort I will, of course, use the many insights into telephone conversational openings that have been elaborated by E.A. Schegloff in his three well-known papers on the subject. The explicit focus of his work is to explicate the sequential organization of such openings, firstly the summons-answer sequence used to establish the actual contact (1968), secondly the organization of recognition/identification (1979), and finally the elaboration of what he has called the 'canonical model' of telephone call openings (1986).

My present explorations will differ from his work in a number of respects. The first concerns a difference in focus. My focus is on the cognition-in-action evident in, or inferable from, the actual work of opening a conversation. I will use his insights and concepts regarding sequential organization as a support for my analysis, but that sequencing is not my main point. In Schegloff's work, an opposite focus is evident. He does include observations on issues of a 'cognitive' sort, but these are side-remarks, often accompanied by disclaimers that these issues cannot be given adequate treatment in that particular context. The second difference is that while his work mainly deals with calls between acquaintances, or at least 'private' calls (1), I will explore a wider range or openings, including business calls, face-to-face encounters and computer-mediated chatting.

My effort can be seen as taking a position in an ongoing, half-hidden debate between Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis as two distinguishable traditions. While recognizing the differences, it is my preference to combine inspirations from both, as far as it seems feasible. In this way, my paper can be seen as part of an effort at an 'ethnomethodologicalization' of CA, focussing on the actual situated 'work', rather than longing for the disclosure of an 'underlying organization' or the construction of an 'apparatus' that 'provides for' the actual doings of the participants.

In focussing on 'structures of social action', i.e. sequencing, turn-taking, etc., CA can be seen to marginalise processes of 'cognition-in-action', which, however, are equally important in understanding the lived-work of talk-in-interaction. What I would like to try in this paper is to shift the focus, at least for this occasion, foregrounding the 'cognitive' work involved in starting a conversation, while using (findings on) sequential structures as background. What I hope to achieve is to make a (small) contribution to a procedural sociology of knowledge, as applied to talk-in-interaction.

Inspecting the development of conversation analysis from its earliest beginnings around 1964 until its full development a decade later, as documented in Harvey Sacks' Lectures (1992), and Schegloff's introductions to the volumes in which they were published, it can be seen that the 'discovery' of turn-taking and sequencing has led to the marginalisation of cognitive issues, as noted above. The most telling aspect of this development is the virtual disappearance of the notion of 'membership categorization' after 1968, while it was quite prominent before that time (2). I was only in later years, that more ethnomethodologically inclined writers, including Lena Jayussi (1984), Rod Watson (various papers) and Stephen Hester & Peter Eglin (1997) took up the ideas of Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA) again. As Hester & Eglin point out in the introduction to their edited volume, the accent is now placed at investigating the actual use of membership categories, rather than trying to formulate an abstract apparatus. One way in which this could be tried might be to merge the focus on sequential organization, as a gradually developing, stepwise process, on which current CA works, with an MCA-like 'socio-logical analyses (cf. Watson, 1997). That is, at least, my intention in this paper.

These issues deserve a much more extended theoretical and methodological treatment than in can give them here. Taking an 'empirical' rather than a theoretical tack, I will now discuss five data extracts, trying by way of experiment and demonstration to develop these ideas as I go along. These extracts were taken from telephone calls and face-to-face encounters, private and institutional contexts. Furthermore, I will discuss some examples and findings from two previous papers, one (case 6) concerning calls to a radio phone-in show, and a second (case 7) dealing with categorizations as used in text-based 'chatting' over the internet.

Case 1: Co-parents

I will start off my discussion with some observations on a telephone conversation's first exchanges which is given in a recent (1997: 172-3) paper by Schegloff (3), although he uses it for rather different purposes there. He provides the following background information:
Marsha and Tony are the parents-now separated or divorced-of the teenaged Joey, who lives with his father in northern California, but has just spent a period of vacation from school with his mother in southern California. This was the day he was scheduled to drive back up north, and the exchange (...) comes from the quite brief telephone conversation which Tony makes to Marsha.
I will just quote the first few lines:
00          ((ring)) 
01  Marsha:        Hello:? 
02  Tony:            Hi: Marsha? 
03  Marsha:        Ye:ah. 
04  Tony:            How are you. 
05  Marsha:        Fi::ne. 
06                        (0.2) 
07  Marsha:        Did Joey get home yet? 
08  Tony:            Well I wz wondering when 'e left. 
09                        (0.2) 
10  Marsha:        .hhh Uh:(d) did Oh: .h Yer not in on what ha:ppen'.(hh)(d) 
11  Tony:            No(h)o= 
12  Marsha:        =He's flying. 
13                       (0.2) 
14  Marsha:        En Ilene is going to meet im:.Becuz the to:p wz ripped
15                      off'v iz car which is tih say someb'ddy helped th'mselfs. 
16  Tony:            Stolen. 
17                       (0.4) 
18  Marsha:        Stolen.=Right out in front of my house. 
A call opening, as Schegloff (1986: 116) suggests, can be seen as an 'arena' in which the issue of what they will be talking about can be 'worked out by the parties' involved. 
It provides a base position (I will call it the 'anchor position') for the introduction of 'first topic'. That position comes after a fairly standard set of four or so sequences (depending on whether an exchange of 'howareyou's is in point) have been 'run through' - a summons/answer sequence (Schegloff, 1968, 1970), an identification sequence (Schegloff, 1979), a greeting sequence, and, if in order, an exchange of 'howareyou' sequences (Sacks, 1975; Jefferson, 1980). After completion of the second 'howareyou' sequence is the anchor position. Ordinarily, it is the caller (or the initiator of the contact, if an earlier call which failed to contact its target is being returned) who, in the first instance, gets to initiate first topic, initiates it in the anchor position, and regularly uses the opportunity to introduce something overtly announced to be, or readily analyzable (by co-participant and academic analyst) as, the 'reason for the call'.
In these terms, we see, in lines 00 and 01, a typical summons-answer sequences; the ring being the summons, to which the 'Hello:?' provides an answer. Next, in 02 and 03, we see a greeting plus an identification/recognition: 'Hi: Marsha?' followed by a confirmation: 'Ye:ah.' (4). Then, caller starts an 'initial inquiries' phase with the standard 'How are you.' (04), which gets the equally standard 'Fi::ne.' (05). Marsha, the call recipient, does not initiate a second howareyou-sequence and neither does she let Tony, the caller, state his reason-for-calling in next turn, as would be the routine (Schegloff, 1986). Instead, she continues after a very small (0.2) pause with a inquiry as to their son: 'Did Joey get homeyet?' (07).

While the parties ordinarily 'work through' a standard trajectory, also called the 'canonical model', from the starting 'summons' to the 'anchor position', where the substantive talk can begin, Schegloff stresses that at any point the parties can already hint at, or start the first topic, a process he calls 'preempting'.

In fact, at very nearly every position in the developing course of these openings, there is an opportunity for one party or the other to preempt control of first topic, and, with it, potentially the shape of the rest of the conversation. The opening may be thought, therefore, to supply a metric of sorts for the introduction of various tellables, with the degree of claimed priority or urgency embodied in the degree of preemption before anchor position pursued by the preempting party.
Schegloff (1986): 117
In the case at hand, we see how Marsha, who is the call recipient, 'preempts' the routine control over first-topic, with her inquiry 'Did Joey get home yet?' (07), attached after a mini-pause to her answer to his initial inquiry. Tony, the caller, however, does not directly answer that query, but - building on it - supplies what may very well have been his original 'first topic': Well I wz wondering when 'e left.(08). In a way then, he re-asserts his identity as a caller, but then Marsha, draws the conclusion that he is not aware of 'what happened', .hhh Uh:(d) did Oh: .h Yer not in on what ha:ppen'.(hh)(d) (10). Tony confirms that (11), after which Marsha, the call recipient, starts what actually becomes the call's topic.

One could say, then, that the participants' action-based identities, caller/recipient, are superseded by their knowledge-based identities, informed/not-informed, although this takes a certain amount of negotiation. As to their more permanent identities, as ex-partners and co-parents, these obviously ground the encounter in a taken-for-granted manner. From a knowledge-in-action perspective, there seems to be a clear divide between what is treated as pre-established common knowledge, and any current 'update'. The first includs the relevant identities of father, mother and son, the current location of the first two, and the plans concerning the latter's return. It is within that shared framework that an update is relevant, so inquires are made as to the son's whereabout and the timing of his trip, which makes the news of his changed travel plan and its circumstances the topic of the call. As the personal identities are known and taken-for-granted, neither the relevant categories, not the associated predicates are made explicit; they are just used. Such a two-fold structure seems typical of what may be called an update-call between intimates.

Case 2: Making a medical appointment

By way of contrast, I will examine a call opening involving strangers as a man calls a doctor's office to arrange an appointment for a neurological examination of his son..
01 A  praktijk dokter Noorman
         doctor Noorman's practice
02 C  goedemiddag u spreekt met Van Boorden
         good afternoon Van Boorden speaking
03 C  ik heb (.) eh (.) u heeft een brief gekregen 
         I have (.) uh (.) you have received a letter
04 C  >als het goed is< 
         if it went alright
05 C  van het em oh bee prinsengracht (.) eh 
         from the MOB at prinsengracht (5)
06 C  over een onderzoek van mijn zoon Bob
         about an examination of my son Bob
07 A  ogenblikje
08     [pause, about 2 min.; occasionally very soft voices at a distance]
09 A2 Noorman.
10 C  pardon?
          excuse me?
11 A2 dokter  Noorman.
          doctor Noorman
12 C  eh (.) u spreekt met Van Boorden
          uh Van Boorden speaking
13 C  het gaat over een onderzoek van mijn zoon Bo          it's about an examination of my son Bob
14 C  op suggestie van het em oh be prinsengracht,
          at the suggestion of the M.O.B Prinsengracht
15 A2 uw zoon Bob?
          your son Bob?
16 A2 een onderzoek van wat?
          an examination of what?
17 C  eh:::m (.) ee ee gee en dergelijke,
          uhm E.E.G. and such
18 C  ik weet niet precies (wat er in [die brief sta-)
          I don't know exactly (what's in the letter)
19 A2                                 [(wa- wa- vo-) 
                                           (wha- wha- fo-)
20 A2 van wie heb u die envelop gekregen? (.)
          from whom did you get that envelope?
21 A2 van uw huisdokter?
          from your G.P.?
22 C  eh u moet een envelop gekregen hebben van het em oh bee prinsengracht.
          uh you must have received an envelope from the M.O.B. Prinsengracht
23 A2 ohhh (.) ja ja (.)
          ohhh yes yes
24 A2 eh hoe's uw naam zegt u?
          uh what is your name you say?
25 C  Van Boorden.
26 A2 en schikt het u om donderdag eh effe kijken wat zeg ik vrijdag te komen,
          and does it suit you on Thursday uh let me see what do I say to come Friday,
27     [proceeds to making an appointment]
The overall structure of this call opening is as follows. The phone is picked up by someone who is probably an assistant and who uses a strictly institutional identification: 'praktijk dokter Noorman' (doctor Noorman's practice) (1). The caller then takes a multi-unit turn, containing a greeting, a last name identification, and the reason for the call. In the latter he mentions that the call recipient, taken as an institutional representative, should have received a letter from a specific child guidance clinic requesting a medical examination of his son. By referring to a letter that should be in the possession of the recipient, and by adding an 'insecurity marker', '>als het goed is<' if it went alright (4), he invites a confirmation, or alternatively, a search for the letter. Instead, he gets a waiting request 'ogenblikje' moment (7). As it turns out, this 'moment' takes about 2 minutes, after which a second person, who turns out to be the doctor, picks up the phone and treats it as a 'new' one, i.e. as a call on which he has not received any information beforehand. The caller attempts to have his call treated as a sequel to a letter to be recognised by the recipient, but he is rather unsuccessful as the recipient even asks for information that has been given in the call itself already, i.e. the reference to the child guidance clinic (cf. line 14, and the question in 20). It is only at the repeat in 22, that the recipient produces a strong 'news mark' (in 23), after which he proceeds to making the requested arrangement. The crux of the matter may have been that the caller was treated as a requester for an examination, or, alternatively, as in possession of the letter or envelope containing a specified request, while he himself tried to make it clear that the letter stating the request should already be in the possession of the recipient, who should be aware of its contents, i.e. the request.

What we see in this fragment, then, is a play of pairs: caller/recipient, requester/addressee, or even of triads, made up of two connected pairs: father/son=patient/doctor. In his formal sketch for a Membership Categorization Analysis, inspired by his inspection of calls to an emergency psychiatric service, Harvey Sacks (1972a), distinguished two kinds of Membership Categorization Devices: R for Standardized Relational Pairs (SRPs), such as the farther/son pair here, while a second, called K which is based on the possession, or lack of, problem-relevant specialized knowledge. The caller's problem is that as a next-of responsible for the person who is the would-be patient, based on R, he has to mobilize one professional at the suggestion of another, i.e. as an incumbent of Kl, a lay person, he has to 'coordinate', in a way, two independent incumbents of the category Kp, the professionals, i.e. the child guidance clinic and the neurologist.

In both cases so far discussed, it is the actor-status and knowledge status that should be associated with the local call identities of caller and recipient, which is negotiated in the exchanges leading to the 'anchor point'. SRPs and knowledge-based conventional contrasts have a certain usefulness, or rather they may be used on a moment-by-moment basis. In the first case, the SRPs of ex-partners and co-parents are not disputed at all, they just have to be established (recognised, confirmed) before they can be used unproblematically. It is the actual up-to-date-ness of their respective knowledge about recent events and their outcome that is at stake. In the second case, again, the 'basic' categories, here father/son and doctor/patient are not disputed; they just have to be established. From then on, the parties have to work to come to an agreement on who knows what concerning the details of the case; who is the initiator, where is the request, what kind of examination is in order. When that is provisionally established, the arrangement can be made.

Case 3: A survey interview (6)

The third case, I will consider here, concerns the start of a standardized survey interview. Such interviews are, of course, 'partly scripted', in that the interviewer has to 'read the questions as worded' in the questionnaire, but - as I have elaborated elsewhere (Ten Have, 1995, 1996, 1999: 170-80) - interviewers inevitably depart from their 'text', adding production details like intonation, 'uh's and breathing, and departing more substantially when the occasions demands this. This seems especially the case during the opening phases of the encounter, and as trouble of one kind or another arises. Both are the case here. As in my previous work on such materials, I use the convention that those parts that roughly conform to the scripted text are printed in bold, while 'deviations' are given in standard font.

Case 3 Transcr. RJM (Wisconsin Survey 01)

01 FR: hello:
02 IV: ·hh uh hi: my name's: (jane smith) an' i'm calling from the university
       of wisconsin? as part of our national public opinion study?
      ·hhh we're trying to reach people at their home telephone numbers?
      ·hhh is this a residential number? {qconf}
03     (0.4)
04 FR: yes
05 IV: ·hh okay: a::nd to be sure i reached the number i dialed isthis area code
       three oh three 
06     (0.5) 
07 IV: (five five five) [seven (0.5) five one seven ]{qcnfr}
08 FR:                  [what are you calling about?]
09 IV: i'm calling from the university of wisconsin
       ·h [as
10 FR:    [fo:r what.=
11 IV: =part of a national opinion study?
12     (1.0)
13 FR: ·h uh concer:ni:ng what.
14 IV: ·hh well it's:- it's a broa:d study it's what we call a mo:dular study
       so they're a bunch of different segments of questions
       each about (0.2) different things ·hhh >some of the< things:
       in-volve things like politics: economic conditions and expectatio:ns:
       ·hhhh jst (.) different things >like that< m-mostly:
       politics and government type [thing]s:
15 FR:                                  [okay ]
16 IV: ·hhh a:nd just to confirm your number it i:s (five

The call recipient picks up the phone with the - for the U.S. - usual hello: (01). Then the caller comes in with a multi-unit turn (02) in which she first identifies herself and her organization and then continues with explaining that 'we' (7) try to reach people at their home telephone numbers. She does not provide her recipient with any real opportunity to speak and asks whether this is a residential number. In so doing, she does provide for an action by the respondent, although it is a rather narrowly defined one. After a pause (03) she does get a yes (04). She immediately continues with a request for confirmation of the telephone number (05, 07).That is, she treats both the identifications and the call's purpose as not locally negotiable or even 'receivable', dealing with her preliminary problem first, and discouraging any comments the recipient might have on her identifications and purpose.

During the second part of this request, however, the recipient in overlap asks for an explanation of the announced purpose: 'what are you calling about?' (08). The recipient, then, requests an acceptable 'first topic', i.e. an explication of the 'reason for a call' (8): The caller reacts immediately by repeating the earlier given institutional identification (09). Her following explanation is, after the inbreath, interrupted by the recipient, using a condensed version of the earlier inquiry (in 08): fo:r what.(10). After the continued explanation (11), there is a one second pause (12). The recipient breaks this with a third request for explanation: ·h uh concer:ni:ng what.(13). It is only then that the caller/interviewer starts with an explanation 'in her own words', rather than voicing the script (14). It starts hesitantly ·hh well it's:- it's a broa:d study, and she repetitively uses extremely vague indications of the topics to be treated. It serves its purpose, however, as the recipient accepts with okay that overlaps the end (15). On this acceptance, the interviewer immediately switches back to her earlier request for confirmation, which has not been answered yet (16 recycles 05).

Observe that the interview schedule is described as a bunch of different segments of questions, while the topics are called things In a way, the questionnaire is discussed as a complicated 'object', constructed from separate 'parts' (i.e. 'modules' or 'things'), which deal with various things (i.e. topics). In so doing, the interviewer 'distances' herself from this 'object' (9).

From the recipient point of view, the call should follow the ordinary call-by-a-stranger format, until it has been agreed to be something else. This requires that the 'reason for the call' be brought forward immediately after the identification. Instead, the interviewer starts dealing with her preliminary problem, without presenting a framework which could provide for its sense. Furthermore, she speaks in two 'voices', a reading voice and a talking voice, enacting two different identities which can be distinguished only with difficulty.

This fragment, then, seemed to provide another instance of the phenomenon, discussed elsewhere, that 'trouble' in the interview can often be analyzed as what has been called 'a problematic convergence' of different 'interactional formats' (10). The 'trouble' is a bit different here, however, in the sense that the institutional format, the survey interview, has not yet been established interactionally. In the other cases, the 'ordinary' format often seemed to 'erupt' into the institutional one. On other words, the problematic convergence here is a product of an 'interactional asynchrony': the interviewer is ahead of events, i.e. the acceptance of the format, and the call itself, by the to-be respondent.

Case 4: A medical consultation: picking up a relationship

The participants in this case are a GP, presumably in his 30s, and an elderly lady of about 70, who know each other quite well, apparently. As the doctor has a bunch of cards at his desk, it is clear that he does know who is coming.

01 P °goedemorgen dokter°,=
        good morning doctor
02 A =mevrouw Verkerk.
         mrs. Verkerk
03     (1.8)
04 P (kom) u weer 'ns plagen.
        come to tease you again
05 A ja:?
06 P jà.
07 A 'k zal (me) d'r op voorbereiden,
         I will prepare myself for it
08 P 'm (.) nou 't wil helemaal niet dokter
        b- well it doesn't go at all doctor
09 P met [mij.
        with me
10 A       [>ga zitten ga zitten<.
                sit down sit down
11    (.)
12 A tegenaanval de urine was prima.=
        counterattack the urine was excellent
13 P =oh dat is goed werk hh.
        oh that's good work
14 A dus (.) u mankeert niets
        so there's nothing wrong with you
15 P hh hheheh
16 A hehhehhahhah 'hh hh
17 P hh was 't maar waar hè?=
        if that could be true
18 A =wat wou u nou nog zeggen?=
        what would you say on that
19 P =ik weet het niet.=
        I don't know
20 A ((ku[ch))
21 P =[ik voel me zo belabberd [dokter (.)]
        I'm feeling so awful doctor
22 A (([  hoest  ))]
23 P en ik eet helemaal niet.
        and I don't eat at all
24 A nee.

As the patient enters, she greets the doctor, using a greeting plus title format (01). He returns it with a cheerful recognition by mentioning her title plus last name (02). Still standing, she formulates her visit mockingly as come to tease you again (04). The doctor, in a similar tome, asks for a confirmation 'ja:?' yes? (05), which in a definite tone is given 'jà.' yes (06). Continuing in the same vein, the doctor announces that he will prepare himself for it (07). Then the patient, this time with a sad voice, formulates her condition as very bad: b- well it doesn't go at all doctor (08). Partly in overlap, the doctor urges her to sit down at his desk (10), and then picking up the previous joking manner, he gives an apparent test result: 'tegenaanval de urine was prima.' counterattack the urine was excellent (12). She expresses her pleasure at that, in a serious way oh that's good work (13). But he continues the joking: so there's nothing wrong with you (14). They both laugh (15,16). With a sad smile, she says if that could be true (17), but he continues the joke with a mock challenge what would you say on that. (18). She says she does not know (19), but then gives another overall negative appraisal of her condition I'm feeling so awful doctor (21), adding that she does not eat at all (23). From then on the conversation is mostly serious, discussing her condition and family circumstances.

What we have here, then, is the start of a professional/client encounter, which, however, involves people who know each other well, in a way, and treat each other as such, joking about her presumably quite frequent visiting. In so doing, she is still able to bring in her negative assessment of her current state, which he 'counters' with a bit of positive news. She returns, however, to her sad an negative evaluation and brings in more information about her current state. In this manner, the participants succeed in reestablishing their relationship, both institutionally and personally, so to speak. They both bring in the type of knowledge that fits their institutional identities, as she reports on her condition and he gives test results, but these 'asymmetrical' exchanges are embedded in a relational nexus of mutual familiarity with their respective roles, condition and style.

In other words, while the encounter exhibits and constitutes the mutual identities that fit with what the Sacksian (1972a) Membership Categorization type K (being based on specially relevant Knowledge), with the relevant categories of 'doctor' and patient' (suggesting an asymmetrical distribution of knowledge, which is, indeed, enacted here), the participants at the same time demonstrate that they know each other quite well as persons, by doing some fitting 'relation work'.

Case 5: A medical consultation: using the record

Case 5 is another face-to-face medical encounter, with a male doctor and a male patient, both probably in their 30s. Here is the extract.

01 A 'hh [daag
02 P       [( ) Jansma ( )
03 A ja ga zitten (.) dat is Kees Braamberg
         yes sit down (.) that is Kees Braamberg
04 O dag
05 A [van het] Huisartsinstituut
         from the family medicine institute
06 P  [(     )]
07     ((31: schrijfgeluiden en gestommel))
         ((various sounds, writing, bumping))
08 A Jansma hè?
         Jansma right?
09 P  Jansma ja
         Jansma yes
10 A want wij hebben elkaar nog niet gezien [(geloof ik [hè?)
         because we haven't seen each other before I think have we?
11 P                                                                [nee nee     [(want ik ben
                                                                        no no          because I was
12 P  bij u:w)
         with your
13 A (bij Thijs van der Akke::r) (.) 
         with Thijs van der Akker
14 A (nou ja) (.) zien we elkaar ook een keer (.) 
         well (.) then we'll see each other also for once
15 P ach
16    (28)
17 A dat is een hele:: hh 'h geschiedenis met jou geweest in eh janu ari hè
         that has been quite a story with you in uh January wasn't it?
18 P ja (     )
19    (.)
20 A en dat is toen dat is (.) sindsdien goed gegaan?
        and that has then that has been(.)going alright since then?
21 P ja
22    ((46: interrumperend telefoongesprek))
        ((46: interrupting telephone call))
23 P ('t is namelijk zo) ik ben al een paar maanden (.)
         (it's the case that)for a few months now I have beenhaving (.)
24 P verkouwen en dan is 't weer over en dan is 't weer weg
        a cold and then it's over againand then it's gone again
25 A ja
26 P en eh zondag kree' in één keer eh (.) goed hoofdpijn
         and Sunday I got suddenly uh(.) a real headache
27 A ja

The physician greets informally (01), while the patient introduces himself giving his last name (02). He is invited to sit down and the physician introduces an observer, giving his first name and last name (03), and - after the observer has greeted the patient (04) - his affiliation with a medical institute (05). After a lengthy pause, probably filled with administrative activities (07), the physician asks for a confirmation of the patient's name (08), which is given (09). Then the doctor mentions that they haven't met before (10), after which they 'together' produce the fact that the patient has previously consulted with another doctor in the clinic (11-5). After another pause (16, possible spent on the record again), the physician refers to the patient's previous 'history', apparently just read in the records that has been quite a story with you in uh January wasn't it? (17), which he then connects with the present and that has then that has been(.)going alright since then?(20). After an interrupting telephone call, the patient starts to present his current complaints (23 etc.), which starts off the present consultation.

The patient's document history seems to play a crucial role here, identifying him by name, and presumably by complaint-type, while also offering a starting point for the expression of his current concerns (11). While the setting provides for the physician's identity and category incumbency, his greeting, host-like invitation to sit down and presentation of the third party, and consultation and citation of the record actualize these properties. At the same time, the patient is constituted as a documented case, while the observer gets a quasi-medical identity, although he is completely ignored from then on. While in the previous case, the stage for the consultation was set in category-embedded relational terms, enacted through mutual recognition, here it is the revived document that does that job.

Case 6: A radio phone-in call 

This case was taken from a corpus of calls to a radio phone-in program, broadcast in the Netherlands in the late 1970s. I have analyzed a selected set of openings from this corpus elsewhere and will now only summarize some general observations from that paper. as available in the case-at-hand (12)
G = Germaine Groenier, the host, C = Caller

01 ((music fades out))
02 G: hallo met Germaine Groenier?
          hello it's Germaine Groenier
03 C: ja hallo e:h
          yes hello uh
04      (.)
05 C: ik e:h ben eh >(een) meisje van vijftien=
          I uh am uh a girl of fifteen
06 C: =en ik word [eh volgende week zestien
         and next week I'll be sixteen
07 G:                     [(ja)
08 C: en nou ·hh en eh >m'n vriend=
          and well ·hh and my boyfriend
09 C: =>die wil graag gemeenschap met me hebben.
          he would very much like to have intercourse with me
10 G: [ja
11 C: [·hh en zelf ben ik er nou nog niet zo heel erg voor,
and I am myself not yet so much in favour of it

As the music fades out, the host presents herself with a hello and her first and last name, as she usually does (02). The caller, a rather nervous sounding young girl, produces a yes-reponse, which can be heard as a recognition-marker: she makes it clear that she now understands that she has reached her 'destination' (after having talked to one or more support staff members). She does not, however, reciprocate the host's self-identification with one by herself, but just produces a greeting hello which echoes the host's (03). As many other callers do, she avoids giving her name 

Then she presents herself 'as a case', that is without identifying herself in any but categorical terms, i.e. gender and age (05, 06), followed by the use of an SRP (relational category), i.e. her boyfriend, which form the 'matrix' of her problem, as he wants to have sex with her (08-09), while she does not feel to be ready for it (11). 

In general terms, these calls quite often have a rather restricted opening, with an asymmetrical (only the host) or minimal (only first name) identification, minimal or no greetings, a 'fast forward' approach. This may be related to that fact that the calls are being broadcast and that they mostly concern rather intimate problems, so the callers try to avoid identifying details (13). Those problems tend to be sketched using general categories like age and gender to 'place' the caller, followed by the evocation of Standardized Relational Pairs, like girlfriend/boyfriend, parent/child, etc.; or sometimes categories from the K set, like teacher/pupil, or doctor/patient to introduce some 'complication' caused by these others' actions or attitudes. In their problem sketches, categorical and relational obligations and rights, as well as categorical discrepancies play a major part. Callers seem to work hard to present their case as fitting the program's format and as interesting enough to be discussed with the host for a large audience.

The program had a rather specific moral character, in that its purpose was to allow people to discuss relational/sexual problems in public and in this fashion serve as a demonstration that such problems existed and could be discussed in everyday, rather than professional terms. The callers and their problems were taken seriously, even when they were much more uncommon or even bizarre than the one presented in the case at hand. So openings like the one discussed here, sketching a categorical/relational matrix, served to set the stage for such public displays. 

Case 7: Opening up chat room encounters

My last 'case' is also based on a previous paper in which I discuss the ways in which Membership Categories are used to set the stage for internet-based 'chatting', to which I refer for a more elaborate discussion, technical background and many more examples (Ten Have, 2000). I will not cite just one opening, as I did previously, as categories are used in various stages of the chat partner finding process in different ways.

Before one connects a chat channel, one has to fill in a number of identifying slots, the most important of which is the 'nick'(name), which has to be unique among the participants on the channel. A lot of nicks provide or suggest categorical identifications, including language, gender and age, as well as more specific topic-relevant properties. 

Examples of nicks:

^P0371G , amanda14, anneke, banana81, Dream-Girl, emma69, ericdraven, latex_bi-tch1 , Leeroy, LuCho1, Mary15, Miguelo , SomeFun, Steffi, teaser
In this way would-be chatters present themselves to others. They also have the option, although most don't use it, to write a 'profile' which can be requested to be projected by others. Apart from corny jokings, these profiles also provide mostly categorical information.

Examples of nicks with their 'profiles':

When one 'enters' the channel, one can request a list of room names which one can search for interesting elements. Many room names are obviously designed for such a search. 

Examples of room names:

Animal&Girls, Australia-Sydney-Chat-Room, christian evening post, desert_and_cactus_only, engineer, francais-saloppes, francais_soumise_sub_slave, german_deutsch_rollenspiele, hayatherseyeragmensürüyor, holland-babbel, italia-14-19anni, italia-padania-e-basta, L@Ros@deiVenti, nederlandse_chat, sex-tr, subslavespankbondage, Sweet_Girl_From_Alabama, #BI_LES_FEM_ONLY, #Chinese_Chat, #France, #LesbiansBiTeenGirls_Cam_NetMeeting, #polska-do-flirtowania, #russian_Virtual-Bar?, #tr-%izmir, #ukphonefantasy.
Another option is to can search for specific nicks, or nicks containing special elements, after which one can either send a private message (whisper) to that user, or join the room he or she is in.

After having entered a room, a list of present chatters is given in alphabetical order. One can 'talk' to the room or 'whisper' to a particular 'person'. Quite often such an encounter is initiated by a request for 'a/s/l', which stands for Age, Sex and Location, of users present themselves by giving that categorical information.

Categorizations as found in nicks, profiles and room names, as well as those given early in an exchange, seem to be used in two ways: to select a suitable chat partner and to provide a spring board for first topics.

Apart from these categorical identifications, other elements from the 'canonical model' are being used as well, although less frequently, including greetings and howareyou's, which can also lead to various kind of 'pre-topic'-talk, as in 'it's afternoon here' after a 'good morning', or 'I was in amsterdam last summer and I loved it', following location information.


Case 1 largely follows 'the canonical model'; there is a bit of 'preempting' and a 'switch' as it is the recipient who initiates the first topic and has 'the news' to tell. The parties' known personhood' is 'in play', while the 'underlying' categorical/relational network (in Sacks' terms, from the category collection R), which is of 'obvious' importance, is equally obviously not 'exposed' or formulated. It is against this recognized and taken-for-granted background that the just-now topic gets negotiated.

One can also note the moral aspects of the call, in two respects. A first, and obvious morality concerns the husband/father's right to be informed and the wife/mother's obligation to inform about the changed travel schedule. The preemption and the 'switch', noted above, can be related to the delicacy of this issue. Secondly, and this is what the mother stresses in subsequent turns in the call, they are victims of a crime. In a way, this last condition unifies the three, son, mother and father, and so covers over the historical and present 'splits' between them, as well as father's not having been informed earlier, by mother and/or son.

Case 2 differs from 'the canonical model', as discussed in Schegloff (1986), as it is a business call involving strangers, so personal 'recognition' is irrelevant, and self-identification and topic initiation (Reason for the Call - RftC) occupy a multi-unit first turn by the caller. In that turn the caller presents a categorical/relational complex that defines the roles of both present and absent parties to the topic, i.e. the requested examination, while he refers to a letter as a core object. In this complex both the category collections R and K are used, to define the client side and the professional side, respectively. Some misunderstandings concerning the requested examination and the location of the letter occur and are repaired before the arrangement can be made. As these people are new to each other, the use of last names, categories and personal/institutional relations are obvious resources. The father acts as a responsible parent, 'representing' his son, and taking a care-taker's role. His reference to the child guidance clinic's letter, offers an additional grounding in a relevant institutional setting: he is not (representing) a new client but a referred one. His request is institutionally/professionally sanctioned. Furthermore, he creates a double obligation, so to speak, on the recipient side, to comply with the request and to 'recognize' the reference to the letter. Apparently, the recipient is not able or willing to fulfill the latter. This lack of cooperation seems to be covered, first by the misunderstanding concerning the status and location of the letter, and next by his readiness to comply with the core request, making an arrangement.

Case 3 is also a business call involving strangers and has a similar multi-unit caller's first turn, containing both self-identification and Reason-for-the-Call, ending in a question. That question is answered by the recipient, but at the next question, she initiates repair on the RftC, and only after a 'personal' paraphrase agrees to be interviewed. In this call the caller at first restricts her interest in the recipient to the connection's status as a residential one, and the actual number. The request to cooperate in an interview is implied, but not made in so many words. Both features may have contributed to the recipient's decision to intervene and ask, through a series of NTRIs, for an elaboration of the RftC. Her acceptance of the explanation that is finally given is then taken as an acceptance of being interviewed. One might say that the caller acts as if her identification by itself provides her with a right to disturb the recipient's schedule, while it, by its timing and structure, minimizes the recipient's chance to claim her right not to be disturbed. It is only after being addressed personally, rather than being read to, that the recipient, now being constituted as a person, agrees to cooperate.

Case 4, while having an official business character, is enacted in a very 'personal' way. The institutional character is clear from the location, her use of a title with her greeting, and, of course, from the taken-for-granted topic, her medical condition, and their respective role enactments concerning it. Her mocking formulation of her visit suggests that she realizes that the frequency of her visits might be taken as being plaintive and nagging. By showing this, while she in fact does come to consult, she in a way excuses herself for it, and, at the same time, stresses her claim that she experiences her condition as , indeed, miserable. By joining her in her 'play', the doctor can be seen to accept the excuse, the claim, and it's implications. He seems to appreciate her 'distance', while allowing her to express her feelings, which he later on topicalizes in a more or less 'therapeutic' fashion. Together, they seem to have created a 'safe' environment for both expression and discussion of her experiences and feelings.

Case 5, another consultation, is different in that it is rather impersonal, although informal. During the opening phase, the patient record seems to be used as a core resource to identify the case. The doctor uses it to get to 'know' the patient, to reconstitute him as a medical history, which can be evoked and used as a starting point for the consultation. Through the record, available to the physician-in-charge, the patient's identity and history can be moved almost effortlessly, to another doctor's desk. In this way, doctors are 'interchangeable' and patients 'exist' in records. Doctors and patients are 'just' incumbents of their respective categories, carrying names for convenience. The patient's 'right to be there' seems to be pre-granted by his documented history, which offers a springboard for an account for his present visit.

The findings of my previous research, here summarized and illustrated as cases 6 and 7, can be used to extend these reflections. The phone-in calls were most often designed to be rather anonymous, with minimal identifications on the callers' part, and problem introductions in categorical terms, first age and gender, then SRP's and at times institutional categories. In this fashion, the callers made their problem intelligible for the host and the listeners. In a remarkable number of cases, the presented problem was directly related to categorical rights and obligation, and combinations of categories in a pair. That is, categories were used in moral arguments, either in terms of the legitimacy of categorical combinations or in terms of disputes about categorical rights and obligations, in which callers sought support for their point of view from the host.

In the case of text-based chats over the internet, I investigated the use of categories of age, gender and location/culture in a phased process of chat partner selection. Age and gender mainly function as setting the scene for sexually explicit chats, while location/culture categories are especially used to establish mutual understandability. The three types, and others as well, are also used to initiate (preliminary) topics, tasting the waters before morally more risky ones are brought forward. At times, other elements from the canonical model, like greetings and initial inquiries, are used in a similar manner.


Conversational openings are used to prepare for a coordinated entry into the substantive part of the encounter. While many settings have a restricted set of expectable topics, the encounter's actual reason is rarely the first item on the agenda. As Schegloff's canonical model (1986) specifies, a number of jobs can or should precede actual topic work, although both preemption and topic preparation do often occur. When participants are acquaintances of each other, identification/recognition is, as Schegloff (1979) has described at length, a major pre-topic task. This can be seen in case 1, and in a different fashion in case 4. When participants are strangers to each other, things go different. In cases 2 and 3, we saw extended, multi-unit turns in callers' first slots, including identification and Reason-for-the-Call. In medical encounters, patients tend to postpone their topic presentations until the physician offers a vocal and/or visual 'display of recipiency' (Heath, 1986). In encounters of an institutional kind, including medical ones, one or more documents serve as a springboard for the encounter, while in other ones, the encounter is partly scripted as in case 3 here (see Frankel, 1989 and Whalen, 1995 for other examples).

In all cases, a shared knowledge base has to be revived, adapted and/or constituted on the spot, before the actual topic work can begin. Revival is often done implicitly, while adaptation and first-time building up requires more explicit, and therefore visible and analyzable work. Membership Categorization plays a crucial role here, to constitute a matrix that can be filled in later in the encounter with more personalized information and understandings.

In all encounters, the morality of the participants is at stake. The opening phase is, therefore, also a field in which that morality is to be revived, adapted and/or constituted. This can take various forms, mostly implicit, including the careful, often collaborative, avoidance of dangerous items or aspects by stressing safe ones.

While classic CA offers a rather restricted, sequence oriented perspective on conversational openings, an ethnomethodologicalized CA allows for a broader view, showing the local intertwining of organizational, cognitive and moral concerns in a unique, local and dynamic configuration.


*  When drafting this paper, I failed to note its themes being quite close to those in a recent paper by George Psathas (1999). In a planned revision, I will take up the similarities and differences between his paper and mine.

1. In his 1968 paper he does use 'business calls', i.e. calls to a 'disaster centre', but that characteristic is not given a focussed treatment.

2. Cf. Schegloff's comments at page lv-lvi of the introduction to the first volume (Sacks, 1992 a) The fact that Sacks did publish some of this early stuff in 1972 (a & b)seems to indicate that he did not disavow this kind of work as such, but rather went on to do different things

3. The transcript is quoted from , which also allows you to listen to the tape.

4. This format, which he calls 'quasi-interrogative' is discussed at length in Schegloff (1979) at pages 48 and following. I will not go into it now.

5. 5M.O.B. is an abbreviation of Medisch -Opvoedkundig Bureau, a kind of child guidance advice centre.

6. This section is in part based on earlier explorations presented in the Workshop on Interaction in the Standardized Survey Interview, Free University Amsterdam, 18-21 November 1995, and at Essex'96, the Fourth International Social Science Methodology Conference, University of Essex, July 1 - 5 1996. The data, transcribed by Robert J. Moore, were provided through Nora Cate Schaeffer, University of Wisconsin-Madison.

7. This is a conventional way of marking the fact that one speaks 'for' a collectivity, i.e. an organization, as is the 'our' in the preceding line. Cf. Drew & Heritage, 1992: 30-1; Sacks, 1992a: 713.

8. On 'reason for a call' see Sacks, Lecture 1, Winter 1970, Sacks, 1992 vol. 2: 157-74.

9. I am indebted to Harrie Mazeland for the general thrust of these observations.

10. Jefferson & Lee, 1981, see also Ten Have, 1989 on medical consultations, Mazeland & Ten Have, 1996 on open interviews, and Houtkoop (1995) on survey interviews.

11. On medical records and their use in the consultation, see Heath, 1981, 1982, 1986.

12. The paper is called: "The first call is in, hallo, it's Germaine": Negotiating frames in radio counselling; Part 1: Negotiating frames in opening sequences and was presented at he conference on 'Broadcast Conversations: Interaction in the Media', Roskilde University, Denmark, March 25. - 26. 1999. It is available at:

13. As elaborated in the original paper, it is only in special cases, mostly non-sexial ones, that last names or locational information is given.


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