Other Theories of Conversation
Limitations of Pask’s Conversation Theory
When looking to theory for support of the basic principles of participatory librarianship, as discussed above, Pask’s Conversation Theory provides a link to the foundations of library and information science by referencing the information theory and system applications research of the 1950s and 1960s. However, Pask’s primary concern was to provide instructional guidelines for implementing his learning system. Pask’s writing style is reminiscent of system specifications, and he focuses on describing and supporting a set of rules that define the core of his proposed educational interface. His perspective is indicative of his times and reflects a confident belief in the ability of the machine to surpass human cognitive limitations if we can only learn to harness that power.
While the intention of Conversation Theory resonates with the spirit of participatory librarianship, the technical aspects are, in fact, over thirty years old, and Pask’s specifications do not necessarily help us put our ideas into action today. Nor does Pask’s theory reflect the subsequent decades of communications research that would follow after he originally introduced his system.
Here we provide a brief overview of additional theories that address the study of conversation, coming from a range of fields. Our intention is to enrich our definition of conversation and attempt to connect Pask’s work to the present.
Understanding Conversation in a Wider Context
Generally, theories of human communication that address conversation can be grouped into five broad and potentially overlapping categories: structural/functional, cognitive and behavioral, interactionist, interpretive, and critical (Littlejohn, 1996). All of these categories attempt to explain or describe some aspect of the structure of exchanges between individuals; however, they differ in their level of analysis (individual, group, culture), their unit of analysis (signal, word, utterance, message), and their filters (systems, linguistics, politics).
Conversation research in the structural/functional realm looks at patterns of exchanges and utterances with a goal of constructing frameworks based on the mechanics of verbal communication. Structuralism is based on linguistics and stresses the organization of language and social systems. Functionalism grew from biology and seeks to understand the ways that organized systems sustain themselves. Functional models assume that the world is comprised of systems that consist of variables in a network of functions (Littlejohn, 1996). This family of theories includes structural linguistics and discourse analysis. Pask’s Conversation Theory also falls under this category, a unique example of system theory built on principles of conversation.
Behavioral and Cognitive Theories
Primarily focused on the individual, theories of communication influenced by behavioral psychology look at stimuli–response relationships, whereas more cognitive theories look into the information processing that lies beneath these relationships, often taking into account the physiological basis of human perception. Like structural/functional approaches, these theories also try to identify the most important variables associated with communication. However, in addition to focusing on the person over the text for evidence regarding these variables, this approach also focuses on individual human thought rather than collective experiences (Littlejohn, 1996). Hence, the residue of conversation (or participation) in the form of knowledge is not as important as the behavior of individuals. Other approaches refer more directly to socially constructed knowledge, such as interactionist theories discussed below.
Interactionist theories involving conversation take a slightly more sociological perspective, looking at the influence of actors and environment on outcomes to better understand human communication. Because of the situational nature of this approach, the research tends to focus on specific social groups and cultures and is less generalizable than structural/functional theories (Littlejohn, 1996). Pragmatics is the branch of discourse linguistics that looks at the larger social context of conversation. Conversation analysis, although structural in some aspects (i.e., examination of turn-taking), also seeks to identify social and cultural influences on the content of conversation.
Interpretivist and Critical Theories
Explanations of conversation-based communication can also be analyzed through an interpretivist lens that seeks to identify power dynamics between actors. These dialectic theories have grown from foundations in interpretivist and critical theory and are, for the most part, outside the scope of our current investigation as they stress the political and social implications of personal exchanges over the potential for knowledge creation.
Two Approaches to be Considered in More Detail
We have identified two approaches to the study of conversation that we feel may complement Pask’s Conversation Theory as we move forward to refine and implement participatory librarianship: discourse analysis and conversation analysis. Although these approaches overlap in theory, method, and goals, each offers a distinctive point of view to the study of conversation.
Discourse analysis is the examination of the structure of language as it occurs above the sentence level. Grounded in the tradition of structural linguistics, which primarily focuses on the use of language at the sentence level, discourse linguistics studies the structure of messages as expressed in groups of sentences, paragraphs, and passages. Discourse analysis is not strictly limited to dialog but can focus on the text of a single speaker. Depending on the context and application, the analysis of messages can lean more toward a traditional linguistic basis for structure (more highly ritualized contexts) or can take a more sociological perspective (more informal or less predictable situations) that is more dependent on knowledge regarding culture and social context. Regardless, discourse analysis always starts with the concepts and terminology of linguistics and seeks to overlap this framework onto naturally occurring text (Cutting, 2002). This is in contrast to the more interpretive methods used in conversation analysis, discussed below.
The subject matter of discourse analyses is most often natural language, although this research is also useful when working with computer-generated text, such as that produced by question-answering systems. It is important to note, again, that discourse analysis is dependent on the examination of actual examples of natural language, being interested in description over prescribing maximally optimal conversation practices.
Pragmatics, also an extension of structural linguistics, can be described as being one level of language analysis higher than discourse analysis. Pragmatics is considered to be interdisciplinary in its approach to language (Verschueren, 1999). Beginning with a structural framework, when compared with other linguistic areas, pragmatics gives greater importance to the social principles of discourse (Cutting, 2002), addressing the cultural aspects of language use, the social aspects of human behavior related to the communication of messages, and roles played by speakers, including issues such as social distance between speakers and rules of politeness.
Further investigation of discourse analysis principles and methods would involve examining Speech Act Theory (Searle, 1969), which seeks to describe rules governing the act of speech, with the utterance being the base unit of analysis; and propositional coherence (vanDijk, 1979), an extension of discourse studies that looks at the ways in which people create cohesive messages in speech. Neither of these theories directly addresses conversation specifically, although because of the importance that Speech Act Theory places on the intention of the speaker, either or both could enrich our examination of conversation as participation.
Often used in ethnographic studies to closely examine the sequential order and content of conversations between members of a specific group or culture, conversation analysis has roots in both sociology and linguistics. Focused on naturally occurring dialog, this is where the more conventional notion of conversation as talk comes into play (Wardhaugh, 1985). Through careful analysis of text (usually spoken), this approach seeks to catalog interactional features (such as turn-taking, silences and gaps, and overlaps) of a given conversation (Littlejohn, 1996), in addition to identifying evidence of more general conversational rules to better understand why people say what they say.
Conversation analysis often takes an interpretivist format, building a code from repeated and careful reading of a body of text rather than applying an already existing structure to the text. Because conversation analysis looks so closely at a particular example of conversation to generate a model of the communication, it is more difficult to generalize from this approach (Cutting, 2002).
Philosopher H. Paul Grice developed a fundamental theory of conversation involving so-called Gricean Maxims that describe general principles of interaction that humans follow when engaged in most conversations. When involved in conversation, we assume (unless provoked otherwise) that, among other things, others will be telling us the truth, that they will tell us only the things we need to know, that what they say will be meaningful to us, and that they will be polite (Wardhaugh, 1985). Conversation analysis can be used to look for violations of rule like these and to explain how these violations affect the outcome of the communication as evidenced by turn-taking, silences, and interruptions.
When both Pragmatics and conversation analysis are used to describe the organization of conversational groups, it is called Interactional Sociolinguistics (Cutting, 2002). This is also an area that might be generative for future research, as it might allow us to view conversations within context and provide a more flexible (possibly too flexible) framework for defining the mechanisms of knowledge creation through conversation.
- Libraries are traditionally quiet spaces. Can we retain this while encouraging two-way conversations within the library?
- Two-way conversations already occur between library staff. How can the library facilitate conversations between patrons and between patrons and staff? How can these conversations be retained so as to enrich the library?
- Librarians are traditionally in the business of vetting sources for patrons, making sure the information they provide access to is accurate. How can this be negotiated in a conversation with no sources to check?
Cutting, J. (2002). Pragmatics and discourse: A resource book for students. New York: Routledge.
Dijk, T. A. V. (1979). Relevance assignment in discourse comprehension. Discourse Processes, 2, 113–126.
Littlejohn, S. W. (1996). Theories of human communication (5th ed.). New York: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Searle, J. (1969). Speech acts: An essay in the philosophy of language. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Verschueren, J. (1999). Understanding pragmatics. New York: Arnold.
Wardhaugh, R. (1985). How conversation works. New York: Blackwell Basil.