Talk in slow motion

Ian Florance talks to Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University.

I recently realised that we had hardly featured social psychologists in the ‘Careers’ section of The Psychologist and I have to thank Chris Walton, press officer of the Social Psychology Section, for putting me in touch with a number of potential interviewees. We meet two of them based at Loughborough University this month, beginning with Elizabeth Stokoe, Professor of Social Interaction in the Department of Social Sciences. Liz became a Chartered Psychologist in 2000, and in 2011 received the British Psychological Society Social Psychology Section’s Mid-Career Award (‘It was a real surprise. I nearly didn’t open the e-mail – I thought it was a circular. I see it as an award for discursive psychology’).

Most of the staff of Loughborough University had decamped to the Olympics where, no doubt, they were watching former students competing. Universities, like hospitals, are a challenge to get around and, this was made worse by extensive building work. Liz’s first words when I got to her office were ‘I’m not that interesting’. We’ll see.

On Pontins Southport, Cracker and feminist crime fiction
‘I was taking science A-levels but I dropped physics in favour of psychology because I was pretty bad at physics. I originally intended to do combined maths and psychology at what was then Preston Poly (now the University of Central Lancashire), but when I arrived the maths part hadn’t registered so  I ended up on a straight psychology course.’ It’s clear from the way Liz talks that she didn’t enjoy her degree. ‘I didn’t really have the traditional “university experience” for various reasons; I spent the first week living in Pontins Southport, for instance. And psychology didn’t impact on me in a big way at that stage.’

In her second year Liz got a job at a bookshop in Hay-on-Wye (‘I was very bookish’) and thought about going into publishing. But she says that a one-week internship at Hodder and Stoughton was ‘enough to convince me, fascinating though that world was, I wasn’t the Bridget Jones type. I had a place on the publishing master’s at Oxford Brookes and then thought about specialising in forensic psychology: I suppose that was the time when Cracker was influencing a whole generation. I had a place on the master’s at Leicester, but no funding. So basically I applied for anything in The Guardian with “psychology” in the advert, which generated an interview at Reading to do a PhD related to airport security. But the clincher was meeting Eunice Fisher at Nene College (now Northampton University), where we bonded over a shared love for feminist crime fiction and a shared birthday. Eunice was in the last three years of her career setting up a degree programme and the college had lots of funding for PhDs, as part of its quest for university status. She was interested in university classroom education so my PhD was centred on that at a time when the whole emphasis was on students learning from each other, but studied in school classrooms. I videoed tutorials and used conversation analysis, looking at issues like topic initiation, academic identity and the relevance of gender, work that continued in the five years after that at University of Derby and University College Worcester. I owe a lot to Eunice and to Derek Edwards, a colleague at Loughborough. At the time Nene College couldn’t accredit PhDs so Derek was my external supervisor and it was through him in particular that I grew interested in conversation analysis.’

What I look at is ‘the world as it happens’
Sociologists developed conversation analysis (CA) in the 1960s and ’70s out of Harold Garfinkel’s ethnomethodology. It is used in a number of disciplines to study social interaction and focuses on the turn-by-turn unfolding of talk and how actions like greeting, offering, assessing, flirting and complaining are accomplished. The method collects data in the form of video or audio recordings of naturally occurring conversations, transcribing them using a technical method that attends to the way talk is delivered. The researchers then look to find recurring, normative patterns in interaction.

‘Chomsky considered everyday speech was too messy to study. In fact, you find that day-to-day conversation is highly organised. Interestingly one of the best ways I’ve found to teach CA is to look at and analyse American sit-coms like Friends which display some of the basic structures underlying social interaction by breaking them, to humorous effect.’

I asked Liz how the methodology she’s outlined differs from how she sees other approaches. ‘Psychologists often create the encounters and activities that they study. As we’ll discuss I’ve worked on neighbour relationships. A psychologist might ask neighbours to fill in a questionnaire or interview them about their experiences and reduce answers to either numbers or some kind of qualitative “theme”. What I look at – the interaction – is happening elsewhere, beyond the research setting. If you want to find out what’s happening in a police interrogation, another area I’ve studied, you record and analyse a police interrogation rather than asking the participants before or afterwards what they thought or felt about it. In the latter case you get accounts of the interaction, maybe, but the actual interrogation remains something of a black box. In a way I’m returning to my interest in physics – interaction drives social life and we’re trying to describe it scientifically.’

Perhaps it’s the way I’ve posed questions but you seem to be distinguishing yourself from social psychology. ‘I’ve taught psychology for nearly 20 years and I’m about to start teaching forensic psychology. But one of the reasons I’ve felt at home in this department since I joined it in 2002 is that it doesn’t force you into a particular disciplinary self-identity. It allows you to follow your thought and work where it leads. Certainly there are plenty of social psychologists who would describe themselves as scientific and some would offer criticisms of the methodologies we use, assuming we’re the same as “qualitative” psychology. It can be quite a heated area. Neither Mick Billig [see over] nor I are typical social psychologists, though Mick has a greater experimental grounding in the area.’

Liz particularly wanted to work at Loughborough. ‘Derby was a great place for a first job but I was travelling a long way back to my home in Hay-on-Wye at weekends. At Worcester I had a very heavy teaching load and little time to publish. I love all aspects of university life – teaching, writing, researching – but what I really love is analysing interaction. My colleagues in the Discourse And Rhetoric Group (DARG), as well as colleagues across the Department in sociology, communication and media studies, criminology and social policy, make for sympathetic and interdisciplinary environment for what I do.’

Role play and real life
Before meeting Liz I’d read a large amount  about her ‘Conversation Analytic Role-play Method’ (CARM), a project that seems central to her work at the moment. ‘Derek and I won a research grant to study neighbour disputes, something no one had really looked at before. Our aim was to uncover what caused neighbours’ disputes and how different organisations dealt with them. We gathered about 120 hours of conversation involving neighbours, police, mediation centres and council officers. As we analysed the data I got interested in the way people answering the calls, staff at mediation centres for instance, responded. Where, in the conversation with a mediation centre, did the person reporting a nuisance neighbour lose interest in the mediation on offer? What convinced them to use the centre to solve the problem? What strategies did staff use to cope with, for instance, the suggestion of racist attitudes? Looking at topics like this suggested that, based on our material and work, I thought I might be able to train people like mediators to interact better with callers and clients.’

This touches on a wider issue. Role play is used to train ‘communication’ skills just about everywhere such training is offered, from the police and media to commercial executives. ‘How authentic is role play? There’s very little work on this. In fact a lot of communication training is based on someone’s theory-driven idea of what might work, rather than on how people in different settings actually interact. Most obviously there are different things at stake in role play than in the actual situation and this impacts on the kinds of things people do, and how they do them. For example, an actor playing a suspect does quite different things to a real suspect.’ CARM is now the basis for dozens of ESRC-funded workshops which Liz has run across the UK, Ireland and US.

How does CARM work? ‘I play workshop participants an extract from an actual interaction, alongside the anonymised transcript. I was worried that people would find the transcription difficult to understand, but they pick up the basic vocabulary very quickly. But the key is that the workshop participants experience the interaction in real time then discuss how they might react. We then watch the next stage of the conversation – how the actual mediator, or police officer, responded – and discuss and evaluate it, and so on. We’re working with real, not simulated data, as the basis for generating strategies for good practice.’

This is a simplified description of the process but as Liz plays me a sound file with the transcription alongside it I begin to start thinking of application areas: sales training; counselling and coaching; mediation in legal disputes. Why not UN negotiators?

‘I’m already getting involved with family mediators and other academics are interested in using CARM in their own work. Yes, there are many applications but I’m having to think long and hard about capacity and the difficulty of getting recordings of data in certain situations. Commercial organisations can be secretive about how they work, and I doubt whether we’d get permission to record real negotiations between opposing factions in a bitter civil war.’

I ask Liz if this method only applies to spoken communication. ‘I’m working with Frederick Attenborough, Lecturer in Communication and Media Studies here at Loughborough, looking at leaflets, posters and letters produced by mediation services. His core interest is text.’‘

I really feel at home’

Our time is almost up and Liz offers to give me a lift to the station. As we drive through Loughborough she reiterates, ‘I really feel at home here in the Social Science Department. There’s a freedom to think and to work across boundaries without worrying what discipline you ostensibly belong to.’

What strikes me about Liz’s work – and CARM is a good example – is that many techniques I’ve come across are used without any real understanding of whether they work and, if so, how. For instance, a lot of business training seems to be based on the idea that if you throw enough learning opportunities at someone, something will stick. The extraordinarily detailed work of conversation analysis begins to cast a light on interactive issues happening outside the ‘frame’ of other research methods.To respond to Liz’s first comment, I found her conversation fascinating.

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