Dr. Leon James
(c) 1971

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1. Introduction:  Topicalization Dynamics in conversational Interaction

The notions of "conversation" and "topic" derive psychological reality from their common everyday usage. People will readily refer to their interactions with others as "having a conversation," meaning "talking to or with so and so" and will further readily specify the "topics of conversation," referring to "what we talked about." In the ethnomethodological perspective (Garfinkel, 1967; Shegloff, 1967; 1972; Sacks, 1967; 1972), conversation, viz. an activity whose successful completion constitutes a practical accomplishment on the part of participants and which depends on a prior agreement as to the proper steps in its execution. The psychological reality of this definition is evidenced by such facts as a conversation may be "interrupted" by some situational event (i.e. is not brought to a successful completion), and what starts as an alleged conversation may not materialize (as when a participant "talks gibberish" or fails to respond appropriately or speaks another language or whatever).

The existence of topicalization rules in conversation (a normative notion) is evidenced in two ways. First, an inspection of written transcripts of tape recorded conversations shows that participants use boundary markers to move from one topic of conversation to another, thus providing psychological reality to the notions of "topic", and "topic raising", and "topic switching." For example, in our dialect, we commonly use such idioms as "And by the way...", or "I've been meaning to tell you that...", or "Have you heard about...", and so on Second, participants themselves will commonly refer to the content of their conversation by mentioning a topic and will furthermore readily specify propriety rules in their use. For example, certain topics are treated as inappropriate or taboo in some situations, and others are restricted to certain specific segments of a conversation (e.g. Greetings and How-are yous must appear at the beginning or not at all; "important news" is to be mentioned early in the conversation among friends -- as in announcement of an engagement or wedding), and so on.

This report constitutes an ethnomethodological inveatigation of participants' practices in handling topicalization rules in conversation. Our intention is to contribute to the knowledge of conversational structure by examining some of the structural componenta of conversational activity. Thus, we are not providing here a general theory of conversation; rather, we wish to illustrate in concrete terms the application of an ethnomethodological approach to the empirical study of conversation by an investigation of the functional rule-governed behavior displayed by participants relating to their topicalization work in conversation.
2. The Categories of Topic

Topic appears to function as a universal identity marker for all conversational activity, as evidenced by the fact that participants readily refer to "what they have been talking about" irrespective of content and situation. Thus, it always appears to be the case that when participants report having had a conversation with someone, they also consider it meaningful to report what they have been talking about. In this connection, the reply "Nothing" to "What did you talk about" is never taken literally, but is instead a category label for what can be paraphrased as "Nothing special worth reporting; Just the usual sort of things that you might expect us to have talked about in that kind of situation." (An analogous function for the same idiom can be recognized for a reply to the inquiry "What did you do last night.") The activity of identifying a topic always occure within the conversational context of reporting. A preliminary investigation of conversational practices points to existing normative rules for doing reporting. For example, a participant may be seen to vary the content of his reports relating to a particular event in ways which are differentially related to the identity of the listening participants, or the existing relationship between the participants involved in the conversation. Thus, the identification of a topic is a form of categorization behavior that is dependent on the context of reporting, i.e. the interaction between "what actually happened" and "Who it is to be reported to."

The notion "what actually happened" needs elaboration. From the ethnomethodological perspective, "what actually happened" does not refer to an independent, so-called "objective" assessment or description, but rather to the functional categories used by the participants themselves in their self-report of the on-going events, either as coded during the course of events, or sometime after, including the changes in categorizations, that may occur in the time interval between the happening and its reporting. Similarly, the notion of an "event" or "happening" does not refer to independent, so-called "objective" facts, but rather to the sanctioned orienting to features that are pre-defined on the basis of common practices in the participants' speech community. For example, in reporting an accident to an insurance agent, certain specific pre-defined features of the situation must be included (e.g. time, location, damage, identity of other driver, etc.). Similarly, in reporting to a girl friend on "how the party went last night", the girl will have to mention certain specific features that are relevant to their existing relationship, which may vary significantly from the features her mother would expect. High school students writing a composition on "My last summer's vacation" will orient to features that may be quite different to those they include in their report to a friend they haven't seen al1 summer.

There appear to be two general categories of topic which we shall refer to as permanent topics and emergent topics. Permanent topics refer to category labels or identifying paraphrases that are predefined and treated according to the standards of participants' practices in recurrent situational conditions of conversation. Some common instances in our dialect covering the conversational rituals of "the daily round" (Goffman, 1971) include: the participants' condition of health or well-being, the weather, changes in one's personal status, newspaper stories and headlines, ideological and sociopolitical topics as defined in the mass media, business activities, family happenings, changes in relationship status about mutual acquaintances, etc.

Emergent topics have a less stereotyped character, are less easily categorizable according to predefined features, and require more elaborate paraphrases in their reporting. They contrast functionally with permanent topics in that their identification is accomplished after rather than before the exchange in which it occurs. The following segment of a transcript illustrates the difference:
3. Mechanisms in Topicalization

Inspection of written transcripts of conversation readily show the existence of the following mechanisms in topicalization behavior:

(1) first topic raising
(2) topic switching devices
(3) topicalization set-up moves
(4) closing a topic
(5) evading a topic
(6) referring to or mentioning a topic
(7) alluding to a topic
(8) defining an emergent topic
(9) returning to a previous topic

All of these will be illustrated by segments of transcripts to be pre sented and their character will be further elaborated in specific terms.
2. Functional Categories of Topic

#1. Unmentionables are topics that are functional only so long as they are not mentioned. Two types are common on the daily round: (1) a secret (e.g. "I do x and I'm the only one doing that.") (2) a pretense (e.g. "I do x, but everybody else is doing it."). Secrets are practical; pretenses are ritualistic. Enactments require secrets and pretenses. Similarly, constitutive exchanges require secrets and pretenses.

#2. Unmentionables is a functional category of topic in talk. Pretenses function as a remedy to poise while secrets function as a remedy to watchfulness. Pretenses guard against embarrassments while secrets afford relief. Mentioning an unmentionable produces flood-outs (e.g. laughter displays): mentioning a pretense is marked by the embarrassed laughter; mentioning a secret is marked by the hysterical laughter.

#3. That rituals have secret functions, is a secret. That rituals have a pretense function, is not a secret. That pretenses have a secret function is a secret. That transacting involves a secret dimension of significance, is a secret. That there are secrets, is a secret.

#4. When two participants pretend they don't have secrets, they enact sharing an individual actuality, viz. they cannot have an inter-personal exchange, since "exchange" implies, two individuals each having a separate individual actuality. The separate individual realities are "delusional" by definition and supported by deceptive practices (pretenses) that serve to cover up the independent and separate actualities (Cf."I know what you're talking about" and versions thereof in legitimizing interactions). Knowing this secret liberates the individual for enactments.

#5. Revealing secrets is relieving. It creates a temporary state of solidarity. Its temporary character is due to the recursive character of such an exchange (i.e. where two people reveal secrets to one another). Thus, secrets about which secrets the other recognizes leads to secrets about revealing secrets...etc., recursively.

#6. Secrets constitute a necessary condition for all exchanges, even if only temporary secrecy is involved. However, having a secret is delusional, since "the secrets" derive from the ritual functionality of interactional exchanges between participants in a community relationship and setting, no matter what its particular details are. Hence delusional dimension (see the evidence on Interior Dialogue, xxxxxx). This delusional dimension is referred to as Individual Actuality.

#7. "Going crazy together" involves sharing or being in a shares Individual Actuality and must involve pretense (see enactment). Secrets cannot be told: they pertain to the realm of the delusional Individual Actuality; hence, secrets must be individually discovered. They cannot be shared, transmitted, told, specified, or made permanent (e.g. by capturing it in an expression, or signalling it in a display).


3. Topicalization mechanisms in Discourse Structure

#1. Topicalization dynamics involves a referential and a derivational syntax. Referential syntax includes pronominal snd deictic reference. Derivational syntax includes ethnosemantic outlines (e.g. Color Charts, Double Hexagrams, Trigramatic Topic Units, etc.) and situational glossaries (e g. argument sequence, dramatic theme, behavioral performatives, etc.)

Continued here