Time: 3:23 – 6:06
ACE: [I apologize,°apologize,apologize,apologize°
Is there anything special in these days?
Any special day?
Yeh (3.0) everything is good?
Yes, OH my god. Today
Today, I missed a class.
You missed one class?
(.)I remember the (2.0) wrong time, wrong time. I
thought that time was five to six thirty.
But the class should be three thirty to five.
[I just remember the different time of class.
Is funny emm?
(3.0) I don’t know what happened.
Sometimes it happens, it’s fine. So(.) do you talk
with your professor?
Yeh… yes, sure.
So what she said? Or he.
Emm(.) she said it’s ok. A good professor.
Yeh she’s a good professor. [Today I also missed class
(.)because… you know, I go to every class every day.
And I see my grades are ninety-eight. [and
[OH! Your grade
PAT: And I just wanna the… get my free time [you know. and
PAT: I don’t wanna do anything.
ACE: [you are so…
PAT: [I just wanna stay home. I feel very good, I think
tomorrow I can do the class better.
ACE: You get a good grade.
PAT: EN! Because this class is a writing class.
PAT: [Every semester, you should submit three main
ACE: Oh, just write essay.
ACE: [nice class
PAT: The Participation grades only have ten percent.
ACE: Ten percent?
ACE: °Fine, nice one°
Membership Categorization Analysis
University of Southern Denmark
Membership Categorization Analysis (MCA) is one means of explicating the practically oriented, common-sensical, and cultural reasoning of people as they go about their social lives. In particular it focuses on the recognizability of people as certain sorts of people or, more specifically, people as certain
sorts of members of society, and how this recognizability is a resource for members in their dealings
with each other. And as one of the primary ways in which we 'deal' with each other is through language,
MCA is often brought to bear on the analysis of how people use language in situations of everyday life.
As with other strands of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis (EMCA), there is a special way
to understand what is meant by 'analysis'. When we use the term MCA, we are here of course referring
the ways in which we, as analysts, explicate some empirical material, however we can also use the term
as a gloss for what the people in our empirical material are doing – they are categorizing each others as
certain sorts of members of society. Thus what we, as analysts, are doing is simply bringing to light
members' own analyses. MCA should thus not be thought of as, for example a theory of social categorization that is applied to some empirical materials to test its predictability, rather as the explication of
peoples' own resources for social life.
Membership categorization analysis has its beginnings in the work of Harvey Sacks (1972, 1992) who
became interested in the way in which categorizations rely on social categories, e.g., policeman, moth er, deviant, and how these and associated social categories might be organized into collections, known
as membership categorization devices.
"My attention shall be exclusively limited to those categories in the language in terms of which
persons may be classified. For example, the categories: 'male', 'teacher', 'first baseman', 'professional',
'Negro', etc., are the sort I shall be dealing with. Frequently such 'membership' categories are
organized, by persons of the society using them, into what I shall call 'collections of membership
categories', categories that members of society feel 'go together'. They are not constructed merely as
aids to my analysis; whether or not a particular category is a member of a particular collection is, in
each and every case, a matter to be decided empirically." (Sacks, 1966: 15-16; original emphases;
cited by Jayyusi, 1984: 212))
The central elements in the use of social categories, according to Sacks, are membership categorization
devices and a set of "rules of application". Rules of application match categories from a device to indi-
viduals or collections of individuals. Of particular interest is the "consistency rule" and it's corollary the
"hearer's maxim". The consistency rule states, roughly, that if a category from a MCD is used to categorize a member of a particular population, then all other members may be categorized with categor ies from that device. One may view the consistency rule as applying to the production of a categorization such that speakers may co-select categories from within the same device. The hearer's side of the
consistency rule is termed a "hearer's maxim":
"if two or more categories are used to categorize two or more members of some population,
and those categories can be heard as categories from the same collection, then: hear them
that way" (Sacks, 1992A: 221)
Furthermore, such categories may provide for inferences concerning typcial activities of their incumbents. Such activities are referred to as being category-bound (Sacks 1992).
Of special interest to Sacks, and those who have followed him has been the following problem: Given
that a person may be described “correctly” in an infinite number of ways on a given occasion, what are
the principles of a “proper” description? One such principle by which a description becomes proper is
through it being heard as relevant in lieu of it falling under a membership categorization device relevant to the talk at hand.
The classic example from Sack’s, derived somewhat atypically from a book of stories by children, is
how we understand the expression “The baby cried, the mommy picked it up”. Sack’s contends, and the
reader is encouraged to try this on their own, that we hear the “mommy” as the “baby’s mommy”. The
basic idea is that if we can hear the rendering of the categories, mommy and baby, as belonging to the
device, members of a family, then we hear them that way. We may say that picking up their babies is a
category bound activity of mommies, something mommies are expected to do. Thus when offered a description of some mommy picking up some baby, we infer they are members of the same family unless
of course we know of some reason not to do so.
Membership categorization analysis, along with the analysis of turn sequencing and recipient design
provided by Conversation Analysis (CA), provides a powerful analytic toolkit with which relationships
between interactants can be understood (Sacks 1992; Antaki and Widdicombe 1998; Hester and Eglin
1997). Moreover, MCA has been further developed since the early work by Sacks, both conceptually
and empirically. Jayusi (1984 &1991) brought forth the the moral and normative character of categories
and categorization. Recall from the mommy and baby example above that we expect mommies to pick
up babies. It is not far from that to suggest that we expect them to do so as they should do so, and in
this way issues of normality and morality can be seen to come into play. For more empirical work in
this vein, see for example Antaki et al, 2008; Armanin 1997; Baker, 1997; Eglin & Hester, 1999; Heritage & Lindström, 1998; Hutchby, 2001; Stokoe, 2003. The second major conceptual development within MCA has been Watson's (1978) extension of the notion of category-bound activities to the more general notion of category-bound predicates. Thus not only activities, or actions, may be bound to categories but also a wide range of characteristics, essentially whatever can be 'properly' predicated of an incumbent to the category. Not only can we hear mommies as 'picking up babies, but also as being of a
certain age, of having certain kinds of knowledge, and so forth. The notion of category-bound predicates has become quite general in MCA research. It is important to point out, however, that both with the
moral or normative implicativeness of categories as well as category predicates, their applicability is al ways bound to concrete situations of categorization and should not be thought of as 'context-free' properties of linguistic expression, as would be the case, for example in linguistic semantics or certain varieties of ethnoscience.
Belonging to the 'family' of Ethnomethodology and Conversation Analysis, MCA is rarely an object of
abstract theorizing. Rather in discussion of it is always, data, consisting of as close a record as possible
of human interaction, is always at the foreground. Let us then have a look at a bit of spoken interaction
to get sense of how membership categorization analysis works. The data come from a video recording
of a group of university students engaged in a 'project group meeting' i.e. a group with the task of conducting a study and writing a report by the end of term. At our point of entry in the transcript, they are
making a list of the tasks they have before them.
which days days [we have is it two or what]
[but this is my eat pasta ]week
˚I have to eat pasta all week˚
you gotta me kiddin me (.) you're not on one of those stupid
diets are you?
uh no no no I'm must a I'm just er (.)
[did you] lose a bet?
yeah ha ha [ha HA HA HA gid]dy e giddy e giddy me:::↑
[that's my diet]
[which] brings us to another subject (1) shouldn't we arrange
like to do something fun with each other again soon?
In line 1 ERN is asking which days a particular task is to take place. LOU begins a turn at line 2 where
ERN's ongoing inquiry may finish, and in overlap with ERN notes a particular feature of the week
which ERN's inquiry concerns, that it is her 'eat pasta week'. LOU succeeds in taking the turn as noted
by the repair sequence which follows, and thus her contribution becomes the focus of continuing activity. LOU's contribution at line 2 is subjected to repair, initiated by ERN in line 3, to which LOU responds by reformulating her attribution of the week in question in line 4. This then is subjected to another repair initiation by ERN as to the reason for the attribution or why LOU has to eat pasta all that
week. Thus we get the sense that whereas the first repair sequence, lines 3-4 may concern a mishearing
of what LOU has said, the second, beginning at line 5 concerns rather how the 'eat pasta week' is to be
coupled with LOU. In MCA terms we can say it like this: what sort of category is LOU a member of
such that 'eat pasta week' is a proper predicate? What follows are three candidate accounts posed as inquiries for why LOU will have a 'pasta week'. The answer to this will depend on her reasons of having
an 'eat pasta week'. PET inquires, in 'teasing' fashion at line 6 if she's on 'one of those stupid diets', PET
inquires if LOU is broke and ERN inquires if LOU has lost a bet. LOU denies being on a diet at line 7,
does not attend to the question of losing a bet, and answers affirmatively that she's 'just broke' in line
10. Thus LOU 'uncouples' a connection between herself and being on a diet at all, much less 'one of
those stupid' ones. In doing so, we might say she resists being categorized as that 'type' of person,
whatever that type might be worked out to be.
PET carries on in line 11, nonetheless, rejecting LOU's account of her pasta week as being a matter of
being broke with what sounds like an ironic 'yeah', laughter tokens and by repeating part of his initial
contribution at line 6. His 'giddy e' can be understood as 'kidding me'. LOU continues her turn in line
10, in overlap with with PET, with the clause in line 12 'that's my diet', which we can hear then as proposing that being broke is the only reason for her particular diet of the week. Thus her diet, as it were,
should be understood simply as the food she is to eat that week, i.e. another sense of the word 'diet, and
not a particular diet, i.e. one for losing weight. LOU has managed then to resist being heard as the type
of person who would go on a 'stupid diet', as being an incumbent of a category with that possible predicate. Instead, she has managed to make herself out to be an incumbent to the category of people
whose diets are adjusted to their, dire, economic situation. Using our member's knowledge of people
like LOU, ERN and PET, the category of 'poor student' does not seem too far off.
For a longer an dmore extensive overview of MCA, see Housley & Fitzgerald 2002. There has been
some debate on the relationship between conversation analysis, with its focus on sequentiality, and
MCA. Details concerning this can be found in Watson 1997, Wowk & Carlin 2004, Schegloff 2007.
MCA has been particular salient in work on what is known as 'institutional interaction. For an overview
of this research, see Drew & Heritage 1992. Finally, as for all things concerned with Ethnomethdology,
Conversation Analysis and Membership Categorization Analysis, there is the invaluable recourse cnsisting of bibliographies, amongst other things, provided by Paul ten Have at http://www.paultenhave.nl/.
Antaki, C., & Widdicombe, S. (Eds) 1998. Identities in talk. London: Sage.
Antaki, Charles, Michela Biazzi, Anette Nissen, Johannes Wagner 2008. Managing moral
accountability in scholarly talk: the case of a Conversation Analysis data session. Text and Talk
Arminen, Ilkka 1996. On the moral and interactional relevancy of self-repairs for life stories of
members of Alcoholics Anonymous, Text 16: 449-80
Baker, Carolyn D. 1997. 'Ticketing rules: categorization and moral ordening in a school staff meeting'.
In: Hester, S., P. Eglin, eds., Culture in action: studies in membership categorization analysis.
Washington, D.C.: University Press of America: 77-98
Drew, Paul, John Heritage, eds. 1992. Talk at work: interaction in institutional settings. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press
Eglin, P. and Hester, S. 1992. Category, Predicate and Task: The Pragmatics of Practical Action.
Semiotica 88: 243–268
Eglin, Peter, Stephen Hester 1999. Moral order and the Montreal massacre: a story of membership
categorization analysis.' In P.L. Jalbert, (Ed.) Media Studies: Ethnomethodological Approaches.
Lanham, New York, Oxford: University Press of America: 195-230
Heritage, John, Anna Lindström 1998. 'Motherhood, medicine and morality: scenes from a medical
encounter', Research on Language and Social Interaction 31: 397-438
Hester, S. and Eglin, P. 1997. Culture in Action: Studies in Membership Categorisation Analysis.
Washington, DC: University Press of America
Housley, William, Richard Fitzgerald 2002. The reconsidered model of membership categorization
analysis, Qualitative Research 2: 59-83
Hutchby, Ian 2001. 'The moral status of technology: being recorded, being heard, and the construction
of children's concern about family relationships'. In: I. Hutchby & J. Moran-Ellis, eds. Children,
technology and culture. London: Routledge Falmer: 104-22
Jayusi, L. 1984. Categorization and the moral order. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Jayyusi, L. 1991 ‘Values and Moral Judgement’, in G. Button (ed.) Ethnomethodology and the Human
Sciences, pp. 227–51. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sack, H. 1972b. On the analyzability of stories by children. In J. J. Gumperz & D. Hymes (Eds.),
Directions in sociolinguistics: The Ethnography of communication, pp. 325-345. New York:
Holt, Rinehart, and Winston. (Reprinted in R. Turner (Ed.), 1974, Ethnomethodology. Penguin).
Sacks, H. 1966. The search for help: No-one to turn to. Unpublished PhD dissertation, University of
California at Berkeley, Department of Sociology
Sacks, H. 1972a. An initial investigation of the usability of conversational data for doing sociology. In
D. Sudnow (Ed.), Studies in social interaction, pp.. New York: Free Press 31-74
Sacks, H. 1992. Lectures on conversation (2 vol. ed.), Edited by G. Jefferson, introduction by E.
Schegloff. Oxford: Blackwell. [Combined vols. ed., 1995]
Stokoe, Elizabeth.H. (2003) 'Mothers, Single Women and Sluts: Gender, Morality and Membership
Categorisation in Neighbour Disputes', Feminism and Psychology 13: 317-4
Schegloff, Emanuel A. 2007. A tutorial on membership categorization. Journal of Pragmatics 39: 46282
Watson, D.R. 1978. Categorization, Authorization and Blame-Negotiation in Conversation. Sociology
Watson, Rod 1997. Some general reflections on 'Categorization' and 'Sequence' in the analysis of
conversation'. In: Hester, S., P. Eglin, eds., Culture in action: studies in membership
categorization analysis. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America: 49-76
Wowk, Maria T., Andrew P. Carlin (2004 ) Depicting a Liminal Position in Ethnomethodology,
Conversation Analysis and Membership Categorization Analysis: The Work of Rod Watson.
Human Studies 27: 69–89
From lifeguard to bitch
How a story character becomes a promiscuous
category in a couple’s video call
Richard Fitzgerald and Sean Rintel
ABSTRACT: This paper examines a single case of story telling between a couple in
a long-distance relationship conducted via video calling. Drawing on Membership
Categorisation Analysis (MCA) we examine the way the teller incrementally reveals
information about a character in order to build a story of coincidences. In doing
this, however, the recipient begins to treat the evolving character as relevant to a
different device, that of their relationship. Our discussion develops on the analysis
of omnirelevance devices (Sacks, 1995) by examining how categories can be shifted
between devices. In so doing, we highlight the way categories introduced for one
task may be put to other uses; that is, how categories may become ‘promiscuous’.
Richard Fitzgerald, Sean
Rintel, School of Journalism
and Communication, The
University of Queensland,
In this paper we draw upon the method of
Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA)
(Hester & Eglin, 1997; Sacks, 1972, Hester and
Eglin 1997) to examine a single instance of
story telling between two people using video
calling who are in a long distance relationship.
The interaction involves ‘Des’ relating a story to
‘Kay’ about his sneaking into a pool complex
to have a swim. The focus of analytic interest
is the way divergent orientations concerning
the primary character of the story, a female
lifeguard at the pool, become apparent. The
teller, Des, uses the unfolding nature of story
construction (Jefferson, 1978) to incrementally
reveal attributes about the lifeguard character in
order to reveal finally that she was a friend-ofa-friend. However, the recipient, Kay, treats the
From lifeguard to bitch: How a story character becomes a promiscuous...
evolving character as open to a different interpretation, and which for
her has a categorial and moral valence in terms of their relationship
(Selting 2010). We explore this data to examine the character/category
work, with particular attention on how holding back the relevance of
a character for a story makes the character potentially ambiguous.
This ambiguity, we suggest, provides a space for the character to be
treated as ‘promiscuous’, by which we mean a category that is recast
by other parties as a membership category of a different device.
Here, we suggest the character in the story is recast by the recipient
as a category related to the omnipresent device of the long-distance
In this analysis we focus on the evolution of one character over the
course of ...
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