Conversation Analysis – BBC Question Time (part 1)

Editor: The BBC’s Question Time programme on Thursday nights seems to court controversy these days as we hold it to ever more stringent impartiality standards. In this blog, Elena Ioannidou dissects the discourse that this programme produces from a CA perspective. The blog is split into two parts. Part two is here.

By Elena Ioannidou, Coventry University

Conversation Analysis (CA), as a methodology, first began as a tool to study social interaction (Sidnell 2016: 1). One of the fundamental principles of CA, as established by Sacks, Schegloff and Jefferson (1974), is the principle of turn-taking, which posits that participants take turns when producing meaning-making utterances during a conversation. Though it appears simplistic, Sacks et al’s research suggests that there are underlying, context-specific and culture-specific mechanisms behind the allocation of turns, as turn-taking serves as an organisational schema for human interaction.

The report below examines the aspects of turn-taking and rights to the floor in a BBC Question Time TV panel discussion. The participants will be referred to as follows, in accordance with the transcriptions.

  • Fiona Bruce (Chair) = FB
  • Dianne Abbott (Labour Party MP) = DA
  • Isabel Oakeshott (Journalist) = IO
  • Members of the Audience = AU

Turn-Taking and Rights to the Floor

Turn-taking involves participants holding the floor and wresting it from each other. In essence, the floor is ‘the acknowledged what’s-going-on within a psychological time/space’ (Edelsky 1981: 405). The floor is negotiated and renegotiated throughout any given conversation among the participants so that they can gain a chance to speak (Cameron 2001: 89). However, in order for discourse to be coherent and organised, participants need to collaborate and orientate each other in what Grice calls the ‘Cooperative Principle’ (1975) making turn-taking, by nature, a collaborative process. These turn-taking mechanisms take effect during collaborative discourse.

Everyday conversation is locally managed: turns unfold naturally based on what is being talked about and cannot be predicted in advance. Speakers hold the floor until it is yielded or a different speaker claims it. Locally managed conversations are observed in ‘naturally occurring talk’ but are a rarity in institutionalised discourse. Institutionalised discourse, especially political interviews, is instead globally managed by a participant who has exceptional rights to the floor. This serves to restrict the subject and allocate turns per the conversation manager’s discretion. In this case, FB presides as the conversation’s global manager as can be seen by the turn allocation. The turn-taking mechanism, as described by Cameron (2001: 91) takes the following form:

  1. Current speaker chooses the next speaker
  2. Next speaker self-selects
  3. Current speaker may continue

These mechanisms operate on a ranking scale. The lower-ranked mechanisms will only activate if the higher ones do not. FB’s rights to the floor are made evident by the fact that she is able to select the next speaker 6 times, something that no other participant does. The participants cannot negotiate their turns if she decides not to yield the floor to them, as evidenced by this exchange:

01 FB: Dianne, I’m sure you want to respond to that
02     but I still haven’t heard 
03     from Isabel on the question
04     So, (.) a second vo[te, would it be anything=
05 IO:                    [Thank you, well, well, for once…]
06 FB:                    [=other than a democratic  
07                        catastrophe?]

External link to audio clip

While the audience had previously posed questions addressed to DA, FB instead selects IO as the next speaker. Tsui (1989: 546), however, acknowledges that functionally-related utterances in a conversation will be close to one another, forming ‘adjacency pairs’. Question-answer is frequently identified as one of the most basic samples of adjacency pairs, but FB is able to reject this adjacency and instead skip connect to the previous question and select a new speaker that has not been addressed.

Additionally, FB’s rights to the floor are also evident in the instances she self-selects. FB is able to self-select 13 times, more than any other speaker, who are instead selected by the previous speaker or FB herself. IO only self-selects twice, and that is only after FB has yielded the floor to her toward the final minutes of the conversation. Lastly, DA does not select the next speaker at any point or pose any questions. However, at the end of those turns, FB self-selects in an automated fashion, as if the default expectation is that she will have the rights to the floor when no one else does.

The audience’s rights to the floor are the most limited, as evidenced by their shorter turns. Their main mode of participation is through aspirations, cheering and clapping, which prevents DA from assuming the floor again in this instance:

14 IO: [=even amid all this mayhem you and your
15     leader are mi:les behind the Tories.
16 DA: [Just-ju:st(2.5)ju:st(2.5)
17 AU: [(applause)

External link to audio clip

A pause constitutes a Transitional Relevant Place (TRP), where a shift in turns and speakers is expected to occur (Selting 2000: 479). However, no speaker self-selects at this time, and DA waits for the audience to finish applauding. The audience’s applause is synchronous with IO’s rhetoric, but interruptive to DA’s attempt to hold the floor. It would seem that despite its limited power in institutionalised discourse, the audience finds different participation frameworks to work its way into the communication.

FB’s negotiation of the floor also involves competitive interruptions, seeking to wrest the floor away from DA in at least two occasions. Notably, FB manages to wrest the floor in the exchange below:

1 DA: But let me say this
2     and I’ve said it in public before (.)
3 FB: Actually, before you say that can I just say…
4     Jeremy Corbyn seems to be giving the impression of
5     wanting everything (2.0) but [have a second referendum.
6 DA:                              [>I’ve just explained to 
7                                 you what our policies are=<]        
8 FB: =I know, but he doesn’t seem
9     terribly keen on it.
10 DA: It’s fine to have jabs at Jeremy
11     But let me just explain to you
12     What our policies are 

External link to audio clip

FB manages to wrest the floor during a TRP that DA was trying to utilise for emphasis and pose a question by self-selecting, a feat that no other participant is capable of. When IO attempts a competitive interruption later, she is only able to achieve it with the help of the audience clapping, which dissuades DA from continuing her utterance and generates a TRP. FB does not require that support and can manage competitive interruptions more effectively due to her role as chair.

Another interesting aspect of the turns and adjacency here is that the power the individual commands in the conversation is disproportionate to the length of their turns. DA takes two very long turns to respond to FB and IO but appears to command less power in the conversation and sees the most competitive interruptions. She avoids eye contact, which can serve as a prompt for a competitive interruption, during her turn and yet is frequently challenged. She also uses rising intonation and speaks more quickly when approaching the end of her turn to avoid interruption.

On the contrary, FB’s turns are limited to what Stenstrom (1994: 39) identifies as primary acts. FB utilises ‘requests’ to select the next speaker and ‘questions’, which are both quick types of utterances in this case. However, since she holds greater rights to the floor, these acts cannot be ignored. Therefore, what is accomplished in a turn and the power of the individual are not necessarily aligned with how short the utterance is.

Part 2 available here.

 BBC Question Time, 17th January 2019 (about 40 min)

List of references:

Bull, P. (2003) ‘Slippery Politicians’. The Psychologist 16(11), 592-595

Bull, P. (2003) The Microanalysis of Political Communication: Claptrap and Ambiguity. London: Routledge

Cameron, D. (2001) Working with Spoken Discourse. London: Sage Publications

Cribb, M. (2019) Institutionalised Discourse [lecture] module 210DEL, 29 January 2019. Coventry: Coventry University

Edelsky, C. (1981) ‘Who’s got the floor?’. Language in Society 10(3), 383-421 DOI: 10.1017/S004740450000885X

Grice, Paul (1975). ‘Logic and conversation’. Syntax and semantics. 3: Speech acts. New York: Academic Press.

Montgomery, M. (2001) ‘Defining ‘authentic talk’’. Discourse Studies 3(4), 397-405

Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974) ‘A Simplest Systematics for the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation’. Language 50(4), 696-735 DOI: 10.2307/412243

Selting, M. (2000) ‘The Construction of Units in Conversational Talk’. Language in Society 29, 477–517

Sidnell, J. (2016) ‘Conversation Analysis’. Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics, 1-19. DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199384655.013.40

Stenstrom, A. (1994) An Introduction to Spoken Interaction. London: Routledge

Tsui, A. (1989) ‘Beyond the adjacency pair*’. Language in Society 18(4) 545-564 DOI:10.1017/S0047404500013907


Brown, G., Yule, G. (2012) Discourse Analysis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Bull, P.E. (1998). Equivocation theory and news interviews. Journal of Language and Social Psychology, 17, 36–51.

Goodwin, C., Heritage, J. (1990) ‘Conversation Analysis’. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 283-307

Hutchby, I. (2006) Media Talk: Conversation Analysis and the Study of Broadcasting. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Richards, K., Seedhouse, P. (1952) Applying Conversation Analysis. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Schegloff, E., (2000) ‘Overlapping Talk and the Organization of Turn-Taking for Conversation’. Language in Society 29(1), 1-63

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