There are myriad reasons for considering conversation or interactive discourse important for linguistic anthropology, despite the fact that, until recently, monologue narrative has been the default genre of examination. Monologue narrative in the form of folktales from Native American languages filled the notebooks and publications of many early linguistics anthropologists.1 Yet these same scholars also paid attention to the content (if not the structure) of conversation for their ethnographic bread and butter. Boas, for example, encouraged Zora Neale Hurston to be attentive to conversation in the African American communities to which she had unique access (Lewis 2001). Malinowski relied on Trobriand conversation for much of his understanding of that society,2 and his emphasis on the importance of phatic communion and language as action showed that the mundane content of everyday conversation was not outside what he considered to be important (1922, 1923). Yet, as Moerman (1988) points out, anthropologists have typically focused on truncated renditions of the content of conversations for their data, rather than on conversational data itself. Conversational data has been coded for content, and the occasional pithy quote has been extracted for a title or a heading, but actual conversation has not until recently been considered to be primary data as such. An important pioneer in this endeavor is Hortense Powdermaker, in her 1962 ethnography Copper Town: Changing Africa, where she found conversation an invaluable tool added to her multiple methods including “survey, essay writing, interviewing, casual visiting, attending social affairs,” when she was frustrated in her attempt to access the perspective of those living in the segregated African township to which she had limited access:
Although I drove to it almost daily, I was missing the intimate knowledge and feeling-tone of daily life which comes from actually living in a community, seeing and hearing much that goes on, and participating in daily life, all of which is so essential to an understanding of any society. It occurred to me that I might get a vicarious sense of personal daily life if an assistant recorded everything that people said and did in [their] home and its immediate neighborhood, from the time they got up in the morning until they went to bed; so I asked one to stay home for a week and do just this . . . . At the end of the week, when he brought
me the recorded conversations, I realized that these were really the stuff of life and that they provided what I had been missing. They gave much more than that: attitudes, opinions, and behavior, some of which I had not known existed. Its richness naturally prompted a continuation of the method, not only in this household and neighborhood, but in others and at the beer hall, the public washing stands, the welfare hall, the union meetings, on the road, and wherever Africans met....Knowledge was shared, gossip exchanged, and traditional and modern points of view argued. These conversations about the trivial and the significant, which make up the fabric of personal and social life, had a quality of intimacy which was invaluable to me.