Gail Jefferson

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Gail Jefferson (22 April 1938 – 21 February 2008) was, along with Harvey Sacks and Emanuel Schegloff, one of the founders of the area of research known as conversation analysis (CA). She is particularly remembered today for the methods and notational conventions she developed for transcribing talk. The system of notation widely used today in CA research bears her name.

Jefferson was born on April 22, 1938 in Iowa City, and after relocating to New York for a short while, her family moved to Los Angeles, where she attended high school, then UCLA (B.A., Dance,1965). After completing her Ph.D. (Social Sciences) at UC Irvine in 1972, she had temporary appointments at the Universities of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and University of California (UCSB, UCI and UCLA), then research positions at the Universities of Manchester (1978–1981), Tilburg, Netherlands (1981–1983), and an honorary position at York (1984–1985) – after which she moved (back) to the Netherlands and married (1987) Albert Stuulen. She died in Rinsumageest, The Netherlands, in 2008 just two months short of her 70th birthday.[1]

In the spring of 1965, to fulfill a requirement for graduating at UCLA as a dance major, Jefferson enrolled in a course Harvey Sacks (1935–1975) was teaching. Having had some previous experience in transcribing when she was hired in 1963 as a clerk typist at the UCLA Department of Public Health to transcribe sensitivity-training sessions for prison guards, Jefferson began transcribing some of the recordings that served as the materials out of which Sacks’ earliest lectures were developed. Later she did graduate work under his supervision, by which time she was already beginning to shape the field conceptually as well as through her transcriptions of the really fine details of interaction, including the detail of laughter, capturing as closely as possible precisely what is said and how it is said, rather than glossing things in the talk as, for instance ((S laughs)). The distinctiveness of Jefferson’s research, in contrast to the more ‘structural’ (sequence pattern) work in CA, was to focus on the machineries through which interaction is constructed and how they are deployed in the moment-by-moment shaping and re-shaping of interaction. Her special contribution was to reveal how interaction is endlessly contingent. During the last decade of her life, Jefferson had been transcribing the Watergate tapes. Jefferson’s last paper, delivered at a conference in Sweden in July 2007 was about the machinery for laughter. Much of the data for that paper were from the Watergate materials; in it, she resumed the dialogue she’d had with Sacks more than 40 years previously.

Over four decades, for the majority of which she held no university position and was unsalaried,[citation needed] Jefferson’s research into talk-in-interaction has set the standard for what became known as CA. Her work has greatly influenced the sociological study of interaction, but also disciplines beyond, especially linguistics, communication, and anthropology. It would not be so much true that her work was inter- or multi-disciplinary as that disciplinary boundaries were irrelevant to her enquiries into what Erving Goffman referred to as the “interaction order.”

Selected bibliography[edit]

  • Jefferson, G. (1972). Side sequences. In D. Sudnow (Ed.), Studies in social interaction (pp. 294–338). New York: Free Press.
  • Jefferson, G. (1986). Notes on 'latency' in overlap onset. Human Studies, 9, 153–183.
  • Jefferson, G. (1988). On The Sequential Organization Of Troubles-Talk In Ordinary Conversation. Social Problems, 35, 418–441.
  • Jefferson, G. (1991). List construction as a task and resource. In G. Psathas, ed. Interactional Competence. New York, NY: Irvington Publishers. pp. 63–92.
  • Jefferson, G. (2004). Glossary of transcript symbols with an introduction. In G. Lerner (Ed.), Conversation analysis: Studies from the first generation (pp. 13–31). Amsterdam, Netherlands: John Benjamins Publishing.
  • Sacks, H., Schegloff, E., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696–735.
  • Schegloff, E., Jefferson, G., & Sacks, H. (1977). The preference for self-correction in the organization of repair in conversation. Language, 53, 361–382.


  1. ^ "Gail Jefferson (1938–2008)". ©Stuulen, Jefferson & Co. Retrieved 7 February 2012.

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