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Gail Jefferson (1938-2008)

“Born to transcribe Watergate”

Erving Goffman concluded his presidential address to the ASA in 1982 with the injunction that “human social life is ours to study naturalistically” and that as sociologists we should “sustain in regard to all elements of social life a spirit of unfettered, unsponsored enquiry.” No one’s work better exemplifies unsponsored enquiry than that of Gail Jefferson, who died in Rinsumageest, The Netherlands, on February 21, 2008, two months short of her 70th birthday. Over four decades, for the majority of which she held no university position and was unsalaried, Jefferson’s research into talk-in-interaction has set the standard for what became known as Conversation Analysis (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 Goffman referred to as the interaction order.

In the spring of 1965, to fulfil 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. For almost the last decade, and right up to her death, Jefferson has been transcribing the Watergate tapes. Jefferson’s last paper, delivered at a conference in Sweden in July last year – the month that her cancer was diagnosed – 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.

The warmth of the reception when she entered the packed auditorium in which she delivered that last paper was like that accorded to a rock star, conveying the very considerable admiration scholars had for her and her work. So many people in CA and beyond felt a profound regard for her work. She was sometimes feared for the uncompromising standards of scientific rigor she maintained and insisted upon, but she was loved in equal measure. She held a teaching position for only 4 years (1974-1978), yet she was known as an exceptionally fine teacher, in part through summer schools and training workshops, in part also through her comments on people’s work (Goffman’s wrote to the editor of Language about her review of a paper – a critique of CA - he had submitted: “Her eleven pages of specific suggestions ...were really quite remarkable, a product of a closer and more loving reading than anyone deserves”).

Jefferson was born on April 22 1938 in Iowa City, and after re-locating 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 California (UCSB, UCI and UCLA), then research positions at the Universities of Manchester (UK) (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 was the most incorruptible of scholars, whose work has contributed inestimably to our understanding of a key area of social life and conduct – our ordinary socially situated interactions with one another.