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The Problem of Context in the Analysis of Social Action: The Case of Implicit Whiteness in Post-apartheid South Africa


While the specification of situating context(s) is commonly treated as an indispensable part of social scientific research, the choices this involves are rarely directly explicated. An exception is conversation analysis (CA), which differs from many other approaches in its privileging of participants’ orientations as a basis for empirically grounding analytic specifications of context. In this article, I demonstrate how this approach to context, along with CA methods and findings, can be employed in addressing challenges associated with identifying and analyzing (possible) instances of the implicit relevance of racial categories in everyday social interaction. Using the case of implicit whiteness in post-apartheid South Africa as a site for considering these challenges, I examine a collection of interactions in which race becomes (possibly) relevant during the course of complaints about violent crime. I begin with an ambiguous case of a speaker’s possible implicit orientation to whiteness, demonstrating the use of CA for the close examination of available evidence for this orientation. I then describe how an approach based on a collection of cases, constituted by similar sequential and action environments to those that characterize the ambiguous case, can be employed to strengthen the analysis of the ambiguous case. The analysis thereby demonstrates the powerful resources CA offers for addressing ambiguity with respect to social categories and the value of detailed examinations of interactional practices for documenting how participants manage and thereby reproduce the consequentiality of their position in a racialized social order.

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