Fleshing out the theorists: Harvey Sacks

by Craig Evans

I don’t know about you, but ask me to tell you any number of stories about actors or pop stars, then I can probably do so without much hesitation. Ask the same about a linguist, then I will probably get as far as Chomsky or David Crystal, and even then only to say things like ‘a great thinker of our time’ or ‘I saw him talk last year at some literature festival or other’. At a stretch I can rack my brains to get out a Labov, or a Hell Dymes, or is it Dell Hymes? (I’ve checked: it is the latter). What were their theories again?

The often painstaking, methodical work of a linguist, sifting through masses of text to discern patterns to support their theories, does not lend itself well to outspoken public personality. Even within the realms of academia, the archaeologist can dig a hole to unearth the secrets of the universe, or the mathematician can hurriedly scratch away on a chalkboard before exclaiming ‘eureka!’ Of course I am speaking about the way they can be represented in the public’s imagination, and how they might (and have been) translated into popular culture, in film and the like.

In a broad cultural context, linguists for the most part are very anonymous, and for students looking for inspiration, role models, or even just some sensationalised stories to capture their imagination, there is very little in the media to feed off; and that doesn’t change much when you become a student of language and linguistics. The often faceless names of linguists accompany dates, theories, and relevant terms as impersonal items of data to be processed and memorised.

Therefore, the purpose of this blog post (and others to come) is to redress the balance by identifying the personalities behind the theories, starting with the American conversation analyst Harvey Sacks.

As tends to happen with pioneers who die young, Harvey Sacks’ story begins at the end with the overriding impression of tragedy of a life that still promised so much. He was 40 when he died in a car crash, on his way to work at the University of California’s Irvine campus. It was November 1975. Sacks had only served as a full professor at Irvine since the previous year, and before that had worked as an associate professor for six years.

Today, Harvey Sacks is regarded, along with his associates Emanuel Schegloff and Gail Jefferson, as a pioneer behind the formation of the new discipline of conversation analysis. In his own lifetime, he published very little; ten pieces in total that were either journal articles or chapters in books. It is quite possible that his contribution to conversation analysis may have been overlooked had it not been for the extensive recording of his lectures. As The Times Literary Supplement recalled in 1993, Sacks’ ‘reputation as someone extraordinary rests on the transcriptions of his undergraduate lectures, a few of which were published, and more of which were circulated informally among the faithful’. Back then,TLS were reviewing the recently published work Lectures on Conversation, a collection of revisions of Sacks’ transcribed lectures, edited by Jefferson. This has since become regarded as his only major work.

It is not for this blog post to delve deeper into the substance of Harvey Sacks’ work, but more to give a flavour of what kind of person he was. To begin with he was a professor in sociology, not linguistics, which made him something of an outsider pioneering theories with implications beyond his field. In 1993, TLS noted that with Sacks there was ‘a sense not just of audacity but of danger: of games being played too close to brinks’; they even went so far as to say that he had become the ‘focus of a minor cult’. According to the TLS, Sacks’ lecturing style in the 60s was ‘very much of its time’:

At first sight it is casual, a form of street talk; but it proves both mannered, obliquely      conceited, each sentence a painstakingly sculpted device for focusing attention on himself…. Sacks’ Brandoesque presentation of self was … allied to blue jeans, it acted as an aphrodisiac.

As a thinker, however, Harvey Sacks was an original. He identified how social communication and organisation is based around the human actions performed in everyday talk, and his work on turn-taking, adjacency pairs, and many other features of conversation analysis form the basis for our studies in this discipline today. Given this, it seems only right to find out more about Harvey Sacks himself.

Please share any stories or facts that will help illuminate the person behind the theories by adding comments to this post.


Hudson, Liam. “Talking points.” Times Literary Supplement [London, England] 26 Mar. 1993: 7+. Times Literary Supplement Historical Archive. Web. 3 Feb. 2013.

Gianto, Agustinus. (2005). In Key Thinkers in Linguistics and the Philosophy of Language. Retrieved from http://www.credoreference.com.ezproxy.uwe.ac.uk/entry/edinburghthinkl/harvey_sacks 03 Feb.2013.


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