Book note: Charles Goodwin (2018) “Co-Operative action”


Charles Goodwin passed away last year, and I suppose this book was pulled together while he was already critically ill – there are some traces of careless editing in the book, very uncharacteristic of Goodwin.

But boy, what a book it is. Goodwin develops and elaborates the concept of co-operative action, which he defines as “the process of building something new through decomposition and reuse with transformation of resources placed in a public environment by an earlier actor” (p3). Concretely: it stands for those forms of action in which we take already existing cultural material (think of words as the simplest example) and reuse them in doing something different with them – e.g. challenging or confirming the meaning of these words.

Goodwin always was a shy and reluctant theorist, and the book is a collection of extraordinarily detailed empirical analyses of social interaction in a variety of contexts.For those familiar with his work, all the classic papers are there. They offer us a range of reflections of fundamental theoretical importance. In his own unmatched way, Goodwin builds theory from analysis.


This theory is an action theory, and an important one. It draws on a tradition of action-centered interactional research instantiated by people such as Garfinkel, Goffman, Strauss and Cicourel. And while he often refers to Conversation Analysis as a productive field, he rejects (or better: refutes) several essential principles of orthodox CA, such as the primacy of talk – the verbal kind of talk – and the unity of “conversation” as an object in its own right. Instead he breaks it down in inter-actions, i.e. in concrete and precise semiotic co-constructive moves performed by participants, whose roles shift continuously on the basis of the actual concrete micro-actions they perform.

Goodwin was, of course, one of the first to use video-recordings of interactions as his basis for analysis, and his attention to the semiotics of body activities and material objects involved in communication as essential sources and instruments of meaning-making is a matter of record. But this heterodox approach to CA is often overlooked by people using his work. Goodwin reconnects with the interactionists mentioned above – a tradition of immense value currently often downplayed and reduced to superficial readings. I can only hope that this book will draw people back to the work of e.g. Aaron Cicourel, Anselm Strauss and Harold Garfinkel, for Goodwin has made the relevance of this work pretty clear, and he has facilitated our re-reading of these earlier and dust-covered classics.

(Charles Goodwin, “Co-Operative Action”. Cambridge University Press 2018. 521pp)

Author: jmeblommaert

Taalkundig antropoloog-sociolinguist, hoogleraar Taal, Cultuur en Globalisering aan Tilburg University. Politiek publicist.

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