Harvey Sacks

Harvey Sacks

Harvey Sacks (1935-November 1975) was an American sociologist influenced by the ethnomethodology tradition. He pioneered extremely detailed studies of the way real people actually used language in the real world. Despite his early death in a car crash and the fact that he did not publish widely, he founded the discipline of conversation analysis. He is increasingly influential on, for example, linguistics and discursive psychology.

Academic career

Sacks received his doctoral degree in sociology at the University of California, Berkeley (1966), an LL.B. at Yale Law School (1959), and a B.A. at Columbia College (1955). He lectured at the University of California, Los Angeles and Irvine from 1964-1975.


Sacks became interested in the structure of conversation while working at a suicide counseling hotline in Los Angeles in the 1960s. The calls to the hotline were recorded, and Sacks was able to gain access to the tapes and study them. In the 1960s, prominent linguists like Noam Chomsky believed that conversation was too disorganized to be worthy of any kind of in-depth structural analysis. Sacks strongly disagreed, since he saw structure in every conversation, and developed conversation analysis as a result.

Sacks's recorded lectures were transcribed (by Gail Jefferson who also edited them posthumously) but the tapes were not saved. The duplicated copies of the transcribed lectures were made freely available by Sacks and achieved international circulation and recognition during his lifetime and subsequently.

He treated such topics as: the organization of person-reference; topic organization and stories in conversation; speaker selection preferences; pre-sequences; the organization of turn-taking; conversational openings and closings; and puns, jokes, stories and repairs in conversation among many other topics.


Emanuel Schegloff, one of Sacks' close collaborators, colleagues and co-authors, became his literary executor. The subsequent handling of the literary estate ("Nachlass", to use the academic term) has attracted some controversy.

Sacks's major work, "Lectures on Conversation," is composed of transcribed lectures held from spring 1964 through to 1972, and comprises about 1200 pages. In 1987, and largely through the instigation of David Sudnow and Gail Jefferson, colleagues and students of Sacks at Berkeley, UCLA and Irvine, a two-volume work, which collected edited revisions of Sacks' original lectures over a six year period (achieved by Jefferson and with an Introduction be E.A. Schegloff) was published by Basil Blackwell as "Lectures on Conversation". In her acknowledgements in these volumes, Jefferson mentioned the help of Sudnow in dealing with Sacks's literary estate. The Harvey Sacks Memorial Association, registered as a not-for-profit Association, was formed by Sudnow.

These "Lectures" have been important for Sacks's later influence and for the field of Conversation Analysis.

Sudnow, a follower of Alfred Schutz in ethnomethodology, and Harold Garfinkel, both regard the work of Sacks as outside the ethnomethodological mainstream.


* Sacks, H. (1963) 'Sociological Description,' in Berkeley Journal of Sociology, 8:1-16.
*Harvey Sacks and Harold Garfinkel (1970) 'On formal structures of practical action,' in: J.C. McKinney and E.A. Tiryakian (eds.), Theoretical Sociology, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1970, pp.338-366. Reprinted in H. Garfinkel, ed., (1986) Ethnomethodological Studies of Work, 160-193.
* Sacks, H. (1972) 'An Initial Investigation of the Usability of Conversational Data for Doing Sociology', in D. Sudnow (ed.) Studies in Social Interaction, Free Press, New York, pp. 31-74.
*Sacks, H. (1972) 'Notes on Police Assessment of Moral Character.' In D.N. Sudnow (ed.) Studies in Social Interaction, Free Press, New York, NY, pp. 280-293.
* Sacks, H. (1974) 'On the Analyzability of Stories by Children', in R. Turner (ed.) Ethnomethodology, Penguin, Harmondsworth, pp. 216-232.
*Sacks, H., (1974) 'An Analysis of the Course of a Joke's telling in Conversation', in R. Bauman and J.F. Sherzer (eds.) Explorations in the Ethnography of Speaking. Cambridge, UK; Cambridge University Press, pp. 337-353.
* Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A. & Jefferson, G. (1974) 'A Simplest Systematics for the Organisation of Turn-Taking for Conversation', in Language, 50:696-735.
*Sacks, H. 'Everyone Has To Lie.' (1975) In B. Blount and M. Sanches (eds.) Sociocultural Dimensions of Language Use, Academic Press, New York, NY, pp. 57-80.
*Sacks, H. 'Some Technical Considerations of a Dirty Joke'. (1978) In J. Schenkein (ed.) Studies in the Organization of Conversational Interaction, Academic Press, New York, NY, pp. 249-269.
*Sacks, H. 'Hotrodder: A Revolutionary Category.' (1979) In G. Psathas (ed.) Everyday Language: Studies in Ethnomethodology. Irvington Press, New York, NY, pp. 7-14.
*Sacks H. and E.A. Schegloff. (1979) 'Two Preferences in the Organization of Reference to Persons in Conversation and Their Interaction.' In G. Psathas (ed.) Everyday Language: Studies in Ethnomethodology, Irvington Press, New York, NY, pp. 15-21.
*Sacks, H. Lectures 1964-1965, in Gail Jefferson (ed.) (1989) with an Introduction/Memoir by E.A. Schegloff, Human Studies, 12: 211-393.
*Harvey Sacks: Lectures on Conversation, Volumes I and II (1992) Edited by G. Jefferson with Introduction by E.A. Schegloff, Blackwell, Oxford. ISBN 1-55786-705-4

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