Guest post by Michael Mora. Michael is a conversation analyst and a PhD candidate from the Department of Communication at Universitat Pompeu Fabra of Barcelona (UPF). His thesis research focuses on talk-in-interaction in police checks in the Spanish-French border area. Michael is also a lecturer in the geopolitics of borders at the UPF’s Global Studies program. 

Borders have been studied in a wide variety of fields. There are, however, no relevant studies that look at street-level border protection (the decisions made and actions taken by border patrol officers on the ground), as talk-in-interaction (the study of talk produced during social interactions). Hence, it is unclear how participants respond to one another in this micro-level border field, considering how they design and generate their actions, with direct consequences on how these interactions are fully organized. Aiming to fill this knowledge gap, my PhD explores the correlation between verbal and non-verbal exchanges in police checks in intra-Schengen border areas using conversation analysis. The aim is to identify which participants’ actions have a relevant impact on police check enforcement. In this post, I explain the current application of conversation analysis in the study of borders, and its potential future advancements.

Street-level border protection is a form of talk-in-interaction

As a conversation analyst, my interest lies in people’s use of spoken and non-verbal language as a series of actions in order to give coherence and order to their interactions. Conversation Analysis is the study of how participants organize their talk and communicate through oral and non-verbal language. As indicated by Emanuel Schegloff, one of the pioneers of conversation analysis (CA), “direct interaction between persons is the primordial site of sociality”. Street-level border protection is, first and foremost, an example of social interaction whose interlocutors are, on one side, police and/or military, and on the other civilians in border regions. There are, of course, other methodologies that could be used, but none which allow social interaction to be scrutinised with the precision afforded by conversation analysis.

In order to perform a conversation analysis, one requires conversations (talk-in-interaction) to be recorded with both audio and preferably video. In my thesis, I analyse a collection of 272 videos showing, directly and without intermediaries, the naturally-occurring interactions that took place in police checks located at the border area between Spain and France. Being in possession of these videos allows for viewing and reviewing, as many times as necessary, the interactions between police officers (as members of the armed forces) and civilians (as non-military, non-state agents) and pausing at a specific moment to identify details. To do so, I use specialized software such as Praat or Audacity.


Audacity user interface

The next step is to transcribe the material. The most widely-used CA system is the Jefferson Transcription System, which shows both what is said and how it is said, identifying speech patterns such as intensity, intonation, voice speed, pauses and other behaviour observable during the conversations. In short, CA transcripts are an attempt to represent talk as it actually happened.

Applying conversation analysis in police checks in border areas – has citizenship any relevance on crime control?

michael mora

Extract from the data collection

The above extract represents 3.6 seconds of interaction between a police officer and a driver which takes place at a police crime control check on the Spain-France border. In this area, the Spanish police, (Guardia Civil and Cuerpo Nacional de Policía (CNP), the two police forces with border jurisdiction), perform random spot checks. They deploy signs to inform drivers that they are approaching a police checkpoint. The Policía Nacional deal with immigration control, while the Guardia Civil are tasked with preventing activities of illicit trafficking, such as drugs, merchandise or illegal substances (crime control, with no immigration-related objectives). In no case, according to official discourse, are border controls being performed as these checks are not conducted at the exact physical border location between two countries and do not have border control as an objective, but police security spot-checks in border zones, in accordance with the stipulations of the Schengen Border Code (SBC). Consequently, citizenship should have no relevance in such crime control.

Nonetheless, in the first 3.6 seconds transcribed and represented in the above extract, the civilian’s citizenship was mentioned. This is an observation of what was said, though as explained, conversation analysis is concerned with capturing how talk is really produced. Along this line, it can be observed that the driver (DR), a civilian stopped at a police checkpoint, laughs [indicated by the symbols (h) and  £]  and smiles with the response, “Yes I’m Spanish”. Previous studies, such as that of Elisabeth K. Carter, show that a laugh serves to support the position of the interviewee during a police interview. At the beginning of the interaction, the driver mentions and reinforces his citizenship, without having been asked about. Conversation analysis allows us to observe whether non-state agents (in addition to police) introduce elements of immigration control in crime control, also referred to as crimmigration control. The police officer (PO), makes a positive, fast “very good” assessment (indicated by the symbols =  > <) of the civilian’s citizenship, giving a swift value to the fact of being Spanish and speaking Spanish, as outlined in literature related to belonging and non-belonging. The statement of citizenship, mentioned and reinforced by the DR and quickly assessed by the PO, makes the consequent PO questions focus on the person’s identity, on the basis of their legal residence and stay (immigration control), with no further questions related to crime:

michael mora

Police officer questions from the data collection (PCIB:015_Clip0182)

During the conversation, there were no questions about drugs, money, car ownership or possible illegal goods. As soon as Spanish citizenship was mentioned, the police check was oriented towards a straightforward identification check. Thus, in this example, the citizenship determines which questions are asked in crime control in border areas, despite the supposed lack of relevance that citizenship has in these police checks. By applying conversation analysis, it can be observed whether police interactions are coherent with their duties or if they deviate from the main objective of crime investigation. In this above case, the police check was oriented in favor of the civilian’s identity, avoiding being questioned as a potential criminal. In the light of the above, conversation analysis expands the concept of crimmigration practices across the Schengen space, by finding communicative actions attributed to crimmigration controls through natural talk. All of this can be observed within mere seconds drawn from a collection of data composed of hours of interactions. The relevance of citizenship in street-level border protection interactions is just an example of how a specific verbal (or non-verbal) activity can influence the organization of this form of border security, and how it can be understood and given meaning by the participants, highlighting theoretical questions and frameworks. It would appear clear that conversation analysis has a lot to offer to the study of borders.

The Next Steps

No police protocol can answer the question posed by Harvey Sacks, founder of conversation analysis: why that now? Neither police (nor the civilians) have at their disposal the instruments to know why in a given precise instant the civilian/police officer might remain silent or utter a given question/answer/topic. Detecting this shortcoming and proposing a conversation analysis study has allowed me to count on the collaboration necessary to carry out this investigation, because authorities found it useful to implement new communication tools in their work. In other words, conversation analysis, although it may initially seem like an added layer of complication due to the need to acquire recorded data, it may serve as a solution to reach the objective of better understanding borders and what occurs there.

Existing literature related to conversation analysis applied to police contexts is a good start in developing this field. Conversation analysis can contribute to theoretical discussions about the management of police encounters, and can have implications for policies and practices pertinent to the use of communicative practices and strategies. Applied to border studies, conversation analysis sets out theoretical debates about how interactions in border areas inside Schengen are shaped and organized by merged communication usages arising from both crime and immigration control. Talk-in-interaction reflects this complexity, by noting that even a single pause, laugh or some word or utterance can interfere with the police check procedure when they are treated as meaningful in the course of the interaction. So, certainly, a field of study as interdisciplinary as border studies should incorporate the use of conversation analysis in its agenda to advance a more thorough consideration of the how of border control.

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How to cite this blog post (Harvard style) 

Mora, M. (2020). Borders from a Different Perspective: Using Conversation Analysis in Intra-Schengen Border Areas. Available at: [date]