Claptrap 2: Eureka!

(This is the second in a series of posts marking the 25th anniversary of the publication of Our Masters' Voices and the televising of Claptrap, which you can watch HERE).

Such is the nature of the social sciences that 'eureka' moments are very few and far between. That’s why I count myself lucky to have had one, and there was only one of them, in the last 40 years.

After starting to collect tape-recordings of political speeches during the 1979 UK general election, I started looking at bursts of applause about a year after that. It was prompted by a ‘methodological’ problem in the research I was doing into courtroom language.

We had plenty of tapes of court hearings, but the absence of any audible responses from jurors during the proceedings meant there was no way of knowing which parts of what was being said were having a positive impact on the audience that really matters.

The reason why applause in political speeches seemed a promising place to start was because it provides instant and unambiguous evidence that listeners are (a) awake and paying close attention and (b) approve strongly enough of what’s just been said to show their approval of it (by clapping hands, cheering, etc.).

Collecting the data was also extremely cheap and easy, requiring no more effort than recording speeches from radio and television in the comfort of your own home.

If I had even the slightest hunch that it might be worth the effort, it was largely thanks to Gail Jefferson, one of the founders of conversation analysis, who’d already come up with some remarkable observations about the organisation of laughter in everyday conversation.

After all, if something that seems, on the face of, it to be as disorganised as laughing can exhibit such unexpected regularities, there was at least a possibility that there might be something regular about clapping too.

Apart from being willing to look for orderliness in the least obvious places, another crucial lesson I learnt from Gail Jefferson was that by far the best way of observing the details of talk is to transcribe the tapes yourself (as she always did).

So the time-consuming part of the research consisted of finding a burst of applause, winding the tape back a minute or two and then transcribing it, then going on to the next burst of applause, winding the tape back and transcribing it, etc., etc., etc.

The eureka moment came fairly quickly. I can’t remember exactly how many transcripts I’d done before noticing that the applause wasn’t just happening at random, but was occurring immediately after a small number of very simple verbal formats (e.g. contrasts, 3-part lists, etc.). But I do know that the main regularities had started to fall into place well before I’d got to the fiftieth example.

At about the same time, I got a phone call from the organisers of a sociology of language conference in Cambridge: one of the scheduled speakers had dropped out, and could I stand in for him? I agreed to do so on condition that they advertised my paper as ‘title to be announced’. Yes, I did have another courtroom language paper in the pipeline that would have fitted the bill, but I’d already started wondering whether it was time to try out the clapping data on a wider audience.

When the conference flyers went out, the phone rang again. This time, it was John Heritage, my most regular partner in crime when he was still at Warwick University and I was still in Oxford.

Coming straight to the point, he demanded to know: “What’s all this nonsense about ‘title to be announced’?”

“I’m thinking of doing something on – er – clapping.”

“What?” he demanded, “Everyone thinks we’re mad enough already without you going around doing something as off the wall as that.”

There was no point in trying to tell the full story on the phone, but I was pretty keen to get an opinion from someone else before deciding whether or not to take the plunge. So we arranged to meet the next day when I’d be able to play him the tapes and show him the transcripts.

Which device I began with I can’t remember. But I do remember the gasps and startled expressions on his face as I kept saying “here’s another” and pressing the ‘play’ button, over and over again.

By the time I asked him if he thought it would be too much of a risk to air such stuff at the conference , he was more than a little encouraging: “That’s not just a paper you've got there; it could be the first of quite a few.”

It turned out he was right. Within a couple of years, I’d started writing a book and he was running a much larger scale follow-up study funded by the Social Science Research Council – and you can hear him talking to Ann Brennan about some of his findings in Part 2 of the Claptrap film.

Long before that, however, news of this first conference presentation, for which 'Title to be announced' had become 'Some Techniques for Inviting Applause', spread much wider than expected - as will be seen from the next post in this series.

• CLAPTRAP 1: Claptrap - the movie
• CLAPTRAP 3: News leaks out of the lecture theatre
Obama on Kennedy got more applause than ‘normal’
Thatcher had more teleprompter troubles than Obama
How to stay awake during a repetitive ceremony
Disputing the meaning of applause
Rhetoric wins applause for questioners on BBC Question Time
Applause for Dimbleby’s questions on BBC Question Time
Obama’s rhetoric identifies with Martin Luther King but appeals to a wider audience
Obama’s inauguration rhetoric won approval for some uncomfortable messages
Rhetoric and applause in Obama’s inaugural speech as a measure of what the audience liked best

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