Making the visible seen: The interactional competence of a person in a disordered state of consciousness

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Date



Social science & medicine (1982)






Analytic pluralism; Conversational analysis; Discourse analysis; Disorders of consciousness; Language and speech disorder rehabilitation; Medical sociology; Needs assessment; Neurological rehabilitation


We examine a 12-min video-recorded interaction among a patient (KN) in a disordered state of consciousness (DOC) and a speech language pathologist clinician (CL) that takes place in a medical rehabilitation setting. The video is a demonstration of how caregivers could use a clinical assessment to observe their loved one's behavior to communicate potential behavioral changes to healthcare professionals. The purpose of this paper is to make visible the communication practices used by participants that may not be obvious to researchers, medical rehabilitation practitioners, and clinical assessment developers. We use phenomenological, linguistic and conversation analytic approaches to analyze the interaction. We found that KN demonstrates multiple conversational competencies, some (but not all) of which are acknowledged by CL, and most of which are not directly addressed by the assessment scoring criteria. For example, KN demonstrates conversational competency by responding non-verbally to CL's prompts from the assessment protocol and following along with the unspoken rules of discourse. He does this primarily through gaze, which broadcasts the focus of his attention and actively signals his participation in the conversation. Though KN does not always respond correctly to CL's questions, he nevertheless demonstrates implicit conversational competencies during turns of talk such as returning to 'neutral' position which signals the completion of a turn of talk. KN's conversational competencies may be missed by CL and the assessment protocol but we argue that they are important in understanding KN's capacity. Our analyses show that competency is not simply a performance by one person who appropriately and correctly responds to a series of questions in a prescribed time frame. Competence is a collaborative achievement among participants, co-produced in situ, and influenced by linguistic and cultural habits of talk and epistemic norms that privilege clinical knowledge and expertise.


Clinical Research and Leadership