The work of a thumb: what nurses achieve by touching patients

Bettina Sletten Paasch, Pirkko Liisa Raudaskoski

Research output: Contribution to book/anthology/report/conference proceedingConference abstract in proceedingResearchpeer-review


The paper reports the results of the analysis of interactions between nurses and patients by means of conversation analysis and multimodal interaction analysis. Data consists of 144 hours of video recordings obtained in a Danish hospital. In this institutional setting nurses were shadowed throughout their work shifts with a mobile camera recording continuously.

The specific focus of this talk is the way nurses use touch to achieve social control (Cekaite, 2016) in interactions with patients during which their mobile work phones rings. The analysis demonstrates how nurses touch patients to achieve their compliance during the evolving two participation frameworks (the phone conversation and the nurse-patient interaction). They employ touch to establish a corporeal perceptual field, which affords the emerging adjustments of verbal and embodied actions; to make patients pause their activity and ‘do waiting’ while nurses engage in the phone conversation.

From the talk it will appear how nurses coordinate touch with their use of the material object (the mobile phone), and how their use of touch is synchronized, not only with verbal actions but also the ringtone produced by the phone. Data excerpts will display how nurses use gaps in the ringtone to coordinate jointly achieved body movements without the use of verbal resources.
Further, the talk will show the body techniques (Mauss, 1973) nurses use during phone conversations to demonstrate continued appropriate situational co-presence , and a status of being ‘with’ (Goffman, 1971) patients. The data show how nurses are able to achieve this by the mere movement of a thumb. It also demonstrates how temporally extended touches (e.g. resting a hand on a patient’s wrist) are used as a resource for restricting the motility of the patient, ‘freezing’ the patient’s bodily position, when movement may compromise the suspended activity.

Consequently, this talk not only offers concrete insights into the mundane corporeal features of nurse-patient interactions, and the achievements to which touches contribute. It also demonstrates how touch is a prerequisite of nurse-patient interaction. This is underpinned by recordings of a deviant case, where the nurse does not employ touch, consequently leading to an inadvertent course of actions.

Cekaite, A. (2016). Touch as social control: Haptic organization of attention in adult–child interactions. Journal of Pragmatics, 92, 30-42.
Goffman, E. (1971). Relations in public: Microstudies of the public order. New York, NY: Basic Books.
Mauss, M. (1973). Techniques of the body. Economy and society, 2(1), 70-88.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publication5th International Conference on Conversation Analysis
Publication date2018
Publication statusPublished - 2018
Event5th International Conference on Conversation Analysis - Loughborough University, Loughborough, United Kingdom
Duration: 11 Jul 201815 Jul 2018
Conference number: 5


Conference5th International Conference on Conversation Analysis
LocationLoughborough University
Country/TerritoryUnited Kingdom
Internet address


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