Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Calling to Complain: An Ethnographic and Conversation Analytic Account of Complaints to an Industry Ombudsman

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posted on 2023-03-14, 23:30 authored by Dewar, Joe

Although the term complaining represents an ostensibly straightforward behaviour, it has come to obtain a range of meanings within academic and commercial works which have directed research toward understanding the behaviour and attempting to improve the way that it is undertaken, particularly in commercial environments where complaint handling constitutes an important field of commercial practice for many firms. It is proposed in this thesis that such variation in the way that complaining is approached is problematic, as it is treated ways that frequently underemphasise the fundamental point that it is overwhelmingly conducted in interpersonal interactions using language as its primary vehicle (Edwards, 2005). This thesis offers an approach to complaint handling and complaining that eschews such approaches in favour of an empirically grounded account based on the principles of ethnographic analysis, conversation analysis, and discursive psychology. Through investigating the complaint handling procedures as practiced by employees in an institution expressly dedicated to the receipt of complaints and enquiries from customers by employing participant observation and interviews, an account of complaint handling is developed that identifies how a range of forces works to impact on the way that it is performed in an institutional environment, furnishing complaint handling with a level of detail not currently offered in managerial literature dedicated to developing the practice. Next, two research chapters present the investigation of two different aspects of complaint interactions themselves. The first of these focuses on call openings as customers and institutional agents work to align themselves to the project of the call, demonstrating varying orientations to institutional complaining as callers demonstrate their own procedures for complaining (and enquiring) which may not match the institutional prerogatives and procedures of the agents receiving the calls. The final research chapter offers an analysis of a recurrent practice in the complaint calls themselves: callers’ use of self-disclosure in the service of rendering matters as problematic and warranting complaint. This finding adds to existing discursive understandings of how complaining is done. Taken together the findings offer an alternative approach to investigating complaint handling by treating it as an indexical practice bound to local demands. This offers a detailed depiction of complaint handling and complaining ‘in situ’ that may offer researchers and commercial entities a new approach to investigating how it is that complaining is done and how, in commercial or institutional contexts, complaint handling may be improved through the methods employed in the thesis.


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Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Author Retains Copyright

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Master of Science

Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Psychology


Weatherall, Ann