The Jonestown Death Tape:
A Membership Categorisation Analysis

by Della-Rachel Smith

On 18 November 1978, in the agricultural settlement known as Jonestown, in the jungles of Guyana, 918 people lost their lives. They were members of a religious group known as Peoples Temple, led by Jim Jones. Concerns had been raised about the conditions within Jonestown which led to a US congressman, news crew and concerned relatives visiting the settlement. During the visit some members of Peoples Temple expressed a desire to leave, and as they waited to board the plane at a nearby jungle airstrip, a small group of gunmen from Jonestown opened fire on them, killing five and seriously injuring others. In the meantime, Jim Jones had assembled the people of Jonestown in the main pavilion with vats of grape-flavoured Flavour-Aid laced with cyanide and valium. The babies and children were the first to be given the lethal drink, followed by their mothers and then other members of the community. The speech that Jim Jones gave that night, urging everyone to commit mass suicide and their subsequent deaths were recorded and have been published for listening as “The Jonestown Death Tape” (Jones, 2008). This 45-minute audiotape, which is available here, is the focus of a membership categorisation analysis (MCA; Sacks, 1972, 1992).

Wooffitt (2005) states that conversation analysis (CA) and discursive analysis (DA) are similar in that they both offer ways of qualitatively analysing the function and sense-making properties of language but differ in their “core analytic concerns.” CA looks at the fine grained details of conversation, while DA focuses on the broader interpersonal and social functions that dialogue can serve. In general, studies employing DA tend to have a greater interest in disputes or controversial events, whereas studies which use CA tend to focus on the routine features of every-day interactions. The events captured in the Jonestown Death Tape are by no means mundane; until 11 September 2001, it represented the largest number of non-natural civilian deaths to occur on a single day in American history. However, this did not exclude the possibility of using some branch of CA to analyse the data. For example, Eglin and Hester (2003) used membership categorisation analysis (MCA), a branch of conversation analysis, to analyse the press coverage of the Montreal Massacre which was another unique event that occurred in America.

CA and MCA are both analytic techniques developed by Harvey Sacks in the 60’s and early 70’s. While CA focuses on the sequential aspects of interaction, MCA looks at the categorical aspects. Stokeoe (2012) notes that although sequential and categorical aspects are intrinsically linked, they have developed separately with some arguing that MCA should be acknowledged as a distinct methodological approach. MCA is most concerned with the way we categorise people to help to make sense of our social worlds and is particularly useful when wishing to explore issues of morality (Watson, 1997). One way that categorisation can take place is through the inferences that we make about members of a particular category. Each category comes with a set of category-bound activities and rights and obligations that they are expected to perform or possess (Watson & Weinberg, 1982).

Discourse from the Jonestown Death Tape is filled with moral work as an action of persuasion and justification. The events which occurred in Jonestown also demonstrate serious deviations from the category-tied obligations of “mother” and “father.” Indeed, how such a vast number of parents were persuaded into a course of action which required the killing of their own children is one of the greatest puzzles that confront those studying the events of Jonestown. Stokoe (2012) notes the allure and danger of MCA as a technique to “unpack what is apparently unsaid by members and produce an analysis of their subtle categorisation work.” MCA was thought a useful technique to move away from judgements about infanticide to look at what lies beneath. Viljanen (2013) recently used a holistic discourse analysis approach to explore how power is established and expressed in the Jonestown Death Tape. Therefore, MCA was considered a good choice so as not to repeat the work of Viljanen (2013).

Data Analysis

Membership Categorisation Device of “Family” to do togetherness, shared experience and hierarchical positions        

Throughout the audiotape the membership categorisation device (MCD) of “family” is used by Jones and other speakers to describe people who are not blood relations. Members of the community categorise each other as “brother” and “sister” and Jones as “Dad” while Jones categorises them as “children.” “Family” is explored as an expression of togetherness and intimacy as well as a device to support the leader’s authority and the followers’ obedience. The following extract are the first words recorded on the audiotape.

JIM JONES: How very much I have loved ↓you Hhhh (2.00) How very much I have tri:ed (.) my best to give ↓you (.) a good ↓li:fe.

CROWD: Applause/agreement

From the onset of his final address, Jones starts work constructing the identity of “father.” He uses extreme case formulation (Pomerantz, 1986) to enhance the credibility of his claim of “how very much” he has “loved” and tried to give a “good life” to Jonestown residents. Loving and providing are category-tied predicates associated with a “parent” or “father” categorisation. The reminder that he has devoted himself to the members of the Temple could also be viewed as an implicit request that they devote themselves to him in return. In the standardised reciprocal pair (SRP) of giver-receiver, the receiver has an obligation to give something back, known as the principal of reciprocity (Pratkanis & Aronson, 1991). The use of past tense in these opening lines is also interesting, perhaps alluding to Jones having now given up on his ambition to give people a good life in favour of giving them a good death.

The crowd can be heard to react to Jones’ plan of mass suicide with applause, shouts of agreement and declarations of gratitude. An elderly black lady named Christine Miller is the only audible voice of the assembled community to question Jones’ plan and speak for the 304 children who did not have a voice. The following extract is the last argument Miller makes shortly before the suicides begin to take place. Miller asked Jones if he wants to see his adopted son, John die.

MILLER: You mean you wanna see Jo:hn di:e?

JONES: <What’s that>?

MILLER: You mean you wanna see Jo:hn, the little one, [the kid, die?

JONES:                                                                             [I want to see…

CROWD: [Voices shouting (6.0) 

JONES: [I, I, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace, peace.

WOMAN 3: Christine, are you saying that you think he thinks more of them than other children here?

JONES: John, [John…

WOMAN 3: [Because if you’re s↑aying …

JONES:< Do you think I act, do you think I’d put ↑John’s life above others? If I put ↑John’s life above others, I wouldn’t be standing with Ujara.> (1.0) I’d send John out, out and he could go out on the driveway tonight.

MILLER: Because he’s yo*ung. They’re young.

JONES: I know, but he’s no he’s no, <different to me than any of these children here.> He’s just one of my child↓ren. I don’t prefer one above another. I don’t prefer him above Uj:ara. I can’t do that; I can’t separate myself from your actions or his actions. If you’d done something wrong, I’d stand with you. If they wanted to come and get you, they’d have to take me.

In Miller’s question, what had previously been described as “babies” or “children” is given a name and a face: this is not just any child, this is Jones’ child. Having a desire to watch your child die is not an attribute of a good father in modern Western cultures. In the SRP of father-child, the father has an obligation to protect the child, and if a category-bound activity is absent, Sacks (1992) notes that it gives reason for complaint. To not protect comes with a moral judgement; a father who fails to meet this obligation is a bad father, and this contradicts the identity Jones has been working to create.

The unspoken answer to Miller’s question is “yes” but Jones cannot say this without acceptance of the bad father identity. Instead of answering, Jones prompts Miller to repeat her question which is a dispreferred response and has the effect of postponing his answer. Miller elaborates on her first statement drawing attention to John being “little” and a “kid” which further states his helplessness and his right to be protected. The crowd’s reaction to the identity that Miller offers Jones is outrage, and the attribute of fairness is offered as a defence against the implicit bad father identity. This rests on the cultural knowledge that a good father attributes equal value to all of his children and treats them equally, regardless of characteristics such as age. Jones alters the conventional meaning of “child” to include the residents of Jonestown as well as his biological children. Describing his followers as “children” can be heard as Jones drawing on the hierarchical family structure to assert his authority and his “children’s” requested compliance. The categorisation of “children” also has the effect of expressing Jones’ love and closeness to the community and could be heard as flattery. Flattery can work as a persuasive technique as people like to receive praise and tend to be more inclined to believe people they like.

The emotion in Miller’s voice is evident in the way it breaks when she states, “He’s young. They’re young.” Her argument draws on the assumption that young people should not die. Youth is a stage of life that modern society does not associate with death; it is unnatural for young people to die. Jones responds by reasserting his commitment and alliance to his “family” when he says “if they wanted to come and get you, they’d have to take me” which underlines his identity as a “protector” which had initially been challenged by Miller.

Shortly after his interaction with Miller, Jones calls out for the cyanide and valium-laced Flavour-Aid to be brought out.

JONES: Please, can we hasten? Can we hasten with that medication? You don’t know what you’ve done, I tried.

CROWD: Applause and singing

Jones never refers to the cyanide laced Flavor-Aid as “poison.” Poison is associated with death, and to give poison to others is an action associated with a murderer. Conversely, “medicine” is framed within a medical context and has positive connotations such as healing and curing sickness. It is also an obligation of a parent to administer medication to a child who is sick. Jones’ comment that his people “don’t know what they have done” is also interesting and could be heard as Jones attaching blame and therefore guilt for the congressman’s murder to all members of the “family.” The distribution of blame could serve the function of justifying the need to be punished or the need to seek a cure for their badness through the “medication” that Jones offers to them.

The children and mothers in the room appear to cause the most difficulties for Jones once the suicides begin. Jones addresses the assemblage with increasing irritation and, as we see in this next extract, finally resorts to shouting at them.

JONES: Death, death, death is common to people. And the Eskimos, they take death in their stri:de. Let’s be dignitif–let’s be dignified. If you quit telling them they’re dying–if you adults would stop some of this nonsense. ADULTS! (.) ADULTS! (.) ADULTS! (.) I CALL ON YOU TO STOP THIS NONSENSE. I CALL ON YOU TO STOP EXCITING YOUR CHILDREN WHEN ALL THEY’RE DOING IS GOING TO A QUIET REST. I CALL ON YOU TO STOP THIS NOW IF YOU HAVE ANY RESPECT AT ALL. ARE WE BLACK, PROUD, AND SOCIALIST, OR WHAT ARE WE? NOW STOP THIS NONSENSE. DON’T CARRY THIS ON ANYMORE. YOU’RE EXCITING YOUR CHILDREN.

As the level of distress escalates, Jones refers to this followers as “adults,” opposed to as “children” or “people” as he had previously. The category of “adult” has category-tied predicates of being “mature” and “responsible,” and these are qualities that Jones is calling on to restore orderliness to the crowd. Foolish or mischievous behaviour implied by the use of the word “nonsense” is something usually attributed to small children and is inappropriate when observed in “adults” which gives more weight to Jones’ appeal for it to stop. The SRP of adults-children draws on the knowledge that adults have a responsibility to keep their children under control and implies the moral evaluation of bad parent if children continue to behave raucously. Jones goes on to imply that their emotional reactions are inconsistent with the categories of “black, proud and socialist.” Here Jones is drawing on the MCD of “nationality” and “political affiliation” which are central to the identity of Peoples Temple. Jones does not provide an alternative to these categories, stating “or what are we?”, which could imply the group has no identity outside of Peoples Temple. He employs the plural pronoun of “we,” despite the fact that he and others in Jonestown were Caucasian, but this characterization of themselves as “black” is as a shared identity, referring less to race than it does to their status as society’s oppressed and dispossessed.

Category Membership Device of “deity” to do superiority, persuasion and control

Another identity which Jones avows himself is that of “Prophet.” This identity has the effect of elevating Jones to a position above his followers and is used to provide a stronger and more persuasive argument for his plan to commit mass suicide.

JONES: I’m speaking here not as err the administrator, I’m speaking as a prophet today. I wouldn’t step in this seat and talk so serious if I didn’t know what I was talking about.

Jones rejects the category of “administrator” which implies the category-bound activities of “running People Temple” in favour of the category of “Prophet.” “Prophet” has religious connotations and can be described as someone who has been contacted by God, serving as middle-man between God and humanity. By claiming the identity of “Prophet” Jones can also claim category bound-activities such as “doing God’s work” and category-tied predicates such as “knowing God’s will” which elevate the authority of his ideas for mass suicide. In the SRP of God-worshipper, God has a right to make commandments and worshippers an obligation to follow God’s word. If the decision to commit suicide comes from God, then Jones and his followers can be absolved of responsibility as they were “following divine instructions” which is an appropriate category-bound activity. Clifton (2009) notes that claiming a God-like identity can be used to “do” disassociation from wider society which releases the individual from responsibilities or obligations that they would have had as ordinary members of society such as abiding by laws. Jones’ superior position may also have the effect of deterring members of the community from making counter suggestions, as it is implied that the ordinary individual is ignorant in comparison to a “Prophet” when Jones identifies the alternative to “knowing God’s will” as not knowing “what I was talking about.”

The residents of Jonestown also help to construct the identity of a deity for Jones by attributing him God-like qualities.

MAN 4: And I just like to (.) thank Dad for giving us life (.) and also death. And I appreciate the fact (1.0) of the way our children are going. Because, like Dad said (.) when they come in (.) what they’re gonna do to our children–they’re gonna massacre our children. And also the ones that they take (.) capture, they’re gonna (.) just let them grow up and be (.) dummies (.) like they want them to be. And not grow up to be (.) a person like (.) <the one and only Jim ↑Jones.> So I’d like I’d like to thank (.) Dad for the opportunity (.) for letting Jonestown (.) be (.) not (.) what it could be, but what Jones (.) town is. Thank you, Dad.

CROWD: Applause

Man 4 categorised Jones as both parental and God-like, which could reflect the closeness and adoration felt for him. The activity of giving “death” could be viewed as the category-bound activity of a “killer,” which is how wider society would later categorise Jones. However, when paired with giving “life,” it becomes a category-bound activity of a powerful “God” which reflects the identity of Jones, which he and members of Peoples Temple worked to construct. Conversely, society is the group categorised as “killers” when Man 4 describes their intentions to “massacre our children.” Man 4 also goes on to categorise wider society as “dummies,” which has duel meanings of a substitute for something real or a colloquial phrase used to mean a stupid person. Either meaning of “dummies” could he heard as society being categorised as holding a lower position to Peoples Temple which is viewed by as Man 4 as even worse than death.

Standardised relational pair of victim-perpetrator to do fear, blaming and justification

The standardised relational pair of victim-perpetrator expresses Jones’ view of society as dangerous and cruel, and Peoples Temple as vulnerable and in serious danger, which creates a sense of fear within the group.

JONES: >But in spite of< a::ll of that I’ve tri:ed (.) a handful of our ↓people (.) with their ↓li:es, have made our lives impossible. >There’s no way to detach ourselves from what’s happened today.< (2.0) Not ↑only are we in a compound ↓situation, not only are there (.) those who have left and committed (.) the betra:yal of the ↓century, some have stolen children from others, and they are in pursuit right now to kill ↓them because they sto:le their ↓children. And we, we are >sitting< here waiting on a powder ↓keg. (0.3)

Jones begins the task of ascribing himself and his followers the identity of “victims” early within his final address to the community, stating that their lives have been made “impossible” by ex-members of Peoples Temple. The ex-members are given the identity of “perpetrators” as indicated by their actions of having “stolen children.” The use of the SRP victim-perpetrator could be heard as Jones justifying or presenting a motive for the recent killings by members of Peoples Temple who had been provoked. He accuses ex-members of “the betrayal of the century” which uses extreme case formulation to add to believability of this statement and has the effect of allocating some of the blame for their own killings to them and away from Peoples Temple. The metaphor of “powder keg” that Jones uses to describe their current situation conveys the presence of immediate danger and hints at the dire consequences of not taking action. Jones then goes on to present the people of Jonestown with the course of action he believes will avoid the danger: suicide.

The dialogue of his followers also works to support the construction of victim-perpetrator identities with members of Peoples Temple claiming the role of victim even as they survey the lifeless bodies of the children they have killed.

MAN 4: (The children here owe a) great deal (.) because it’s Jim Jones. And (.) the way the children are laying there now (1.0) I’d rather see them lay like that (.) than to see (.) them have to die (.) like the Jews did (.) which was pitiful anyhow.

The death for the children envisaged by Man 4 is likened to the deaths of Jews during WWII. The holocaust could fall within the category of “human atrocities” and may express the feelings of persecution experienced by members of Peoples Temple and their perception of humanity as brutal and cruel. With these perceptions in mind, death is seen by the group as a method for taking back control and avoiding a “pitiful death.” To escape the identity of “victims,” Peoples Temple must become the “perpetrators” and it is curious how the group’s expectations of human atrocity and cruelty came to shape their reality.

In conclusion, in the Jonestown Death Tape, an array of identities are constructed for Jones and the individuals of Peoples Temple. The MCD of family expresses the group’s togetherness and love for one another, the need to take care of the vulnerable members and act in concert. The identity of Prophet denotes superiority and is used to exercise control and encourage his followers to follow orders. The SRP of victim-perpetrator evokes fear and prompts the group towards action by highlighting external threats and their own vulnerability. These identities helped to construct a reality where individual fates were bound together under the leadership of Jim Jones who presents only one inevitable conclusion that became known as the Jonestown Massacre.



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(Della-Rachel Smith is a post-grad student studying Psychological Research. She can be reached at

Last modified on October 14th, 2014.
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