Public Argument Action Research and the Learning Curve of New Social Movements

By Mitchell, Gordon R. | Argumentation and Advocacy, Spring 2004 | Go to article overview

Public Argument Action Research and the Learning Curve of New Social Movements


Mitchell, Gordon R., Argumentation and Advocacy


Some rhetoricians call for a redoubled emphasis on the public argument dimensions of scholarly inquiry, recommending an "activist turn" in criticism (Andersen, 1993). The various trajectories of such a path range from pursuit of "opportunities for dialogue with alternative audiences" (Hollihan, 1994, p. 233), to "taking our models and signifiers off the blackboard" (Farrell, 1993, p. 156), to "enter[ing] the fray outside the Ivory Tower" (Andersen, 1993, p. 249).

Eschewing the "view from nowhere" (Nagel, 1986) epistemological standpoint, these scholars advocate criticism that reaches beyond specialized academic audiences to engage publics and contribute to "broader social dialogues" (Hollihan, 1994, p. 234; see also Sholle, 1994; Shotter, 1995). An illuminating example of this mode of intellectual engagement is the work of media critic Kembrew McLeod. In addition to publishing authoritative commentary on intellectual property law in scholarly outlets (McLeod, 2001, 2002, 2004b), McLeod is adept at fashioning parallel arguments for circulation in wider public spheres of deliberation. Two recent interventions by this University of Iowa professor of communication studies include his successful attempt to secure an official U.S. trademark of the phrase "freedom of expression" (McLeod, 2003a, 2003b) and his participation in "Grey Tuesday," an online "day of civil disobedience" organized to resist the "music industry's copyright cartel" (Werde, 2004). McLeod's oeuvre warrants further consideration, since this mode of scholarship sheds light on a persistent theoretical problem facing rhetorical study of social movements--the difficulty in locating essentially rhetorical features of movement activity.

David Zarefsky identifies "theoretical" work in social movement studies as scholar ship where "the scholar seeks to make generalizable claims about patterns of persuasion characteristic of social movements as a class" (1980, p. 245; see also Riches & Sillars, 1980). This theoretical approach aims to establish characteristics of a distinctive rhetorical genre of social movement rhetoric (see Griffin, 1952; Cathcart, 1972; and Simons, Mechling & Scheier, 1984). According to Zarefsky (1980), many efforts fall short of establishing a unique genre of social movement rhetoric, because they fail to isolate essential rhetorical differences that distinguish social movements from other types of collective communicative action such as top-down government propaganda or institutional public relations campaigns (Warnick, 1977; Simons, 1991). This objection presents a serious challenge to those social movement scholars who view the issue of rhetorical uniqueness as a sort of litmus test that determines rhetoric's analytical utility (Cathcart, 1972). However, behind this "where is the rhetoric in social movements" litmus test, there lurks a different, and possibly timelier question of contemporary salience: where is the social movement in rhetorical criticism?

Traditionally, "historical" criticisms of social movements in the field of communication have largely deferred this question (see e.g. Andrews, 1973; Lucas, 1976). These efforts have sought to add depth to historical accounts of social change by illuminating retrospectively the rhetorical dimensions of past movement activity. As purely academic exercises, such work has played out on a plane removed from the level of social movement mobilization. In contrast, action research seeks to connect scholarship directly to ongoing struggles, opening up extra-academic channels for intervention into live arenas of public argument (Kemmis, 1993).

While this action research process can be enriched by appropriation of select theoretical terms and concepts developed previously in rhetorical work on social movements, it also stands to gain from studies in other fields that have already jumped the walls of the Ivory Tower. This essay uses such inter-field cross-fertilization to pursue a method for study of social movements that highlights reflexivity and engagement with actors beyond academic peer audiences. …

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