Academic journal article Social Work

Advocacy and Argumentation in the Public Arena: A Guide for Social Workers

Academic journal article Social Work

Advocacy and Argumentation in the Public Arena: A Guide for Social Workers

Article excerpt

The estate tax suddenly appears in newspaper stories as the "death tax." School vouchers are renamed "scholarships." Through a simple change in wording, public debates about social problems take a different turn. Issues get reframed and previously rejected solutions, for better or worse, become more acceptable. For social workers and others engaged in public debates, knowing how to say something can be as important as the content. The art of rhetoric, or "effectively using language in speech or writing," (Websters Dictionary, 1993, p. 570), is an indispensable skill. Whether translating research findings for public consumption or arguing for a policy position that reflects social work values, social workers need a range of rhetorical skills so that our voices can be heard and heeded.

Virtually all social work methods require strong communication skills, but the public nature of cause advocacy, that is, attempts to "effect changes in policies, practices, and laws" (Hepworth & Larsen, 1993, p. 503), requires specific rhetorical skills. There are many forums for cause advocacy. Social workers can testify at a public hearing, lobby public officials, answer questions posed by a reporter, or make presentations to a community organization (Bateman, 2000; Biklen, 1983; Schneider & Lester, 2001). Social workers also draft position papers, testimony, and op-ed pieces. The social work writings, among them Jansson's (1999) Becoming an Effective Policy Advocate, provide excellent tips for "policy persuasion" (p. 231), including how to diagnose an audience, fine tune a public presentation, or debate an opponent (see also Bateman; Bilken; Schneider & Lester).

This article builds on this knowledge base by borrowing from disciplines less represented in the social work literature, including linguistics, logic, and communications, to provide a step-by-step framework for public argumentation.


The first step in constructing an argument to resolve a public controversy is to locate its "figurative ground." As Rybacki and Rybacki (1996) explained: "All argumentation takes place over a piece of figurative ground occupied by existing institutions, ideas, laws, policies, and customs" (p. 18). Similar to constructionism in the social sciences (Best, 1995; Loseke, 1999; Spector & Kitsuse, 1987), it is people's common and prevailing understanding of the world. It is a collective definition about a social problem as reflected in current policies and beliefs. Locating the figurative ground is a nonjudgmental process; it is not a statement of what is good or bad, but of what is. Arguments start here because of the presumption that the present state of affairs is "natural" and should not be changed without ample and compelling reasons.

Discovering the figurative ground can be a tricky proposition; it requires advocates to temporarily displace their own views (for example that welfare reform did not work) and figure out the prevailing consensus. Ways to do this include examining public opinion polls, reading editorials and news articles in mainstream papers and identifying the leading experts that are most quoted and credited, and identifying the consensus among politicians.

The figurative ground forms the background and starting point for any policy change. It alerts advocates to their burden of proof and the questions likely to be posed. These questions, referred to as "stock issues" (Rybacki & Rybacki, 1996), are the first barrier to change; if left unanswered by advocates the status quo will persist. Thus, an effective argument may start with a statement of the figurative ground, as demonstrated in this excerpt from a public policy researcher arguing against welfare reform:

   There is a groundswell of discontent with the
   nations' welfare system and the problems of
   broken or never-formed families. A favored
   solution, strongly advocated by President
   Clinton in his State of the Union Message, is to
   put heads of families to work--work instead of
   welfare. … 
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