Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Putting Powerfulness in Its Place: A Study on Discursive Style in Public Discussion and Its Impact

Academic journal article Argumentation and Advocacy

Putting Powerfulness in Its Place: A Study on Discursive Style in Public Discussion and Its Impact

Article excerpt


Previous research in small-group settings indicates a correlation between status and communication, with social inequalities often reproducing themselves in discussion groups. Most clearly, women, racial minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic status communicate less frequently by taking fewer turns and saying less in public deliberation (Hans and Vidmar 1986; Hastie, Penrod, and Pennington 1983; Neblo 2004). Furthermore, high-status group members tend to communicate in qualitatively different ways, with social superiors consistently using, for example, fewer first-person singular pronouns and more first-person plural and second-person singular pronouns (Kacewicz et al. 2014). Such quantitative and qualitative differences can lead to unequal influence in decision-making (Mendelberg, Karpowitz, and Oliphant 2014).

While there is extant literature on the relationship between discursive style and social groups, research to date has tended to focus on stylistic differences and their interactive effects on how speakers are perceived by others (e.g. Bernstein 1960; Blankenship and Holtgraves 2005; Bradac and Street 1989; Erickson et al. 1978; Hosman and Siltanen 2011). As a result, we know less about how people's discursive style might influence their own perceptions of a group discussion. This study extends the current literature on discursive style and social groups, examining how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds speak in public discussions and to what effect. Specifically, we investigate whether the linguistic markers associated with social influence have an impact on discussants' perceptions of their own learning and the respect afforded them by others in the group--two variables that capture normatively desirable outcomes of public issue discussions.

This study contributes to scholarship and practice of public dialogue and deliberation in three ways. First, it adds to the growing literature on dialogue and deliberation by examining the role of discursive style in public issue discussions. We do so by arguing that non-decisional discussion groups can foster normatively desirable outcomes of learning and a sense of respect, and we explore how speaking style within such discussions might abet or hinder these effects. Second, using a computerized text-analysis program, this study adds empirical evidence of the link between discursive style and social status in public issue discussions. Third, it offers a fresh insight into the influence of discursive style on speakers themselves. In doing so, we shift the typical focus of discursive style research, which investigates the relationship between stylistic differences and perceptions by others. Instead, we examined if high-power speakers influenced their own perceptions of the experience. This approach provides scholars and practitioners with new insight on how communication can impact discussion outcomes. It also suggests new research agendas regarding when, how, and why a speaker's style might influence what they take from a discussion. In essence, this study aims to unearth social characteristics and potential impacts of discursive style in public discussion groups and implications of such patterns for dialogic groups.

Gaining insight and respect from others through discussion

While deliberative democracy has become increasingly popular among scholars and practitioners alike (Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs 2004; Dryzek 2000; Gastil and Levine 2005; Gutmann and Thompson 2004), not all groups convene to deliberate or to decide. Public discussants sometimes assemble to raise awareness about community issues, often as a precursor to later decision-making. Instead of weighing options for the purpose of selecting a policy, conveners ask non-decisional groups to solicit input, facilitate participant learning, raise consciousness, and build intellectual and emotional capacity. As Black and Wiederhold (2014, 287) observe, "unlike deliberation, which is generally understood to include some aspect of decision-making," dialogic groups focus on "building understanding" and "helping groups of people explore ideas deeply and build shared understanding of a common concern. …

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