Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Global Warming Wars: Rhetorical and Discourse Analytic Approaches to ExxonMobil's Corporate Public Discourse

Academic journal article The Journal of Business Communication

Global Warming Wars: Rhetorical and Discourse Analytic Approaches to ExxonMobil's Corporate Public Discourse

Article excerpt

This paper analyzes texts published by ExxonMobil on the issue of climate change by employing the related, yet distinct methods that have evolved under the rubric of rhetorical analysis and discourse analysis, as influenced by concepts from Kenneth Burke and Michel Foucault, respectively. My purpose is to compare these two approaches to show their uses and potential value in business communication research. I show how both reveal the socially constructed nature of "reality" and the social effects of language, but are nevertheless distinct in their emphases. For the rhetorical critic, the analytic interest is in the purposeful acts of the language user and the ethical effects of language use. Rhetorical criticism thus considers the devices by which texts frame meaning; create understanding and promote (or fail to promote) identification between rhetor and audience, thus facilitating co-operative action. The Foucauldian approach, by contrast, focuses on the interplay of texts (intertextuality) and discourses (i nterdiscursivity) in order to illuminate the nature of socio-political struggle and show the relationship between texts and macro-sociological issues. These alternative methodological approaches offer the business communication researcher complementary means by which to illuminate the role of corporate public discourse in maintaining organizational legitimacy and influencing social and institutional stability and change.

Keywords: Research Methods, Rhetorical Analysis. Discourse Analysis. Business Environmental Discourse. Global Warming

This paper examines two rich analytic approaches that have emerged within business communication research: new rhetoric, as influenced by the theories of language of Kenneth Burke, and discourse analysis, as influenced by the work of French social theorist Michel Foucault (see Gibson-Graham, 2000). Both draw from the rhetorical turn in 20th century theory in the social sciences and express a concern with the socially constructed nature of reality and language's powerful social effects (Moran & Ballif, 2000; Simons, 1990). In this paper, I seek to illuminate the overlaps, similarities, and differences in these distinct but related interpretive approaches by analyzing a set of corporate documents published by ExxonMobil on climate change from the perspectives of each method, in turn (cf. Stillar, 1998; Peterson, 1997).

I focus on the work of Burke and Foucault because of the influence rhetorical and discourse analyses have had on research in the fields of management communication (e.g., Cheney; 1983; Deetz, 1992; Heath, 1994; Kinsella, 1999; Livesey, 2001) and environmental communication (e.g., Cantrill & Oravec, 1996; Hajer, 1997; Killingsworth & Palmer, 1992). Moreover, Burke's and Foucault's theoretical leanings are complementary. Dean (1992), for instance, characterizes Foucault's purpose as being to produce a "methodical problematization of the given" (p. 216), words that could equally well apply to Burke (1961/1970), who reminds us that the proper use of language entails "discounting," or "remind[ing] ourselves that ... the word is not the thing" (p. 18, emphasis original). Despite such commonality, however, these two approaches have different emphases, as the examples set forth in my paper illustrate. That is, the distinct theoretical groundings of rhetorical and discourse analytic approaches, as applied in manageria l and business communication scholarship, translate into different, though possibly synergistic critical stances. Thus, they offer the business communication researcher unique entry points into the analysis of organizational texts and different perspectives on their effects.

My textual examples are four advertorials, or issue advocacy advertisements, on climate change published by ExxonMobil in The New York Times over consecutive weeks in March and April 2000. From the rhetorical perspective, these texts are situated examples of a corporate rhetor's intentional effort to influence the understandings of the policy-maker audience on an issue of public controversy and to motivate particular actions (or in this case, governmental inaction) vis-a-vis climate change. …

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