Making and Unmaking the Prospects for Rhetoric: Selected Papers from the 1996 Rhetoric Society of America Conference

By Theresa Enos; Richard McNabb et al. | Go to book overview

CHARLES BAZERMAN University of California, Santa Barbara


Genre and Social Science: Renewing Hopes of Wingspread

The Wingspread Conference, as represented in The Prospect of Rhetoric, struck many prophetic themes. Several are close to my heart: concern for communicative transactions other than the persuasive, an interest in the changing technology of communication, and calls for the rhetoric of science and technology, the rhetoric of the everyday, and the rhetoric of the many institutional and bureaucratic settings of modern society. Speakers at that conference recognized that the complexity of modern differentiated society has created many locales of communication with new dynamics and tasks. Further, several of the speakers, most explicitly Wayne Booth, Wayne Brockriede, and Hugh Duncan, suggested that to understand rhetoric in its new circumstances we take up the tools and knowledge of the social sciences.

There were, to be sure, voices on the other side, arguing for the autonomy and special knowledge of rhetoric, pointing out that rhetoric, long subordinated to the empirical social sciences, has its own special message that needs to be delivered forcefully. I am too much an outsider to communications departments to attempt a survey of the historical and continuing tensions between classicists and moderns. Nor will I attempt to sort how the rediscovery of rhetoric in writing programs -- housed within English Literature departments -- has reinforced those divisions. Nor will I consider how literary theory's versions of rhetoric have turned the dialogue in different directions; nor will I survey how the social sciences themselves have engaged lines of rhetorical and discursive inquiry.

Rather I will simply present one domain where rhetoric and the social sciences have converged -- namely, the study of genre within social action. This convergence has been only partly recognized on both sides, but it is proceeding. From rhetoric's side the initial and key gesture in this convergence was Carolyn Miller's use of Alfred Schutz's concept of social typification in the production and phenomenology of everyday life. Miller built on an already vital concern for genre within speech rhetoric, documented in her article and soon to produce several major volumes such as Campbell and Jamieson Deeds Done in Words. Nonetheless, seeing genre as typified social action had particular hold for writing researchers trying to understand the social location of writing, a problem not nearly as puzzling for students of speech.

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