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The Intersections of Rhetoric and Ethnography

The Intersections of Rhetoric and Ethnography 

Ralph Cintron, University of Illinois at Chicago
Phaedra Pezzullo, Indiana University
Candice Rai, University of Washington at Seattle 

As the rhetorician Michael Calvin McGee once said, “if you want to know about rhetoric, just go out and find a place where it occurs.”  Since many believe that it occurs everywhere, “finding” such a place should not be difficult.  But then what? 

The world “as such” presents the rhetorical ethnographer with a number of problems.  Is this local world in which discourse occurs interesting enough to be explored?  If so, what does it mean to describe it?  What does it mean to theorize it?  What is this topos called a “fieldsite”?  What are field notes?  What are interviews? What kind of “data” does a rhetorician collect? How does one methodically analyze or intuit the meanings of these documents that represent past events and will eventually point to a future event, the “write-up” itself, and still another future event, the “reading” of this thing called an ethnography?  What is the relationship between social theory, rhetorical theory, and ethnographic methodology? What sorts of rhetorical inquiries are made possible only when a researcher is present in the “field”? What embodied epistemologies does going "into the field" open up? What risks or challenges does one face by engaging the people one writes about? How do rhetoricians doing fieldwork position their identities or sense of belonging in relation to the people and cultures they write about? How does an anthropologist “do” ethnography?  How does a rhetorician “do” ethnography? What might we learn about rhetoric by doing ethnography? 

The leaders of this workshop claim, generally speaking, that social theories and rhetorical theories are heuristical; that is, they open up ways of looking at social events and discourses in particular settings, and they are not bodies of knowledge to be proven or disproven.  We claim as well that the discourses of others in specific settings are heuristical, fleeting attempts to make sense of one another in the midst of material reality, its pressures and opportunities.  Perhaps, then, ethnography is a writer’s heuristics intersecting with the heuristics of others. 

Our goals may change as we hear of the needs of workshop attendees, but for now our intention is to construct a very hands-on exploration of rhetoric and ethnography. We intend to spend some time discussing such questions within the context of work that has been done in rhetorical ethnography and rhetorical studies, more generally; however, we hope to address the specific complications of participants’ ethnographic projects at their current stages in the hope that we can help push them further.

Questions? Contact Ralph Cintron,

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