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Rhetoric and Public Policy

Workshop Leader: Robert Asen

Workshop Leader:

Robert Asen

Policymaking constitutes an irreducibly communicative process. The various components of the process—position papers, evaluation studies, public testimony, committee debates, advocacy and lobbying efforts, editorials, speeches—all represent acts of communication. By engaging in policy debate, policymakers identify public issues requiring legislative attention, place these issues in a sociopolitical context, identify criteria for discussing these issues, and develop policies to address these issues. Policymakers do not assess policy proposals by stepping outside of the discourse through which policies are formulated and debated. Further, policymakers and citizens do not necessarily enter into debates with their opinions and preferences already formed and ordered. Sometimes this may be the case, but participants and observers also may develop opinions only after discussing issues with others, or they may change previously held views, or they may reorder their priorities. Moreover, communication is not transparent or value-free. Communication does not consist entirely of the transmission of information. Communication draws on implicitly and explicitly held values and beliefs that frame policy debates and initiatives. Attention to communication reveals the important role of interpretation and judgment in the policymaking process.

This workshop examines public policymaking through a rhetorical lens. From this perspective, we will examine case studies and consider theoretical issues implicated in acts of policymaking. We will consider how the constitutive power of language often shapes public problems demanding policy solutions. We will investigate the inescapable operation of meaning in policy debate, which informs our understanding of the purposes of public policies. We will explore how media frame public policies and thus influence our assessment of these issues. We will analyze the role of linguistic devices such as metaphor, which serve critical conceptual roles in policy debates. We will also reflect on the ethical obligations that contributors to policymaking hold to each other and their audiences. In these ways, this seminar will address several issues at the heart of rhetorical scholarship: constitutive rhetoric (how rhetoric shapes our understanding of social problems and our responses to them); materiality (how rhetoric operates within and reconfigures material conditions of production); publicity (how rhetoric contributes to policymaking as a process of public justification); media (how rhetoric connects acts of policymaking separated in space and time); and culture (how rhetoric ties policymaking to the norms and practices that sustain political cultures).

This seminar welcomes the participation of scholars at all stages of their academic careers. It will inform the research of scholars interested in political rhetoric, media, culture, the public sphere, social movements, activism and protest, historical and contemporary public address, and more. The seminar also welcomes scholars interested in historical and contemporary issues and employing a range of methodologies.

Participants will be asked to review a set of common readings prior to the seminar and come to the seminar prepared to discuss these readings. Participants also will be asked to come to the seminar ready to discuss an ongoing or potential policy-related research project. The seminar thus will address shared concerns for rhetorical scholars interested in studying public policy as well as specific concerns of each participant.

Questions should be directed to Robert Asen at

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