Jane Detweiler

Jane Detweiler

Associate Dean, College of Liberal Arts
University of Nevada, Reno

My recent work (a book project) might be most broadly construed as study of public moral argumentation, expanding and elaborating upon Walter Fisher’s theorizing with case studies of public deliberations over controversial social/political matters.  Where in the past I have studied argument and communication within health disciplines themselves (qualitative research), in this current project (textual/historical research), I focus on how various academic, professional, and technical discourses are drawn into public policy deliberations at the regional and national levels.  The book focuses on how marriage has been defined and figured in American history, with a special focus on how specialized language and arguments factor into the sometimes controversial, multivalent “debates” about shared courses of action.  Alongside and intertwined with varieties of legal, theological, scientific, and social-scientific discourses, medicine’s professional commonplaces are invoked and inflected by advocates on all sides of moral controversies over free love, polygamy, miscegenation, and same-sex marriage.  By analyzing the narrative and figurative strategies deployed by moral advocates in what I am calling “colloquies” (collections of texts, in various media, that represent various perspectives for a presumptively popular, national audience at a specific, crucial moment), I derive insights that will be of interest to health communicators and medical rhetoricians (and those in other specialties) interested in public policy deliberation.

Since the deliberative moments I case-study are situated across a broad swath of time—from the middle of the 19th Century to the past few months of the 21st Century—I examine the roles of “expert argumentation” as it complements and contends with popular folk knowledges amidst the sausage-making of legislative and jurisprudential processes in a highly charged public domain.  One of the most prominent and interesting of the medical concepts at play in past and present moral arguments of marriage definition is contagion, where theories of disease process are wrangled into practical prescriptions for maintaining moral purity with what might be called “laws of moral quarantine.”  As a rhetorician attentive to the voices of health disciplines in public deliberations, I have noted where these medical fields’ rational, researched discourse is called to the service of resolutely non-rational (per Fisher) narrations of impending crisis, with disease metaphorics attached to a portended cultural apocalypse.  With changes to “traditional marriage” as with (and I have begun to explore these in other essays) discussions of women’s reproductive health, public health (e.g., vaccination, STI prevention) campaigns, and deliberations over laws to regulate sexual behavior, moral advocates of a particular religious or ideological persuasion must find ways to “secularize” their theological concepts to gain presumptive non-believers as adherents in the marketplace of ideas.  When moralizers borrow professional terms and concepts, it leads to interesting rhetorical bedfellows indeed—and often, minor to serious, intentional or inadvertent mischaracterizations of professional medical theory, research, and established facts.  How can medical rhetors and health communicators respond to, avoid, mitigate, or turn to their advantage such argumentative tendencies in popular/public moral deliberations?  I would look forward to discussing this and related questions with other symposium attendees.

Keywords to describe work

Rhetoric, media representations, argumentation, cultural discourses, professional/practical discourses, textual analysis

work in relation to symposium keywords

The two words that relate most strongly to my recent work would be connections and theory.

My studies are theory-driven, theory-refining interpretations of how authoritative experts participate in larger cultural/political discussions in the public domain, and how professional or academic discourses are used in public debates over controversial policy decisions or courses of action.  Therefore, my work is about connections among worlds of discourse, where language and rhetorical structures move from one to another, shaping and being shaped by different advocates and situations of use.

Participation Questions

  • How do I explain/define what I do, to medical personnel and/or other stakeholders in the research process or to the public?

Adapting I. A. Richards’ definition, I characterize my research and practice as rhetoric, or “the study of misunderstandings and their remedies.”  In the case of medical discourses, sometimes these misunderstandings are inadvertent—the simple product of boundaries between cultural worlds, levels of education, professional and lay roles—and my work is something like that of a translator or teacher.  Other times, the particular actors (and not always bad actors—they may think themselves or actually be well-intentioned) might use the language resources of health disciplines’ worlds to mystify rather than clarify specialized knowledge—and perhaps to achieve political ends in public, political domains.  And educators within the many worlds of health care practice struggle with whether and how much to prepare student practitioners to communicate specialized knowledge to people seeking health care, while their leaders struggle with how to have their expertise recognized in national debates over policy and funding decisions.

  • What other keywords would I add to the list above, and why?

I would add “ethics,” because I believe that much of my work also embraces the practice of “communicative ethics.”  I have studied and applied much recent research and scholarship on crisis rhetoric and risk communication, and consider the public political controversies at the heart of my case studies to be moments where professional expertise and related codes of ethics meet their limit in the often chaotic mass politics and demagoguery of the political marketplace.  The health disciplines have worked very hard on communication in the clinical setting, in obtaining informed consent for medical trials, in public service announcements, in professional association policy statements, and in consumer advisories.  The remaining difficult questions: how do health professionals understand and practice ethical communication in political contexts?  What is their obligation to speak up when theories and facts central to their fields are seriously misunderstood or misconstrued?  How can they respond from rational, reasoned, evidence-based positions, when opposing advocates seem to feel no compunction about demagoguing, misapplying, or simply ignoring inconvenient facts?  These are the ethical questions that boil down to “what then must we do, as good actors, to create a better world?”

  • What do I see as the primary distinctions between a “humanities” orientation and a “social sciences” orientation?  What is at stake in these different orientations?

As a rhetorician and qualitative researcher, I have always felt acutely that I was on the fraught boundary between two broad disciplinary commitments, and I have tried (not always successfully) to reconcile the two.  To my colleagues in my home humanities department (English), I have had to justify the ways that I study how non-literary writers work, in social contexts, and from the perspectives of their academic disciplines and professions.  To this kind of work, my colleagues have sometimes replied, “That doesn’t seem like English,” by which I believe they mean, “you’re not studying a great writer’s artistic excellence, or tying observations about a literary text to a historical/political context.”  When, as a representative of my discipline traveling in the worlds of general education on a college campus, I meet social scientists who see my work as too tied to interpretation of physical texts, and not attentive enough to theories about how humans interact with one another, either as individuals or in groups.  The texts seem too distant from the living beings who produced them, and perhaps “insufficient evidence on their own for making any claims about broader political or social changes.”  Each side here tends to discount the methods of the other, making cross-disciplinary insights difficult to convey and have valued.  The study of rhetoric has long had features of both orientations, and as a researcher and practitioner of this art, I have always tried to hover between them and to always turn any scholarly insights to good use, helping writers and communicators of all kinds to do their work more effectively.

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