Philippa Spoel

Philippa SpoelTitle: Dr.

University: Laurentian




Description of Work:

My research focuses on rhetorical criticism of health, environmental, and science communication. My most recent projects include investigating the discourses of “local food” and the emerging genre of “food charters” in the context of Ontario public health communication. I am also researching the diverse modes of environmental-sustainability rhetoric within current public sphere discussions about mining in Ontario’s Ring of Fire region, and have (very) recently embarked on a comparative conceptual study of “health citizenship,” “environmental citizenship,” and “scientific citizenship.”

Symposium Submission:

Expanding the Conversation: Rhetorical Research on Food Charters and Community Health

Our proposed paper takes up indirectly several of the suggested symposium themes, including questions about critical theory, methods, and environment. Rather than explicitly addressing the issue of what rhetoricians and discourse analysts of health and medicine *should* be doing in relation to any of the above themes, we offer an account of what we *are* doing in our new project on the emerging genre of the community-based “food charter.” We hope to illustrate—descriptively, not prescriptively—one variety of rhetorical health/medical research that draws on multiple, intersecting fields of study and theoretical-disciplinary perspectives; that studies a genre of public health rhetoric occurring in large part beyond the borders of standard medical/healthcare institutions; and that explores the multi-faceted meanings and functions of “health” in this genre’s (con)texts. Our objective is to use our current project as an example of rhetorical research on health and medical discourse whose main motivation is not to facilitate interactions with healthcare professionals or to improve their practice but to enter into conversation with researchers across disciplines who share interests in food charters, food politics, and community health. Our main research goal is to contribute to this multidisciplinary conversation an understanding of the food charter genre through the distinctive lens of rhetorical analysis.

As a genre, the “food charter” is intended to be a non-binding “visioning” document that addresses issues of food security and food sustainability within communities. Following Toronto’s lead, which endorsed the first Canadian food charter in 2000, a growing number of Ontario communities and regions have or are currently crafting their own charters. During our prior research on how regional public health agencies in Ontario have begun incorporating the value and discourse of “local food” into their promotion of a neoliberal “good health citizen” paradigm, we discovered that the food charter is a key type of document included in public health communication about local food. However, although regional health units typically participate as one of the main rhetors in the creation of these documents, a diverse range of other community “stakeholders” from public, private, and civil society sectors also normally are involved.

As rhetoricians of health and medicine, we are interested in how food charters engage questions and meanings of community health. How are communities developing and using food charters to address community health issues and, in turn, how is this emerging but increasingly prevalent genre constituting what community health means within the framework of food security/food sustainability?

As with our research on local food discourse, our exploration of the food charter as a genre of health rhetoric leads to a wide, multi-faceted conceptualization of public/community health. Along with the question of how local food systems can or should ensure nutritional health for all community members, food charters address—in varied and possibly inconsistent or incompatible ways—questions of environmental health, social health, and economic health for the community. Exploring how exactly food charters configure these various kinds of health helps to illuminate the complexities and tensions in what “health” means in this increasingly significant rhetorical site of health-food politics. This project offers to the symposium an additional way to understand how notions of health are produced discursively by tracking how they manifest in texts that seem, on the surface, to have little to do with standard views of physical health or individual bodies. We suggest that examining the multivalent construction of “health” in food policy discourse productively expands the scope of our field’s discussion beyond conventional healthcare and medical boundaries.

Besides encouraging a broad understanding of “health” and “health rhetorics,” our research depends on a strong interdisciplinary approach. Theoretically and methodologically, we aim to integrate our rhetorical perspective with concepts and findings from various fields likewise concerned with questions of food politics and of physical, social, and environmental health. In particular, we turn to the burgeoning field of food studies (itself highly interdisciplinary) for perspectives ranging from political science, environmental studies, agricultural studies, and geography to communication studies, sociology, and policy studies. Our work also is indebted to critical health studies with its Foucaultian-inspired critique of neoliberal health governance as well as work in social studies of science and environmental communication on scientific and environmental citizenship.

The question of how food charters rhetorically constitute community *health* connects to the question of how they rhetorically constitute *community*. Existing reviews of food charters discuss how they are—and need to be—collaboratively composed by multiple local “stakeholders.” This process of bringing diverse groups and interests together to negotiate a mutually acceptable set of guiding principles for community food security is conceived as a key value of the food charter genre. Rhetorical research can enrich our understanding of this genre’s forms and functions by attending to the complex, situation-specific negotiations that produce them. Analysing the terministic screen of “collaboration” within these documents (and associated documents in the genre system) further reinforces how “bridging” community groups and interests functions as a paramount “good” that the genre of food charter promotes: a healthy community becomes one in which diverse groups with diverse interests and agendas successfully work together to create a food charter.

Perhaps most interestingly, a rhetorical perspective allows us to flip the question of “how do communities constitute food charters?” into “how do food charters constitute communities?” In other words, how do these “sacred” texts rhetorically shape the communities out of which they emerge, and whose health is at stake? What kinds of identities, values, and characteristics do they simultaneously pre-suppose and (re)produce in the communities that compose and use them? What kinds of subject-positions and modes of health or environmental citizenship do they interpellate? These are questions that we believe rhetoricians are especially well-equipped to address and that we hope will contribute a distinctive critical research lens to broader conversations about the role of food charters in constructing what “community” and “community health” mean in the context of contemporary food politics and public health discourse.