Working out all the little details


This is an article I read from which I’ll draw precedent for my thesis. It’s a brilliant dissection of a policy-making process. It also pokes at the Bush II administration in a subtle way, and I can really appreciate that. My first response to this article was


It was mostly because I had focused a lot on tech comm in school, and I knew I wanted to go in a more rhetorical direction for my thesis. Plus, it’s about policy-making so honestly, it couldn’t be more relevant.

Baker-Graham, Margaret, and Neil Lindeman. “The Rhetoric and Politics of Science in the Case of the Missouri River System.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 19, no. 4 (October 2005): 422-448.

In this article, the authors analyze two different environmental documents that use different rhetorical strategies and reflect different values about the usage and conservation of the Missouri river. They do a textual analysis to compare two biological opinion (BO) documents about the river and its possible fate. The documents represent a unique opportunity to analyze authorship because they were written by different groups of authors, presumably with different agendas, to tell the same story. With these documents, the authors draw conclusions about professional writing and its inevitable influence on meaning making, and thus, public policy decisions.

How this article pertains to my thesis

For my thesis, there are three important points I can learn from this influential article. They are (a) the importance of the problematic nature of authorship/power (also reflected in Slack, Miller, & Doak, 1993), (b) the importance of positioning texts within the context their creation, (c) the importance of recognizing an audience as more than a discourse community.

Authorship and power

This article reveals the power technical writers have to influence meaning making by demonstrating how authors control information (p. 422). Walter Fisher’s narrative theory is used in this study to describe the point of view of each BO document. Narrative theory is the theory that people are essentially storytellers and make decisions based on arguments. Most notably, this article examines two texts produced by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service about the Missouri River. The article examines how narrative theory is at work in the way that two narrators take the exact same situation and build similar texts that, in the final analysis, reflect completely different points of view. In the first text, a historical narrative is emphasized, and thus, the writing evokes a specific mood or emotion. By contrast, the elimination of the historical narrative in the second text leaves the reader bereft of that mood and emotion. Different conclusions about the river will be drawn as the result of the missing mood and emotion and thus, decisions based on those conclusions will differ greatly from conclusions that would have been drawn if the historical narrative had been intact.

Building a narrative gives the author(s) control over the conclusions drawn from a document, and thus, public policy made from those conclusions is subject to the control. The authors stress the importance of an awareness and interrogation of public policy with regard to control. “ … Understanding how information can be controlled is critical to understanding the import of a particular text. Both sets of writers controlled information by what they included and excluded” (p. 443). “In both reports the writers employed ‘manipulative silences’ about relevant information to which they, as scientists with special expertise and access to scientific data, were privy in order to benefit their respective positions. Without critically comparing the two versions, readers would have difficulty seeing what alternative strategies the writers might have employed and what effect those strategies might have” (p. 443). This action speaks to power—the writer decides that which is left in a report and that which is left out. We also see that adding uncertainty to a document can be a rhetorical strategy because it implies that a decision should not be made yet—because we just don’t know what the facts are. That’s a way of slowing the decision-making process and manipulating actions to be taken by way of discouraging any action at all (or very little, abbreviated action).

Additionally, the authors names are hidden, making things difficult because you can’t know what position they take—but in the article this is said to be genre driven, not purposely manipulative.

I think it’s important to note, also, that narration is often devalued in technical discourse. (p. 429)

Importance of context

These texts demonstrate “how scientific reports used to establish public policy necessarily implicate larger political and cultural systems” (p. 423). One purpose of this article is to “demonstrate the dynamic relationship between text, context, audience, and author.” (423). Bazerman is quoted as saying that texts are situated in history as dynamic operators within stories of events (so, I definitely need to read Bazerman). As such, “context can be used to create a narrative (a story) of meaning that both includes and goes beyond a particular written text.” (423). It’s also important to note that “organizations do not write reports–people representing that organization write reports” (p. 423).

It is also said in this article that the process of writing and physical publishing fixes organizational reality, even though the text itself may represent organizational change, and that makes some sense (they got it from Anderson, 2004). So, a text represents decision-making and work processes at particular point in time, but if we have only that text, we have nothing to compare it to. There is no delta, or change in texts. Now, if we have many texts, as we do when we examine the rhetorical ecology of a place, we can better understand how change is affecting the organization and its policies. Understanding context also helps us understand other influences operating on decision makers because “ … even at the local level of a particular governmental organization, consensus is not always reached. Scientific experts, like anyone else, have ties to economic, social, and political systems, and these systems inevitably play a role in research and recommendations” (p. 440).

So, as in my study of rhetorical ecology, the importance of extending context beyond the texts themselves is emphasized. I’m making that point in my thesis as well.

Interesting note about this article, as early as the 3rd page, the authors identify themselves as environmentalists. They also say it’s important to reveal this part of their identity because, as well as it is important to situate scientific discourse, it is important to situate rhetoricians themselves. That is a point well taken. As I write my thesis, I should probably identify early my position in the rhetoric of the policy (p. 424). The authors also note that as rhetoricians and environmentalists, they construct meaning by telling a story about the two versions of this report. They trace the context, examine the features, and suggest ways to “interrogate public policy discourse.” (p. 424). So, by telling the story, the authors become part of the story. Interesting.

Policy disputes, no matter how heavily dependent on scientific consideration are inherently value laden. And there is no practical way of disentangling the value issues from the technical issues (p. 434), but context can help us better understand how things are decided.


The differences in the texts are only a small part of the larger arguments that indicate differences in the cultural values of audience members. Page 427 details an extensive description of the audience of these texts. The audience is so large and complex that it cannot really be called a discourse community (from a social constructionists pov…I better look that up. I’m pretty sure I know what it means because I’ve read about it before, but looking it up will help me more fully grasp it.).

Discovery process in this article

The authors of these texts shape meaning for readers my emphasizing or de-emphasizing human interventions and their impacts on the river (433) in the texts they authored. The researchers discovered the differences when they checked the versions against each other and tabulated in each the frequency of words or phrases relating to human intervention, and then they compared the numbers. Three times as many references are used in one version than in the other. This is a similar process to the word comparison analysis I saw in an article about the strength of language used in school wellness policies (Metos and Nanney, 2007). Worth noting because of the methods I am using in my research.

Additional things I need to read:

(Actually, I’ve already read four of these (go, me!), but I should read as many of these as I can find.)

Eden, Sally. “Public participation in environmental policy: considering scientific, counter-scientific and non-scientific contributions.” Public Understanding of Science 5, no. 3 (July 1996): 183-204.

Forbes, Cheryl. “Getting the Story, Telling the Story: The Science of Narrative, the Narrative of Science.” Edited by Jane Perkins and Nancy Blyler. ATTW Contemporary Studies in Technical Communication 10 (1999): 79-92.

Huckin, Thomas. “Textual silence and the discourse of homelessness.” Discourse Society 13, no. 3 (May 2003): 347-372.

Metos, Julie, and Marilyn S. Nanney. “The Strength of School Wellness Policies: One State’s Experience.” Journal of School Health 77, no. 7 (September 2007): 367-372.

Ornatowski, Cezar M., and Linn K. Bekins. “What’s Civic About Technical Communication? Technical Communication and the Rhetoric of “Community”.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13, no. 3 (Summer 2004): 251-269.

Rude, Carolyn D. “Toward an Expanded Concept of Rhetorical Delivery: The Uses of Reports in Public Policy Debates.” Technical Communication Quarterly 13, no. 3 (2004): 271-288.

Slack, Jennifer Daryl, David James Miller, and Jeffrey Doak. ““The Technical Communicator as Author:  Meaning, Power, Authority.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 7, no. 1 (1993): 12-36.

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