Distraction Free Reading

Rhetorical Studies of Science and Technology

The following discussion was co-authored with Elizabeth Pitts, a PhD student in Communication, Rhetoric and Digital Media program and NSF IGERT Fellow in Genetic Engineering & Society at North Carolina State University.

An ethos of expertise—that is, an ethos grounded not in moral values or goodwill, or even in practical judgment, but rather in a narrow technical knowledge—addresses its audience only in terms of what it knows or does not know. The diminution of arete and eunoia in an ethos of expertise has a specifically rhetorical effect, because these qualities are relational in a way that expertise is not; similarly, the transformation of phronesis to episteme diminishes the practical, or relational, dimensions of knowledge. Without arete and eunoia, there is no basis for agreement on values or for belief in the good intentions of a rhetorical agent; the rhetorical relationship becomes impersonal. … The impersonality of an ethos of expertise runs the risk of being persuasive to no one.

– Carolyn R. Miller, pp. 201–202

To discuss the limitations of persuasive appeals that rely solely on technical expertise, Miller draws on terms from ancient rhetoric. If experts fail to demonstrate that they are people of virtue (arete) and goodwill (eunioa), she argues, then others have little reasons to trust that they possess not only knowledge (episteme), but also practical wisdom (phronesis) that is fundamental to democratic deliberation. Rhetorical theory is an ancient tradition that thrives today in Communication and English departments in the United States. Across these two traditions, one that has been primarily concerned with rhetorical speech and the other with rhetorical compositions, there is a subfield often referred to as the Rhetoric of Science and Technology and Medicine. Rhetorical studies offer a rich body of literature and, we believe, several profitable sites of intersection with anthropological studies of science and technology. In this short discussion we look to the emerging spheres of do-it-yourself science to articulate some possible conversations between rhetorical and anthropological inquiry.

We take our warrant from Carrithers (2005), who argues for the importance of rhetorical scholarship to Anthropology, saying that the “mark of distinctly human sociality is not the possession of one culture or another as such but the capacity to change and create new cultures” (pp. 580). Rhetoric is concerned with how these strategies of change and creation occur through processes of persuasion and argument. What Miller’s quote above reminds us is that these processes are not only messy, but situated in specific discursive choices. Rhetoric, which considers how we make such choices, and what choices are available to us in a particular context, then seems a profitable realm for Anthropology to engage.

Our first site of intersection considers the idea that debates about climate change, vaccines, and evolution are signs of widespread mistrust in science. But emerging trends in do-it-yourself biology (DIYbio) laboratories and hackerspaces suggest significant public interest. These spaces enable citizens to engage scientific tools, techniques, and artifacts that have previously been unavailable for public scrutiny. For example, Safecast, a group that formed in response to the Fukushima Daiichi disaster, allows citizens to gather data on radiation contamination, provides the entire dataset online in the public domain, and blogs about what this information might mean and how difficult this data can be to collect and interpret, making the uncertainties associated with such work more transparent. Some members of Safecast have expresses some distrust of institutions and governments, which is not a rejection of science, but rather a more complicated critique of institutional versus collective authority. The ethnographic work anthropologists undertake, and the discursive examination of texts in contexts that rhetoricians undertake, can help to untangle what “community” means in such distributed networks, and how they  interact with established discourses and institutions.

Another point of intersection may concern how these emerging spheres of scientific research challenge both traditional notions of expertise and traditional boundaries between experts and publics. For example, Safecast has been working with Geiger counter manufacturer International Medcom to produce a new device, suggesting a certain legitimization of their work in the eyes of sanctioned institutions. Despite the group’s engagement with established scientific structures, Safecast is bounded by few of the institutional norms of their academic and professional counterparts (Kelly and Miller, forthcoming). Safecast, for instance, would be free to make public statements about the disaster and data being collected whereas some researchers at Japanese academic institutions were not. Further, Safecast has been able to speak to citizens on the ground to explain what data they were collecting and, importantly, where citizens can find it. Understanding the negotiation of expertise and ways in which boundaries between spheres of discourse are challenged has been profitably theorized in rhetorical and communication research. Aligning this research with that done in Anthropology certainly promises new insights for rhetoric, but may also provide productive vocabularies, theories of argument and negotiation in scientific and technological contexts, and, as Carrithers suggests, theories of inventional strategies (i.e., where do arguments come from? what is possible in a given situation? what do rhetorical figures of repetition like gradatio (climax) tell us about how people reason?).

Our third site of intersection considers the potential that hackerspaces and open labs might hold to facilitate deliberations about the future of science and science policy. By inviting members of the public to engage with the processes and products of biotechnology, DIYbio laboratories may simultaneously prompt conversations about the appropriateness and legitimacy of genetic engineering, as well as potential benefits, hazards and applications. This type of deliberative discourse is a cherished ideal in democratic societies, but it is notoriously difficult to realize (Peterson, Peterson, and Peterson, 2005). In the realm of science, this difficulty stems in part from a power imbalance that accompanies the unequal distribution of technical expertise. Past attempts to overcome this imbalance have included efforts ranging from consensus conferences to citizen juries, but these artificial forums can easily become just another opportunity for experts to demonstrate the deficiencies of ordinary citizens–in this case, by implying that the deliberations they undertake on their own are not sufficiently dialogic (Gehrke, 2013).

We suggest that DIYbio labs might provide an alternative, more “organic” epistemic and material space for deliberation. For instance, the DIYbio community includes a cadre of bioartists whose works provoke important discussions about the ethical, social and cultural consequences of biotechnologies. A rhetorical approach to investigating such discussions recognizes the roles that values and emotions play in decision-making, as well as the ways in which discourse and actions are driven by audience, power structures, regulatory frameworks, and other features of any particular context. For example, a rhetorical investigation of deliberation in DIYbio labs might focus on the scope of issues being raised for consideration; the structures and norms that shape the course of conversation; the types of metaphors used to characterize genetic engineering and genetically engineered organisms; and how slippery concepts such as “science,” “scientist,” “risk,” “regulation,” “openness,” and “participation” are framed within the DIY network.

It seems a small movement to include rhetoric in anthropology has been undertaken as “rhetoric culture,” initiated with the work of Tyler and Strecker following the 1998 European Association of Social Anthropologists meeting. Several collections have resulted from this work, including Culture and Rhetoric and Rhetoric and Culture and the Vicissitudes of Life. As our technoscientific possibilities unfold, often through discursive negotiation, we suggest there is a profitable (or, we might say, kairotic) moment for our disciplines to continue to forward the intersection of these two traditions.


Carrithers, M. (2005). Why Anthropologists should study rhetoric. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 11, 577–583.
Ceccarelli, L. (2011). Manufactured scientific controversy. Rhetoric & Public Affairs, 14(2), 195–228.
Gehrke, P. J. (2014). Ecological validity and the study of publics: The case for organic public engagement methods. Public Understanding of Science, 23(1), 77–91, 2014.
Kelly, A.R., & C.R. Miller. (forthcoming). Intersections: Scientific and Parascientific Communication on the Internet. Science and the Internet—Communicating Knowledge in a Digital Age. Eds. Alan Gross & Jonathan Buehl. Amityville: Baywood Press. 333–380.
Miller, C.R. (2003). The Presumptions of Expertise: The Role of Ethos in Risk Analysis. Configurations 11: 163–202.
Peterson, M. N., Peterson, M. J., & Peterson, T. R. Conservation and the Myth of Consensus. Conservation Biology, 19(3): 762–767, 2005.

See also

Carrithers, M., Ed.  (2009). Rhetoric, culture and the vicissitudes of life. Berghahn Books: New York, NY.
Condit, C.M., Lynch, J., and Winderman, E. (2012). Recent rhetorical studies in public understanding of science: Multiple purposes and strengths. Public Understanding of Science, 21(4), 386–400.
Harris, R.A. (1990). Assent, Dissent, and Rhetoric in Science. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 20(1), 13–37.
Meyer, C. & Girke, F., Eds. (2011). The rhetorical emergence of culture. (2011). Berghahn Books: New York, NY.
Strecker, I. & Tyler, S., Eds. (2009). Culture and rhetoric. Berghahn Books: New York, NY.

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