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Deliberation and democracy: Ethnography of rhetoric in a New England town meeting

Rebecca M Townsend, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study examines deliberative democracy in Amherst, Massachusetts' town meeting. I use ethnography of communication to examine the rhetorical practices that constitute this communication event and legislative body. I briefly examine the history of town meeting and develop a thorough description and analytic interpretation of a key term for talk, “speaking to the issue,” focusing on “questioning” and “arguing.” Conflict was present as an early feature of town meeting talk. Town meeting is a communication event that can also take on agent status. While democracy is often conceived as a messy process, this research shows how participants in a democratic body organize their talk and use self-imposed rules and self-regulate and order their communication, using the same general set of rules across issues. This order protects those in the minority on an issue. “Speaking to the issue” emerges as a vital feature of structuring talk and allowing political access. Town meeting participants in Amherst employ rhetorical strategies I term “weaving,” “scene-changing,” and “active-listening” as they communicate during the event. Many Amherst town meeting members used a “trustee” style of representation, and speak for those who could not participate in electing them.

Subject Area

Communication|Political science|American studies

Recommended Citation

Townsend, Rebecca M, "Deliberation and democracy: Ethnography of rhetoric in a New England town meeting" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3136786.