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Electronic deliberation and the formation of a public sphere: A situated rhetorical study

Winifred J Wood, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Electronic discussions occurring on computer forums supported by a college or university can potentially reach a larger public and affect the institution in multiple unforeseen ways. This dissertation presents a case study of one such discussion, with three goals: (1) to argue for continued examination of electronic discourse in context, and for the institution as a key category of analysis, (2) to examine, comparatively, two methodologies that provide differing theories of agency in public deliberation, and (3) to consider the extent to which electronic discourse enables students to develop public voices. The electronic discussion was analyzed in relation to other texts produced within the institution on the same topic. The two forms of analysis were chosen for their emphasis on language and on the circulation of language in institutional and public context. Rhetorical analysis revealed specific strategies deployed by students to shift from private-oriented discourse to public-oriented discourse—the widening of audience invoked, and explicit shifts in levels of diction, with two rhetorical political effects—organization into action groups with unofficial representative leaders, and an increase in improved argument types. Critical discourse analysis revealed strong affiliation between students and the institution, with demonstrably similar linguistic structures and argument types deployed by student leaders and an official of the institution; borrowings extended both up and down the power hierarchy. Two linguistic tendencies were notable, both in the official language and in the change in students' language as they identified more strongly with official language: (1) a reduction in sentences with human agents, with increased emphasis on corporate identities, and (2) reliance on attributive adjectives to distinguish between members of the college community and outside antagonists. Students, in both electronic messages and letters to the editor, countered the first tendency by alternating sentences with human agents with sentences with processes in subject position. These findings are considered in light of various theories of “the public,” ranging from John Dewey to contemporary deliberative democratic theorists. It is argued that the electronic sphere can function as a site where publics with competing (or shared) interests can, in Dewey's word, “find” each other.

Subject Area


Recommended Citation

Wood, Winifred J, "Electronic deliberation and the formation of a public sphere: A situated rhetorical study" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152761.