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A communication analysis of power in small claims court: A feminist perspective

Kathryn A Wiss, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This feminist discourse analysis examined litigants' and judges' speech in thirty small claims court hearings. Two areas of interaction were examined: The speech strategies people used to negotiate public institutions and the ways power relations of gender, race, class, and ethnicity were maintained, challenged or negotiated.^ The study revealed that while male and female litigants often engage in similar strategies for presenting themselves in court, there are a few clear differences in the choices they make. Men's testimony displayed a wide array of means to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. These strategies included frequent use of passive constructions and prefacing their account to shift the focus away from their liability. Women used prefacing in order to be permitted to continue their stories. Men frequently attempted to portray themselves as victimized and powerless, while women's testimony reflected attempts to appear in control and compassionate. Male litigants were more likely to use power-over strategies, such as interrupting and ignoring others. Women engaged in strategies of self-empowerment, such as using direct address to judges and other litigants.^ Male and female judges alike used power-over speech, including interrupting and ignoring. Reprimands, one of the forms of power-over, were used by both male and female judges, but the strongest forms of these came from men. Judges empowered litigants by two means: neutral and proactive strategies. All judges displayed the neutral versions. The proactive versions--explanation of legal procedure, fact finding and concern--were displayed more often by the woman judge.^ Most significant for this study were the ways in which all court participants brought assumptions about gender, class and race into the "neutral" courtroom. Those in positions of social power--whites, men, the upper classes, and native speakers of English--engaged in discourse in the court which presumed and perpetuated their social power. These practices include speaking for the less powerful, introducing negative assumptions about the worth of those in working class occupations, and arguing based on the negative values one holds about the relative value of men and women. ^

Subject Area

Women's studies|Communication|Language

Recommended Citation

Wiss, Kathryn A, "A communication analysis of power in small claims court: A feminist perspective" (1993). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9316726.