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Rhetorical Approaches to Communication and Culture

Summary and Keywords

The convergence of rhetoric, culture, and communication has led to the development of two predominant areas of study within the field of communication: intercultural rhetoric and comparative rhetoric. Intercultural rhetoric illustrates how culture-based arguments are constructed by advocates during intercultural interactions and how the arguments make sense within a particular cultural frame or worldview. These studies attempt to represent the cultural sensibility and rhetorical traditions invoked by a particular intercultural interaction. Rhetorical practices are seen as emerging from the beliefs and values of distinctive cultural communities, and the convergence of intercultural communication and rhetoric becomes evident when people act rhetorically and their diverse cultural assumptions gradually or suddenly become apparent during intercultural interactions. Comparative rhetoric focuses on the cross-cultural study of rhetorical traditions, past or present, in societies around the world. Comparison of (rather than interaction between) the rhetorical practices of two or more cultures is often the focus of comparative rhetoric studies. Comparison helps in the identification of rhetorical features in one culture that might not be evident otherwise, to unearth what is universal and what distinctive in any rhetorical tradition, including that of the West. Intercultural rhetoric and comparative rhetoric share some conceptual and methodological features; both fields are characterized by similar beginnings and some shared debates. However, they also have distinct characteristics, challenges, and historiographies.

For intercultural rhetoric, approaching intercultural contexts and situations utilizing theories and concepts from rhetorical studies affirms non-Western modes of reasoning and advocacy. Recent methodological developments have allowed critics to more comprehensively represent rhetorical traditions and to discover novel ways to understand intercultural conflicts and mediate cultural differences. Conceptualizing rhetorical situations as intercultural dialogues suggests the ways in which intercultural rhetorical theorists need to be mindful of the multivocal quality of social discourses.

Rhetorical interpretation of texts benefits from a comparative approach that allows for speculation with respect for and grounding in another culture’s history, as well as reflection on the cultural outsider’s motive and assumptions. It is useful for the quest of meaning not to be limited to the standpoints within each disparate culture; pragmatically, they must have a dialogue since comparative rhetoric allows the analysis of different discourses, the discovery of common grounds of engagement, and the revelation of cultural assumptions.

Keywords: Rhetoric, culture, intercultural rhetoric, rhetorical traditions, Chinese rhetoric, ethnography of communication, critical rhetoric, comparative rhetoric, non-Western rhetoric, vernacular rhetoric

Intercultural Rhetoric

In intercultural rhetoric, rhetorical practices are seen as emerging from the beliefs and values of distinctive cultural communities. The convergence of intercultural communication and rhetoric becomes evident when people act rhetorically and their diverse cultural assumptions and understandings gradually or suddenly become apparent during intercultural interactions. Intercultural rhetoric identifies one or more of the following possibilities (González & Cheng, 2003):

  • Rhetorical action crosses two or more cultures. This is most likely to occur with media messages.

  • Rhetorical action from two distinct rhetorical traditions collides over common topics.

  • A rhetor is of one culture, and the primary audience is of another culture.

  • The critic selects concepts and evaluative tools from one rhetorical tradition and applies these concepts to a rhetorical activity that originates from another tradition.

In the 1980s and 1990s, rhetorical theorists influenced by cultural studies, ethnic and area studies, critical ethnography, and intercultural studies in communication began to ask questions about the interplay between rhetorical traditions. How much do we understand about different rhetorical traditions, and how do they come together/interact in public discourse? What critical tools are available, must be modified, or must be newly developed in order to examine and render critical assessment of intercultural rhetoric? What unique considerations must be given when describing and interpreting intercultural rhetoric? The answers to these and related questions lie at the core of intercultural rhetorical studies.

In the second half of the 20th century, communication scholars challenged the prevailing notions of rhetoric found in rhetorical literature, in other words, the classical Greek treatments of public oratory. Edwin Black (1978) particularly urged scholars of rhetoric to begin to expand their purview beyond neo-Aristotelian criticism of elite oratory. Black urged critics to study important new phenomena such as social movements and to create new critical tools for the analysis of rhetoric as symbolic action. Rhetoric became a topic of reconsideration in literary criticism, poststructural critique, and critical-cultural studies. William J. Starosta (1984) was the first U.S. intercultural communication scholar to use the term intercultural rhetoric. He cautioned against traditional rhetorical goals that emphasized persuasion for self-benefiting purposes, and he also opposed the exploitation of hierarchical relations between rhetor and audience. This caveat reinforced the general concern among many interculturalists that a spirit of equal participation in interaction should prevail.

Critics began to reflect upon the cultural values reproduced through their scholarship. Some scholars argued that because the rhetorical literature had been generated by Western critics, it was grounded in Western culture and, hence, of limited value beyond a Western context. In an analysis of neo-Aristotelian criticism, Jane Sutton (1986) stated that the dichotomy between logos and pathos—hallmarks of Aristotelian rhetoric—had fragmented rhetoric, privileging logical appeals and diminishing the value of pathos, ethos, and style. Sutton argued that placing logic and reason above emotion had its roots in Western culture, where the separation of mind and body was central to Judeo-Christian tradition and philosophy. Reflecting the dualism of his era, Aristotle’s preoccupation with logos can be contrasted with Eastern thought, particularly Confucianism, which (among other things) values a heart-mind (hsin) approach in determining the appropriateness of behavior. These cultural explorations of rhetoric enhanced rhetorical criticism and theory and, at the same time, drew attention to the limitations of established rhetorical frameworks.

In current intercultural rhetoric scholarship, rhetoric is commonly understood to be communication that emerges from a social/cultural context, is designed to invite a preferred response from an audience, and is directed to listeners who have a choice to respond. It is recognized that culture has been an implied aspect of rhetoric. The enthymeme, the suppressed or unspoken premise in practical reasoning, presumes shared knowledge and consensus among listeners. It also presumes a commonly understood epistemological process for making and advancing claims for public acceptance. Another example of the connection between culture and rhetoric is in audience analysis, a staple of public speaking instruction. The analysis of the audience by the speaker—the inquiry into audience values and attitudes to better persuade—is a form of cultural analysis that accounts for the possibility that the speaker might not share the same cultural identity as the audience and is aware of this. The term rhetorical tradition or rhetorical legacy in intercultural rhetoric studies refers to the culture-specific ways of framing and understanding arguments—namely, the general set of prescriptions for public advocacy that are distinctive to a particular cultural worldview.

Rhetorical Methods and Their Cultural Biases

Several scholars have viewed the preoccupation of rhetorical critics with the instrumental qualities of rhetorical appeals as a Western bias. Rhetoric in intercultural contexts, therefore, required the development of new methods that explicitly involved investigating culturally distinct rhetorical traditions and adopting a relational ethic of participation and equality. In their analysis of Black and Jewish American political relations, Starosta and Coleman (1986) advanced a method for examining intercultural rhetoric. They proposed a six-stage process:

  1. 1. Delineate the historical relations between the speaker’s culture and the culture of the audience.

  2. 2. Identify the elements of a speaker’s culture that account for the speaker’s style of discourse.

  3. 3. Specify the prior image that the speaker may have among those of the audience’s culture.

  4. 4. Identify public expectations regarding the address.

  5. 5. Analyze the speech or artifact, incorporating steps 1–4.

  6. 6. Adopt intercultural rhetoric as the level of analysis.

This approach was later expanded, with the following additional steps for the consideration of advocacy and argument in a multicultural society (Hammerback & Jensen, 1994):

  1. 1. Examine the particular rhetorical form (speeches, written manifestos, music, visual art, etc.) in relation to its rhetorical legacy.

  2. 2. Examine the role of the specific rhetorical form in that culture.

  3. 3. Identify the public expectations of the address based upon an understanding of cultural presuppositions and the rhetorical legacy of the rhetorical form.

  4. 4. Examine the rhetor’s style broadly to include the various structures, images, content, strategies, and appeals of a rhetorical artifact.

  5. 5. Remember that a speaker’s public image might not require significant attention when the topic involves collectivistic cultures.

Starosta’s essays were important because they revealed the cultural biases of contemporary rhetorical theory, demonstrated the limitations of contemporary models for rhetorical criticism in multicultural settings, and offered suggestions for incorporating and prioritizing culture in rhetorical criticism (Gonzalez & Bardhan, 2017). The further refinement of this approach was equally significant, in that it encouraged critics to explore, in greater detail, the influence of culture on the rhetor’s decisions in developing and advancing arguments and perspectives.

Rhetorical examinations of intercultural contexts attempt to represent the cultural sensibility and rhetorical traditions invoked by a particular interaction, deliberation, conflict, or struggle. Typically, these studies are interested in illustrating how culture-based arguments are constructed by advocates during intercultural interactions and how the arguments make sense within a particular cultural frame or worldview. Studies also illustrate how culture-based advocacy fails to be understood or accepted by audiences, especially when the audience holds the dominant positionality.

Chinese Rhetoric and Intercultural Communication

Through a synthesis of historical methods, comparative literary criticism, and traditional rhetoric, Mary Garrett has expanded methodological strategies for intercultural rhetoric. One of her major contributions lies in her effort to provide guidance to U.S.-based rhetorical theorists and critics in the analysis of Chinese rhetoric. For Garrett, rhetorical invention—the process of developing claims and informal reasoning—is not a universal process. The rhetorical tradition serves as a resource as well as a limitation for both audience and rhetor (Garrett & Xiao, 1994). The rhetorical tradition offers familiarity and standards for argument, but it also leaves rhetors and audiences unprepared for understanding and evaluating arguments that originate in other cultures. Critics studying outside of the Western tradition, thus, need to identify the discursive frame of the culture (i.e., the topics and assumptions relevant within a culture). In a later work, Garrett (2000) further elaborated the notion of rhetorical tradition. With respect to Chinese rhetoric, she noted that rhetorical practices have changed over centuries and that it would be a mistake to understand the Chinese rhetorical tradition as one that is opposed to the Western tradition. Such a simple characterization overlooks the complexity and duration of Chinese culture.

Garrett (2000) has provided further suggestions for intercultural rhetorical researchers struggling with intercultural methodological issues:

  • Critics need to gain expertise in the social, economical, political, historical, and cultural situations in which a text was created, introduced, and presented.

  • Cultural insiders must be selected carefully since their position within the culture influence their insights into it.

  • Cultural influences on discourses (such as Confucianism and Buddhism) should not be oversimplified but must be treated as having multiple and complex meanings.

  • Researchers should be familiar with interdisciplinary work (linguistics and anthropology) and new perspectives (feminist criticism) regarding inquiries on the researched culture.

  • Most Western scholars cannot read an original text in Chinese. Therefore, it is crucial to be alert to contradictions in various English versions of language translations in order to employ the most reliable versions of terms, concepts, explanations, and labels.

Ethnography of Communication

In the mid-1970s, rhetoric and cultural communication came together in a research program termed ethnography of communication. It was a synthesis of ethnographic methods drawn from anthropology, linguistics, rhetorical criticism, and intercultural studies. While the anthropologist is interested in interpreting community life from the insider’s perspective, the ethnographer of communication is interested specifically in the native understandings of speech interactions; in other words, based on analysis of transcripts of interactions and participant observation, how do cultural members establish their place in the community, negotiate conflicts, and register misunderstanding? Ethnographic description produces a firsthand, richly detailed interpretation of speech patterns and codes that locate and distinguish a speech community.

By adopting an ethnographic perspective and elaborating the speech codes of a community or social setting, Gerry Philipsen succeeded in making culture a direct concern of communication research and rhetoric. When Philipsen (1986) examined how the cultural speech of a working-class Chicago neighborhood intersected with the speech expectations and codes of other communities, he turned to rhetoric. His examination of a 1971 speech by Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley identified and interpreted the terms of a code of honor and showed how themes of identity, loyalty, and community were associated rhetorically and structurally with these terms. He traced these speech codes to an Irish rhetorical tradition. In Philipsen’s analysis, Daley’s speech, which was responding to charges of nepotism, displayed local working-class cultural codes—the code of honor—that collided with a broader journalistic and political code stressing objectivity and individual self-worth. Philipsen also illustrated how opposing cultural codes in public deliberation can be understood as an intercultural conflict.

Donal Carbaugh continued this program to study speaking using ethnographic interpretation. Carbaugh (1993) examined a televised discourse (namely, an episode of the Donahue talk show). This episode was taped in the former Soviet Union and aired in the United States. The program illustrated the uncomfortable moments that occurred when U.S. native conversational rules came into contact with Russian rules. For the show’s host, invoking a topic initiation–problematizing-response cycle was appropriate in the United States for public problem-oriented discussions. However, this topic cycle encroached upon Russian cultural practice, where discretion was appreciated in public spaces. Speech codes also have been used to identify conflicts between Native American and Euro-American speech traditions (Carbaugh & Wolf, 2000).

Ethnography of communication allows critics a means for identifying the cultural base from which rhetorical expectations and prescriptions arise (Gonzalez & Bardhan, 2017). These studies also suggest that speech communities are not identified easily by nation, race, or ethnicity, but rather by the shared pattern of talk that speakers recognize as their own.

Critical Rhetoric and Intercultural Communication

Raymie McKerrow introduced and elaborated the term critical rhetoric. McKerrow (1989) stated that the critiques of domination and freedom have an emancipatory purpose and are more generally a critique of ideologies, construed as rhetorical creations. In other words, the goal of critical rhetoric, in the context of intercultural rhetoric, is to demystify power discourses and identify the possibilities for liberation in future actions available to residents in the cultural community being examined. His shift from criticism to critique has had important implications for the study of rhetoric in intercultural contexts; it radicalized the link between the research activities of critics and the residents or cultural members in a study. The newly specified moral relationship between the intercultural researcher/critic and members of cultural communities required added investigation.

Dwight Conquergood had previously articulated the nature of the researcher/researched relationship. Conquergood (1985) advanced intercultural relationships through dialogic performance, wherein researchers, through energy, imagination, and courage, embrace differences as they affirm cultural accessibility. Conquergood (1991) noted the paradox of ethnographic writing—that ethnographers take great efforts to become cotemporal with others during fieldwork, but deny or minimize in writing the cotemporaneous experiences and relationships that made the ethnographic narrative possible. He crafted an argument for a critical ethnography that paralleled McKerrow’s call for a critical rhetoric. His critical focus was contesting domination and redistributing power through ethnographic performance.

From this critical perspective, communication scholars are urged to consider greater involvement and presence of “the other” in intercultural research. It is important to establish the author and cultural member, both of whom are invested in and recipients of the research product, as coproducers of knowledge. With this redefinition, the researcher is able to transform the relationship with the community from distance to involvement, from observation to conversation, and from representation to emancipation.

An important area within critical rhetorical studies is Whiteness studies. Whiteness names a social position of privilege and power that is maintained through a variety of naturalized rhetorical strategies that critics seek to unmask (Nakayama & Krizek, 1995). The taken-for-granted privilege of Whiteness is a dominant cultural element in U.S. society. Like most assumed knowledge, it is seldom reflected upon or noticed, even as it significantly shapes intercultural relations. Critiques of Whiteness generally focus on identifying the rhetorical strategies employed to protect White privilege and explaining how those strategies work simultaneously to constrain the choices and possibilities for those outside of White positionality. Rhetorical critiques have explained the role of Whiteness in shaping media representations of interpersonal friendships and focused upon racial controversies in professional sports.

A second important area of critical rhetorical studies that examines intercultural contexts is the study of vernacular rhetoric. Vernacular rhetoric is discourse generated within a locality or community (Ono & Sloop, 1995). Much like the notion of the speech community within the ethnography of communication, vernacular rhetoric is a discursive resource that is available to and understood by community insiders. Distinct vernacular discourses may intersect to create an intercultural context. Further, vernacular discourse is inevitably permeated by dominant discourses and elite media, and tension often exists among local meanings and communication practices, mainstream meanings and social prescriptions, and the forces of globalization.

Paying attention to locally created meanings and communication practices allows critics to describe particular manifestations of broader rhetorical traditions, which helps to avoid essentializing the rhetoric of cultural groups. The critique of vernacular discourse is particularly well suited to identifying linguistic borders, oppositional (or decolonizing) strategies, and local reappropriations of dominant themes. Critiques of vernacular rhetoric have examined the intercultural conflicts between Latina/o community activism groups and Euro-American city governments, conflicts between immigrant rights groups and opponents, and tension between Black American journalists and the White mainstream press.

Comparative Rhetoric

One of the recent developments in rhetorical studies, in response to globalization, transnational politics, and the American empire (Hesford, 2006), has been comparative rhetoric, which acknowledges the presence of multiple rhetorical models and cultures throughout the world. A rich new diversity and revisionism among research methods has accompanied the movement within rhetorical studies toward inclusion and comparison. Different communities of interpretation have formed around the new methods used to define and study rhetoric. Whether the focus is gender, genre, class, ethnicity, national identity, or history, studies in rhetoric have necessarily become comparative (Lipson & Binkley, 2004). The monopoly of the Greco-Roman rhetorical tradition is now energetically debated. Single comparisons with a classical paradigm are long gone, replaced by more nuanced definitions and redefinitions of what rhetoric is, how it is used, and how it might be best observed and studied (Swearingen & Schiappa, 2009).

Comparatists believe that because rhetoric itself is such a problematic concept—one defined differently in every culture and epoch—comparative rhetoric is hard to define. When scholars consider comparative rhetoric, they ask some difficult questions: What definition of rhetoric is in use? What is ethical rhetorical practice? If cultures do not share the concept of rhetoric, what are we comparing? By what method and means do we come to know a culture different from our own? If cultures and discourses are differently empowered, and if they do not share the same definition of ethics and rhetoric, can we ethically practice or study rhetoric across differences? The primary issues that characterize comparative rhetoric are (Hum & Lyon, 2009):

  • Concerns with definitions of comparative and rhetoric

  • The nature of appropriate methodology

  • The significance of the scholar’s reflection on her or his practice and immersion in the cultures in question

  • The representation of other people’s rhetoric

Definitional Difficulties

In comparative rhetorical studies, scholars have tried to move beyond the idea that the world’s political discursive traditions can be characterized only by the Athenian and North American rhetorical traditions—in other words, Aristotle’s (trans. 2007) persuasion and Burke’s (1950) identification, both highly concerned with rationality and deliberation. This is to free themselves from constricting insights and colonialist/Orientalist readings of non-Western discourse (Mao, 2006; Sen, 2005). On the other hand, overly copious definitions of rhetoric limit the precision of viewing particular details in the rhetorics of unfamiliar cultures (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

Scholars have argued in favor of using broadly defined rhetoric for recognizing and examining diverse rhetorical practices and the contested nature of the term rhetoric because it is politically useful and necessary. However, the discipline cannot study all symbol systems and still produce nuanced scholarship across cultures; pretending that a discipline can study all of writing, speech, music, and film leads to engagement with the “other” based on stereotypes (Lyons, 2000). Also, works that attend to cross-cultural sensitivity appropriately apply broad but culturally based definitions of rhetoric. While broad definitions can open up the study of alternative rhetorics, they are nevertheless problematic; they include poetry, literature, and song, and minimize the role of politics in the definition/conceptualization of rhetoric, which makes rhetoric vital to the understanding of power (Hum & Lyon, 2009). A middle way is offered by Mailloux’s (1998) definition of rhetoric, which emphasizes the political nature of rhetoric while acknowledging its discursive quality and cultural base.

Broader definitions of rhetoric are useful because they force scholars to engage with otherness. The goal of comparative rhetoric, however, is not just transcendence of universals and affirmation of tradition; it is also to define the cultural bases of discursive power and the ways in which it privileges some statements/strategies in the production of knowledge and reproduction of power (Foucault, 1972). With this as the rationale, some scholars view comparative rhetoric today as a strategy for engaging other cultures and discourses instead of for discovering commonplaces and universals.

The term comparative also has complications in terms of ethical practices. Questions that plague comparatists are: What is it that we compare? For what purpose? With what motive? Are similarities or uniqueness more telling discoveries? What qualifies one to write about another culture, and who are the appropriate practitioners of comparative rhetoric? While comparative rhetoric is commonly defined as the comparison across nationalities or nation states, it might examine gender, race, ethnicity, and religion as sites of potential discovery (Hum & Lyon, 2009). Comparison reads texts across and through cultures and across time and space. Aristotle’s persuasion and Burke’s identification exemplify a method for comparing rhetoric across cultures, space, and time; in this sense, all study of texts is comparative because no rhetorical text/situation can be truly understood if it is not placed in a relationship with other texts/situations. Yet, focus on the comparative nature of texts/situations, many comparatists believe, diminishes the primary motives for the evolving field of comparative rhetoric today. With globalization and decolonization as context, currently most comparative work is concerned with the development of global consciousness and communication.

In seeking an ethical definition of comparative rhetoric, some scholars now avoid references to and assumptions about tradition. They view the nature of a rhetorical tradition—a textual canon or a historical, cultural context—as problematic (Graff, Walzer, & Atwill, 2005; Lipson & Binkley, 2004). Some questions that arise are, according to Hum and Lyon (2009): Since any tradition is a politically motivated construct, and given the forces that make Western rhetoric a set of complex, heterogeneous practices, how does one approach the heterogeneous linguistic and cultural practices of another culture and then compare their traditions with the traditions of the West? If the tradition of Western rhetoric itself is difficult to trace or define, what does it mean to carry the concept of tradition to other cultures?

To interpret and translate reflectively between two traditions, comparatists identify words, grammars, and concepts that allow them to move between locations, to traverse the divide, and to understand writers and speakers from both cultures. Reflection takes time; instead of immediate understanding, comparatists give time for appropriate terms to develop. These terms together allow the comparatist to glimpse both the broad and the heterogeneous nature of a culture’s rhetoric, and the process by which scholars come to them reflects the development of a language that reveals the particular and the universal (Lu, 1998). Thus, a scholar gives up the specificity of a disciplined and Western definition of rhetoric and develops the potential to see the resources of language more complexly (Hum & Lyon, 2009). Finding appropriate culture-specific definitions is a significant task in comparative work.

Methodological Considerations of Comparative Rhetoric

A comparatist faces two significant methodological problems in approaching texts: (a) translation and (b) an appropriate methodology, as the usual rhetorical tools lose appropriateness. Some significant methodology-related questions are, according to Hum and Lyon (2009): Should one simply address a culture using grounded analysis through close readings, avoiding established (Western) rhetorical tools; or immerse oneself in one culture, and perhaps not even compare at all? Or can one use a method such as the pentad or speech act theory outside its culture? What are the consequences of importing a method into a culture in which it is not indigenous?

Mao (2003) argues that cross-cultural study faces the challenges of avoiding a deficiency model—a non-Western culture is defined and judged against a Western ideal. He elaborates on Garrett’s (1999) notion of the methodological paradox, where one must start with a method external to the culture but based on the researcher’s rhetorical training. This paradox makes it impossible to approach the other’s culture on its own terms within its own assumptions. The methodological paradox points out to rhetoricians the necessity and flaw of their training and research. Self-reflective Western scholars often fail to reach new understandings of discursive hegemonies.

Difference has a specificity that is hard to describe in ways that truly acknowledge it without exoticizing it (Hum & Lyon, 2009). In accurate/self-reflective comparative rhetoric, translation and method must intertwine, according to comparatists; comparative rhetoric requires the creation of new vocabularies indicative of new concepts. When one acquires the words and concepts of another culture’s rhetorical traditions, one is not translating the word in any simple sense. Just as logos, pathos, or ethos cannot be translated into English and keep their connotations, the preservation of the original meaning creates a significant vocabulary necessary for comparative discourse. Comparatists cannot take critical vocabularies and indigenous forms as givens, easily transferred between cultures; rather, vocabularies and forms need to be preserved for a comparative approach to have meaning (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

Some scholars advocate that for rhetorical study to be truly comparative, it has to engage the texts of at least two cultures. This claim creates two problems: (a) how to see without a standpoint, which is never fully in both places; and (b) what constitutes a separate culture. In his definition of rhetoric, Kastely (1997) foregrounds the work of resisting ideologies, epistemological closures, and hierarchies of persuasion; by grounding rhetorical action in the play of positions, he asks scholars to understand how they have been figured and positioned. This theory of position defines a historical concern of comparative rhetoricians: In attempting to understand and translate a work that belongs to a very different tradition, can comparatists read their own conceptions into it? Oliver (1971) advocated for a culture’s rhetoric on its own terms; the most likely distortion is to seek to depict rhetoric in Western terms. Alternatively, unless one finds a Western rhetoric, one is tempted to conclude that there is no rhetoric at all. Comparatists’ hope is to find something more than Western rhetoric—a new position from which to see both the familiar and the other.

Currently, four practices suggest different answers to these issues and questions (Hum & Lyon, 2009):

  • Scholars’ use of Athenian/Burkean rhetoric as the position from which to see the rhetorical world

  • Scholars’ use of perspicuous methods, with little clarity on what those methods impose

  • Scholars’ use of particular frameworks, while minimizing the comparative nature of their work

  • Scholars’ use of non-Western tools on Western texts

Many comparatists have applied Western methods to analyze non-Western rhetoric. To counter the assumption that the Chinese are not analytical and logical, Blinn and Garrett (1993) read Intrigues of the Warring States, a volume of 500 early Chinese speeches, to find Aristotle’s topoi (Goldin, 2005). From that finding, they argued that the Chinese are rational; the purpose of this work was to challenge Orientalism and help scholars get a nuanced understanding of Chinese rhetoric. Without subsuming other cultures under Western terms and approaches, scholars taking this route allow Western theory to function not as a truth, but as a lens through which to take a critical view of Western rhetoric (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

Several scholars consider the third approach as the best for comparative work. In the study of Chinese rhetoric, Lu (2004) described the discipline’s progress as moving from a less-than-engaged comparative rhetoric to a more sinocentric rhetoric—a move from a superficial viewing of Chinese rhetorical practices through the Western lens to an in-depth exploration of original texts to search for rhetorical meanings in ancient Chinese contexts. In her book, Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution: The Impact on Chinese Thought, Culture, and Communication, while drawing on Western rhetorical theory, Lu (2004) used personal experience and classical Chinese rhetorical and cultural traditions to analyze the political discourse of the Cultural Revolution. The examination of a text within its cultural context is considered by many comparatists to be the most revealing of political insight and the most useful to political and cultural rhetorical studies (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

New methodologies from non-Western cultures are now being applied to Western texts. These non-Western renderings of rhetorical language do not have the colonial concerns of forcing Western methodologies into other cultures, thus reshaping Western knowledge and self-perception. The primary goal of these approaches is to create knowledge and challenge oppression in the context of Western academia, where the political and academic power structure still lies (Hum & Lyon, 2009). These four methodological approaches are constantly discussed and developed within comparative rhetoric, but at the core of the discussions is the issue of whether one can or should make claims of universalism if one is always positioned from a partial view.

The Problem of Standpoint

Beginning with the studies by and of Aristotle (as well as Gorgias and Isocrates, not discussed in this entry), critiques of universalism or Platonism have been made consistently by rhetoricians throughout the last quarter of the 20th century as a response to earlier structuralism and positivism. Most see the focus on situation as the basis of rhetoric. Nevertheless, many rhetoricians continue to subsume the discourses of other cultures under the rubric of Western rhetorical theory. The question that follows from this is: What is the basis or drive behind the claim of universal insight?

Many comparatists argue that the answer is embedded in the paradox presented by Western discourse, which is understood as being a colonialist discourse that sets scholars up to claim its values as ideal. The roots of the discipline’s conceptual paradox lie in the patriarchal and colonialist ideologies that pervade discussions of the “other.” In other words, scholars are most rewarded for work that silences the specifics of other people’s cultures, meanings, and intentions. Despite the critiques made again and again (Lu, 1998, 2000; Mao, 2006), rhetorical scholars are not respected for narrow claims based on specific texts and authors. For insights from other cultures and noncanonical texts to enter disciplinary rhetoric, scholars are now focusing on the specific texts within a methodological framework and developing vocabulary based on those cultures (Hum & Lyon, 2009); scholars are advocating focused study that is conscious of standpoint.

Representation of Others’ Rhetoric

The partiality of any standpoint, the centrality of a researcher’s voice, and the difficulty of grasping a culture or a text as a whole (even a researcher’s own), pose significant problems for the ethics of representing (Hum, 2006). These problems become especially prominent when scholars begin to work outside their areas of training. There are particular criteria for fairly representing and claiming insights for and about others. Alcoff (1991) argues that sometimes it is appropriate to speak for others because retreating from speaking for others supports the individualistic, autonomous ideology of the West and sets the desire to avoid criticism/error before the need for dialogue. Given the mediated nature of all representation and the political need for some representing of others, she offers a four-step program to speaking for others:

  1. 1. The impetus to speak must be interrogated, even resisted. Rather than teach, one must develop skills of listening.

  2. 2. One’s location or standpoint and context should be analyzed, preferably collectively.

  3. 3. The speaker must embrace accountability and be open to criticism.

  4. 4. One must weigh and understand the effects of one’s claims.

The effects of both writing and not writing should be considered by any scholar undertaking a comparative study.

To minimize the dangers of speaking from privilege, one approach that comparatists take is to avoid judgments and focus on descriptions, thus preventing the reduction of non-Western texts to a Western ideal. When the gaze of ethnocentrism (e.g., Eurocentrism) is dulled through self-reflection, openness to difference and critique, and consciousness of effect, other cultures are better understood and offer more knowledge (Hum & Lyon, 2009). In other words, if one only describes, one minimizes the dangers of colonizing the other’s rhetoric, even though description is done with a standpoint. Nevertheless, this approach, however ethical, limits the production of knowledge.

In a quest for insight into all that rhetoric might be—reflective, examined, respectful, and located insight—Hum and Lyon (2009) argue that sometimes a scholar trained in Western rhetoric may speak of other cultures’ rhetoric. While potentially exploitative, an external standpoint can reveal hidden assumptions and create new understandings. In a collection of essays on early China and Greece, Hall (2002) discussed the appropriate role of amateur sinologists or cultural outsiders. Just as rhetoricians argue about the productivity of revisionist and reconstructive historiography, Hall argued that the tension between speculation and scholarship is necessary for recovering meaningful texts. He argued for a full collaboration between Western philosophy and sinology if texts are to be teachable.

Hum and Lyon (2009) have extended this point, stating that rhetorical interpretation of texts benefits from a comparative approach that allows speculation with respect for and grounding in the other’s history, as well as reflection on the outsider’s motives and assumptions. It is useful for the quest of meaning to not be limited to the standpoints within each disparate culture; pragmatically, they must be in dialogue since comparative rhetoric is a method of analyzing different discourses, a means of discovering common grounds of engagement, and a strategy for revealing cultural assumptions (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

Discussion of the Literature

In recent years, rhetoricians have shown interest in the topic of cultural communication and its influence on interpersonal, organizational, mass-mediated, political, and public rhetorical practices. It is widely recognized that rhetorical practices are shaped, negotiated, and maintained through mechanisms and processes that are highly cultural in nature (Wilkins & Wolf, 2011).

However, one of the primary challenges for rhetorical approaches to communication and culture is the lack of publication of analysis and theory by scholars in non-Western cultures. There exists an established but small body of work that focuses on European rhetoric. Chinese rhetoric has also begun to have a body of literature large enough for response, dialogue, and engagement with other cultures. Much of non-Western scholarship still has had little development; even when it appears, it is simply subsumed to Western rhetoric and only rarely examined for its own worth (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

More studies need to attend to South Asian, Southeast Asian, and East Asian rhetoric outside China. There are some studies that focus on rhetoric from India, specifically that of Mahatma Gandhi; but as Gorsevski (2004, p. xxi) warns, Gandhi’s rhetoric is often analyzed because of his impeccable English, which allowed him to be seen as a “stand-in Euro.” While there is a growing body of literature comparing or studying the interactional dynamics of dominant Anglo-American and African American rhetorics (Royster, 2005), Afrocentric comparative rhetoric—comparisons in which at least one text or theory is informed by an African worldview—is underdeveloped unless one includes African American rhetoric (Collins, 2001).

Even when one finds Afrocentric rhetorical research, it is likely to deal with the subject globally while ignoring the diversity that is Africa. This approach, taken by scholars such as Collins (2001) and Asante (1998), is problematic in its generalization of time, space, and nation. Afrocentrism offers a theoretical umbrella to cover the specificity needed to develop fully a conversation about the relationships among various African rhetorics, cultures, and traditions, as well as their relationships with the rest of the world (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

An exemplar of the specificity offered by Afrocentrism is seen in the development of work on early Egypt. Since the first volume of Rhetoric, when Fox (1983) wrote about ancient Egyptian rhetoric, it has been posited as a counterpoint to Athenian rhetoric. While the literature is not copious, the serious engagement of some scholars has produced kingdom-specific analyses of rhetorical canons, tropes, rhetors, genders, court procedures, class, and genre (Fox, 1983; Lipson, 2004; Sweeney, 2004). While the scholarship covers a 1,500-year period, as a body, it begins to nuance the specifics of Egyptian dynastic rhetoric within its own cultural frame. These kinds of analyses facilitate international understanding of the successes and failures of the current rhetoric of African nations, nongovernment agencies, and people (Hum & Lyon, 2009).

Some work is also being done within the purview of the Asiacentric perspective, but it is underrepresented in the literature. The Asiacentric perspective focuses on diverse Asian cultural traditions/rhetoric as theoretical context, and in the process, it centers on Asian languages, histories, philosophies, and so on; this is for the purpose of placing emphasis on the diverse lived/cultural experiences of Asians (Miike, 2014). In so doing, this perspective challenges the theoretical themes that have facilitated the development of Eurocentric communication research. To make sense of Native American, South American, Middle Eastern, or other cultural rhetoric, and to continue challenging the Eurocentric bias in communication research, sufficient scholarship is required to have conversations about the specifics of each culture’s contemporary inflection.

Further Reading

Carbaugh, D. (2005). Cultures in conversation. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Find this resource:

    González, A., & Tanno, D. V. (Eds.) (2000). Rhetoric in intercultural contexts. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

      Gray-Rosendale, L., & Gruber, S. (2001). Alternative rhetorics: Challenges to the rhetorical tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press.Find this resource:

        Kennedy, G. A. (1998). Comparative rhetoric: An historical and cross-cultural introduction. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

          Kimball, B. A. (1986). Orators and philosophers: A history of the idea of liberal education. New York: Teachers College.Find this resource:

            Lacy, M. G., & Ono, K.A. (Eds.). (2011). Critical rhetorics of race. New York: New York University Press.Find this resource:

              Lloyd, G. E. R. (1990). Demystifying mentalities. New York: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                Schiappa, E. (2001). Second thoughts on the critiques of big rhetoric. Philosophy and Rhetoric, 34, 260–274.Find this resource:

                  Shuter, R. (2000). The culture of rhetoric. In A. Gonzalez & D. V. Tanno (Eds.), Rhetoric in intercultural contexts (pp. 11–17). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.Find this resource:

                    Swearingen, C. J. (1991). Rhetoric and irony: Western literacy and Western lies. New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                      Tanno, D. V., & Jandt, F. E. (1993/1994). Redefining the “other” in multicultural research. Howard Journal of Communications, 5, 36–45.Find this resource:

                        Xiao, X. (1995). China encounters Darwinism: A case of intercultural rhetoric. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 81, 83–99.Find this resource:

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