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Rhetorical Approaches to Health and Medicine  

Jennifer A. Malkowski, J. Blake Scott, and Lisa Keränen

Rhetoric, commonly understood as the art, practice, and analysis of persuasion, has longstanding connections to medicine and health. Rhetorical scholars, or rhetoricians, have increasingly applied rhetorical theories, concepts, and methods to the texts, contexts, discourses, practices, materials, and digital and visual artifacts related to health and medicine. As an emerging interdisciplinary subfield, the rhetoric of health and medicine seeks to uncover how symbolic patterns shape thought and action in health and medical texts, discourses, settings, and materials. In practice, rhetoricians who study health and medicine draw from the standard modes of rhetorical analysis, such as rhetorical criticism and rhetorical historiography, as well as from social science methods—including participant observation, interviewing, content analysis, and visual mapping—in order to deepen understanding of how language functions across health and medical objects, issues, and discussions. The objects of analysis for rhetorical studies of health and medicine span medical research, education, and clinical practice from laboratory notes to provider–patient interaction; health policymaking and practice from draft policies through standards of care; public health texts and artifacts; consumer health practices and patient advocacy on- and offline; public discourses about disease, death, bodies, illness, wellness, and health; online and digital health information; popular entertainments and medical dramas; and alternative and complementary medicine. Despite its methodological breadth, rhetorical approaches to science and medicine consistently involve the systematic examination and production of symbolic exchanges occurring across interactional, institutional, and public contexts to determine how individuals and groups create knowledge, meanings, identities, understandings, and courses of action about health and illness.


Types of Explanations in Health and Risk Messaging  

Katherine E. Rowan

Explanations designed to teach, rather than to support scientific claims in scholarly works, are essential in health and risk communication. Patients explain why they think their symptoms warrant medical attention. Clinicians elicit information from patients and explain diagnoses and treatments. Families and friends explain health and risk concerns to one another. In addition, there are websites, brochures, fact sheets, museum exhibits, health fairs, and news stories explaining health and risk to lay audiences. Unfortunately, research on this important discursive goal is less extensive than is research on persuasion, that is, efforts to gain agreement. One problem is that explanation-as-teaching has not been carefully conceptualized. Some confuse this communication goal and discursive type with its frequent verbal and visual features, such as simple wording or diagrams. Others believe explanation-as-teaching does not exist as a distinctive communication goal, maintaining that all communication is solely persuasive: that is, designed to gain agreement. Explanation-as-teaching is a distinct and important health communication goal. Patient involvement in decision making requires that both clinicians and patients understand options underlying health-care choices. To explore types of explanation-as-teaching, research provides (a) several ways of categorizing health and risk explanations for lay audiences; (b) evidence that certain textual and graphic features overcome predictable confusions, and (c) illustrations of each explanation type. Additionally, explanation types succeed or fail in part because of the social or emotional conditions in which they are presented so it is important to note research on conditions that support patients, families, and clinicians in benefiting from explanations of health and risk complexities and curricula designed to enhance clinicians’ explanatory skill.