Rebecca Townsend, University of Massachusetts
Abstract: This essay employs the concept of “circumference of scene” together with ethnography of communication as an orienting framework in an analysis of a New England town meeting land-use debate. I demonstrate how circumference-widening occurs and how limits are created or enforced. The limits of widening are related to cultural norms for interaction and expectations for what counts as legitimate local political discourse. Strategic scene-widening allows participants to act as if they were only moving in response to an imminent threat. These acts also create the links between the local setting and the metaphysical scenes.
HOW CAN WE DESCRIBE SCENES? “Scenes” can “shift” (Huglen and Brock). They “change.” They rarely stay the same; despite human’s attempts, sometimes, to create permanence. “Scenes” have “borders” and “borderlands” (Terrill). Indeed, as Kenneth Burke wrote, they have a “circumference” (22). “Circumference” entails another related term, “widening,” which captures that curious experience that listeners feel when rhetors use new scenic terms. Something has changed; something is different. “Widening” or “expanding” helpfully marks the union between the physical and the metaphysical. “Shifting” scenes is merely a mechanical operation, just as in film where rectangles of scenes move past each other in a linear fashion. When scenes “widen” from the physical to the metaphysical, however, a special sort of action occurs. In their article that superbly illustrates local Mainers’ strategies of differently emphasizing metaphysical and physical scenic terms, Mari Boor Tonn, Valerie Endress, and John Diamond remind readers that “[t]he utility of emphasizing a physical scene in certain contexts and a metaphysical scene in others is suggested by Burke: ‘One knows when to “spiritualize” a material issue and when to “materialize” a spiritual one’” (qtg. Burke, Philosophy 216 at 180 n18). Symbolic scenes involve both metaphysical and physical dimensions.
Here, in this essay featuring ethno-rhetorical analysis of a local Massachusetts town meeting debate, I demonstrate another way to see the relationship between the metaphysical and physical. In a debate on a land-use question, rhetors “widen” the “circumference of scene” in a way that illustrates the flexibility of local tradition, and allows participants to act as if they were only moving. “Circumference of scene” is a valuable concept for rhetorical scholars to use in examining rhetorical events or acts. Rhetors who stretch the circumference too widely, beyond the collective purpose (breaking the bond needed between physical and metaphysical), are marked as having violated the norms for interaction at town meeting. Participants may widen the scene, but they cannot shift it beyond the scope of what town meeting (the scene-agent) has the power to do.
Before describing and analyzing the practice and range of scene-widening in town meeting rhetoric, I must first explain this type of government structure as well as convey the character and characteristics of the town. The theoretical perspective I take toward the rhetoric that constitutes town meeting deliberation starts from a Burkean stance on “scene” and an ethnography of communication orientation toward speech communities and rhetorical interactions. I outline both the theoretical frame and the method for generating, reviewing, and analyzing data. Most of the essay involves descriptive analysis of a debate on land-use, showing how interacting rhetors variously widen the scene and attempt to shift it beyond the permissible bounds of the communication event. Following an exploration of the consequences of scene changes and the scene-agent ratio, I discuss the implications for the local “individual” acting or moving in physical settings and metaphysical scenes of town meeting tradition, community, and democracy.
Town Meeting as a Political Form
There is very little scholarship on town meeting and government meetings. Currently, the only three books on New England town meeting are written by political scientists (Mansbridge; Zimmerman; Bryan). Communication has produced two articles: one brief overview of 1964 town meetings (Kerr) and one study of colonial times (Potter). In 1999’s special edition of the Communication Review, Michael Schudson laments the lack of local political studies of any region. This trend is beginning to reverse (Carbaugh and Wolf; Edbauer; Eliasoph; Farkas; Flyvbjerg; Marchand; Tracy and Ashcraft; Tracy and Dimock; Tracy and Muller; Tracy and Standerfer).
Town meeting is not simply a forum, or a public meeting; it is a local legislature that occurs typically twice a year (but more often if demand warrants). Participants have power to appropriate money, create laws, and zone land use. In Massachusetts, approximately 300 towns use town meeting. In the specific case studied here, Amherst, Massachusetts uses a “representative” form, involving 240 elected “town meeting members”: twenty-four representatives from ten precincts. Also present at the town meeting event is an elected Moderator, who, by virtue of state laws and local by-laws, keeps order and calls the votes. Procedure for debate does not follow Robert’s Rules, but Town Meeting Time (Johnson, Trustman, and Wadsworth), in conjunction with relevant by-laws, state laws, and local traditions. Traditions are not simply collections of past practices, but as I will show, get enacted. Town meeting strictly adheres to an agenda that towns (per state law) call a “warrant,” from the root term “warning.” Town residents must be appropriately warned of town meeting’s time, location, and topics that will be discussed. Topics are arranged into separate “articles.” While one meeting may involve several evening sessions, no action can occur on the proposals on the articles unless town meeting completes the warrant. This involves voting each motion on every article up or down, voting to dismiss it, or sending it to a town advisory or regulatory board. Proposals become binding when town meeting is dissolved. Each meeting is its own bound event; no issue may carry over to the next.
Any registered voter of Amherst may speak at town meeting. Participants must “speak to the issue.” This involves asking “questions,” “answering,” “arguing,” making a “board recommendation,” offering “comments,” and making a “report.” Issues are restricted to the topic outlined by the article and the motions participants make (to “approve,” “adopt,” “amend,” or “dismiss”). Issues themselves may call for a variety of actions, including raising and appropriating money, transferring money between accounts, resolving to do some action, or changing or creating a by-law. Participants may criticize individuals’ or institutions’ actions, but are prohibited from criticizing people themselves. They may not insult others, speculate on others’ motives, or advertise. The debate I present includes two violations of the latter two norms for rhetorical interaction.
Only elected members and the ex-officio members may vote. Ex-officio members include the Select Board, the School Committee, the President of the Library Trustees, the Finance Committee Chair, the Moderator (who, as a practice in Amherst, only votes in case of a tie), and the Town Manager. Amherst’s Chief Executive Officer is a five-member elected “Select Board” (in other towns, and in state law, it is a “Board of Selectmen”). In addition to setting policy and deciding liquor licenses, the Select Board hires and supervises a Town Manager, who is responsible for the day-to-day operation of government departments. There are numerous other boards and commissions that have varying degrees of authority and membership criteria. Relevant for the discussion in this essay is the powerful seven-member Conservation Commission, which is appointed by the town manager. It “promotes the preservation of open space through acquisition of land and development rights. It makes policy related to the use and management of acquired conservation land.” The law gives the commission its power: “MGL [Massachusetts General Law] Ch. 131, sec. 40, and Amherst wetlands protection bylaws give the commission broad powers to regulate the use of wetlands” (Amherst).
Amherst is a college town. Amherst College, the University of Massachusetts, and Hampshire College are within its bounds, and Smith and Mount Holyoke Colleges are in nearby towns. Youth predominates. In the 2000 census, 52% of residents were between the ages of 15-24; the college population itself is 26,403. Permanent residents find blessings and burdens brought by the students who flock to Amherst during the school year. Amherst’s web page, part of the Massachusetts’ Commonwealth Communities web pages, describes this feeling:
While the town’s commercial, social and cultural life benefit from the liveliness and diversity stimulated by the colleges and the University, the town suffers financially from the fact that over half its land is tax exempt. Amherst has long supported excellent public schools, libraries and town services; it has also worked hard both to preserve farming and open space and to provide affordable housing. Amherst is one of the few towns in the State to have met the State’s goal of having 10% of its housing stock affordable. (Commonwealth of Massachusetts)
Amherst’s citizens have a variety of political, environmental, and social causes they support; this too is evident as Amherst concurrently supports “farming” and “open space” and “affordable housing” in a delicate balancing act. Non-residents jokingly refer to Amherst as “the People’s Republic of Amherst” for its progressive attitudes and politics. One member of town meeting informed me that soon I would get used to people “and their causes.”
Theoretical Stance on Scene
Kenneth Burke’s notion of “circumference of scene” and Dell Hymes’s ethnography of communication guide my study of a practical performance of democratic local governance. Burke, in A Grammar of Motives, drawing from William James, claims that “[t]he word reminds us that, when ‘defining by location,’ one may place the object of one’s definition in contexts of varying scope. . . . [T]he choice of circumference of the scene in terms of which a given act is to be located will have a corresponding effect upon the interpretation of the act itself” (77). To be sure, scenes affect the perspectives with which agents act. But scene does more. Burke outlines the dimensions of scope and reduction in considering the “circumference” of scene. He notes that “[t]he contracting and expanding of scene is rooted in the very nature of linguistic placement. And a selection of circumference from among this range is in itself an act . . . with the definition or interpretation of the act taking shape accordingly” (84). Furthermore, this expansion or contraction of scenic language “may stem from an accurate awareness that one can define human nature and human actions in much wider terms than the particularities his immediate circumstances would permit” (84).
Ethnography of communication [EC] is both a theory and a method. An ethnography of communication orientation to the study of rhetoric draws attention to the patterned, constitutive nature of the system of “customs and values” as they are expressed (at least in part) through communication (Hymes “Models”). Dell Hymes developed ethnography of communication as a way to examine native communities’ own theories of speaking for comparative analysis (see important developments in Philipsen; Carbaugh; Fitch; Katriel; Scollo Sawyer). Two key assumptions are that speech (1) is patterned and (2) is partially constitutive of social life. Rhetoric, the symbolic action present at town meeting, is similarly patterned and partially constitutive of social life. Rhetorical interaction is “culturally defined” (Philipsen, “Navajo World View” 139). Analysis of participants’ use of the social labels for communication is particularly important in understanding the cultural dimensions of rhetoric (e.g., Hymes “The Ethnography of Speaking”; Carbaugh “Fifty Terms for Talk”; and Scollo Sawyer “Nonverbal Ways”).
Hymes’ interest in the culturally rich communication of particular communities developed from Kenneth Burke’s rhetorical orientation toward language. Other scholars have already noted the debt EC has to Burkean dramatism (e.g. Bauman, Let Your Words Be Few; Carbaugh, Talking American and Situating Selves; Jordan). Calls for ethnography of local rhetoric are slowly being answered, and rhetorical studies benefit by a more detailed treatment of culture and context, a “cultural rhetorical studies” (Rosteck). Rhetoric is performed in and through speech communities. Communities have their own topoi that draw upon and enrich the broader culture. Those who study political communication benefit from using these complementary modes of interpretive description.
Rhetorical ethnography, with a focus on rhetorical interactions, is the general orientation that guides this study. I treat the town meeting situated interaction of speaker and listener as a rhetorical process, designed with a vote in view. The end of the event is to complete the town’s business. Speakers and listeners alike are motivated toward that end, and other purposes as well. I treat their interaction, their abilities to move each other symbolically toward that end place, as rhetorical. I study the context and contingency that support much of the interaction in town meeting. I study where norms for speaking create rhetorical opportunities and discuss how participants use those opportunities. My analysis has been “properly admonished to be on the look-out for these terministic relationships between the circumference and the ‘circumfered,’ even on occasions that may seem on the surface to be of a purely empirical nature” (Burke, Grammar 78). Rather than assess whether some ideal conception of democratic deliberation is or is not present in town meeting, I take for granted participant labeling of town meeting as “democratic” and wonder instead what sense this makes to participants themselves and what happens in the event labeled as such.
In order to generate material for systematic study, I conducted the bulk of my fieldwork in Amherst in 1999 and 2000. I began preliminary interviewing and reading about Amherst history and politics in 1998 and attended Amherst’s 1999 and 2000 annual town meeting. I generated over two hundred pages of field notes from nineteen hours of observation and review of videotapes. Part of my participant observation included numerous informal interviews with participants at preliminary committee meetings or at town meeting itself. Hymes’ SPEAKING heuristic (scene/setting, participants, ends, acts, key, instrumentality, norms for interaction and interpretation, and genre) provided a guide for my questions in interviews (“Models” 59). Initially I conducted eight formal, semi-structured interviews (each was approximately forty-five minutes in length, and seven interviews were tape recorded) with participants in town meetings in five towns (interestingly, most mention Amherst’s meeting without prompting).1
From videotapes, interview notes, and my field notes, I observed that participants place a great deal of stress upon “speaking to the issue” at town meeting. My main questions were: what is the rule for “speaking to the issue” and what does its flexibility permit? The 1999 videotapes and the 2000 tapes contain re-playable moments of “speaking to the issue,” which collectively constitute democratic deliberation in Amherst. I chose three sessions of the 1999 meeting for closer analysis, one at the start of the meeting, one in the middle, and one at the end. On separate cards, I wrote down what each person said, with notations about nonverbal actions, as I was able to hear and see from the videotapes. Later I clustered the cards, by similarities and differences. Whenever native terms were used to describe what I saw in these clusterings, I used them as labels for my formulation of a typology of acts that can occur as part of deliberation in town meeting: “questions” (quick question for information, question about an issue, pointed question), “answering,” “arguing” (“for” or “against”), “board recommendation” (“able to make,” “in favor,” “not in favor,” or “unable to make”), “comments,” and making a “report.”
As a result of considering “speaking to the issue” as a style of speaking, this conceptualization provides for analysis of both the act (singular agent) and event (interaction). Phase one of a “terms for talk” analysis (Carbaugh “Fifty Terms for Talk”) involved reviewing the tapes, listening for social uses of the term “speaking to the issue.” I described its invocation, focusing on the act and event sequence of what was said, and how it was said. I also interpreted how the invocation functions. Phase two involved describing the enactment of “speaking to the issue” and how the enactment functions. I then reviewed violations of “speaking to the issue,” like speculating on others’ motives, advertising, and using personal insults. Phase three involved interpreting the meanings and messages that the term (as invoked and as enacted) makes known. I examined moments of co-occurrence, contrast, constancy and variation. I transcribed only key parts of town meeting that evidenced “speaking to the issue.” For a quantitative measure of just how common the enactment of “speaking to the issue” is, consider that there were 274 instances of it on session nights April 28, 1999, May 5, 1999, and June 9, 1999. Each night contained 99, 89, and 86 instances, respectively. I picked a fourth session to check if these other three were typical. On May 19, 1999, there were 89 instances. Invocation of the term “speak to the issue” occurred less frequently than its enactment. On May 5, 1999, there were 25 instances of invoking the term. On May 19, there were also 25 invocations. I could be reasonably certain the analyses would be representative of the other sessions as well.
I focus on the act/event of “speaking to the issue” and how its performance can create scenes for the audiences. This allows the participants to feel efficacious in more places. One type of “speaking to the issue” is “arguing.” I have chosen one issue in a session of town meeting, a “representative anecdote” (Burke; Wess) for a study of the relation between scene and “speaking to the issue:” discussion of an article that would designate a parcel of land for conservation (Article 29, May 19, 1999). Violations of discursive norms can mark boundaries, the circumference of scene, so I attended to those moments carefully. For every instance of “speaking to the issue,” I transcribed the speech (or parts of longer speeches) on a note card. I then examined any related, synonymous or oppositional terms and whether these are acts, events, or styles. Analysis included details about the term’s structure, mode, and meanings and messages. I described the typology items’ attributes, structuring norms, and criteria that legitimated their status as “speaking to the issue.” I examined the social uses of “speaking to the issue” and the ways participants attempted to achieve identification (with a position, with them, or with something else). For my purpose in this essay, I include only the portion of this analysis that bears on what the debate shows about “widening the circumference of scene.” Participants may widen the circumference of scene only so far; otherwise they violate the norms for “speaking to the issue.”
Arguments and Violations in a Debate on Land-Use near Puffer’s Pond
Puffer’s Pond is a special place in Amherst. Trails wind through forested areas around the Pond, a popular place to fish, boat, or swim, and it is always very cold (or “refreshing”). To create a sense of permanence in the landscape, some residents petitioned the town to place the surrounding land under Conservation Commission administration. Analysis of how “arguments” are socially used will proceed as I describe the debate’s unfolding. Alice Allen made the petitioner’s presentation to approve an article that would give the Conservation Commission permanent control of the land near Puffer’s Pond to retain the “terrain’s” “natural beauty.” Since it was informally administered by the Commission, there would be no loss of tax revenue. She concluded that she knew “others would like to speak to this.” Proponents were networked and came prepared. Participants often orchestrate “speaking to the issue” so that it appears that the position they espouse has broad-based support.
First, however, the Select Board had to make its recommendation. A member of that board, Eva Schiffer, noted that they would “not recommend this article” since the land might have a “prospect for future development.” To verify this, they would “need [an] informed decision,” which they said they did not have. Although she acknowledged the “possible good reasons” for “keeping it under current management,” she reminded listeners that the land is in an “affordable housing area.” She widened the scene to include the land’s surroundings. Affordable housing is a topic close to many Amherst town meeting members’ hearts, and she used this to rebut proponent’s claim that there is no loss of tax revenue. Rather than arguing the point abstractly, she specified a source of that potential revenue: affordable housing (as compared with another potential source: high-end developments). Not the land itself, but money, in the form of taxes, was Ms. Schiffer’s “rationalizing ground of action” (Grammar 113).
The Select Board noted that they “aren’t opposed as a matter of principle to conservation” but that the town should want to “keep options open.” Ms. Allen, the petitioner, looked on, smiling. Since the Finance Committee had no position on the article, the attention then turned to the next relevant committee: the Conservation Commission, represented by James Scott. Mr. Scott reported that the “majority . . . support this article.” He gave a history of the land and referred to the history the petitioner had given. The “terrain” provided another reason for “ensur[ing] that it remain in conservation management.” Ms. Allen had discussed this article with that Commission, as is a recommended practice. That link was no surprise. What was more interesting for the purposes of this analysis, however, was the emerging groundswell of support.
The next four non-executive branch speakers (Vladimir Morales, Margaret Gage, Jim Ellis, and Isaac BenEzra) all spoke in favor of the article. The only speakers against the article were Ms. Schiffer and Barry Del Castilho (the Town Manager). The Moderator, Harrison Gregg, was responsible for ensuring that all those who wished to speak got a chance to do so. Accordingly, he asked if a member of the Fair Housing Partnership Committee was present. Vladimir Morales went to the podium. Board members may speak as part of their board, or as independent citizens. They should disclose who they represent, however. Lest his words be construed as the Board’s “recommendation in favor” and not simply as a separate individual making an “argument for” the motion, the Moderator asked Mr. Morales if he represented that Committee. Mr. Morales replied, “I do but I have a different position” than they do—to everyone’s laughter. He said he was speaking on behalf of the motion to approve the article. While it was true he is a member of that committee, he acknowledged, he differed from the majority position. It was important for him to identify with the Fair Housing Partnership Committee (FHPC) here, even though he was not technically speaking for that group’s position. His dual role as someone who appreciates the land and as someone who is active in creating affordable housing imbued his act of “arguing”—his “speaking to the issue” of Puffer’s Pond land conservation—with considerable credibility.
Identifying himself this way created ambiguity for listeners, and lent credibility to the advocates. He spoke as someone who had “visited” the land often and assured the meeting that this was “not our only last chance for affordable housing.” He spoke highly of the “opportunity” this “neighborhood petition” had to “help shape Amherst’s future.” No, he differentiated, this article was “not anti-development”; rather it would provide “safe, attractive pedestrian access to Puffer’s Pond.” He narrowed the scene to that parcel again, to differentiate from Ms. Schiffer’s widening of it. This allowed him to open up a new, wide scope for perceiving what this town action of placing the land in Conservation Commission control would do. His primary support for the article was a narrative of his experience growing up “in a small town on the North Atlantic coast of Puerto Rico” and how walking to the beach with his father instilled in him a “sense of wonder and responsibility.” These walks provided moments for “exploring the natural environment” that were “an important means of developing our sense of our self and our community.” Unfortunately, “access to beaches is blocked and residents are poorer for [the] development.” He did not want that development to happen here. He widened the circumference of scene from town meeting set in the Amherst Junior High School Auditorium, and took us on a tour of the town of his birth. This fell within the general scope of the issue, by arguing by analogy. Bringing us on this tour allowed Morales to “align [his] own experience,” (as Gregory Clark puts it, in Rhetorical Landscapes in America) “at least imaginatively, with that of the collectivity of which [he is] a part” (21). Mr. Morales “walks the area after work”; he wanted others to “benefit from the actions of [a] past town meeting,” a final appeal to town meeting’s sense of history and legacy. Members have a sharp sense of town history and easily invoked it.
Scenes can limit action, as Tonn, Endress, and Diamond point out:
Arguments dominated by “scene” Burke claims, reflect a perspective that is committed to viewing the world as relatively permanent and deterministic. Persons functioning within the scene are regarded as seriously constrained by scenic elements. Immutable factors in the natural or social landscape limit their ability to act on their own volition: free will is supplanted largely by fate, thereby reducing action to motion. (166)
But in this debate, the arguments town meeting members used display another perspective, one that views the world as shapeable, as changeable. In this debate, scenes create new places for action. Within town meeting, they are constrained by democratic rules. Those rules are flexible in that they permit a widening of scene; we enter someone else’s dream or vision of what is possible. The advocates were not moving; they were acting. They argued for a change to the status of the land. The land did not face imminent development prospects. Invoking details of the contemporary physical scene of the Puffer’s Pond landscape, together with a cautionary tale from years ago in Puerto Rico, created a scene that allowed them to appear as if they were moving in response to a push from development’s threatening devastation. They could imagine a bleak future. In widening the scene beyond the circumference of Puffer’s Pond (itself beyond the auditorium), they “spiritualized” the scene. They were now participants in a grand struggle to preserve the community forest.
Widening the scene for action is permissible as long as one adheres to the norms of “speaking to the issue.” The scope of action involved in “speaking to the issue” can be narrow or wide, but there must be a relevance to the purpose of persuading members to vote yes or no. No explicit alternative purposes for speaking are permitted. This occurred during the second half of Margaret Gage’s turn. She first prefaced her support for this issue with a call for a comprehensive plan that would help the town anticipate and solve problems like these. She explained that she was going to “address [the] issue of low-moderate income housing” that Ms. Schiffer was the first to broach, and proceeded to point to a map displayed by the overhead projector. The map showed every apartment complex for low- to moderate-income housing found in North Amherst. Yes, this parcel is located in a wider scene of affordable housing. She listed many, each by name. With Ms. Gage’s naming of each housing complex, the presentation bordered on becoming tedious. Through barraging members with the seemingly plentiful opportunities for affordable housing, attention could be diverted from seeing the Puffer’s Pond area as another potential site for additional housing. This housing “enriches North Amherst” and “families depend on” it. Families also depend on Puffer’s Pond for recreation; that is why they should be proud that “our neighborhood has done a terrific job with [the] resources [they have] to maintain Puffer’s Pond.” She lives there; it is “our neighborhood” (emphasis mine).
The second half of Ms. Gage’s turn involved a physical change as well. As she was about to change the overhead projection from the map to an advertisement for the annual Puffer’s Pond Pancake Breakfast fund-raiser, the Moderator told her she could not do that. Advertisement is not permitted at town meeting. A friendly discussion ensued over what she could say or do that was within the bounds of proper procedure. “You can talk about it but not advertise it,” the Moderator explained. “I won’t,” Ms. Gage responded, with a smile, as she continued:
- About six or seven years ago the town decided it could not longer afford to maintain Puffer’s Pond, which was a tragedy because it had been a huge expense to uhm— restore it from uh— kind of a mess to something that’s very useful. And we raised— our neighborhood raises about five thousand dollars a year. For example, at our Puffer’s Pond Breakfast [looking at Moderator] — June fifth— [she and audience erupts in laughter] Eight-thirty to eleven. [more laughter]
- [Moderator:] Ms. Gage— I— I— I really— I—
- [MG:] I can’t even say that?
- [Moderator:] I have stopped other people from saying similar things at town meeting.
- [MG:] I thought you said I could say it.
- [Moderator:] Yuh. SO, uh, you can relate the fact that money is being raised by an event but you cannot encourage people to come because then you open up a Pandora’s box.
Although she violated the proscription against advertising (line 1), Ms. Gage and the Moderator negotiated what was permissible. The passive voice the Moderator suggested in line six would allow her to mention that this event is happening, and it would allow her to abandon an advertising orientation. That orientation would “open up a Pandora’s box.” Not only would it be in violation of the rule prohibiting advertising, but it would invite innumerable others to do the same. This gentle correction enabled her to maintain her light tone. She did not storm off; instead she described her neighborhood and explained how residents use the parcel. “Join with me in supporting this,” she concluded. The scene could be widened, as long as it was within the general scope of action that is within the purview of the town meeting event-agent. That scope of action did not permit some purposes, such as advertising.
A third speaker, non-member but registered voter and Conservation Commission member Jim Ellis, praised the Meeting for proceeding “rapidly” through the articles that night. He would address the “minority position” that cautioned “‘let’s not do this immediately.’” He refuted it with an ominous-sounding allusion: “I guess I say why not? A lot of things can happen.” He cited Mr. Morales’ story about Puerto Rico. Returning to the wide scope, the fast-paced Mr. Ellis explained, “We are stewards of the beautiful land as much as providers of affordable housing.” “I urge you, as Meg [Ms. Gage] said,” to support this action. As a non-member, Mr. Ellis was nevertheless able to “argue” in a similar way as members. He could “speak to the issue” as someone knowledgeable about Conservation duties, and spoke with that authority to this issue. Amherst residents play two roles with regard to land, “stewards” and “providers.” The issue of land conservation and their roles as stewards took precedence in this particular case, he argued. “Arguing” involved a reiteration of the claim at the end, a final plea for alignment or identification of positions.
Support was voiced in an organized pattern: first with the Petitioner’s overall argument, interrupted, it seemed, by the formality of Select Board opposition, next with a statement of support from the very Commission who would continue their work managing the land, then a story about the wonder of the environment from someone with the ethos to tell that narrative, followed by an engaging and amusing presentation about the neighborhood where the land is located, and last in the series, a non-town meeting member so concerned about the issue he had to speak to recap what previous speakers had argued. Barry Del Castilho, the Town Manager, sitting as usual at the Select Board table, then asked to speak; he would try to break the developing pattern of support. Referencing Mr. Ellis’ praise for town meeting’s speedy work that evening at the start his speech, Mr. Del Castilho also acknowledged the unusually quick pace: “It is true and fortunate that you have worked expeditiously tonight,” and even though the “rep from the Fair Housing Partnership group isn’t here . . . the question is, can this be used as one or more affordable housing lots?” Mr. Del Castilho excluded himself from the praise; it was not “we” but “you” who have worked quickly.
He proceeded to return to a narrow circumference, to remind town meeting that they had been “very supportive of that [selling land at a reduced rate] three times now. The FHP would like a few more months to see if affordable housing is feasible.” That evening, town meeting had considered three land-related articles. They had voted in favor of Article 21 which concerned the complex deal of purchasing land in South Amherst at a special rate for conservation purposes. Article 22 was to buy land at a reduced rate, but at 90 yes votes and 72 nays, it failed to garner the necessary two-thirds majority. They also had voted in favor of an amendment that would lower the price of some land they wanted to sell for low- to moderate-income housing (the presumed buyer was Habitat for Humanity). Mr. Del Castilho’s words seemed to be an oversimplification of town meeting action; in any case it overlooked the trend toward conservation to balance development. Lastly, Mr. Del Castilho warned them against the “almost irreversible act of turning this [land] over to the Conservation Commission.” This response avoided all arguments about the access to Puffer’s Pond.
It was the centrality of the Puffer’s Pond scene to Amherst residents that the last speaker on this issue addressed. Isaac BenEzra also provided another rebuttal to the argument that those in favor of this conservation designation were opposed to affordable housing. Mr. BenEzra started by saying, “I have a lot of interest in affordable housing,” and gave a short résumé of his activity in Pennsylvania as a homeless shelter board member. He used this other scene to inflect his present discourse. Like Ms. Gage, he cited the need for a comprehensive approach, one that would widen views from only that plot of land to the larger neighborhood. He critiqued the notion of saving the parcel for affordable housing: “[we] need a comprehensive approach. Integrate sites, don’t isolate low income families . . . [they need] to be part of a larger community.” He echoed Ms. Gage’s comment about a comprehensive plan that would guide decision-making. Like Ms. Allen and Ms. Gage, he commented on the “densely populated area” of North Amherst and was glad that “this community has a real treasure.” “That piece of land is like the center of the whole community,” he theorized. He loved to bring visitors there: “that’s one of the great things about Amherst—going over to the pond. Having this land set aside so that we all can enjoy it is an important thing.” He was not about to stop his presentation there, however. He commented on the general debate, referencing an argument a Select Board member had made a week earlier:
- I’m really kinda concerned: there seems to be a gap between—in terms of communication—between our select board [gestured with his arm in their direction] and other people [toward audience] in this town and particularly people who live in that community.
- Last week we had a select board member say he went to Northampton [a nearby city] to do a survey about how they feel about a garage.
- I wanted to ask him, did you survey the people . . . in Clark House [apartments]; they’re the people who vote, not the people of Northampton. . . .
Mr. BenEzra complained about the circumference’s failure: the Select Board and “the people” should inhabit the same circumference, but somehow “a gap,” a rift generated two circumferences from the ideal of one. This gap disrupted the Select Board’s ability to see the scene in the terms the town meeting members would have liked them to. Attending to that perceived gap, however, was beyond the scope of the article under debate. He wandered from “speaking to the issue,” and thus the Moderator warned him not to “get off the subject.” The petitioner, Ms. Allen was seated behind Mr. BenEzra and she smiled in agreement with the Moderator. “Ok. I guess I had to say it,” Mr. BenEzra continued, recognizing how the discussion moved him to speak (contrary to Ms. Gage, whom the Moderator had to stop from doing something). “But I really think we ought to be talking to each other more, because we’re not far apart. All of us have good intentions, the intention— [something happened to urge him to stop that sentence] so I urge you to support this.”
He attempted to repair the violation by closing his speech with an urge for the merging of circumferences via reflection on the positive aphorism that “all of us have good intentions.” It is unclear whether that speculation on motives—intentions—was still a violation; he avoided speculating on a particular person, so one would assume that it fell within the scope of “speaking to the issue.” Burke describes the problem that we saw Mr. BenEzra face:
In confronting this wide range in the choice of a circumference for the location of an act, men confront what is distinctively the human freedom and the human necessity. This necessity is a freedom insofar as the choice of circumference leads to an adequate interpretation of motives; and it is an enslavement insofar as the interpretation is inadequate. We might exploit the conveniences of “substance” by saying that, in necessarily confronting such a range of choices, men are “substantially” free. (Grammar 84)
Mr. BenEzra was constrained by the town meeting setting and the bounds of the issue under debate. Yet his membership in this community of agents, that the scene of town meeting demarcates, created another bind on his freedom: he “had to say” something, even though he would violate the norms for speaking there.
Following Mr. BenEzra’s final remark someone “called the question,” a motion asking to end debate, which was approved. Members then voted on the article. A standing vote was needed and the vote totaled 110 voting yes, 34 voting no. A two-third’s majority approved the article. With the non-town meeting members in attendance, and the victory of a controversial article, the Moderator admonished, “no demonstrations, please.” Since this was the last article the meeting would handle that night, and since they had considered many articles, the Moderator closed the meeting with “good work!”
Evidence of non-government funded neighborhood efforts and support for the area, evidence of emotional ties to that land, and evidence via ethos of affordable housing supporters supporting this measure created a strong cloth of collaborative argument in favor of the article. In this discussion, town meeting participants who spoke to the issue wove aspects typical of casual conversation in with formal debate: as in conversations, people spun lines off of other people’s content. As in debate, rebuttals were presented. Unlike conversations, however, the topic range was much more limited. And unlike formal pro-con debate, the participants sought to implement real answers to concrete problems and issues. What they said mattered. Land would, or would not, be put under Conservation Commission control. Reputations were made, lost, or enhanced through the act of “speaking to the issue”; for, after all, neighbors do remember what fellow neighbors said and did at town meeting.
One action that members perform involves choosing which scene in which to base their attempts at “arguing.” In that arguing, choices of scene are made available by the norms within the community’s culture.
[O]ne has a great variety of circumferences to select as characterizations of a given agent’s scene. For man is not only in the situation peculiar to his era or to his particular place in that era. . . . He is also in a situation extending through centuries; he is in a “generically human” situation; and he is in a “universal” situation. Who is to say, once and for all, which of these circumferences is to be selected as the motivation of his act, insofar as the act is to be defined in scenic terms? (Burke, Grammar 84)
Rhetors in town meeting must “speak to the issue.” While each issue’s circumference may be relatively limited, their agency, the way people “speak to” that issue, can be wide or narrow, depending on the purpose.
Some speakers will attempt to widen or narrow the scope of action in town meeting, or even make present a new setting as they speak to the issue. Frequent scene changes involve a classroom setting, not surprising since many participants have links with the colleges in the area and since the physical setting is in the Middle School auditorium. Other scenes can include a business boardroom (where the “bottom line” is stressed), a family dinner table (where talk of “economizing” and relating participants’ family budget discussions to how the town should run are common), or a far-away country (where participants are to imagine themselves). The virtual context helps to shape the content’s meaning. Clark points out the relationship that context has to symbols:
The context in which any symbol is encountered shapes what it means. . . . [Burke’s] point was that any symbolic act is rendered “different” in its meaning and rhetorical function by its placement in a different scene: “Obviously, the nature of a term as an ‘act’ is defined not just by its place in the context of a certain language, but by its extra-verbal ‘context of situation.’” (qtg. Burke, Language 359 at 33)
Widening or narrowing the “circumference of scene” finds participants expanding or limiting the capabilities of town meeting action.
Occasionally, as in town meeting, the terms suggest a scene apart from the physical setting. Hymes explained that “[s]peech acts frequently are used to define scenes, and also frequently judged as appropriate or inappropriate in relation to scenes” (“Models” 60). What we hear in town meeting discourse allows the participants to transport themselves to new scenes temporarily, depending on their purpose. The advocates’ verbal description widens the scene to include the natural landscape that forms “the center of the whole” Amherst community. As such, agents are then transformed into tourists in their own hometown. Clark argues that:
When people act as tourists, they leave the land where they make their home to encounter landscapes. Land becomes landscape when it is assigned the role of symbol, and as symbol it functions rhetorically. When landscapes are publicized—when they are shared in public discourse . . . they do the rhetorical work of symbolizing a common home and, thus, a common identity. (9)
Rejecting the article that would place the land adjacent to Puffer’s Pond under Conservation Commission control would have rejected the symbolic import of their “common” home. Amherst town meeting members were political “trustees” for the landscape (Riemer). With participant reference to town meeting such as “town meeting decided,” “town meeting” is not only an event. “Town meeting” serves as a grand, holistic participant, a governmental agent. Participants widen the scene within town meeting and while talking about town meeting. “Distinctions between ‘agent’ and ‘scene’ may become blurred in the concept of a community or social identity, which often includes both personal qualities and literal place” (Tonn, Endress, and Diamond 166). This occurs in Amherst, as members located in the town meeting scene also speak about town meeting as having agent status. When people talk about the decisions the elected members made, they say “town meeting decided.” This speech act transforms a scene circumscribing agents (and allowing those agents to widen the circumferences of their own discourse, within bounds of official rules) into an agent itself.
The debate depicted here provides some insight into the richness of Burke’s conception of “scene” and “circumference,” especially concerning the scene-agent ratio and action-motion, the flexibility of tradition, relations both physical and metaphysical, and local-global orientations. In reflecting upon the Burkean concept of “circumference of scene,” I have also reflected about my choice to examine local political communication. Agents can widen scenes only so far; each community draws the circumference of permissible symbolic action differently. Each community has discursive norms for interaction. In the land-use debate in Amherst, the performance of widening a scene indirectly orients listeners as being swept in a broad environmental movement.
The question of the relationship between widening the circumference of scene and agent status then arises; do agents act, or move? Tonn, Endress, and Diamond assert:
Individuals who comprise a particular community may explain their own behavior as motion because it is controlled by communal traditions or “laws,” norms that they as “agents” nonetheless have devised. Conversely, the behaviors of those individuals in conflict with a community is often construed as action—the conscious or willful violation of rules and physical boundaries. (166)
In Amherst, however, this is not so. The Moderator treats violations of “speaking to the issue” as either motion or action, depending on the situation, the person’s ethos (which is dually present and absent in town meeting discourse), the words, and the tone. The Moderator is not simply an automaton in his application of rules and tradition. He is a rhetorically capable agent whose flexibility in application displays a similarly flexible and rhetorical notion of community tradition.
Tradition is alive in Amherst, and must not be treated as past. The “past” is over, dead. Things from the past do not come alive again. If it is treated only as old, then town meeting tradition of talking democracy is a quaint relic of the past, never to carry on. Town meeting members may use scenes from the past to create a sense of a dangerous future. In their plea to preserve the land near Puffer’s Pond from development, advocates tried to avoid pointing out that there existed no impending development threat. Development was not immediate, but only imagined. So the actions preserving this setting were not necessarily gut-instinct, survival motions. Advocates strategically treated them as such, however, since to be acting out of survival in the face of looming destruction generates an urgency to move—to do something to save the area. So they acted, via a widened circumference (cautioned by what happened in Puerto Rico), as if they were moving.
Scenic argument transcends the physical ground as it uses metaphysical grounds for commonality and community. Burke discussed how scenes, as they grow wider, imply a sense of “‘transcendence,’ a ‘higher synthesis’” (Grammar 85). Rhetors in Amherst moved through the physical setting of the land to the symbolic communal order; the physical setting is connected to the metaphysical scene. In her cross-case study of nonverbal ways of communicating with nature, Michelle Scollo Sawyer claims that “this connection to, or coparticipation with, the natural world ultimately functions to reveal the sacredness within and connectedness between all living things. Such experiences offer their human participants a way of knowing from nature that is not possible in other contexts or through other forms of communication” (227, emphasis mine). Town meeting use of “nature” scenes was a key component in the metaphysical move beyond economic considerations. Hymes’ distinction is important: settings involve “physical characteristics.” “[S]cene implies always an analysis of cultural definitions,” however (“Models” 60). “The first presuppositions of a rhetorical system are metaphysical” (Philipsen, “Navajo World View” 133). Scenic terms tap into this system, and an ethnographically informed rhetorical analysis is a way to see the relationship between the physical present and the symbolic, and metaphysical past or future. Rather than sharp division, continua of difference between physical and metaphysical axes exist, arranged into hierarchies for political purposes.
Town meeting members’ widening of the circumference of scene can also serve to see the concepts of local and global in a new way. Huglen and Brock suggested that “[g]lobal and local cultures are polarized rhetorical communities competing to become the dominant model for the 21st century.” There may not necessarily be opposition, but rather degrees of relation. Rena Lederman’s definition of “political relations” attends to the notion of a transformative social order that is helpful in rethinking global opposition to the local:
“[P]olitical” relations refer not only to the way access to a given set of culturally valued resources is restricted for certain people (or “statuses”) and not others, or the way in which a particular given social order is maintained and enforced; they also refer to the way in which this social order and these evaluations are themselves created and reproduced or are denied and transformed. (qtd. in Brenneis and Meyers 21, emphasis mine)
Perhaps we cannot see the global without the local; understanding other cultures is aided by exploring where and who “we” are. Applications of top-down models for understanding local practices are often poor fits. Some rhetors do something other than “shift” scenes: they widen or narrow the scope of their actions. In their critique of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s rhetoric, Huglen and Brock claimed that “[s]he could have transcended the division between the global and local perspectives by demonstrating that their interests were really joined at a higher level.” We cannot know the global (elsewhere) apart from the local (here). Attending to the movement of circumference allows us to witness the connection. Democracy in Amherst, Massachusetts involves intense rhetorical struggles over particular issues, like whether to put land in Conservation Commission management, whether to build a parking garage, or even how best to protect salamanders as they cross a road. The specific local issue is connected to a wider symbolic order, whether “the environment,” or “our community,” or “democratic political processes.”
If politics has something to do what is said and done, then scholars need to explore the communication on the floor first, then glancing outward, widening the scope of scholarly action toward idealistic notions of democracy or deliberation. This way, those who are concerned about democratic deliberation are better able to assess that practice. I wanted to see what local political democratic deliberation looks like from the ground up. “[I]n a sense, every circumference, no matter how far-reaching its reference, is a reduction” (Burke, Grammar 96). Although he wrote his brief study in 1964, Harry Kerr was right that “[s]elf-government and the oral tradition are wedded as firmly as ever in the contemporary town meeting” (29). The practices of democratic deliberation are highly detailed, yet ordinary people seem to manage.
People in other events and forums in the United States “speak to the issue.” The term has a cultural resonance in scenes and settings far beyond town meeting. The specific use and enactment of this symbol here, however, shed light on this particular version of American democratic deliberation. The structures of collaborative argument are one way to see the “webs” of culture; they signal points where a community or culture reaches an accord (Katriel 1). Participants loosely connect, become “consubstantial” through the town meeting event. By sharing premises (in the sense suggested by Fitch 186) for certain types of political talk, a community signals its adherence to a particular way of being, or acting, democratically. Participants re-create, or transform, their local metaphysics. Part of that metaphysics in Amherst is that civility depends on the fiction that one can—indeed must—separate act from agent. Ethos matters, but if one assumes motivations during public discourse, then one shifts to the private realm, away from what is publicly available to all. In Amherst, “accessibility” matters, both to the land and to politics. To be democratic, deliberation in Amherst town meeting avoids individual psychology and marketplace practices (like advertising) in favor of publicly accessible actions and meanings.
The “common world” in Amherst involves the land, and people’s connection with it (Latour). It involves care for process, organized political participation, and the ability to work from the “way things are done here” to change the ways things are done “here.” This working with a living tradition is important to its practitioners. By widening the scope of scholarship to include the local discourses practiced by everyday people, we learn more about our own backyard democracy as culturally situated. We come to see the big ideas not as abstractions, but as a community’s lived practices, and as the constitution of their, and of our, political identity. Frank Bryan’s work has shown that the smaller the town, the greater the chances for people to have a say in the conduct of their government. How might we think about how democracy itself changes when the scope enlarges from town meeting to another ostensibly democratic communication event? How are the rhetorical interactions structured over time? What can, must, or should be said (or not be said)? In his study of Aalborg, Denmark’s urban reconstruction project, Danish planning scholar Bent Flyvbjerg suggests a way to gauge what components help ensure a better working democracy:
If you want to participate in politics but find the possibilities for doing so constricting, then you team up with like-minded people and you fight for what you want, utilizing the means that work in your context to undermine those who try to limit your participation. If you want to know what is going on in politics but find little transparency, you do the same. . . . At times direct power struggle over specific issues works best; on the other occasions changing the ground rules for struggle is necessary, which is where constitutional and institutional reform come in; and sometimes writing genealogies and case histories like the Aalborg study, that is, laying open the relationships between rationality and power, will help achieve the desired results. More often it takes a combination of all three, in addition to the blessings of beneficial circumstance and pure luck. Democracy in practice is that simple and that difficult. (236)
When people talk politics in Amherst, and they “speak to the issue” (a particular way of saying something), there is also a meta-political, meta-cultural commentary occurring; we learn the local metaphysics by attending to the rhetorically constituted link between the setting and scene. Through individual speeches that coordinate together, through the interaction of participants in widening scenes, they reaffirm the importance of the “individual” in American democracy while placing value on social webs that make a position or an argument audible, and more persuadable, to others.
* Rebecca M. Townsend is an Adjunct Professor of Communication at the University of Hartford and Holyoke Community College. This study was part of her dissertation, “Deliberation and Democracy: Ethnography of Rhetoric in a New England Town Meeting,” directed by Dr. Donal Carbaugh, at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, completed in 2004. An earlier draft of the essay was presented at the 2005 Triennial Kenneth Burke Society Conference. The author thanks the editors and reviewers for their helpful comments.
This paper was presented at "Kenneth Burke and His Circles: Rhetoric, Theory, and Critical Practice in and after the Twentieth Century," for the Kenneth Burke Society Sixth Triennial Conference (in cooperation with the Biennial Penn State Conference on Rhetoric and Composition) at Pennsylvania State College, University Park, PA, July 11, 2005. This work was based on part of the author's dissertation, completed at the University of Massachusetts in 2004: "Deliberation and Democracy: Ethnography of Rhetoric in a New England Town Meeting." The author would also like to thank Drs. Donal Carbaugh, Vernon Cronen, and Laura Jensen for their help in their advice and review of the work.
1. These results concern discourse in the public domain. Since this study was of an elected legislative body conducting a publicly held and televised meeting, there was no need to secure permission to use participants’ words or names, as long as the material occurred as part of the town meeting. It contrasts with interview data, however, which I have not presented in the essay. Formal interviews involved the participants’ signing informed consent forms. Interview protocol, informed by the ethical standards of the National Communication Association, required me not to audiotape if anyone felt uncomfortable, not to attach identifying information to the interview transcripts or reports if they wished, and to have some information kept “off the record” if participants asked. Where those issues occurred in the course of my dissertation data collection and analysis, I have honored those requests. None of that data has been used in this essay. All the speakers in this debate were elected or appointed government officials, with special status in Massachusetts General Law. All the quotations that I have included in the essay are publicly available via the archived holdings of the Jones Library, Amherst’s public library and ACTV, the town’s community access cable television station. Additionally, I donated a copy of my dissertation, which uses participants’ real names, to the Jones Library.
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