Deliberation and democracy: Ethnography of rhetoric in a New England town meeting
This study examines deliberative democracy in Amherst, Massachusetts' town meeting. I use ethnography of communication to examine the rhetorical practices that constitute this communication event and legislative body. I briefly examine the history of town meeting and develop a thorough description and analytic interpretation of a key term for talk, “speaking to the issue,” focusing on “questioning” and “arguing.” Conflict was present as an early feature of town meeting talk. Town meeting is a communication event that can also take on agent status. While democracy is often conceived as a messy process, this research shows how participants in a democratic body organize their talk and use self-imposed rules and self-regulate and order their communication, using the same general set of rules across issues. This order protects those in the minority on an issue. “Speaking to the issue” emerges as a vital feature of structuring talk and allowing political access. Town meeting participants in Amherst employ rhetorical strategies I term “weaving,” “scene-changing,” and “active-listening” as they communicate during the event. Many Amherst town meeting members used a “trustee” style of representation, and speak for those who could not participate in electing them.
0615: Political science
0323: American studies