Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997


Conducting Socially Responsible Research: Critical Theory, Neo-Pragmatism and Rhetorical Inquiry

Omar Swartz
London: Sage Publications
ISBN 0 7619 0499 9
£16.50 (pb)
xviii + 198 pp.

Order this book

Despite its main title this is not a book about the ethics and politics of empirical research but a discussion aimed at the discipline of Communication Studies. It advocates the use of critical theory, suitably modified by ideas derived from Foucault and postmodernist ideas into a 'neo-pragmatism', for giving the theory of Rhetoric the possibility of effecting social change. It treats rhetorical theory as equipment for social action and as praxis in its own right. Its concerns are with what impact the discipline can make on the social world through its publications and by the proper teaching of students.

The author would identify himself as 'liberal' or 'of the left' and as concerned about the status of left scholarship. The disappearance of the left's scholars from the public arena he regards as a trahison des clercs and sees a major aim of his book as being 'the revitalization of the political left'. He identifies his position as informed by a 'liberal ironism' which regards the axioms of thought as provisional and temporally positioned, questions the limits of its own vocabulary when this becomes insufficient to deal with doubts and is informed by compassion for human suffering.

He shares with critical theorists the notion of theory, and specifically the analysis of public text, as in itself a form of political praxis: 'by focusing our scholarship on how ideology influences society and contributes to detrimental social relationships, we are empowered as scholars to engage in praxis' (p. 135). 'Scholarship should serve as a revolutionary "tool" and seek as its "end" a cultural condition reducing marginality and human suffering' (p. 4); to study the implications and outcomes of rhetorical formations is to act politically: 'the person who controls societal behaviour controls the society's knowledge; the person who controls the language of a society controls societal behaviour' (p. 22).

His 'marxist-inspired neo-pragmatism' (p. 23), however, would be seen as gradualist rather than revolutionary by most who are influenced by Marx. His aim is not the overthrow of a system but 'by critiquing the discourse and cultural practices normalizing human suffering and alienation ... [to] contribute to the formation of a wider democratic consciousness in American society' (pp. 1 - 2). The purpose of the critical study of rhetoric is 'to promote ways in which more people in this country can enjoy the promises and privileges of American society' (p. 6), 'to improve the quality of American life' (p. 6) and 'to make more widespread [our national ideology's] promises of human equality in law, employment and housing (to name only a few examples)' (p. 24). His goals are best summarised by a passage which follows a review of four 1970s critiques of a Nixon Vietnam speech: 'efforts by scholars should be directed towards a redescribed social and political vision that erodes the authority of the American government to wage imperialist wars in the Third World and to undermine American liberties and prosperity at home' (p. 134). In other words, he is critical of government and of capitalists but not of the system as a whole; his basic vision is a liberal humanist one.

Part of the work to be done towards these goals involves published analysis (both academic and 'popular') of the way that ideological features of capitalism become reified through rhetoric. Equally important, however, is a mission to educate the future generation of decision-makers and social analysts in critical attitudes and skills. Basic communication courses 'can be reconceptualized as cultural critique', and the pedagogic aim of the discipline is to be 'the process of helping students to identify and critique the ways language reifies and structures human social reality for the purpose of empowering students to engage more actively in both the construction and critique of society' (p. 137).

The book shows substantial scholarship, expresses its points well and is generally ably argued. (It is perhaps a fault that it deals only with class inequalities and does not consider other fundamental structuring principles such as gender and ethnicity.) I do not think it has much to offer the British reader, however. Cultural critique is a central theme in most sociology and cultural studies courses in this country, so its major message is 'not news' here. British readers may feel that what Swartz has to offer that is not already explicit in the work of the Frankfurt School has been done in more sophisticated ways for class and 'race' by 'cultural studies' figures such as Stuart Hall and for gender by feminist scholars such as Carol Smart.

Roger Sapsford
Open University

Copyright Sociological Research Online, 1997