Putting powerfulness in its place: a study on discursive style in public discussion and its impact.

Author:Han, Soo-Hye


Previous research in small-group settings indicates a correlation between status and communication, with social inequalities often reproducing themselves in discussion groups. Most clearly, women, racial minorities, and those of lower socioeconomic status communicate less frequently by taking fewer turns and saying less in public deliberation (Hans and Vidmar 1986; Hastie, Penrod, and Pennington 1983; Neblo 2004). Furthermore, high-status group members tend to communicate in qualitatively different ways, with social superiors consistently using, for example, fewer first-person singular pronouns and more first-person plural and second-person singular pronouns (Kacewicz et al. 2014). Such quantitative and qualitative differences can lead to unequal influence in decision-making (Mendelberg, Karpowitz, and Oliphant 2014).

While there is extant literature on the relationship between discursive style and social groups, research to date has tended to focus on stylistic differences and their interactive effects on how speakers are perceived by others (e.g. Bernstein 1960; Blankenship and Holtgraves 2005; Bradac and Street 1989; Erickson et al. 1978; Hosman and Siltanen 2011). As a result, we know less about how people's discursive style might influence their own perceptions of a group discussion. This study extends the current literature on discursive style and social groups, examining how people from different socioeconomic backgrounds speak in public discussions and to what effect. Specifically, we investigate whether the linguistic markers associated with social influence have an impact on discussants' perceptions of their own learning and the respect afforded them by others in the group--two variables that capture normatively desirable outcomes of public issue discussions.

This study contributes to scholarship and practice of public dialogue and deliberation in three ways. First, it adds to the growing literature on dialogue and deliberation by examining the role of discursive style in public issue discussions. We do so by arguing that non-decisional discussion groups can foster normatively desirable outcomes of learning and a sense of respect, and we explore how speaking style within such discussions might abet or hinder these effects. Second, using a computerized text-analysis program, this study adds empirical evidence of the link between discursive style and social status in public issue discussions. Third, it offers a fresh insight into the influence of discursive style on speakers themselves. In doing so, we shift the typical focus of discursive style research, which investigates the relationship between stylistic differences and perceptions by others. Instead, we examined if high-power speakers influenced their own perceptions of the experience. This approach provides scholars and practitioners with new insight on how communication can impact discussion outcomes. It also suggests new research agendas regarding when, how, and why a speaker's style might influence what they take from a discussion. In essence, this study aims to unearth social characteristics and potential impacts of discursive style in public discussion groups and implications of such patterns for dialogic groups.

Gaining insight and respect from others through discussion

While deliberative democracy has become increasingly popular among scholars and practitioners alike (Carpini, Cook, and Jacobs 2004; Dryzek 2000; Gastil and Levine 2005; Gutmann and Thompson 2004), not all groups convene to deliberate or to decide. Public discussants sometimes assemble to raise awareness about community issues, often as a precursor to later decision-making. Instead of weighing options for the purpose of selecting a policy, conveners ask non-decisional groups to solicit input, facilitate participant learning, raise consciousness, and build intellectual and emotional capacity. As Black and Wiederhold (2014, 287) observe, "unlike deliberation, which is generally understood to include some aspect of decision-making," dialogic groups focus on "building understanding" and "helping groups of people explore ideas deeply and build shared understanding of a common concern." Such communicative work can build a sense of community and, therefore, lead to cooperative judgments.

Because discussion promotes conditions for better group decision-making, two potential outcomes--learning from others and mutual respect--are particularly salient to productive dialogues. To encourage learning, public issue discussions promote thoughtful consideration of a broad spectrum of views and pertinent information (Burkhalter, Gastil, and Kelshaw 2002). Without respectful consideration of all participants' ideas and perspectives, discussion groups compromise the criterion of vigilant consideration of accurate information from diverse sources (Smith 2008). Toward this end, dialogues allow participants to encounter people they otherwise might not know and experiences they do not share, giving discussants access to information and ideas from all community corners (Nagda and Zuniga 2003). Regarding mutual respect, ideally discussion is a cooperative, open-ended endeavor in which all participants contribute and experience a greater sense of social worth (Black 2008). Supporting this claim, Nagda and Zuniga (2003) found that group discussion encouraged participants to find value in others' experiences while also prompting greater clarity and strength of their own positions.

Because of its potential to promote learning from others and mutual respect, discussion seems a natural first step in addressing social conflicts. Without discussion before group decision-making, participants might lack an appreciation for diverse others and their unique concerns. Supporting this point, Nagda and Zuniga (2003) found that ongoing small-group discussions on race promoted among White participants' appreciation for minority students' sense of isolation on a college campus (see also Abdel-Monem et al. 2010). Beyond race, any problem that requires coordinated community action could be better addressed if discussants conversed with one another in ways that increased each other's knowledge and strengthened a shared understanding, interest, and esteem. Particularly from the study of environmental communication, we find that public discourse meant to inform lay audiences about technical topics is different than the communication needed to build community consensus; one without the other can exacerbate divisions and doom the best-laid official plans (e.g. Depoe, Delicath, and Elsenbeer 2004; Pressgrove and Besley 2014; Spoel and Den Hoed 2014). In sum, deliberation requires complete information and a sense of social trust (Asen 2013); public issue discussion, without an immediate concern for decision-making, can promote both.

At the same time, extant research indicates that group discussion alone cannot produce desired outcomes. Rather, this form of communication works when participants value dialogic learning, and, presumably, communicate accordingly. For example, in their study of mixed-race discussion groups on college campuses, Nagda and Zuniga (2003) found that participants who appreciated the dialogic process were more likely to improve their social learning, perspective-taking ability, and interest in bridging differences. Conversely, those who took part in the conversations but reported little pre-existing appreciation for dialogic behaviors--including peer facilitation, sharing experiences, and asking questions - demonstrated no change after the discussions. The authors did not speculate as to why their study produced this mediation effect. However, they argue that their results indicate a need for inclusive communication behaviors, as well as facilitation, emphasizing the difference "between dialogue and debate" (124). As they summarize, "our findings compel us to move beyond the condition of equal status in contact to an equality of communicative process and active participation" in group discussions (125).

Power and style

Putting a finer point on these findings, we suspect that how participants talk has a significant impact on whether they and their fellow discussants learn from each other and gain a sense of shared respect from group talk. More specifically, we set out to explore the consequences of one dimension of communicative behavior, that being powerful speech style, on learning from others and perceived respect. In referring to power style, we mean the use of a constellation of linguistic markers associated with social influence (Blankenship and Holtgraves 2005; Bradac and Street 1989; Erickson et al. 1978; Hosman and Siltanen 2011). (1) Kacewicz et al. (2014) indicate that high-status group members communicate in a distinct manner, with their words tending to point toward others rather than themselves. Those of senior rank achieve this style by using fewer singular pronouns and more first-person plural pronouns relative to other group members (Kacewicz et al. 2014). Conversely, lower status group members use more tentative and self-focused language (Tausczik and Pennebaker 2010). Members of online discussion groups display similar lexical patterns, with low-status members using more first-person singular voice, affective words, and exclamation marks, and high-status speakers employing more second-person references and welcoming language (Dino, Reysen, and Branscombe 2008).

These findings underscore Bernstein's (1971) theory of language code, which suggests a correlation between social class and types of language people use in their everyday talk. In his well-known study of social class and language codes, Bernstein (1960) examined the language use of young men from the working class and the middle class and found significant differences between them. Specifically, those from the middle-class tended to use "elaborated codes," which "allow speakers to make their ideas and...

To continue reading