ThickCulture readers may be interested in a study I just published in Communication Monographs on anti-immigration discourses.  I’d welcome any thoughts or feedback as I continue to further chart this line of research. The abstract and link are below:

This study involved a rhetorical ethnography and textual analyses of an anti-immigration group over a six month period. I argue the collective engaged in a deleterious form of bordering populism, in which communicators continually attack and praise the same targets. This populism was generated by outlaw–civic shifts between marginalized, outsider stances, and more official, general cultural logics. The group demonstrated a fragile, fracturing approach to a public issue, and local, vernacular practices that are employed to bridge pressures for agitative and integrative movement communication in a pluralistic, globalizing environment. Overall, each of the group’s stark rhetorical shifts for and against the government, businesses, and immigrants concurrently crafted and dismantled rhetorical borders, creating an unstable (counter)public forgoing the possibility of democratic communication and community.



Quick plug: I just finished a terrific roundtable on political comedy, put together by our Society Pages colleagues Sarah Lageson, Sinan Erensu, and Kyle Green here:

There’s lots of interesting contributions on subjects like the effects of humor to its possible liberal biases in our current political environment. Join the discussion, we’d love to hear other’s thoughts!

I attended a terrific lecture last night by Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin, as part of Baruch College’s Ackerman Lecture Series on Equality and Justice in America. If Dobbin’s research isn’t familiar to you, here’s the breakdown, based upon his work with several decades of federal employment statistics: many of the most cherished organizational diversity-management programs happen to be the worst in advancing employee diversity and promotions, while some of those least used happen to be the very best. Dobbin’s research centers upon the idea that three practices, in particular, can most contribute to creating the conditions for greater equality in the workplace: mentorship programs, the existence of a diversity manager within an organization, and a diversity task force in each institution made up of managers and others committed to forwarding such ideals.

Dobbins was careful to not extrapolate too far beyond his data, but called for citizens and the government to propagate these best practices in every public and private institution. On the other side, the millions of dollars and hours that go into many organizations’ diversity
programs should be cut in favor of these more effective methods—particularly in climates where, as also appears to be demonstrated, employees and top managers have even grown more hostile to such causes as a result of poorly conceived diversity training efforts. Further information on some of these studies are encapsulated in Time and even Contexts articles on Dobbin’s website:

I have a new article out in Communication Quarterly on the Onion News Network: “Crafting Hyperreal Spaces for Comic Insights: The Onion News Network’s Ironic Iconicity.” I’ve been an admirer of ONN’s humor for quite a while, but also believe the inundation of comic discourses that have emerged in American political communication since the 1990s has been relatively undertheorized.

In other words, we need a better vocabulary for teasing out the operations and functions of these evolving comic formats, which I argue give us a great deal of insight into contemporary public discourse in the larger mediascape—and tell us about what forms of communication
are most amenable to democratic possibilities in the future. This article describes an innovative hyperreal, socio-political technique called “ironic iconicity,” which differentiates the communication strategies of ONN from other formats such as The Daily Show. Here’s one of my favorite, classic ONN clips, which is unpacked in the article:

In the Know: Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

In the latest issue of Communication Currents, Kate Kenski makes an excellent argument for why so much emphasis upon the value of “transparency” can lead to incredibly cramped communicative spaces and political styles–whereby options remain unexplored and posturing takes the place of robust conversation:

“While transparency is considered an ideal when it comes to good governance, the deliberative process between political elites is affected by the lack of private space where options can be discussed without concerns about immediate public sanctions over ‘potential’ ideas, let alone actual voting records. With continuous surveillance over every word uttered, the options and tradeoffs that should be considered when faced with a potential crisis are constrained.

While C-SPAN has provided a window into the world of Congress, it has also altered how politicians talk to each other as this window provides a grandstanding opportunity that they did not have before. Members of Congress are frequently tempted to address the television audience and not one another. In life, people make mistakes and they often apologize for them. With cameras recording nearly every political interaction, mistakes are not easily forgotten, preventing politicians from moving forward. This constraint of transparency is magnified by the reality that congressional representatives often come from relatively non-competitive voting districts where they are beholden to perspectives from one side of the ideological spectrum, hampering their likelihood of considering options and compromising on their initial positions.

What this means for people hearing these highly charged political interactions is that politics does not appear to be a place of productive decision making. Elite discourse does not mirror the types of conversation that everyday citizens often have to get through their daily lives, where compromise is key in the work place and in the family. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that citizens who pay attention to the political process often feel like mere spectators rather than actors and many citizens simply tune out altogether.”

Recently covered in The Guardian, this visualization by David McCandless (author of “Information is Beautiful”) quickly highlights the metaphoric and ideological networks of association between the left and the right. What strikes me the most is how it could be used as a criterion to get beyond “single-issue” political conversations with others. If an issue like “gun-control” or “the environment” were being raised, it could quickly segue the discussion into the metaethical (and narrative) commitments that underlie policy positions–and perhaps the fissures in one’s own views that don’t fit the map at all. McCandless’s chart provides a great example of the possibilities for visual rhetoric in our age.

I have a new article on Dennis Miller’s satire in the American Communication Journal. Using a textual analysis program, I conducted an exploratory study of the comic political convert’s communication patterns across nearly two decades. Currently, I’m working on a grant using the same methodology to examine a much larger body of discourse like this, so would welcome any feedback or further thoughts: Satirical Visions with Public Consequence?: Dennis Miller’s Ranting Rhetorical Persona

I’m currently reading Barbara Warnick’s Rhetoric Online: Persuasion and Politics on the World Wide Web, an insightful look at prominent communication strategies used online. Warnick highlights one of my favorite Internet parodies, Jib Jab’s “The Drugs I Need, as an exemplar of how a discourse with a high degree of strategic intertextuality can “appeal to as many audience orientations as possible” (114). What I find compelling about this claim is that, different than the kind of intertextual mainstreaming that a lot of television employs (e.g. see George Gerbner’s Cultivation Theory) — which steers clear of producing controversial appeals in order to appeal to as broad an audience as possible — this form of Internet media activism is able to aggressively target the drug industry through a mainstreaming strategy that does not lose its critical power. See the classic video below. The Drugs I Need

I’m not a big fan of video games, but during the last break, my poor sister-in-law had to suffer as our family gradually became more and more addicted to the game “Angry Birds” on her Iphone. At the same time, as a scholar, I’m intrigued by the way in which persuasion is leveraged in digital environments. Charles Mauro has a great article breaking down the question, “why is an interface so engaging that users cannot stop interacting with it?” Moreover:

“Why is it that over 50 million individuals have downloaded this simple game? Many paid a few dollars or more for the advanced version. More compelling is the fact that not only do huge numbers download this game, they play it with such focus that the total number of hours consumed by Angry Birds players world-wide is roughly 200 million minutes a DAY, which translates into 1.2 billion hours a year. To compare, all person-hours spent creating and updating Wikipedia totals about 100 million hours over the entire life span of Wikipedia (Neiman Journalism Lab). I say these Angry Birds are clearly up to something worth looking into. Why is this seemly simple game so massively compelling? Creating truly engaging software experiences is far more complex than one might assume, even in the simplest of computer games. Here is some of the cognitive science behind why Angry Birds is a truly winning user experience.”

I think Mauro’s conclusions may have lots of applications beyond the domain of video games, perhaps in political campaigns, etc. Read on for a terrific look at how such compelling and/or totalizing experiences can be crafted here.

Mouffe on why more robust, thicker conceptions of citizenship are needed in public affairs:

“By privileging rationality, both the deliberative and aggregative [political] perspectives leave aside a central element which is the crucial role played by passions and affects in securing allegiance to democratic values. . . . The failure of current democratic theory to tackle the question of citizenship is the consequence of their operating with a conception of the subject which sees individual as prior to society, bearers of natural right and either utility-maximizing agents or rational subjects. In all cases they are abstracted from social and power relations, language, culture and the whole set of practices that make agency possible. What is precluded in these rationalistic approaches is the very question of what are the conditions of existence of a democratic subject.” (Chantal Mouffe, The Democratic Paradox, New York, Verso, 1996, pp. 95-96)