Cause and Effect in Rhetoric

WW1 Causes

WW1 Causes. (Harris Morgan 2007, Sep. 21, Wikimedia Commons)

In this post I am drafting a theory article about Cause and Effect in Rhetorical Scholarship.  I reveal the theories and methods used, and the situations in which rhetorical scholars mount arguments that rhetorical performance (speech, text, discourse) has an effect on audiences, society in general, and history.

This section includes the General Introduction, Causal Reasoning, and Social Constructionism.

Since this article draft is quite long, I have divided it into 7 separate posts. 

Links to other sections of this article

Part 1: Introduction, Causal Reasoning, Social Constructionism

Part 2: Speech Act Theory and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory

Part 3: Rhetorical Criticism

Part 4: Rhetorical History

Part 5: Rhetorical Praxis and Pedagogy

Part 6: A Typology of Cause-Effect Arguments in Rhetoric

part 7: Social Biases and Disciplinary Power Implications


In histories of communications studies, we are often told of an early phase of mass communication scholarship which focused on the effects of media on society — particularly violence in the media and its supposed effects on violence in society.  Because of the strong social-science tradition in communication scholarship, when it could not be demonstrated conclusively with empirical evidence, this line of reasoning was thought to be an intellectual dead end.

In recent histories of “public address” (part of rhetorical communications studies), the narrative usually begins with studies of the speeches of public figures and their effectiveness and artistry.  However, the narrative usually takes a sharp turn at 1965, when most rhetorical scholarship also left behind the desire to investigate the effects of presidential oratory on history, and went on to investigate other rhetorical phenomena such as social movements, media, pedagogy, organizational change, etc.

However, recent developments in the discipline of rhetoric are returning us to an investigation of the social implications (a soft way of implying possible effects) of rhetorical action, rhetorical pedagogy, and rhetorical scholarship.

One of many examples that could be cited is the volume recently published based on the 2008 Rhetoric Society of America conference, in which

thirty-one contributors collectively address the question, “If rhetors are responsible and responsive to their publics, if rhetoricians instruct and empower those who learn from them, what are the responsibilities of rhetoric in our time?”

Causal reasoning

The most extreme argument of cause and effect, and the most difficult to prove or even to argue, is that

  • Cause A and only cause A leads necessarily to B and is a sufficient cause of B.

However, there are other types of causal arguments that are easier to prove and argue:

  • Cause A was one of many causes of B.
  • Cause A did lead to B in this case, but it does not always do so in every situation.
  • Cause A is necessary for B to happen, but is not sufficient — other forces or conditions are necessary to lead to B.

In cases where we have incomplete evidence to make a claim with complete confidence, we humbly make claims using qualifying terms :

  • Cause A was possibly one of many causes of B.
  • Cause A likely led to B in this case, but it does not always seem to do so in every situation.
  • Cause A is probably necessary for B to happen, but is not sufficient — other forces or conditions are necessary to lead to B.

These claims need only be argued to a convincing degree of probability using reasonable methods and evidence.  They need not be proven conclusively.

What is the usual nature of cause-and-effect claims of humanistic inquiry in communication studies?

Social constructionism

Humanistic scholars of communication, both within rhetoric and within other areas  of communication, often occur under the banner of social constructionism and social constructivism.

This is a philosophical approach to inquiry found in many disciplines in the social sciences and humanities.

In the following quotation from a book in political science, you can see an example of the importance of cause and effect to research methodologies that are steeped in social constructivism / constructionism:




  • from: Jackson, P. T., & Nexon, D. (2002). Globalization, the Comparative Method, and Comparing Constructions. In D. M. Green (Ed.), Constructivism and comparative politics (pp. 88-120): M. E. Sharpe.

Thus, the basic tenets of social constructionism concern a type of cause and effect.  It is not the simple, linear cause and effect, but rather the investigation of a simultaneous and historical web of mutual influence, in which each cause may have a varying degree  of influence.

Social Constructionism mounts the argument that the structure of discourse, society, identity, organizations, the public, etc. is constructed through a multitude of social acts (including communication), not just by economic and environmental (technological) factors.

Go to Part 2: Speech Act Theory and Contemporary Rhetorical Theory


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