Mark Thompson-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University

Institutional Rhetoric, Argument, and the House Un-American Activities Committee, 1955-1956

Author: Mark Thompson

Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2013

As the modern institution has come to play an increasingly major role in organizing social interaction, rhetorical theory has begun to grapple with discourse that takes place within institutional contexts. Because of the frequently asymmetrical relationship between institutional members and non-institutional individuals, discursive exchanges in institutional settings can challenge some of rhetoric’s assumptions concerning individual agency, civic deliberation, and the pursuit of social justice in an increasingly bureaucratized and technologized public sphere. Moving from this premise, my study looks at how institutional practices increase rhetorical opportunities for certain individuals while constraining those of others. Specifically, I look at testimony before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in the mid-1950s, drawing on discourse analysis and argumentation theory to show how institutional practices can create asymmetrical systems of exchange between institutional and non-institutional participants, and how these asymmetries work to legitimize the arguments of Committee members while delegitimizing lines of argument taken by ‘hostile’ witnesses. After looking at several instances of institutional dominance, I show how asymmetry between participants can be rhetorically challenged, illustrating this with argumentative strategies adopted by one witness who was able to effectively counter HUAC’s lines of argument and disrupt the Committee’s hearing agenda in the process.


In conclusion, I show how reforms of HUAC’s institutional practices created greater rhetorical opportunity for accused individuals to defend themselves and, in the process, initiated the Committee’s gradual decline as an institutional force. I then suggest a number of elements of institutional discourse which rhetorical analysts must account for and offer specific strategies for a grounded critique of problematic institutional practices, as well as suggesting a way forward for organizations looking to ensure they are engaged in fair communicative practices. The goal of this study is to articulate a better theoretical understanding of rhetoric in institutions, and to contribute methodologically to the study of institutional rhetoric, specifically as it pertains to argument theory. It is my hope that through future research into the intersection between rhetoric and institutional practices, we can not only critique unfair practices but also provide a roadmap for the establishment of more equitable and efficient organizational practices in the 21st century.