Vida Emily K Stark-Department of English - Carnegie Mellon University

Striving for Legitimacy: Rhetorical Strategies of Expertise in an Immunological Controversy

Author: Vida Emily K. Stark
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2012

Scholars in science studies have focused, among other topics, on the roles of style, argument, audience, and genre in constructing scientific knowledge; however, fewer studies have deeply analyzed dimensions of individual style and persona, especially as linked to scientific expertise and epistemic power. To address these underrepresented topics, I have developed the thesis that in science, individual style functions in a crucial, strategic way to construct personae, maintain expertise, legitimate scientific claims, do boundary work, and circulate epistemic power.


Successfully claiming epistemic authority in science combines solid experimental practices with persuasive communication. Style and self-presentation vary little among mainstream scientists, most of whom conform to the established rhetorical conventions of their disciplinary community and rely on stereotypical authorial personae. In contrast, iconoclasts who challenge paradigmatic science tend to step outside norms and manage self-presentation more deliberately. Thus, comparing how mainstream and iconoclastic scientists argue can highlight effective rhetorical strategies in contemporary discourse.


A scientific controversy can be an especially productive setting for unearthing stylistic strategies. I have used rhetorical and discourse analyses to investigate an ongoing controversy in immunology that features competing theories, unconventional characters, and high stakes. Mainstream immunologist Charles Janeway, Jr., and iconoclastic scientist Polly Matzinger have each proposed alternatives to the prevailing paradigm, Self/Nonself theory, which attempts to explain how the body safeguards its health. In this dissertation, I demonstrate how Janeway’s and Matzinger’s individual styles function in their discourses to challenge the Self/Nonself paradigm, interweaving elements of ethos, scientific norms, ideology, linguistic and cultural capital, and genre knowledge in enacting a variety of personae. In addition, I show how stance and visual rhetoric contribute to this enactment.


This study offers a detailed understanding of how actors in a current scientific controversy use style strategically to negotiate epistemic authority and legitimacy for unorthodox knowledge claims. It also supports the idea that style does rhetorical work in science. Finally, it argues for returning the personal and individual into scientific rhetoric.