Carnegie Mellon University

Ethos and Narrative in an Online Classroom Chat

Author: Martha S. Cheng
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2003

This study explores how the traditional notion of ethos might need to be revised when applied to new social contexts in which the conditions differ from those of classical rhetorical situations. Specifically, it looks at ethos construction in naturally occurring conversation in an online educational chatroom.

In the general contemporary understanding of Aristotelian and Ciceronian ethos, ethos encompasses these attributes: it refers to the credibility of the speaker as constructed within the speech situation; it is particularly relevant in rhetorical situations and it is evaluated significantly according to social standards. Classical rhetoricians addressed face-to-face, formal, planned, persuasive speech situations. In contrast, the online chats possess none of these qualities, they are computer-mediated, informal, unplanned, and non-persuasive. The study asks how the Aristotelian and Ciceronian notion of ethos, as generally understood by contemporary rhetoricians, might need to be revised in this new social context.

Using a discourse analytic approach, the conversation of the chats was studied at both the macro and micro levels. The analysis showed that a particular kind of ethos, that of a professional colleague, was relevant in this chat situation and that a frequent strategy to develop this ethos was the use of narrative. Specifically, narrative was used to display practical wisdom and goodwill, two qualities listed by Aristotle as necessary for ethos. The findings suggest that in new social contexts the classical notion of ethos needs to be supplemented in two ways: First, increased attention needs to be paid to the social situation as different kinds of ethos might be relevant, depending upon the situation. Second, in new social contexts in which social standards are uncertain, narrative is a significant means of developing these standards.

Further empirical research looking at ethos in different social contexts is suggested. Also, the prevalence of narrative in contributing to ethos in this situation leads to the speculation that narrative might be significantly related to ethos in more general ways. Future research investigating the relationship between ethos and narrative are discussed.