Carnegie Mellon University

Heuretic Engagement: Everyday Talk about Social Issues

Author: Susan Gilpin
Degree: Ph.D. in Rhetoric, Carnegie Mellon University, 2004

It is a commonplace today to characterize democracy as a public
conversation, and many cultural critics note an inability or unwillingness among citizens to conduct this conversation in accordance with the traditional rhetorical norms of rational argument and informed deliberation. Yet, by focusing solely on formal rhetorical structures, these critics overlook or discount other, perhaps equally significant, informal activities of civic discourse. This study describes and analyzes one such informal activity, a non-argumentative dialogue named heuretic engagement, and asks what its practice can mean to participants. Chapter One reviews the normative bias of traditional rhetorical theory and its attendant idealization of monologic civic discourse. The chapter then contends that everyday dialogic civic discourse is not a failure to meet an ideal but an important rhetorical activity in its own right. Chapter Two elaborates the issue by summarizing contemporary claims about perceived threats to American democracy: an uninformed citizenry incapable of meaningful deliberation about current social problems and the consequent impoverishment of citizenship more generally. The contention is that these claims are made without an adequate understanding of what actually takes place when people "just talk" about social issues. Chapter Three describes the study’s research paradigm and assumptions, as well as the ethnographic techniques used for collecting discourse samples and conducting participant interviews. The chapter also describes tools borrowed from discourse and activity analyses to aid in analyzing and interpreting these data. Chapter Four presents the major findings of the study: a systematic elaboration of the contexts, characteristics, and function of heuretic engagement, as well as the meaning of its practice for participants. Analysis of interviews reveals that participants can articulate the conditions for heuretic engagement, though they frequently do not perceive its practice as an enactment of citizenship. Finally, Chapter Five relates the author’s initial assumptions about the function of heuretic engagement to the findings in Chapter Four. The author concludes that heuretic engagement complements the normative idealizations of traditional rhetorical theory and pedagogy, neither of which fully comprehends contemporary civic discourse.