How can listening to party political speeches help with your course work?

This week’s Book of the Week is What’s Your Problem? Making sense of Social Policy and the Policy Process by Stuart Connor of the University of Birmingham. This lively book provides an essential introduction to the critical analysis of social problems and the policy process. It argues that policy does not just have an impact of people’s lives, but that people can and should have an impact on policy. Read Stuart’s timely blog post written just as students return to university for the Autumn term.

At the time of writing, it is the middle of the party political conference season in the UK. This may not be considered ‘must see’ television for many, but for students on social policy and social work courses, the speeches should be essential viewing. Obviously, the debates held and the positions taken are worth noting as they may well influence the future direction of policy and practice. However, it is how politicians communicate, and not just what is said, that is worthy of further scrutiny.  In this regard, politicians have far more in common with students than you may think. When it comes to winning votes for a forthcoming election or securing a pass for a written assignment, both politicians and students need to become adept in the use of rhetoric and a classical form of argument in particular.

A classical argument is broadly taken as being characterised by five parts or elements which you may well recognise, though not necessarily have described in these terms.

Exordium.  ‘Roll up, Roll up’, this is where you attempt to gain the attention of the audience. The headline, statement, act or image that says, pay attention, I have got something to say and something that you will want or need to hear. Ideally you will show how the audiences and your own interests coincide – the persuasive appeal of ethos is invaluable here. You may choose to adopt an urgent, measured or humorous mood, but what is most important is to match the mood to the topic, argument and intended audience. This is where judgement is required. It is one thing to gain attention, but you also want to take the audience to the next step.

Narratio. Once attention has been gained, this is where you provide the context of your argument. You may decide to take an historical view, identify the major debates or outline the scale of the issue to be addressed. You cannot assume that the audience will be familiar with this context. Neither is it enough to state a startling statistic. You also need to show why this fact matters to the audience. In sum, the narratio talks to the significance and relevance of the argument being made.

Partitio (sometimes called divisio). These is where you lay out your argument and make clear what it is that you want to convince the audience of and how you intend to persuade them. The claims to be made for supporting (confirmatio) and refuting opposing claims (refutio) comes later, but partitio is where you are clear about what will follow and the thesis to be communicated.

Confirmatio. This is where you will detail the claims and conditions that support your argument and justify your position. The nature of the claims and conditions will vary. Appeals may be made to authority, reason, evidence or values, but once again the important point is to consider the audiences’ view of what they consider to be legitimate and credible claims.

Refutatio. Having detailed the claims that support your position, the refutatio is where you pre-empt and contend with the critics of your argument. The place for counter-argument, you outline the limitations of alternative viewpoints and thereby demonstrate that your own argument is the best from the choices available. To be successful in this endeavour does require you to appreciate alternative viewpoints, even if you then go on to dismiss them. It is also where you demonstrate, or at least give the impression of being, a reasonable thinker. There is no dogma or polemic here as your argument is clearly the result of a careful, systematic and rigorous deliberation.

Peroratio. This is the finale, the cap-stone of your argument. The peroratio is where you remind the audience of the journey you have shared and how and where they have now arrived. Satisfied that your claims are now considered sound and that your conclusions are now shared, you can afford to use the peroratio to consider the implications of your argument. This may include a ‘call to action’ or a request to see the topic and world differently. The peroratio is where pathos can appeal, particularly when attempting to seek the support of the audience, or at least ensure that no opposition is forthcoming. In sum, having persuaded the audience of your position, you now make clear the next steps to be taken and the new direction that you and others are heading.

By attending to these elements of a classical argument and the use of rhetoric more generally, it will not only help you recognise and assess the efforts of politicians when making claims, but also help you become more adept in your own essay writing and discussions. Notably, this can lead to a virtuous circle. As you attend to the use of others’ rhetoric in deliberations, you also begin to reflect on, refine and develop your own capacity for articulating arguments, which in turn then further develops your ability to recognise and assess the use of rhetoric by others, etc., etc., etc.

If nothing else, you will appreciate that rhetoric is not inherently a bad thing and that the claim to be devoid of such techniques and flourishes is itself rhetorical. So when it comes to attending to the use of rhetoric, ‘what are you waiting for?’, and yes, that is a rhetorical question.
Stuart Connor, University of Birmingham

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