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Social Relations and Institutional Structures in Modern American Political Campaigns


The art of rhetoric (Aristotle) is the art of persuasion: using forms of talk to gather people together - to forge agreement and thereby stimulate [positive] action. How one gets others to agree (with them) - and act on that agreement - is of prominent concern for politicians and those aiming to influence social policy, and is inevitably done through interaction.

The campaign speeches during the US Presidential Election Campaign of 2008 have attracted the attention of a wide range of scholars in Sociology, Political Science, and Communication studies. Although Atkinson (1984), Heritage and Greatbatch (1986), Clayman (1993), and others have radically transformed our understanding of the devices speechmakers use to coordinate audience response ("clap trap"), to date no social or political scientist has described how these moments are stitched together, in real time, to organize the speeches - presidential or otherwise; and we know little about the differences between alternative forms of collective appreciation (e.g., applause versus chanting), and what this might tell us about the different social relations that speakers can establish with audience members by varying specific components of their speech. As a consequence, we understand very little about how politicians compose specific political messages, or how these are shaped by the changing [media] landscape of modern political campaigns.

This research tackles these issues directly by developing a detailed analysis of campaign rally speeches as well as the audience's responses using the tools of Conversation Analysis. Through a descriptive and analytic account of the underlying normative organization of campaign speeches and the contingencies facing both speakers and audience members, this research considers how speakers use these occasions to shape - even transform - the opportunities and bases for public participation in the political process; demonstrating how the distinctive turn-taking system and its relationship to the "institutional occasion" (c.f., Sacks, Schegloff, and Jefferson, 1974; Atkinson and Drew, 1979; Atkinson, 1982; Heritage 1984; Heritage and Greatbatch, 1991; Drew and Heritage, 1992; ) - and the forms of political expression they enable - are consequential for the social relations built through them.

In this respect, this research offers a novel approach to a basic question posed by politicians and social/political scientists: What sort of social relations do political leaders establish with the constituents they serve? And how are modern campaign events used to establish such relations?

Specifically, an account of the orderliness, structure, and sequential patterns of talk-in-interaction reveals the ways candidates exploit the interactive organization of speech giving in different ways: how different rhetorical forms were used to make relevant different forms of collective appreciation by audience members (e.g., applause versus chants), which allowed candidates to establish different relations with the public (e.g., did the audience agree with the speaker, or did the speaker agree with the audience?); which building blocks used over the course of a speech (and the entire campaign) could be used to mobilize audience members' participation in events beyond the campaign event, and which caused others' speeches to be more inert? This research offers the most complex (and complete) understanding of modern campaign speeches to date, as well as compelling new findings to help understand why some speeches campaigns are more successful than others.

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