Should Scholars Delineate a Data Set Apart from a Research Project? Considering Objects, Methods, and Purposes for Studying Presidential Rhetoric


Robert Asen is a professor of communication arts and an affiliate at the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Invoking the Invisible Hand: Social Security and the Privatization Debates and Visions of Poverty: Welfare Policy and Political Imagination.


Rather than identifying a data set prior to engaging in scholarship, we need to consider how scholars' choices of which presidential speeches to study depend importantly on their understanding of objects, methods, and purposes of analysis. Presidential speeches may be understood as discrete, meaningful texts and/or as parts of larger bodies of discourse. In either case, speech making may proceed in a moment that advocates and audiences alike appreciate as significant. At other times, speech itself may lend gravity to a moment, such that the magnitude of an address may not be appreciated until after it has been delivered. Methods may incorporate social scientific and/or humanistic approaches, seeking to generalize common characteristics across speeches and presidents as well as explicate distinctive discursive traits within speeches and among particular presidents. Alternative approaches give varying weight to the distinctive contribution of the analyst. Purposes may address a range of elements, including appreciation and/or demystification of presidential speech. Focusing scholarship on a common set of texts may initiate conversations across theoretical and methodological perspectives. At the same time, pursuing different purposes and analyzing the full range of presidential speeches may generate illuminating differences among speeches and presidents.