, Volume 31, Issue 1, pp 1–21 | Cite as

Institutional Argumentation and Institutional Rules: Effects of Interactive Asymmetry on Argumentation in Institutional Contexts

  • Mark Andrew ThompsonEmail author


Recent approaches to studying argumentation in institutions have pointed out the role of institutional rules in constraining argumentation that takes place in institutional contexts. However, few studies explain how these rules concretely affect actual argumentation. In particular, little work has been done as to the consequences of interactional asymmetry which often exists between participants in institutional contexts. While previous studies have suggested that this asymmetry exists as an aberration in the deliberative process, this paper argues that asymmetry is built into day-to-day institutional practices as a means of achieving institutional agendas. This article draws upon findings from workplace and discourse studies to explicate particular dimensions of asymmetry that commonly occur within institutional settings, and establishes a methodological framework to account for how this asymmetry can be operationalized for arguments that favor institutional interests regardless of the underlying strength of the arguments being made. Drawing on a controversial case of institutional argumentation during a hearing of the US House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) in the mid-1950s, this article demonstrates how in using these advantages, HUAC is able to overcome legitimate witness counterarguments to its claims and achieve its institutional goals for the hearing. Though the testimony is admittedly 60-years old, HUAC is a useful case study: the asymmetry in the exchange is clear and we have a historical record to verify the factual accuracy of the claims being made. Additionally, we can see how the subsequent legal reforms that reduced conditions of asymmetry for witnesses were responsible for HUAC’s eventual demise as an institutional force. Though this paper analyzes one particular interaction, these findings are applicable to analysis of argumentation in many institutional settings.


Institutional argumentation Institutional discourse Asymmetry HUAC Pete Seeger Anticommunism 



Many thanks to Barbara Johnstone, Tom Mitchell, D.J. Schuldt, Jenny Andrus, John Oddo, Ryan Skinnell, and the reviewers for their invaluable feedback and suggestions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of English and Comparative LiteratureSan José State UniversitySan JoseUSA

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