Discourse (any communicative act) is multi-faceted and can be explored from multiple perspectives. Each time that we participate in discourse (oral or textual), the success of this communicative act is dependent upon a variety of factors. According to Lloyd Bitzer, any communicative act contains the following elements: author, text, reader, and context. The communicative act – or discourse – is sent by the author through a given medium (this can be textual, oral, or even symbolic) to be interpreted by a reader. The reader’s interpretation is almost completely dependent upon cultural codes in order to make meaning out of the discourse.
Each time we seek to communicate with one another or each time that we read a text, we enter the complexities of these four elements found within Lloyd Bitzer’s rhetorical situation. Academics tend to be very concerned with the complexity of the process of the construction of these discursive formations. The complexity of the discourse not only involves the linguistic structure in which these messages occur but also includes the larger cultural contexts out of which the linguistic structures emerge. It is because of the complexity of the discursive formations that scholars seek to problematize the discourse that they encounter so that they might glean a deeper sense of meaning from the text.
Here is a comprehensive definition of what it means to problematize:
To problematize a term, a text, an opinion, an identity, a person or any phenomenon is to question it, to reconsider it, or to see it as a problem to be solved. (adapted from Freire (1976), cited in Crotty (1988), p. 155-156). Problematizing is intellectual shorthand for a critical and pedagogical dialogue or process. It is a form of demythisication, a process by which something is called into question. Rather than focusing on the common knowledge or myth of a particular situation and taking it for truth (often with a capital “T”), problematizing calls it into doubt. By engaging in the problematization of discourse, one allows and encourages new viewpoints and considerations to emerge. What makes the act of problematizing different from other forms of academic inquiry is its target. Rather than focusing primarily on the discourse itself, those who problematize focus on the cultural context out of which the discourse emerges. It questions the validity of the discourse by asking why such an argument or concept exists in the first place and re-evaluates the usefulness or utility of its existence. Rather than accepting a given situation, those who problematize question it by abandoning the viewpoint that the culture of silence, tradition, or some other force has imposed upon the discourse.
Problematizing is serious intellectual work. After reading the definition of what it means to problematize something, the first thing that might come to mind is “who has time?” The next thing that might come to mind is “how would you even go about doing such a thing?” While the cognitive act of problematizing is not easy, it is not impossible. Once academics are equipped with the necessary tools to problematize a given phenomenon, they eventually grow in their ability to problematize and can do it much more efficiently. The purpose of this article is to provide several heuristics that academics can use as tools to help them engage in the act of problematization.
To problematize a statement, one asks simple questions about the author of the text like: “How does the author’s life and identity influence the communicative act or text?” Specifically, one might ask: “How does the author’s family and home life, political involvement, personal relationships, lifestyle, economic background, religious beliefs or other cultural considerations contribute to the ways in which the author constructs his or her texts?”
One might also ask: “How do the author’s rhetorical skills and/ or formal training influence the making of the text?” One might also be more specific and ask: “How much does the author rely on his or her intuition in creating the text?” or “How emotionally involved is the writer with the text?” Readers might also ask: “How personal or autobiographical is the text?” and “What kinds of resources (material, social, political, or cultural) does the author have and how do these resources contribute to the construction of the text?”
In addition to asking questions about the author, one might also ask “Who is the author’s intended audience?” or “How does the author seek to influence the reader’s reactions to the author’s claims?” One might look at how the author uses rhetorical choices to influence what the reader sees and doesn’t see. “Does the author stress some details and omit or downplay the significance of others and if so, what can the reader learn from these omissions?” One might also look at the context of the work and see where the author chooses to make his or her points and then ask “Why did the author choose to make that claim in that context?”
In addition to asking simple questions about the author or the audience, one might also ask simple questions about the text itself. For example, one might ask “How does the narrative create meaning in the text?” or “What kind of narrator tells the story?” One might also ask “Does the title relate to the meaning of the work?” or “How does style shape the meaning of the work?” If the story is a work of fiction, one might ask questions about the elements of fiction like plot, characterization, setting, themes, motifs, symbols, etc. One might also look closely at the language of the text to see how the language itself influences the meaning of the text?
One might also ask questions about the genre of the work. For example, “How does the genre shape the meaning of the work?” or “What kind of work is it?” and “How does this shape the form that the work takes?” One might also ask “What is the purpose of the work?” and “How does this purpose influence its structure or language?” In addition, the way in which the text’s arguments are established is important. One might ask “What is the goal of the text?” or “What is the text primarily concerned with?”
Simple questions about one’s self might also be important. For example, “How do the readers’ experiences shape their response to the work?” and “What kinds of emotions do you feel as a reader when you are experiencing the work?” and “Why do you think you feel this way?” In addition, one might ask “How do I imagine certain scenes, characters, events, or images in the work?” and “How do these details help you picture the work in your mind’s eye?” The reader’s worldview is important in terms of how they interact with a work, so you might ask “Do you identify with any aspect of the work?” and “What does it reveal about yourself?”
In addition, simple context centered questions are important. One might ask “how do various contexts shape the process of interpreting and experiencing the work?” or “How does the work challenge or question accepted beliefs about the society in which it occurs?” One might also ask “What institutions control the publication of literary works?” and “Which institutions control the interpretation or criticism of those works?” and “Which institutions control the teaching of these works?” We might also ask “in what ways can we evaluate the work?” and “How can I establish criteria to evaluate the work?”
In the end, we must ask ourselves, “What have I learned from reading the work?” and “How can I take what I got from this work and make my life better or different in any way?” In order for education to work and in order for art to function as it should, there must be some transformative experience from this encounter because learning through critically reflecting upon one’s experiences with a text is a transformative experience and must be seen as an opportunity to re-imagine one’s self within one’s socio-historical context.
Sources: Bitzer, Lloyd. The Rhetorical Situation
Crotty, Michael J. (1998). Foundations of Social Research: Meaning and Perspective in the Research Process.
Mitchell, Philip. Dallas Baptist University. Lecture. 2001.