Research Program

Sonja K. Foss

The basic question that guides my research program is one of boundaries and scope. I am interested in discovering and assessing the methodological and ideological boundaries that communication scholars construct around theories and critical practices in the communication field to discover their impact on our conceptions of communication. My focus is on how constraints inherent in our choices about definitions, values that undergird our theories, and the data of our studies unnecessarily limit our understanding of communication.

I am interested in this question for two primary reasons. One is that I want to facilitate a more comprehensive description of communication processes–to describe as fully as possible the diverse communicative experiences that characterize symbol use in all of its variety. A second explanation for my interest in this question is that I am committed to the use of communication to challenge and transform the ideology of domination that pervades Western culture. A critical assessment of our theories and practices enables me to discover which of them reinscribe and perpetuate this ideology and how they might be transformed by expanding definitions, theories, and other boundaries.

My work in the area of feminist perspectives on communication is one way in which I explore and assess methodological and ideological boundaries in communication. My initial work in this area was designed largely to incorporate the communicative practices of women into our theories about communication. My early efforts in this area, then, focused on the inclusion of women’s voices, and I studied, for example, the Equal Rights Amendment, the controversy over women priests in the Episcopal Church, and Judy Chicago’s work of art, The Dinner Party. The focus of my efforts in this area now is on questioning and reconceptualizing critical methods, constructs, and theories to reflect the perspectives of women and other marginalized groups as well as feminist values such as self-determination and equality.

My work on invitational rhetoric is one example of my reconceptualization work from a feminist perspective. It constitutes an effort to reconceptualize the definition of rhetoric from feminist principles and to challenge the presumption that has been granted to persuasion in the definition. The textbook on presentational speaking I coauthored with Karen Foss, Inviting Transformation, is another example of my reconceptualization work. We began with a goal of including the speaking practices, traditions, and values of marginalized groups such as women and people of color in presentational speaking, and we discovered that to incorporate the diverse perspectives of these groups, the basic model of public speaking had to be transformed.

A similar project was Feminist Rhetorical Theories, which I coauthored with Karen Foss and Cindy Griffin (I wrote the chapters on bell hooks, Trinh T. Minh-ha, Sally Miller Gearhart, and Cheris Kramarae). In this book, the rhetorical theories of nine feminist theorists are explicated, providing the communication field with alternatives to traditional rhetorical theories. Other work in this area included my guest editorship (with Eileen Berlin Ray) of a special issue of Communication Studies on theorizing communication from submerged and marginalized groups.

My study of the visual image as a communicative phenomenon is yet another lens through which I question and sometimes seek to alter the boundaries and scope of the theory and practice of communication. When visual images are the data of studies, our critical practices and theories about communication must be expanded to allow for the characteristics of this type of symbol. I am particularly interested in how visual symbols affect the lay person–someone with no training in art, art history, art education, design, or aesthetics. Among the questions that interest me in this area are: How do visual symbols differ from verbal symbols, and what differences do those differences make? How do visual images construct their appeal?

Examples of my work with visual images include a study of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, which provided the means for studying ambiguity in communicative processes. In a study of body art (art in which artists use their own bodies as their primary means of expression), I was interested in the process by which audiences interpret ambiguous works and the messages they are likely to develop from them. In another study, I worked to develop a theory of how nonrepresentational, ambiguous images construct their appeal, using as my data Memphis furniture, the pool room in Elvis Presley’s Graceland, and Jeanne Claude and Christo’s Valley Curtain. I also have proposed a schema for the rhetorical evaluation of visual images.

I plan to continue to develop the two threads of my research program–my work with feminist perspectives and with visual imagery–in the future. Both seem to me to have the potential to open up the discipline of communication in important ways, and I hope to be able to continue to contribute to that effort.