Social Action Begins With a Question

In chapter six of her book Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis, Jenny Rice explains why inquiry is instrumental in bringing about social action. Rice argues that we are all members of a complex network and in order to fully understand this system we must learn to ask questions.

Protestors at an Arco gas station (a subsidiary of PB) in Los Angeles, California in June 2010.

Protestors at an Arco gas station (a subsidiary of PB) in Los Angeles, California in June 2010. (Click image for article link)

Rice uses the nation’s reaction to the BP oil spill as an example to show how ignorant we all are to the complexity of the networks around us. The national boycott of BP oil did nothing to combat the petroleum mining problem. Instead, it allowed participants to feel like they were doing something, even though the little they were doing was actually contributing to the problem. Rice argues that choosing to buy gas from another company did not stop the overall problem because it ignored the invisible connections among a much larger network. The BP oil spill was one occurrence in a much larger system. Boycotting was an easy way to address the problem without doing much work, but did nothing to actually stop the problem of petroleum mining and drilling. Rice uses this example to prove how complex networks work and how little we, as public subjects, know about these complex systems.

Rice argues that in order to fully understand these networks, we must first be educated in “patterns of public talk” (165). Understanding public talk begins in the classroom. Rice believes that educators have the ability to shape public subjects, and argues that the production of these well rounded civilians begins with rhetorical pedagogies. Using a conversation between two students Rice explains why writing only about what you are passionate about is not for the best. If you are only required to write about what you enjoy, you are allowing yourself to be closed off from all new thoughts, ideas, and passions. Instead of only writing about things you enjoy, Rice urges students and educators alike to use rhetorical pedagogies to find new interests. Rice states “Rhetorical pedagogies have a deep commitment to helping students make connections with public issues, including helping them to understand how those issues affect them” (165). In order for social action to occur so must inquiry, and in order for inquiry to occur so must learning. When we learn new things, we open ourselves up to a variety of new questions, and from these questions come new concerns and passions. Rice argues that without the ability to learn new things, new questions could never be formulated, and social action would never occur.

Inquiry is necessary for social action. Without the ability to learn new things, we would be unable to ask questions and to raise new concerns. Without these concerns, social action could not take place. Things happen when passionate people work together to make things happen. Rice believes that rhetorical pedagogies are the key to producing public subjects. Her definition of a public subject is an individual who understands the complex networks that make up who we are and where we live. Rice argues that the key to understanding these complex systems is learning how to ask questions and seeking out solutions. Rice uses the BP oil spill, an overheard conversation, and importance of rhetorical pedagogies to argue that inquiry is instrumental in bringing about social action.

Works Cited

Pizzello, Chris. Protestors at an ARCO Gas Station in Los Angeles. 2011, The New York Times,

Rice, Jenny. Distant Publics: Development Rhetoric and the Subject of Crisis. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012. pp. 163-196.


Grace Wilmeth

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