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Rhetoric of social intervention model

The "rhetoric of social intervention" (RSI) model is a systemic communication theory of how human beings symbolically constitute, maintain, and change social systems (e.g., organizations, societies, and cultures). The RSI model was developed in the writings of communication theorist William R. Brown. The model provides a framework for analyzing and interpreting social system change and its side effects from a communication perspective. It also suggests a methodology for acting as an intervener to encourage and/or discourage social system change. The model offers an alternative approach to understanding social system change by its emphasis on communication as the driver of change in contrast to models that focus on social, political, economic, and technological forces as catalysts for change. The RSI model is envisioned as three communication subsystems that function as starting points for interpreting or enacting social system change. The subsystems, known as attention, power, and need, form the RSI model framework. This entry describes the assumptive foundations of the RSI model. Then it discusses the attention, power, and need patterns of communication that that model identifies as points for generating social system change and continuity.

The beginnings of Brown's RSI model are reflected in three main documents—a book about Will Rogers that reports research on American dream ideology, a book chapter that outlines how human beings strategically use symbols to create, maintain, and change symbolic realities, and a journal article in which he sketches the RSI model foundations by theorizing about the process by which human beings strategically use symbols to create, maintain, and change symbolically constructed ideology.

Imagemaker: Will Rogers and the American Dream was based on Brown's doctoral dissertation. An Oklahoman like Rogers, Brown was curious about Rogers' influence and popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Brown researched the source of Rogers' ability to be persuasive and authoritative and concluded that it arose from Rogers' ability to embody and reflect characteristics that the U.S. public associated with the American dream. The book describes American dream attributes, such as "the dream of the dignity and worth of the individual, of freedom and equality, of success, and of progress," and shows how Rogers symbolically identified with them. Although Brown acquired an in-depth understanding of American dream ideology, he later reported that the research left him wondering how social systems construct ideology. To address this question, Brown began reading books and articles on language, philosophy, rhetoric, and linguistics.

A book chapter called Language and Strategy, written for The Rhetorical Dialogue: Contemporary Concepts and Cases, reflects Brown's initial investigations into the process by which human beings symbolically constitute reality, and, by extension, ideology. The chapter describes how human beings learn to categorize experience symbolically and how this symbolizing activity functions rhetorically. Brown draws his ideas for what he calls the "naming" process from scholars such as rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke, philosopher Susanne Langer, psycholinguist Roger Brown, and psychologists Jerome Bruner, Jacqueline Goodnow, and George Austin.

  • Brown, W. R. (1978). Ideology as communication process. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 64(2), 123-140.
  • Brown, W. R. (1982). Attention and the rhetoric of social intervention. The Quarterly Journal of Speech, 68(1), 17-27.
  • Brown, W. R. (1986). Power and the rhetoric of social intervention. Communication Monographs, 53(2), 180-199.
  • Brown, W. R. (2010). Need and the rhetoric of social intervention. (ED515280). Available from
  • Opt, S.K. & Gring, M.A. (2009). The rhetoric of social intervention: An introduction. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
  • Gonzalez, A. (1989, Fall). “Participation” at WMEX-FM: Interventional rhetoric of Ohio Mexican Americans. Western Journal of Speech Communication, 53, 398-410.
  • Gring, M. A. (1998). Attention, power, and need: The rhetoric of religion and revolution in Nicaragua. World Communication Journal, 27(4), 27-37.
  • Huang, S. (1996). To rebel is justified: A rhetorical study of China’s cultural revolution movement, 1966-1969. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
  • Keith, S. (2006). Abigail Scott Duniway: The rhetoric of intervention and the new northwest. Texas Speech Communication Journal, 30(2), 146-157.
  • Leroux, N. (1991, Spring). Frederick Douglass and the attention-shift. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 21, 36-46.
  • Opt, S. K. (1988, Fall). Continuity and change in storytelling about artificial intelligence: Extending the narrative paradigm. Communication Quarterly, 298-310.
  • Opt, S. K. (1996). American frontier myth and the flight of Apollo 13: From news event to feature film. Film and History Journal, 26(1-4), 40-51.
  • Opt, S. K. (1997). The Earth Summit: Maintaining cultural myth. Journal of the Northwest Communication Association, 25, 1-22.
  • Opt, S. K. (1999). Early computer advertising: Resolving mythic tensions. Journal of the Northwest Communication Association, 27, 1-20.
  • Opt, S. (2001). The search for paradise: Rise and fall of the Houston Astrodome. Texas Speech Communication Journal, XXVI, 13-22.
  • Opt, S. K. (2003). Organizational change: An attention-switching view. In J. Biberman & A. Alkhafaji (Eds.), Business research yearbook: Global business perspectives (pp. 773–777). Saline, MI: McNaughton & Gunn, Inc.
  • Opt, S. K. (2008). Public relations and the rhetoric of social intervention. In T. L. Hansen-Horn & B. Dostal Neff (Eds.), Public relations: From theory to practice (pp. 227–241). Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
  • Snyder, L. (1999, September). Apologetics before and after postmodernism. Journal of Communication and Religion, 22, 237-271.
  • Snyder, L. (2000). Invitation to transcendence: The book of Revelation. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 86(4), 402-416.
  • Snyder, L. (2004). The church in the post-post-modern world: Communicating the holographic faith. In E. Johnson (Ed.), Selected Proceedings of the 2004 Conference of Faith and Communication (pp. 94–100). Buies Creek, NC: Campbell University.
  • Snyder, L. (2004). The rhetoric of transcendence in the book of Revelation. In J. D. Hester and J. D. Hester (Eds.), Rhetorics and hermeneutics: Wilhelm Wuellner and his influence, Emory studies in early Christianity (pp. 193–217). New York: T & T Clark International.
  • Snyder, L. (2005, Fall). Argument as intervention in the Revelation of John: A rhetorical analysis. Stone-Campbell Journal, 8, 245-259.
  • Stoner, M.R. (1989). Understanding social movement rhetoric as social intervention. The Speech Communication Annual, 3, 27-43.


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