Dissertation Fellowship Proposal

What follows is my fellowship application. I know a lot of you have been wanting me to post my prospectus here, and this is a short, readable version. I'm still working out the chapter outlines...and, well, plenty of other questions and puzzles about my dissertation, too.



In the last three years, blogging has gained recognition as a phenomenon in online communication, offering ordinary citizens a platform to publish their ideas and a space for deliberative political discourse. However, the majority of the most influential and widely-read political bloggers are men, and issues of concern to women are often not given equal attention, a disparity that has been discussed in the “Where are the women?” debates. I argue that these debates reveal disruptions of assumptions surrounding political discourse. Identifying these points can enrich our understanding of gendered rhetorical practices and the way they are constituted on weblogs.


Researchers have been studying computer-mediated communication since the 1970s, and with the advent of the World Wide Web in 1989, more people were granted access to the Internet. Feminist scholars began to study gender in computer-mediated communication. This research can be characterized by three trends: theories of how identity is constructed online through textual play and experimentation with gender swapping (Turkle, 1995; Stone, 1995), case studies of differences in the ways men and women communicate online (Herring, 1996; Gurak, 1997), and inquiry into the historical context of the invention of the Internet with its masculine, value-laden origins as a military tool (Gurak, 2001; Selfe, 2001).

Throughout the 1990s, most online communication has taken place on email, discussion boards, and synchronous chat spaces, but in the late 1990s, some Web users started keeping weblogs, or frequently updated Web sites with posts arranged in reverse chronological order. In 1999, companies began offering free, user-friendly weblog software and hosting space. As a result, barriers to entry were removed, and anyone with an Internet connection was able to have his or her own Web site; money for domain names and hosting was no longer required, nor was technical expertise. Registration for weblogs spiked in 1999 and increased even more after the terrorist attacks of 2001. People needed to write – and publish – their thoughts about the sudden, global changes that were rapidly occurring.

I argue that weblogs, unlike email lists, discussion boards, and chat spaces, are being taken seriously as publishing tools for political purposes. Bloggers have been able to bring about significant changes; notable examples include Trent Lott’s resignation of his post as Senate Majority Leader, which has been attributed in part to bloggers’ outcries about his comments at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, and NBC’s televised interviews of two bloggers after the 2004 Vice Presidential debates. Weblogs are public spaces, accessible to everyone, and they allow people to publish their ideas and respond to reporting of current events. Both their creation and their reception show that communication on weblogs is a new rhetorical phenomenon worthy of study. However, most of the widely-read political bloggers are men, and several of these men have raised the question: Where are the women political bloggers? Women have responded by citing many weblogs by women that they consider to be political. The debates in the “Where are the women?” case show gendered differences in what is interpreted as political and what is not.

These differences correspond closely to arguments set forth in theories of the public sphere, an idea first posited by philosopher Jürgen Habermas. The public sphere is the concept of a space accessible to everyone in which public opinion can emerge through deliberative discourse. Habermas distinguishes between norms, which are generalizable, and values, which are specific to given cultures, and questions of justice versus questions of value (or the good life). Questions of justice are intended for the public sphere, and questions of value are more subjective and not suited to discussion in the public sphere. Feminist theorists (Benhabib, 1992; Fraser, 1992) argue that in contemporary politics, questions of value are questions of justice. For example, whereas domestic violence was previously considered a question of value (a woman’s life is better if she does not experience violence in the home), it is now a question of justice (society has a responsibility to protect women and children from violence in the home; failure to do so is unjust). Rather than writing about the war in Iraq, foreign policy, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, most women with political weblogs write about issues traditionally associated with questions of value, such as child safety regulations, parental leave policies, and reproductive rights, using reflection on personal experience as an inroad to discussing such issues.


My goal is to produce a case study of gender differentials in discourse on weblogs (often called the “blogosphere”). To that end, I am analyzing the “Where are the women?” debates to ascertain the ways both men and women account for the “gender gap” in blogging. Thus far, I have found that men attribute the gender gap to the following assertions: 1.) women don’t do enough self-promotion; 2.) women can’t handle the agonistic nature of political discourse on weblogs (common metaphors for political discourse men use include “sporting events” and “food fights”); 3.) the use of pseudonyms is more common among women; and 4.) women do not blog about politics. I will also analyze posts on four of the most commonly-cited examples of political weblogs, two by men and two by women, and look for topics discussed and writing styles.

I expect to find differences between feminine and masculine approaches to political discourse which confirm that gender norms are reproduced in blogging practices. I do not intend to make generalizations about men and women, only to identify issues and styles gendered masculine and feminine (some women take a masculine approach, and some men take a feminine approach). I expect to find differences in perceived authority and style similar to those found by Herring (1996) and Gurak (1997) as well as competing interpretations of what is political, similar to those found by Benhabib (1992) and Fraser (1992). However, I also expect to find moments of disruption, instances in which political discourse is questioned and reevaluated.


My method of research is rhetorical analysis complemented by interviews. Rhetorical analysis of online communication is a methodological approach refined by Gurak (1997) and Warnick (1998), and my analytical procedure is influenced by theirs. I will analyze posts in the “Where are the women?” debate using the following steps:

  1. Description of the rhetorical conventions of blogging practices, with particular attention to ethos, invoked audience, style, and evidence.
    • What are the recurring reasons cited by both male and female bloggers for the gender gap?
      What definitions of political are implied by these reasons? What values are inculcated?
    • How can the style be characterized? (agonistic, declarative, concise, supportive, tentative, narrative?)
    • How much authority does the blogger assume, and how is authority conveyed through style?
    • What evidence is used to support arguments? (secondary sources, anecdotes based on personal experience?)
    • How does the blogger address his or her audience, both in links to other weblogs and in the comment forum?
  2. Contextualization of the public conversation via interviews.

    Several layers of communication exist in online communities, some of which are public, and some of which are behind the scenes: instant messenger conversations and email exchanges. To represent the rich complexity of the communication, I will interview active contributors to the “Where are the women” debates, both men and women. I intend to find out how they conceptualize their audience, what their motivations are for keeping weblogs, whether or not they had any private exchanges with interlocutors in the “Where are the women” debates, and whether or not anything changed after the debates. For example, have the male bloggers started reading women’s weblogs as a result of these debates?


Blogging has been proven to offer inroads to political and rhetorical influence. Blogging practices speak to the goal of having a more active, engaged citizenry and the inclusion of diverse ideas and speakers. The blogosphere is a powerful locus of rhetorical exchange, but right now there is not enough attention being paid to gender disparity and not enough exchange between men and women.

My research will be the first rhetorical inquiry into gender and political weblogs, and as such, professional journals such as Rhetoric Society Quarterly and College Composition and Communication will be interested in publishing it. I intend to write a shortened version of my dissertation for a general audience and publish it on my weblog, which is read by over 1000 people per day. When I publish my research on my weblog, it will reach bloggers themselves, and then not only will my research make a contribution to the field of rhetoric by testing the act of blogging against existing theories of the public sphere, it also has the potential to make a direct and major intervention into everyday blogging practices.


I have completed my literature review and a preliminary analysis of the posts in my case study. By July, I will complete my analysis of the “Where are the women” case. By September, I will have analyzed my selected posts on men’s and women’s weblogs and begin analyzing the data from my interviews. By December, I will complete the analysis of my interview data. In January, I will begin revisions and defend my dissertation in May 2006.


Benhabib, S. (1993). Models of public space: Hannah Arendt, the liberal tradition, and Jürgen
Habermas. In C. Calhoun, (Ed.). Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 72-98). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Fraser, N. (1992). Rethinking the public sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually
existing democracy. In C. Calhoun, (Ed.). Habermas and the public sphere (pp. 109-142). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gurak, L.J. (1997). Persuasion and privacy in cyberspace. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Gurak, L.J. (2001). Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with awareness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1991). The structural transformation of the public sphere: An inquiry into a
category of bourgeois society
. (T. Burger, Trans.). Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press. (Original work published 1962)

Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Warnick, B. (1998). Rhetorical criticism of public discourse on the Internet: Theoretical
implications. Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 28, 73-84.


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Go Clancy go!

Go Clancy go!

Looks great, one question


This looks like a great diss. fellowship proposal. It raises lots of good questions, and has a good balance of Theory and Reality, if you know what I mean.

I'm not a huge fan of the title: "Gender, Punditry, and Weblogs: Blogging's Challenge To Current Understandings of Political Discourse." Part of it is the word "blogging," which you're using as a cover-all word for the act of blogging as an individual practice/ritual AND the sense of community generated by it. It's perhaps better than the "blogosphere," which is really only understood on the Internet. But maybe you could say "Blog Communities" ?

Here's a totally different title that comes to mind: "The Gendering of Political Discourse in Weblogs." Would that work as a title or part of one?

I love it

Yeah, I had to come up with a working title, and for a long time I've been feeling kind of "meh" about that one. Your idea is great, and there's no colon, which is refreshing. Thanks a lot!

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