Observing and Interpreting Institutional Discourse:
Scholarly Method

My purpose here is to illustrate a method of qualitative study, conceptual framing, for descriptive analysis of discourse. The method's aim is to preserve the object's complexity while interpreting it.

The example studied is governmental deliberative discourse as it developed in the Senate on August 22, l789, during the first session of the first federal Congress of the United States.

Conceptual Framing

In observational research, deciding what is interesting or significant in the booming, buzzing confusion (or maybe the droning monotony) of a real situation can be difficult. Frameworks to prompt and to ground conceptualization can help.

As research devices, conceptual frameworks point (more loosely than do formal models) to meaningful data in a situation. Frameworks do this, initially, at a large-grain level by identifying broadly applicable concepts or features that characterize similarity or that reveal difference across situations.

To develop a framework by which to understand Congressional hearings, I first went to the data. I reviewed open-ended notes I had made over approximately eight years, including on-site research in the Congress and several legislative and executive branch offices in l991-92 and l997, while observing hearings, interviewing participants, and consulting archives. From these notes, I compiled a general list of symbolizing practices, e.g. writing a statement, preparing questions, asking questions, answering questions, rehearsing, testifying, audiotaping or videotaping the hearing, recording and transcribing speech to produce a written record of what is said, publishing the written record, broadcasting the real-time event, and so forth. Out of context, the resulting list had no specific relation to Congressional work. Similar practices occur in courtroom trials, for example. However, when associated with legislative functions and with predictable purposes of Congressional hearings, the list of practices made situational sense.

In the situation of a political democracy, the task of a legislature is to process multiple, opposed interpretations of reality in order to construct a single course of public action. A public hearing is a principal site for that processing and construction, which occur on several levels.

Basic construction always includes the announced purpose of the hearing--either legislation, authorization, appropriation, oversight, or confirmation of a nomination. Beyond that, what else is in process? Is the hearing a stage for eliciting or elaborating positions on issues? If so, what are the issues and what positions emerge during a hearing? Are the concerns societal (e.g., drug abuse) or institutional (e.g., majority-minority party relations or committee jurisdictions)? Whose agendas are influential? The committee chair's agenda? Staffmembers' agendas? Congressmembers' agendas? Constituents' agendas? Usually, several purposes and agendas are operative. And they are only a short list of constructions in a hearing.

The longer list would also include two institutional mandates for holding a hearing, communication and information-gathering. The Congress is now obliged to hold hearings to tell the public (communicate) what the Congress is doing and to enable the Congress to learn (gather information) from experts, advocates, and spokespersons. Official outcomes of a hearing thus are policy as well as a public record of the process of policy-making.

When associated with such processes and intended outcomes, writing and speaking practices fall into categories that define what a hearing does. Four categories of discourse development, or four large clusterings of many small context-sensitive symbolizing acts, constitute the hearing situation.

The categories, each with a cluster of attributes, are as follows:

Any one, or any combination, of these categories--collectivity, performance, historicity, or mediation--creates perspective on a hearing. Like Deep Throat guiding investigative journalists ("follow the money") in the film All the President's Men, this framework says to analysts of discourse in hearings follow mediation or look at mediation historically. Unlike Deep Throat, however, the framework is not used to expose mis-doing.

Hearings, like any other public forum, can be misused in official as well as unofficial ways. However, that is not what I am analyzing. My topic is more mundane. I am concerned with ordinary complexity in a particular institutional genre, governmental public hearings. Hearings are naturally messy, in both superficial and fundamental ways. Superficially messy, as in people talking and no one listening; apparent questions or answers that are actually political speeches; arcane rules for who sits where and who speaks when, and so on. Fundamentally messy, as in multiple issues interconnecting; amounts of information too large for one mind to hold; overlapping jurisdictions among antagonistic authorities, and so on.

A conceptual framework helps us to understand messy situations like this. The conceptual framework presented here is admittedly arbitrary. It reflects my interests in discourse analysis, its categories are drawn from public political discourse, and its examples are from institutional government. Any framework is inevitably specialized and selective; framing necessarily highlights some aspects and suppresses others.

Nevertheless, the use of an acknowledged framework carries the same rational benefits for any subjective process of interpretation. The benefits are that perspectives and analyses are made explicit, consistent, and capable of comparisons. Frameworks are a generalizable heuristic for studies of discourse. In a given study, a framework provides magnets for relevant data, principles for sorting observations, dimensions along which to see relationships among the data, and constraints on insupportable interpretation.

Applying the Framework:
Understanding Governmental Discourse Historically

The framework used here was developed through attending hearings, watching televised broadcasts or listening to radio broadcasts of hearings, and interviewing participants in the present. Working out the categories of the framework helped me to interpret present-day hearings. Trying to make sense of what was happening in a particular l991 hearing, for example, I relied mainly on cues provided by participants who said that I might usefully conceive of the event as performance. I have reported the resulting analysis elsewhere (Smith C., l993).

Some hearings are not present-day and cannot not be directly observed, as archival inquiries into the earlier history of the Congress reminded me. That raised the problem of historical interpretation, and the question of how useful a conceptual framework made in the present might be for interpreting the past.

I assume that events in the past were equally as complex as events in the present. However, discerning the past's complexity from a printed record is different from figuring out what is happening right now. In archival research, observation becomes reenactment. Situations must be reconstructed. In projective reconstruction of this sort, an explicitly acknowledged conceptual framework is perhaps even more necessary to the researcher than in "live" observation. What follows, here, therefore illustrates use of the conceptual framework presented above to analyze an archival record from the past, or from the first session of the first federal Congress (l789-1801).

The Text to be Interpreted

The record to be interpreted is a verbatim entry from the diary of Senator William Maclay of Pennsylvania, an unofficial record of transactions in the Senate on August 22, 1789. The framework is useful for illuminating the context and the internal dynamics of this event. Maclay's diary entry is used as source material only. It is not my intention to examine features of his diary or ways that the genre of the diary constructs history. Rather, I want to understand how discourses emerge in the situation Maclay writes about.


The initial cue to this event is collectivity. In the historical event, collectivity (belonging or not belonging) functioned on several levels. Through Maclay's description, we (readers outside the event) are shown the first national assembly of elected representatives to the federal government of the new United States. We are seeing particularly the Senate, or "upper" body of a bicameral legislature. The Senate met, literally, in the upstairs room of the refurbished old city hall in New York city. Downstairs in the same building, the House of Representatives, or "lower" body, met. As intended by the Constitution, the two bodies also represented different social strata and different political constituencies.

Only the senators, the Senate secretary, the vice president, and (as a special circumstance) the president and his War Department secretary would have been present. No others would have been permitted, as will be discussed later in this essay.

Outside the Senate door was a delegation of Cherokee leaders accompanied by Bennet Ballew, a Scottish trader acting as their agent, interpreter, and negotiator.

The Senate convened for executive discussion as a committee of the whole. There was no formal committee system at the time described.


If, according to the conceptual framework in use here, collectivity structured the event on August 22, 1789, then it follows that performance of collective representation should be analyzed. Maclay's description shows people performing roles scripted by their responsibilities and (his view of) their commitments as political representatives, by their character, and by their specific purposes on that particular day. However, he does not provide contextual information essential to our historical reconstruction of the event. For perspective on Maclay's details, I will interject here, like overlays on his diary pages, (my) explanations of historic conditions, political contexts, and broad institutional struggles embedding the scene that Maclay describes.

The Congress members and the president were conscious that they were historically the first political actors to interpret a minimal script for United States government, the blueprint 1788 Constitution. That document called for a federal government of three branches--legislative, executive, and judicial--but did not elaborate the structure, operation, or coordination of the branches. The legislative branch, elected first, had responsibility for instituting the executive and judicial branches.

In Europe, there was no comparable example of representative democracy for the new United States to follow. The new republic, with a population of approximately four million on a land area larger than any European nation, was the first to attempt to govern by representation based on the expressed consent of the governed. Moreover, there was little in contemporary European political theory to support the feasibility of such a plan. In North America, democratic confederacies of Indian tribes had long existed, but without the system of elected representation the United States chose to institute.

The historic obligation of the first Congress, shared with the first president after the first electoral college vote, was to implement the constitutional plan. It did so, while operating the nation daily under conditions of crisis.

Still politically unstable six years after formally gaining independence from the British empire in l783, the United States in l789 faced secession from its union by two states (North Carolina and Rhode Island) and faced states' rights and constitutional amendment conflicts in several other states. The crisis was economic and social as well as political. There was no revenue (without established taxation or trade). There were large war debts, with neither means nor standard currency for paying them. Border wars continued. Threats of foreign attack by England, France, and Spain continued.

To understand how the first Senate performed its duties of representation, and to understand the conflict between the senators and the president sketched by Maclay, it is important to know what the Senate represented.

Constitutionally, the senators represented states. Two senators for each state were elected by the state legislatures, not by direct popular vote as were members of the House of Representatives. Eleven former colonies (all but North Carolina and Rhode Island) had ratified the new national constitution and joined the federal union. Thus, twenty-two senators might have been present on August 22. They represented both constitutional pluralism--eleven very different states, and cultural exclusion--only franchised adult white males.

Demographically, the senators represented elites. In wealth, property, education, professions, and prior experience in government (in the English parliament, in colonial and state assemblies, or in the American confederation congresses and constitutional conventions), the first senators conformed to the constitutional framers' intentions that the "upper" house of government should represent social stability and authority (Swift, l989, 52-57).

Politically, the Senators held a spectrum of positions. Few agreed on what "democracy" meant or on how much democracy was good for the new republic. (Maclay, for example, was convinced that other senators were monarchists.)

In view of these historical conditions, two interdependent struggles can, by present-day viewers, be retrospectively discerned in the treaty deliberations on that August Saturday in l789. The were struggles over defining a nation and over instituting a government.

Defining a Nation
The United States was not alone on its continent in l789. Two political cultures and two governmental systems competed there. One was, broadly, European political culture and its primary derivative, the new republican government of the United States. The other was, equally broadly, indigenous or native political culture and diverse governmental systems based on it. Again, I will summarize this context before proceeding.

Geographically, the United States in l789 occupied a narrow corridor between the Atlantic Ocean and the Appalachian mountains. Limits on further western expansion were the physical barriers of the mountains and the political barrier of the "Indian Boundary line." This boundary had been determined and named earlier by the British government in negotiations with tribes to define land under tribal control and to limit colonial settlement.

States in the narrow American corridor was ill-defined. As colonies, their boundaries had been ideals, only. (Some, for example, were shown on maps as extending from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean.) Borders had been only partially surveyed and were commonly disputed between and among states, native groups, and European powers. (The British colony of Canada, for example, bordered several states.)

Diarist William Maclay's home state of Pennsylvania was an example. Fulfillment of the Penn family's proprietary land grant from the English king, Charles II, had required land purchases from the Iroquois; negotiations with the state of New York to resolve conflicting claims to western parts of the grant; and adjudicated resolution of armed conflicts between Pennsylvania militia and settlers from Connecticut who claimed eastern parts of the grant.

The populations of the states were ill-defined in l789, too. (The first census was not conducted until l790.) Colonial populations had included varying proportions of British and European migrants of differing origins and ethnic loyalties; slaves and freed former slaves from Africa and the Caribbean; and indigenous tribal groups. (Massachusetts, for example, was a mixed population of English and non-English whites, while South Carolina's population was predominantly black and Georgia's predominantly indigenous.) Moreover, political loyalties in these populations divided between sympathy for British monarchial government, for the new republican government, and, anarchistically, for no government at all.(Atlas, 86-90).

These heterogeneous populations and ambiguous loyalties complicated tasks of defining criteria for citizenship and defining territorial boundaries. At issue in the Senate session on August 22, technically, were territorial boundaries. Where was the western border of Georgia, South Carolina, and, if it joined the union as hoped, North Carolina? And, what were the relative jurisdictions of the federal and state governments in that border land?

The deeper conflict, however, was between Euro-American and indigenous definitions of territory. Legal jurisdiction over land areas with defined ownership was a European-derived concept of territory. Settled (non-nomadic) indigenous peoples understood territory very differently. Some groups did not acknowledge ownership of land. Access to land was commonly defined by inherited occupation and use. Under this definition, a group's land area was defined by living on it and using it over generations. Legal jurisdiction had nothing to do with it. To draw lines around land and to claim control over what was inside the lines, regardless of the land's occupation and use, violated a hereditary system.

Moreover, experience taught the Cherokees and others that legal governmental jurisdiction did not work, anyway. European and British colonial boundaries, followed by state boundaries, had meant nothing to immigrants determined to settle wherever they wanted. Little prevented squatting, with the absence in l789 of established procedures for land titles and ownership. "The whole white race is a monster who is always hungry and what he eats is land," a western territory Shawnee leader, Chiksika, said, after years of encroachments on Indian lands by the British, French, and Americans (Eckert, l992, preface).

Neither the Euro-American nor the Native American governmental systems prevailed in North American continent in 1789. The political reality was that they were separate, equally weak, and forced to negotiate co-existence. Among the first United States' executive's principal duties, therefore, was codifying national boundaries in treaties with bordering native nations. Because tribal nations had European allies, the potential for conflict went beyond North America.

President Washington recognized the southwestern border question as entailing all facets of the new nation's foreign relations, continental as well as intercontinental. Thus, the treaty he read aloud to the senators begins:

To conciliate the powerful tribes of Indians in the southern district, amounting probably to fourteen thousand fighting men, and to attach them firmly to the United States, may be regarded as highly worthy of the serious attention of Government.

The measure includes not only peace and security to the whole southern frontier, but is calculated to form a barrier against the colonies of a European Power, which in the mutations of policy, may one day become the enemy of the United States. The fate of the Southern States, therefore, or the neighboring colonies, may principally depend on the present measures of the Union towards the Southern Indians. (DePauw, 1974, 31; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling preserved).

For their part, the Cherokees acknowledged that the new nation might benefit them, by protecting the Cherokee nation against local depredations by states such as North Carolina. A Cherokee statement included among the 1789 treaty's supporting documents says so, as follows:

We now make known to the great Congress of america, that Our Desire and intention is to live in the most perfect & Strict Friendship and Alliance with our Elder brothers the americans: That we shall for ever listen to and abide by their instructions Advice and determination, placing the Strongest Confidence that the Great Council is composed of such who have eyes of pitty and hearts of humanity and Compassion, that they will not devest us of our rights and possessions, which our ancient Fathers have enjoyed time out of mind. We still remember and abide by the treaty held with your Commissioners in south Carolina in the year l785. And tho our hunting grounds and towns north of tenesee and holeson rivers is sold unto white people for the Settle upon without our Consent, we still hope Congress will have mercy Upon us: For if our country is all taken from us we shall not be able to raise our children, neither there any place left for us to remove too. We rejoice much to hear that the Great Congress have got new powers And have become Strong. we now Hope that whatever is done hereafter by the Great Council will no more be destroyed and made small by any State. (DePauw, l974, 186; punctuation, spelling, and capitalization preserved).

The legitimate basis for this plea can be found in a proclamation of the earlier Continental Congress in l788:

. . .And Whereas it has been represented to Congress, that several disorderly Persons settled on the Frontiers of North-Carolina. . .have, in open violation of said treaty [Hopewell l785], made intrusions upon the said Indian Hunting Grounds, and committed many unprovoked outrages upon the said Cherokees, who by the said Treaty have put themselves under the Protection of the United States, which proceedings are highly injurious and disrespectful to the authority of the Union. . .The United States in Congress assembled. . .Do hereby issue this Proclamation, strictly forbidding all such unwarrantable intrusions and hostile proceedings against the said Cherokees; and enjoining all those who have settled upon the said Hunting Grounds. . to depart with their Families and Effects. . . (DePauw, l974 184-185; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling preserved).

The Continental Congress had no statutory power of enforcement, however. Cherokee agent Ballew described the continuing conflict more directly in his letter that, as Maclay tells us, was handed to President Washington outside the Senate door. Ballew described "war carried on with all its horrors, between a party of the North Carolinians and Cherokees" (DePauw, l974, 200-201; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling preserved).

August 22, l789, illustrates the political cultures embedding the new federal Congress. Cherokee viewpoints were represented by agent Ballew. Evidently, Ballew was accepted as spokesperson by the Cherokees as, according to his description, "a neutral person, & one who was formerly acquainted with that nation (having lived among them as a prisoner of war during part of our war with the British" (Depauw, l974, 200).

The viewpoints of North Carolinians (still outside the federation) were represented by a protesting letter from William Blount, a state legislator.

How were the Cherokee and North Carolinian statements received? The senators interpreted them, probably, in the light of their personal viewpoints, based on experience and interests. Several (including Maclay and Washington) had fought in British military operations against Indians; had purchased land from Indians for the states of Pennsylvania and Ohio; had surveyed those states' boundary lines; and at the time of the l789 treaty debate were speculative investors holding private claims to lands in Pennsylvania and Ohio historically occupied by tribes and, increasingly, by settler-squatters.

Instituting a Government
The second underlying struggle that day was about instituting cooperation between the branches of the new United States government. Animating that struggle were differences of political philosophy and of responsibility.

As to responsibility, the senators represented the states in a federated union. The president represented the union. The senators and the president shared a strong commitment to unification. However, below that shared commitment, political ideology was considerably more diverse.

As to philosophy, participants on August 22 were committed to opposing ideas of democratic government. Some were federalist and others were republican. Generally, federalists distrusted democracy and favored a strong national government to prevail over weaker state governments. Republicans trusted democracy and favored a weak national government checked by internal balances and by state governments. The majority of the first senators were federalists. These differences underlay the exchanges reported (and they probably shaped the report, too) by the diarist Senator Maclay, a republican, and President Washington, a federalist.


The maneuvering on August 22, in addition to coordinating responsibilities of the executive and legislative branch, was over procedures for communicating. In the interpretive framework being used here, mediation must be considered as is an aspect of performance.

Earlier in August, a procedure had been adopted for communicating information between the Senate and the executive in domains of shared responsibility. Nominations for appointment to government office would be communicated by the president in writing; the Senate's only action regarding nominations would be to consent or reject, in writing. Treaties, in contrast, would be orally communicated. This was because President Washington had said he wished to seek advice directly and continually throughout a treaty negotiation.

President Washington enacted the procedure for treaties by coming in person to the Senate on August 22. Because this was an executive session, the legislative record of the day is silent about his visit. That record reads as follows:

Saturday, August 22, 1789 The Senate assembled, Present as yesterday. The memorial of John Cox and others, citizens of the State of New-Jersey and of the State of Pennsylvania, praying that the future Seat of Government might be established on the Banks of the Delaware, and proposing a cession of a tract of land of ten miles square, was read, and together with a draught of the said tract, was laid on the table for consideration. Proceeded on the THIRD reading of the bill, entitled, "An Act for registering and clearing of Vessels, regulating the Coasting Trade, and for other Purposes"--And after progress, Adjourned until 10 o'clock on Monday morning. (DePauw, l972, 127).

Unofficially, Maclay's personal diary recorded the contest that developed that day over what oral communication by the president with the Senate about treaties would actually mean. The president exercised one option: reading aloud a near-final treaty before calling for immediate Senate reaction by voice vote. The Senate insisted on a different option: a committee review and discussion of all relevant documents, to be followed by deliberation in the whole body with the president invited to participate. Full deliberation would conclude in a written summary of advice sent by the Senate to the president.

Republican fear of a strong presidency likely shaped this conflict, but probably more directly influential was the Senate's institution-building wish to define itself as a deliberative, rather than a reactive, partner to the president. (It should be recalled that the Senate was, constitutionally, the reactive partner to the House, which was expected to initiate all legislation.) Regarding the excutive, the Senate was to advise and to consent, and it wanted to deliberate before doing either. On August 22, the president preferred consent, with or without deliberation. The Senate's preference for deliberation prevailed. The test of procedure ended with this first, and last, visit by President Washington to the Senate. After a follow-up session on August 24 to hear the Senate deliberate, he did not return for face-to-face discussion. Treaty advice and consent were subsequently sought and communicated by written messages only.

Regarding mediation, I have thus far considered only how speaking and writing practices configured institutional relations. But there is more to discuss. How, for example, did available media and the state of communication technology influence participants' working knowledge of treaty matters?

For participants in the Senate chamber on August 22, understanding depended on a hybrid mixture of written and oral texts. But the mix varied by individuals. Some participants relied principally on the written and others relied principally on the oral. The president worked from the specific formulations of written text (a draft treaty); the senators worked from listening to him read the draft aloud. What they heard was probably framed by individual prior knowledge. All the senators probably knew about the general problem leading to this treaty, as they had earlier authorized funds for negotiating it (Swanstrom, 1985, 117). Some senators may have read the related documents that Washington had sent over a few days before this debate. Additionally, some may have worked, as Maclay did, from personal knowledge gained as participants in other treaty negotiations.

If they could not hear clearly, as Maclay could not, the senators might have asked to see the Senate secretary's handwritten minutes as the event progressed. However, it would not have helped much, since deliberation was not recorded. Some senators made their own unofficial notes as discussion progressed; Maclay, for example, based his later diary account on the notes he took that day.

So, any participant's understanding of what was happening depended on interdependent oral and written mediations--the carefully formulated written text of a treaty; the partial auditory reception of that text; loose and disrupted oral interactions; cryptic and selective personal notes--factored into personal prior knowledge. Any participant's knowledge could, therefore, have only been a subset, a fragment defined by contingencies, such as whether he was present in the Senate on that day (many sessions were sparsely attended); whether he had background knowledge; whether he could hear the president; whether he had read any of the documents related to this particular treaty; and whether he took his own notes during the discussion. Few, perhaps none, of the senators would have fitted all these categories. Thus, each senator's viewpoint was necessarily partial and different, depending on what he heard, had read, or already knew.

How about outsiders? How would media of communication have influenced their understanding of this event? Because the Senate conducted all its sessions behind closed doors in 1789, contemporary observers could have known very little by direct observation. (Treaty negotiations remained secret even after other sessions were made public in l795.) In l789, no visitors were allowed into the Senate chamber, not from the public, not from the press, not even from the House of Representatives.

Moreover, no verbatim record of debate was kept. The Senate secretary kept a constitutionally-mandated legislative journal to catalogue legislation and another executive journal requested by the Senate to record executive activities. These journals were for use by the members of Congress, not for public use. The secretary was directed by the constitution to publish the legislative journal "from time to time"; however, Congress long refused to authorize funding for printing it.

Thus, contemporary observers could learn about this event only if they talked afterwards directly with the participants--in boarding houses where the members of Congress lived or in taverns where they gathered, for instance--or if they corresponded with the members by letter. They might read summaries of the proceedings in partisan newspapers or occasional registers (as they were called) of Congressional debate assembled by printers. Like any other contemporary observer, newspapers and printers compiled these registers indirectly from conversations and correspondence with Congress members, because journalists were not allowed in the Senate chamber. Contemporary observers, like the participants, could therefore only have understood this event selectively, based on an individual subset of information conditioned by the availability of communication media.


Mediation was historical. Mediation intersects historicity wherever institutional communication intersects contemporary technology, literacy, and culture.

Historicity is evident in the first senators' intent to define the institution of the Senate indirectly by defining the protocols they would use for communicating with the president, as discussed above. Also, historicity is evident in the senators' protocols for communicating with the public.

The skeptical position the first Senate took on the public's need to know, as shown by meeting in secret and by not publishing records of activity, was historicized in several ways. Precedent was one. The senators looked partly to English precedents. Parliamentary debate in England was not recorded, a practice that evolved to protect the legislature during conflicts with the monarch in the 1688 revolution (Macpherson, 1940, 1-10).

Partisan politics within the Senate may have been a factor. Federalists distrusted democracy and saw no need to encourage popular influence on government by informing the public about it. Both federalists and republicans preferred communicating selectively through their own letters circulated among constituents or through partisan newspapers and printers.

Technological development also mattered. Even if the United States Senators had wanted to record what they said, there was in l789 no generally accepted system of shorthand for transcribing oral speech accurately. The only available recording method, discursive handwriting, was known to be error-prone (especially in a room where hearing was difficult). As a result, the secretary's minutes of preceding meetings were routinely read aloud to check their accuracy at the beginning of each new meeting. Even if records could have been accurately produced, distributing them was practically difficult or impossible. The new republic had few roads and little transportation.

Contemporary literacy may have influenced the minimal use of print for communication, as well. Relatively few inhabitants of the United States (unlike the senators) could read.

Lastly, culture was influential, as we see by recalling another interested party to this treaty, the southern Cherokees. Traditionally, their political deliberations were oral. The Cherokee language was spoken, not written, in l789. Woven belts of wampum beads, encoded with political significance, served as official communications. In the United States government's choice to negotiate from the basis of written English with the neighboring Cherokee government's representatives, who did not rely on written text and did not use English, retrospective interpreters of this event can recognize the cultural politics of a particular time and place.

Retrospective interpreters (the researcher-writer and readers of this web) are the final historical players to consider here. How is our understanding of this event mediated and historicized? It is relevant to compare our process of understanding with the possibilities in 1789. Unlike then, we now have access to official records of the discussion on August 22, 1789--the Senate legislative and executive journals and Washington's presidential papers regarding treaties. We also have access to a compiled (not verbatim) record of deliberations between l789 and l824, in the Annals of Congress (Gales and Seaton, 1834).

Additionally, we can search archives for unofficial records in contemporary newspapers, registers of debate, or letters. We can read the diary written by William Maclay, the only surviving diary from the first Senate (published as expurgated by his family in l880; verbatim in l927). And, we can talk about our findings with present-day specialists, as while writing this chapter I talked about it with colleagues in history, computer and information science, literature, composition and rhetoric.

Because we can now read all these records and discuss them widely, it might seem that we in the l990s can know more than the participants in l780s and 90s did. In fact, comparison suggests, we, as they, know only selectively. They knew what was happening and we know what happened in light of what we read, to whom we talk, and what we previously know.


Analysis of the event on August 22, l789 can be productively cued and constrained by viewing it through an explicit framework for conceptualizing. For my analysis of that situation, two framing perspectives--performance and mediation, especially where they intersect, proved most illuminating. When historical conditions are also considered, a probably reliable composite view is obtained.

What are the limits on its reliability? Discourse is a texture of constructed meanings. The boundaries of a sample of discourse--where it begins and where it ends--are inherently uncertain. The relations of a sample to its context are multiple, complex, and subject to interpretation at all times. What I have tried to do here is to suggest an approach that is sensitive to these conditions and makes them manageable so that analysis can reliably proceed.

The suggestion is based on my wish that we, academic analysts of political discourse, might take up an expanded menu of discourse types to study, enrich our notions of what discourse is, and develop more adaptive instruments of research and scholarship. Conceptual framing is one such instrument. It enables the interpretive observer a) to hold in mind several patterns of influence beyond simple cause-and-effect between discourse and its setting; b) to acknowledge variable relationships among components of the discourse that could yield equally true alternative interpretations of the same event; and c) to recognize complex historical groundings of experience.

As an orientation to knowledge, conceptual framing resembles some of the newer philosophical approaches in fields specializing in studies of information processing. One useful analog from information studies is hypertext. I am speaking here of hypertext as metaphor. I am utilizing an idea, wholes-constituted-by-variable-links, made available by late twentieth century technology development. The hypertext analog enables me to characterize discourse as the dynamic interaction of parts to wholes, and, most importantly, to recognize the pluralism of wholes that might be derived by linking the same parts differently.

As a characterization of discourse, the technological metaphor of hypertext is more useful than is the organic metaphor of a web. Webs are singular, woven by one spider in one definitive form. Discourse, in contrast, is always plural and interactive, multiple spiders weaving in common a shared web that looks different to each spider. In discourse understood hypertextually, individuals traverse shared information along individual paths. Each traversal is a whole, how the universe looks to that individual.

For the analysis of discourse, conceptual framing is a hypertextual approach. A framework offers specific interpretive pathways through a discourse event; here, they are collectivity, performance, historicity, and mediation. Results of traversing the event along any one of these pathways can be compared with results of journeys along other pathways through the same event, or with those same journeys through a different event.

Why is it useful to think of discourse and its analysis as hypertextual? For the individual contemporary interpreter, the metaphor may provoke fresh insight. For the specialty of nonacademic writing, concepts of hypertext bridge our work and work in other fields, including technology development, attempting to understand and to support communication in human organizations. As analysts of rhetorical practices, we have a contributing role to play in multi-disciplinary research communities now intensively exploring ways that social organization and information technology converge in the settings of human work.

This commentary adapts C. Smith, l996b