Monday, September 26, 2005

Reading :: The Rhetoric of Risk

Originally posted: Mon, 26 Sep 2005 08:46:08

The Rhetoric of Risk: Technical Documentation in Hazardous Environments

by Beverly J. Sauer

The Rhetoric of Risk won the NCTE 2002 best book in scientific and technical communication. It's easy to see why. In scope and in breadth, it's impressive; in overall project, it does a lot to make rhetoric and professional communication directly relevant to other fields. The particular field Sauer is addressing is the mining industry, specifically the tangle of regulations that surround its practices and ensure safety. Sauer methodically works through various genres, including training documents, procedures, maps, and post-mortality reports, to examine how well these work.

To make sense of these, Sauer describes a six-part cyclical rhetorical transformation of knowledge:

1) Local documentation

2) Accident reports

3) Statistical reports

4) Policy and regulations

5) Practices and procedures

6) Training and instruction

These types of documents, she says, all feed into each other; local knowledge becomes instantiated in national policy and vice versa. But this explicit, textual knowledge can't represent everything; workers' embodied knowledge is also important, and difficult to represent outside of gestures. One of her most interesting claims, in fact, is that judgement in assessing risk is based on three warrants: embodied knowledge ("pit sense"), scientific knowledge, and engineering expertise. Two of these can be described textually, but pit sense tends to be described and represented through gestures. Sauer investigates these gestures thoroughly in Chapter 7, in which she demonstrates that the presence and absence of gesture can reveal the understanding of risk.

The book's not perfect. One thing that bothered me was that Sauer would occasionally make broad pronouncements about what "activity theorists" think, and each time her sole cite was a chapter by Edwin Hutchins, who is not an activity theorist! But overall it provided an illuminating view of regulation and documentation in a massive, risk-heavy, slowly changing industry.


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