TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE THEORY
This document contains all of the materials found
in the separate pages found in the frames document version.
Resource: THE TAGMEMIC
CONTRIBUTION TO COMPOSITION TEACHING
Dr. Bruce L. Edwards
Professor of English and Africana Studies
Associate Vice Provost for Academic technology
Bowling Green State University
Bowling Green, Ohio 43403
1995 marked the 25th anniversary of the publication
of Young, Becker, and Pike's Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. There
continues to be a need to rediscover its relevance to contemporary questions
how about writers and readers interact with texts to make meaning, especially
by attention to its roots in Kenneth L. Pike's linguistic theory, tagmemics,
which remains to this day relatively untapped by rhetoricians and compositionists
as a source of insight into these issues.
This web site contains these sections:
1. OVERVIEW AND SUMMARY
2. SURVEY OF TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE PRINCIPLES
3. ADVANTAGES OF TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE THEORY
4. DISCERNING THE UNIQUE FETAURES OF TDT>
5. WHAT IS TAGMEMICS GOOD FOR?
6. TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE MODELS
All materials © 2008-09, Bruce L. Edwards. All
1. OVERVIEW AND SUMMARY
Tagmemic discourse theory, as developed from the
work of linguist, Kenneth L. Pike, is a theory of discourse founded upon
certain axioms about human behavior and language use that foreground the
situatedness of all communication and the necessity of viewing every act
of discourse as a form-meaning composite inseparable from communicators,
their audiences, and the varied worlds they may construct and inhabit through
the use of language.
Left: Evelyn and Kenneth Pike, circa 1979.
Kenneth L. Pike's evolving linguistic theory,
tagmemics, has focused from its inception upon solving the problems
Bible translators face in understanding and describing languages in primarily
oral cultures. (It should be noted that Evelyn Pike has had a considerable
influence on the development of tagmemic discourse theory; see Bibliography
below.) While devising practical tools of inquiry for identifying and charting
similarities and differences in target languages lacking an alphabet or
codified grammar, Pike intuited that the resolution of translators' challenges
lay both beyond the sentence in discourse and beyond discourse itself in
the socio-cultural frameworks in which language is used. Pike and his colleagues
thus began to formulate a theory of discourse based upon the centrality
of language use to human rationality and to the building of human community.
Out of this originally linguistic inquiry have
come the bases of tagmemic rhetoric, which posits composing as a problem-solving
process and recenters the goal of rhetoric away from the narrower concerns
of Aristotelian persuasion toward the broader goal of building bridges
between rhetors who profess potentially conflicting worldviews, bridges
that make possible both discovery of alternatives and volitional change.
Pike and other tagmemic rhetoricians concluded, contra Noam Chomsky, that
no theory of syntax and no rhetoric that ignored the situational context
of utterances--and thereby programmatically dismissing inquiry into the
cultural bases of thought and communication--could yield insights into
the nature of language acquisition or use. More importantly, such theories
could not produce ultimately useful tools or strategies with which to investigate
and solve actual communication problems.
When Pike's tagmemics came to the attention of
his University of Michigan colleagues Richard Young and Alton Becker in
the 1960s, together these three began the task of harvesting Pike's insights
for a "modern theory of rhetoric," a theory most fully articulated in their
1970 textbook, Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. Seeking to free rhetoric
from a moribund "current- traditional" model that seemed to them to emphasize
a product- oriented pedagogy focused primarily on style and arrangement,
the authors' broad purpose was to restore invention to its proper place
at the heart of practical rhetoric and to reconceive writing as a discovery,
i.e., "problem-solving" process that could be assisted by systematic heuristic
Young, Becker, and Pike found the communication
strategies derived from work of psychotherapist, Carl Rogers, most congenial
to their evolving modern rhetoric, specifically his emphasis on reducing
an audience's sense of threat so that they are able to understand and then
consider alternatives to their own belief system.
Rogerian principles meshed well with Pike's concepts
of "etic" and "emic" perspectives in language inquiry, i.e., the distinction
between "alien" and "native" perspectives on discourse generation and reception,
and the necessity of finding the right bridge or "tagmeme" that would yield
mutual insight. From the tagmemic point of view, every rhetor's task is
inevitably analogous to the kinds of challenges "alien" translators in
a new cultural environment encounter: locating a point of entry into a
particular language ambiguity, problem, or challenge that will provide
a true bridge for nonthreatening exchange and that, therefore, might make
possible meaningful change. Thus, in tagmemic terms, a rhetorical task
involves deliberately leaving behind a default "etic" or outsider's perspective
on data under consideration, and employing heuristics that assist a communicator
in approximating an "emic" or insider's perspective conducive to reaching
the projected audience.
Rhetoric: Discovery and Change consequently
defines composing in terms of four components: (1) preparation; (2) incubation;
(3) illumination; and (4) verification. In the preparation stage, a writer
seeks to identify and explore the nature of a problem or felt dissonance,
and is assisted by systematic heuristic inquiry, exemplified in the textbook
by the "tagmemic discovery matrix." This nine-celled, multiperspectival
grid has become well known apart from the textbook, offering users particle,
wave, and field views of data arrayed according to its contrastive/identificational
features, its range of variation, and its distribution in context.
The incubation stage names a period of "subconscious"
exploration during which a writer is less inclined to perform analytical
inquiry and depends more upon the intuitive or "creative" activity of the
mind for contribution to the task at hand. During the illumination stage,
the writer is poised to hypothesize a solution based upon both analytical
and nonanalytical means, producing a "leap," as it were, to imaginative
insight that can be neither forced nor placed on a timetable. The fourth
stage, verification, consists of some test of the hypothesis, using the
criteria of correspondence, consistency, and usefulness, and reflects the
tagmemic principle that all hypotheses and theories must ultimately be
testable to be productive of insight.
Researchers and theorists such as Janice Lauer
and Lee Odell have investigated the effectiveness of Young, Becker, and
Pike's heuristics and related tagmemic principles, attempting to verify
experimentally the utility and theoretical soundness of tagmemic postulates
for a variety of applications in composition, including, especially, the
teaching of invention. As tagmemic rhetoric has emerged within the field
of rhetoric and composition, it has faced opposition to its assertion that
its axioms hold true not only for language inquiry but for all of human
behavior. Nevertheless, tagmemic rhetoricians continue to investigate and
proffer viewpoints upon not only literacy and pedagogically-related issues
but also the complexities of human psychology and anthropology, pursuing
advances that illuminate the taxonomic, epistemic, and heuristic functions
of language in human discourse toward the project of building an ever-more
comprehensive theory of human behavior.
The overiding goal of tagmemic inquiry is a movement
toward an emic understanding of a text or experience. Emicity
and Eticity are thus defined:
2. SURVEY OF TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE PRINCIPLES
ETICITY: surface, distant, reality-as-appearance,
outsider objectivity. Initial etic inquiry typically yields particles whose
wave or field relationships (i.e., situatedness) to other particles are
undetected, indistinct, or ambiguous and which must be identified before
progress can be made toward emic understanding.
EMICITY: deeper, reality-as-experience,
insider-subjectivity. ìEticî inquiry, informed by incrementally
more accurate and comprehensive account of particles as understood and
experienced within wave/field realationships by insiders, yields ever closer
approximation of ìalienî meaning.
2.1 SIX STARTING POINTS
A. Tagmemic Discourse Theory (TDT) searches for
a natural way into a text or experience (i.e., looks for the appropriate
tagmeme , or unit-in-context, that will provide fruitful pathways
of inquiry to discover other features of the phenomenon under investigation)
SUPPOSITION: One needs or must want to
find a way ìinî and brings along a finite set of goals.
B. TDT begins with what one knows.
SUPPOSITION: There will be particles,
recognizably repeatable units, and/or larger contextual (wave/field) cues
and clues that will provide helpful information along the road of inquiry.
C. TDT tries to learn as much from the text/experience
in view before moving outside of it.
SUPPOSITION: No text or experience
is self-explanatory or self-evident, and one's account of it will by necessity
entail discovering and breeching boundaries beyond the unit under investigation;
however, the unit with which one is concerned must be thoroughly canvassed
before inquiring elsewhere.
D. TDT is prepared to discover or generate
questions or problems, unanticipated in the initial approach to the unit
under investigation, which will yield new goals, different insights, and
further pathways for study.
SUPPOSITION: One will form a series
of mini-hypotheses in the processs of inquiry that will be affirmed, rejected,
or modified in the process of interacting with the unit under investigation.
E. TDT creates appropriate landmarks by which
the investigator can judge the effectiveness or fruitfulness of a line
SUPPOSITION: Not all pathways
yield relevant, problem-solving information; intuition, previous experience,
corroborative testimony, et al. is necessary to check oneís strategies
that the data they yield.
F. TDT pursues inquiry until original goals,
new goals, or modified goals are reached and corroborated by both etic
and emic measures.
SUPPOSITION: Knowing when to stop
comes from experience and accumulated expertise, i.e., the development
of ìindigenous approximation skills.
2.2 USEFUL TAGMEMIC TOOLS AND CONCEPTS
2.3 A TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE ANALYSIS WILL:
Entail a systematic/systemic approach that
develops a comprehensive partice, wave, field analysis of those features
of the text/experience (contrastive/identificational, variable, distributive)
that illuminate the goal or prospectus that generated the inquiry.
Yield, in Pikean terms, that set of tagmemes
that identify or otherwise contribute to an increasingly emic understanding
of a text, experience, phenomenon.
Make only those knowledge claims that can
be corroborated by both emic and etic measures, i.e., claims resulting
from tagmemic inquiry depend upon both outsider and insider testimony that
the claims are plausible, tolerably complete, and noncontradictory.
Be as thick as is appropriate to the
original or modified inquiry goals: the tagmemicist ìstopsî
at whatever level of detail or insight--alwyas informed by multicontextual
cues and clues--that satisfies the inquirerÃs questions or problems-to-be-solved.
3. ADVANTAGES OF TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE THEORY
Places no artificial limitation on the subject matter,
its form or nature, that can be investigated under its aegis.
Insists on epistemological and ontological
bases for the conclusions it draws.
Demands attention to situatedness of language and
language behavior at every level of inquiry.
Anticipates observer bias and endeavors to articulate
and incorporate it into the investigation as a factor with which to be
Creates a versatile lexicon of useful terms and concepts
to identify, describe, differentiate, and contextualize the nature/features
of a unit under inquiry--whether it is a linguistic, rhetorical, or behavioral
Provides a set of systematic heuristic tools and
a consistent notation system to explore, examine, and test the acceptability
and accuracy of emerging descriptions of data and relationships within
and among it.
Projects dissonance and/or anomaly as clues and cues
to more ultimate levels of reality rather than as negatives to be explained
away or subsumed in a contrived, homogenized description.
Affirms universals of language and behavior that
cross cultures, languages, genders.
Privileges persons above abstractions, community
over autonomy, philosophical wholism over reductionism.
Accommodates multiple motivations, worldviews, research
modes in its attempts to confront the complexity, uniqueness, and vitality
of human personhood and communication.
Entry into inquiry begins with well-defined goals,
a working hypothesis, or finite set of research questions. The ultimate
goal of every tagmemic inquiry is an "emic" understanding or etically-verified
hypothesis about the investigated phenomenon.
Point of entry may be the somewhat known or recognizable
unit (usually, but not always a "particle") which serves as the bridge
to other contextualized particles, waves, etc.
Goal is progressively pursued and modified by incremental
progress toward an emic understanding of (or etically-verified hypothesis
about) the unit being investigated, with certain universals evoked at appropriate
stages to give the inquiry boundaries and landmarks by which to judge progress.
The tools of the investigation include, characteristically,
the particle, wave, and field perspectives whose application yields
data that may classified as contrastive/ identificational features, range
of variation features, and distribution features.
Observations, including initial, projected relations
between and among and within particle, wave, and field data are progressively
sharpened with references to the four-celled tagmeme notation, which is
intended to assist the inquirer both heuristically to explore and
in terms of storage as a convenient matrix with which to record
The tagmemic inquirer continues the inquiry until,
in one way or another, the goals of the inquiry are met, modified, or satisfied
by other means.
The end of the inquiry is achieved by either (a)
corroboration by a reliable or credentialled "native" observer that the
description approaches tolerable emicity; or (b) an empirical test, etic-based,
that satisfies the criteria of correspondence, consistency, and usefulness.
A tagmemic "report" (1) prefaces the etic/emic description
of the investigated phenomena with a discussion of goals and expectations;
(2) provides a chronology of the investigation; (3) offers an overview
of the data generated and/or explored; (4) states the emic (or, etically-tested)
conclusions; (5) projects further fruitful angles of vision and/or research
questions to pursue in follow-up.
The tagmemic inquiry/analysis/report is unique in
so far as its final product is intended to be qualified by and sensitive
to the maximum context, the discernible intra/inter/outer relationships,
and corroborably-identifiable features available to the observer/inquirer.
Its claims are never to exhaustive comprehensiveness but to tolerable similitude
to "the thing itself," or an emic understanding of it.
4. DISCERNING THE UNIQUE FEATURES OF TAGMEMIC
5. WHAT IS TAGMEMICS GOOD FOR?
Investigating the surfacely "known" and deepening
one's understanding of its situated context, its component parts, the range,
nature, and quality of its impact on surrounding data/phenomena, and their
reciprocal impact on it.
Discovering the nature, qualities, features, impact,
et al. of the unknown as it is situated in its environment.
Taxonomizing a phenomenon, labelling its features,
component parts, situated context, et al.
Corroborating the nature, qualities, features, impact,
et al. of a phenomenon as previously identified or described by another
Providing a stable set of tenets, concepts, terms,
heuristics, notation system, for investigating, describing, and evaluating
language and behavioral phenomena up and down a scale of micro-/telescopic
Codifying the phonological, grammatical, and referential
hierarchies of language and language behavior.
Supplying the conceptual framework to investigate
rhetorical issues and problems at any level of discourse, at any level
of entry, at any level of specificity or detail.
Incorporating new insights from both complementary
and competing models of language and discourse by virtue of its multiperspectival,
Modelling genres of discourse across cultures and
language base to permit comparison, translation, testability.
Diagnosing the sources of miscommunication, ambiguity,
and/or rhetorical failure in a particular discourse.
Predicting the impact of a particular discourse or
discourse behavior in a specified context.
Uniting through its interdisciplinarity diverse approaches
to language study and theory-building about language and language behavior.
6. TAGMEMIC DISCOURSE MODELS
6.1. Tagmemic Musings on Rhetoric as Social
We are both inside and outside of the
worlds we inhabit, i.e., we are emic and etic to ourselves and to other
selves. We look out at the world as we know it from various locations within
those worlds. We are always at once both "different" and "same" to ourselves
Truth is ascertainable even by finite creatures,
but subject to verification and falsification from references points situated
within worldviews to which we can have access to via interpretative bridges
facilitated by "native" knowers and oustide observers.
Such truth, though never available exhaustively to
us, may tolerably capture the world as it is in ever increasing accuracy,
an approximation through language, mediated by personal presence.
A concept of objective reality that eludes our complete
grasp but rewards those who diligently seek it, is essential to good faith
inquiry of any kind, including language-based inquiry, and of any communication
model which claims insight into humanness.
6.2 Foundations of a Tagmemically-Inspired Communication
A confessional metaphysics, which grounds truth-seeking
and truth-conveying outside the interlocutors' particularist worldviews.
An understanding of the symbolization of experience
and consciousness in speech and text as a basic human facility and faculty,
which, as a set of tools, are at once:
6.3. A Tagmemic Syllabus
Understanding the places of conventions in language
within a particular universe/community of disocurse: emic/etic exercises;
nuclear/marginal exercises; problem-solving exercises.
Inquiry assignments that move from the frame of self
(emic) to other (etic), i.e., discourse that moves from personal narrative
to other forms; continual movement between private and public, self and
other, through language-based bridges.
Text-making that moves from the frame of other (etic,
i.e., research) to self (emic, i.e., the incarnation of self in other frames
of reference [worlds], employing, shaping, and reshaping its lexicon, syntax,
Genres of report: the public presentation of self/other
in various forms of discourse sensitive to community and projected audience.
Becker, Alton. Beyond Translation. Ann Arbor:
U of Michigan, 1996.
Edwards, Bruce L. The Tagmemic Contribution to
Composition Teaching. Manattan, KS: Kansas State University Occasional
Papers in Composition Theory and History, No. 2., 1979.
Jones, Linda K. A Synopsis of Tagmemics.Syntax
and Semantics, Vol. 13. New York: Academic P, 1980: 77-95.
Pike, Kenneth L. Language in Relation to a Unified
Theory of the Structure of Human Behavior. The Hague: Mouton, 1971.
---. Talk, Thought, and Thing. Arlington:
Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1993.
---. Text and Tagmeme. With Evelyn Pike. New
York: Ablex, 1983.
---. Tagmemics, Discourse, and Verbal Art.
Ed. Richard Bailey. Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1983.
---. Linguistic Concepts. Lincoln: U of Nebraska
---. Language in Relation to a Unified Theory
of the Structure of Human Behavior. 2nd. rev. ed. The Hague: Mouton,
---. The Intonation of American English. Ann
Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1947.
---. "Cultural Relativism in Relation to Constraints
on Worldview--An Emic Perspective." Bulletin of the Institute of History
and Philology. 59 (1988): 385-99.
---. "A Linguistic Contribution to Composition: A
Hypothesis." College Composition and Communication. 15 (April 1964):
---. "Beyond the Sentence." College Composition
and Communication. 15 (October 1964): 129-135. Young, Richard, A. L.
Becker, and Kenneth L. Pike. Rhetoric: Discovery and Change. New
York: Harcourt, 1970.
7. SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY
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