A topos is a line of argument that can be adapted to a variety of subjects and audiences. Since Aristotle’s time, communicators have used lists of topoi to generate arguments relevant to their persuasive tasks. In addition to introducing the cultural topoi perspective, this article describes a set of topoi that are widely used: cultural premises about the social world and how human relationships should be organized (see Leichty & Warner 2001 for a detailed description).
Mary Douglas (1997) characterized culture as an accounting system. “Think of culture as essentially a dialogue that allocates praise and blame. Then focus particularly on the blame” (1997, 129). The cultural system consists of five voices or competing “ways of life”: fatalism, egalitarianism, hierarchy, autonomous individualism, and competitive individualism (Thompson et al. 1990). Each voice has a distinctive cultural topos that it uses in the competition of praising and blaming.
The fatalist voice considers the world to be capricious and unpredictable. It is characteristically cynical and suspicious of the motives of others. It routinely disparages calls for collective action. The egalitarian voice privileges the value of social equality. It seeks consensus in decision-making in order to maintain group solidarity. Anything that breaks down the primary group boundary, or increases social inequality in the group, is vociferously criticized.
The hierarchical way of life privileges harmonious relations among a differentiated set of roles and ranks. Defined relationships between ranks, often specified by tradition, make social order and social harmony possible. The autonomous individualist way of life stands aloof from constrictive commitments that would bind self and other. It favors the spontaneity of the present moment over reflecting on the past or contemplating the future.
The competitive individualist way of life is a confident and future-oriented voice. It focuses on the opportunities it may miss rather than concerning itself with avoiding mistakes. It celebrates competition and scans the horizon for clues about future trends.
The “ways of life” are interdependent. Each needs “its rivals, either to make up for its deficiencies, or to exploit, or to define itself against. To destroy the other (way of life) is to murder the self ” (Thompson et al. 1990, 4). Ordinarily, one or two voices dominate the discussion and the remaining cultural voices are marginalized or pushed to the periphery.
In cultural disputes the egalitarian and competitive individualist voices tend to clash the most vociferously. The egalitarian way of life represents the simplest form of social organization, while the competitive individualist mode of organization provides the most complex form of social exchange and organizing (Fiske & Tetlock 1997). The egalitarian voice resists putting a cash value on many things, while the competitive individualist voice insists that everything should have a price (e.g., donor organs).
The cultural topoi perspective provides a parsimonious framework for describing the competition of praise and blame that constitutes culture. It enables us to trace cultural change. It also allows us to identify instances where groups operating from different premises may be able to collaborate.
People interpret a text differently when they apply premises from different cultural topoi to the message. Message credibility depends on how closely it aligns with the receiver’s underlying premises. If we know which cultural topos a person applies to a message, we can anticipate how a message will be interpreted.
Public relations (PR) is enmeshed in the cultural clashes of contemporary culture. PR practitioners interpret culture for organizational management, and represent the views of management to relevant publics. Tacit knowledge about cultural topoi enables PR practitioners to interpret multiple perspectives and encode messages that appeal to people who adhere to different cultural premises.
Communicators often deploy arguments grounded in different cultural topoi in order to broaden their appeals. For instance, when debating a proposal to raise cigarette excise taxes, tax-increase advocates predominantly used egalitarian premises (e.g., raising excise taxes saves children’s lives), whereas tax opponents predominantly used competitive individualist warrants (e.g., raising cigarette taxes is a politically correct tax scam). Each side, however, also developed arguments that represented different cultural topoi. Tax opponents voiced egalitarian themes by claiming that the excise tax would damage the livelihoods of small retailers and small tobacco farmers. Tax advocates developed a competitive individualist theme by arguing that the excise tax was really a user’s fee that reimbursed the state for treating sick smokers (Esrock et al. 2007).
Public relations itself is a culturally constituted system (Leichty 2003). Different versions of PR practice are advanced and criticized in discourse about PR. A hierarchical model of PR and a competitive individualist model have long vied for disciplinary dominance (Leichty 2003). This cultural competition is visible when communicators: (1) identify problems with PR practice, (2) predict future trends in PR, or (3) make recommendations for collective action regarding the discipline. The hierarchical voice portrays PR as a science that applies its incrementally growing body of knowledge systematically and deliberatively. In contrast, the competitive individualist model portrays PR as an art that requires continual adaptation to rapid changes in society and communication technologies (Leichty 2003).
- Douglas, M. (1997). The depoliticization of risk. In R. J. Ellis & M. Thompson (eds.), Culture matters: Essays in honor of Aaron Wildavsky. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, pp. 121–132.
- Esrock, S., Hart, J., & Leichty, G. (2007). Smoking out the opposition. In L. Frey & K. Carragee (eds.), Communication activism: Communication for social change, vol. 1. Hampton, VA: Hampton Press, pp. 382 – 402.
- Fiske, A. P., & Tetlock, P. E. (1997). Taboo trade-offs: Reactions to transactions that transgress the spheres of justice. Political Psychology, 18, 255 –297.
- Leichty, G. (2003). The cultural tribes of public relations. Journal of Public Relations Research, 16(4), 397– 424.
- Leichty, G., & Warner, E., (2001). Cultural topoi: Implications for public relations. In R. Heath (ed.), Handbook of public relations. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, pp. 61–75.
- Thompson, M., Ellis, R., & Wildavsky, A. (1990). Cultural theory. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.