Propen and Schuster reading for 8011

20 Nov

One of our readings this week gets special treatment from me, as I have to lead discussion of it. This post includes my summary and questions about it. (Full disclosure: Mary Schuster is my PhD adviser, so I make no claims of objectivity.)

Propen, A. D., & Schuster, M. L. (2010). Understanding genre through the lens of advocacy: the rhetorical work of the victim impact statement. Written Communication, 27(1), 3-35. doi:10.1177/0741088309351479

Study overview

The authors sought to explore the “rhetorical work” of a victim impact statement (VIS), a statement given at the time a criminal is sentenced in which the victim has an opportunity to speak to the court about the victim’s perceptions of the crime and its effects, the criminal, and the sentence. They engaged in a “3-year qualitative and interpretive study of VIS’s” (p. 11). The authors seek to

add a further consideration to genre theory: how the use of… a new genre becomes a tool for advocacy… one that victim advocates believe allows them to push for change at the level of the individual sentencing hearing, and subsequently, over time, at the system level to renegotiate the norms that establish authority (p. 5).

Propen and Schuster offer historical and legal background for VISs (pp. 5-8), noting that the VIS permits the “victim [to] step into the last phase of the processing of a case and add a very personal reaction to the process” (p. 7). They note that the VIS must strike a “delicate balance of features and qualities such that its reading is considered acceptable to the court” (p. 11).

Question: On page 8, the authors acknowledge that VISs have been criticized for negative impacts that may arise out of some of the same theoretical principles Propen and Schuster identify as mediating the positive effects of the genre. Why do the authors not explore this? Does the study start with an assumption that VIS are valuable, net of positive and negative effects?

Research questions

Propen and Schuster set out (p. 8) to answer two questions:

1.        Whether the cumulative effects of VISs “lead[s] to differences in the climate and culture of the courtroom?”

2.        How victim advocates, “who prepare victims and accompany them into the courtroom, had a hand in paving the way for the rhetorical work that this new genre can do?”

Theory and assumptions

In a section titled “Theoretical Foundation and Assumptions,” the authors discuss genre theory, citing work of Berkenkotter and Huckin and of Knievel; and activity theory, citing work of Spinuzzi (pp. 9-10). They note that genres may play a dual role of stabilizing and disrupting their social and political contexts and that changes in genres and their contexts may be mutually reinforcing. Genres may be understood also as mediating activities; thus they are “products of specific cultural and historical contexts and activities and thus serve to reflect, perpetuate, and sustain those activities” (p. 9). The authors address the notion of “change” in the genre context as representing the “outcome of the sentencing hearing or through possible feelings of catharsis” by the victim; but also the changing degree of acceptance that judges accord the genre in the courtroom (p. 10). It is on this latter basis that Propen and Schuster focus

Questions: Throughout this section, Propen and Schuster make claims about the VISs and how they fit into these theoretical models (pp. 9-11). Which of these statements do they intend as “assumptions” (part of the title of this section)? Do these statements regarding the theoretical characteristics of VISs belong here, or in a discussion of results or in summary sections like the introduction or conclusion?


The authors describe the methods for their three-year study of victim impact statements in the courts of Hennepin and Ramsey Counties in Minnesota (the center of the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area) (pp. 11-18): They performed rhetorical analyses of 10 VISs using inductively developed codes; they interviewed 28 judges and 16 victim advocates; they observed 17 sentencing hearings; but they did not interview victims. Propen and Schuster explain in some detail how they developed their coding mechanism and categories.

Question: The authors make a very brief reference to grounded theory in one section (p. 15), but they do not refer to it elsewhere or articulate how their project is situated within grounded theory. Is this a grounded theory study? Is it a case study or case-based research (using “case” in the case-study sense, not the legal sense)?

Question: Given the categories in Table 1 and their sample application in Figure 1 (see for example the first sentence of the last paragraph), is it likely the authors applied categories to these texts in a way that could be reproduced reliability? (I.e., would there likely be high intercoder reliability?) Does that matter in a study with the ambitions expressed by the authors?

Question: The texts and activities the authors examined were largely selected through the mediation of others (victim advocates who selected “representative VISs” and model VISs and heuristics and alerted the researchers to particular sentencing hearings; judges pre-disposed to be interviewed based on the researchers’ affiliation with WATCH, etc.). How might this affect the research?


Judge interviews: There is a tension between the requirement that judges admit the VISs to the courtroom and the state’s sentencing guidelines, which limit judges’ flexibility in imposing sentence in many cases (p. 18); some judges may feel that the result is a deception of the victim, implying that her statement will matter when it may not (p. 19). At the same time, judges identified situations where VISs affected the sentences they gave, particularly with regard to conditions and other parts of the sentence left largely in the discretion of the judge and those that affect the defendant’s future conduct in relation to the victim (pp. 19-20). Finally, some judges acknowledged that the VISs put a face on the crime and affected their broad views of crime (pp. 20-21).

The victim advocates (and the VIS guides and heuristics they provide) recommend that the victim “address the expectations of the court by encouraging a VIS that reflects the ideology of the discourse communities in which the VIS operates” (p. 21). The samples that Propen and Schuster studied reaffirmed this tendency (p. 22).

The working of the VIS is both a reinforcement of the ideology of the court and a move by victims and victims’ advocates to change the court (p. 26). Judges share the perception that VISs have or can “influence their courtrooms” (p. 27).

Question: These observations stress the perceptions of the judges and victim advocates about the effects of the VIS. Those perceptions are subject to a variety of biases; what research methods might permit triangulating this research to judge the impact of VISs from some other perspective?

Authors’ claims

Victim advocates and judges perceive the VIS has “power to change the system, even if there is resistance to the genre” (p. 5). “[T]he VIS invites into the courtroom the emotions that challenge [the] objectivity, efficiency, and consistency of the system of established genres” in the court (p. 22). “The presentation of the VIS in court may then be viewed as a quite literal enactment of the system’s ideology, but at the level of individual experience” (p. 22).

The authors argue that their work with VISs suggests “that genre theory needs to accommodate… the advocacy it might require to sustain… possibilities for change or disruption into a system that has a firm hierarchy of voices at work” (p. 29).

Several of the authors’ claims about VISs appear in the “Theoretical Foundation and Assumptions” section of the paper (pp. 8-11):

  • “VIS contain ‘the traces of an ongoing activity, represent problem solving in that activity, and thus tend to stabilize the activity in which they are used’” (p. 9).
  • “VIS are products of specific cultural and historical contexts and activities and thus serve to reflect, perpetuate, and sustain those activities” (p. 9).
  • “In the case of the VIS… victim advocates often see their job as helping to give a voice to individual victims through the instantiation and function of that genre in the moment” (p. 10).
  • “[T]he VIS functions as a tool that may allow the victim to feel heard or acknowledged while also allowing the advocate to push for change on a systemic level” (p. 10).
  • The VIS is “an important genre within an activity system” and “through the applied knowledge and understanding of the victim advocates, [it] has come to be viewed as a credible and oftentimes persuasive rhetorical genre within courtroom proceedings” (p.11).

Question: Do the circumstances of this study (i.e., urban courtrooms in a comparatively liberal state with relatively small proportions of minority population) support the authors’ efforts to imply that their findings can be generalized (p. 28)?

Supplemental information/questions

This study appears to be closely linked to the organization WATCH (see pp. 11, 13-14). “WATCH’s mission is to make the justice system more effective and responsive in handling cases of violence against women and children….” (Home | WATCH, n.d.) Also: “WATCH is committed to ending racial, cultural, and gender bias in the courts and to reflecting that commitment at all levels of our organization.” Mary Schuster has been a volunteer at WATCH (Schuster and Propen, n.d.).

Question: In what ways might WATCH’s involvement have affected this research (both for better and worse)? Should Schuster have disclosed her previous affiliation with WATCH as a volunteer in this article? Why or why not?

Cited works

Home | WATCH. (n.d.) Retrieved November 20, 2010, from

Schuster, M. L., & Propen, A. (n.d.). 2006 WATCH Victim Impact Statement Study. Retrieved from


2 Responses to “Propen and Schuster reading for 8011”

  1. Lee-Ann K. Breuch December 22, 2010 at 12:06 pm #

    You raise great questions here about the readings. I wish I would have been present for the discussion on readings this week–I do wonder if you had the opportunity to further discuss some of the questions you raised.


  1. Readings for November 22 in 8011 « Rhetoricked - November 22, 2010

    […] in a previous post: Propen, A. D., & Schuster, M. L. (2010). Understanding genre through the lens of advocacy: the […]

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