Porter, et al., “Institutional Critique”

Porter, James E., Patricia Sullivan, Stuart Blythe, Jeffrey Grabill, and Libby Miles. “Institutional Critique: A Rhetorical Methodology for Change.” CCC 51.4 (2000): 610-642.

To the extent that institutions are rhetorical constructs, rhetoric can be deployed to enact change across a range of institutional scales, from the micro to the macro. Boiled down: “Though institutions are certainly powerful, they are not monoliths: they are rhetorically constructed human designs (whose power is reinforced by buildings, laws, traditions, and knowledge-making practices) and so are changeable” (611). Porter et al. see the institution as a unit of analysis; as an alternative to despairing about institutional conditions, the institution can be changed through deliberate, strategic forms of action.

Porter et. al. invoke postmodern geography–particularly David Harvey, David Sibley, Gillian Rose, and Edward Soja (para. on influences, 613c)–to renew a methodology for institutional change that is fluid, flexible, and scalable across the various orders of the institution, from the classroom to the extra-institutional forces from the discipline-at-large. They position their “spin [as] more locally situated, more spatial, and more empirical than most theoretical discussions of institutions” (613). This new methodology is presented “to enable certain forms of research action to emerge and take shape” (612). Changeability is crucial here; the methodology insists on the pliability of institutions rather than seeing them as monoliths–the result of dealing with institutions in the abstract or of the opposite problem in regarding the material as immovable.

Porter et al. recap the efforts of James Sosnoski and Michael Berube to argue for disciplinary change through “the reform of disciplinary practice,” but they add that institutional critique (a different scale) is also crucial to changing disciplinarity (here identified somewhat inclusively as “English Studies” (618)) (619).

Important contributions include their effort to pluralize their mapping efforts:
“Because there is not one, holy map that captures the relationships inherent to the understanding of an institution, all of these relationships exist simultaneously in the lives–actual, material–space of an institution” (623). Neither the production of space nor the production of maps is singular; accepting any space as singular or any map as comprehensive introduces fairly obvious problems. Still, there remains a problem of the limits of pluralizing maps (for them to be effective they must not be infinite) and of deciding how to present selections of the relationships that exist simultaneously.


“Talking about institutions at this macro level is extremely important (as we argued earlier in respect to WPAs) because it is one way to discuss how our public lives are organized and conducted (both for us and by us). But limiting our analytic gaze to macro institutions also encourages a level of abstraction that can be unhelpful if it leads to a view of institutions as static, glacial, or even unchangeable (i.e., if it urges us to see changes a resulting large-scale action that few people rarely have the power to enforce)” (620). They prefer a micro-level view of institutions because it makes change via rhetorical acts seem more plausible (more agency at the micro-level).

“We use some of the ways that [cultural geography scholars] deploy visual analysis to question and destabilize institutions, to provide an alternative route to interrogating how power circulates in particular institutions, and to complicate our construction of institutions” (620).

“We don’t like forms of cultural or institutional critique that stay at a macro level of high-theory discussion, which makes the institution a monolith–easy to criticize but impossible to change. Of course, as we have said, in rhetoric/composition there is a long-standing and vigorous tradition of disciplinary critique. Yet we have been frustrated by how disciplinary critique and institutional action have typically operated in the field. For one thing, such critique usually focuses on a limited set of organizational spaces: the composition classroom, the first-year composition curriculum, the English department. Well, okay, that’s where most of us live–but we are frustrated by the nearly exclusive focus on these organizational unites to the neglect of others” (625). This passage goes on to call for attention to spaces outside the institution.

To sum up:

  • “Institutional critique examines structures from a spatial, visual, and organizational perspective.”
  • “Institutional critique looks for gaps or fissures, places where resistance and change a re possible.”
  • Institutional critique undermines the binary between theory and empirical research by engaging in situated theorizing and relating that theorizing through stories of change and attempted change.” (631)