The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

Influencing Policymaking: A Rhetorical Analysis of Congressional Child Welfare Testimonies

Sunday, January 19, 2014: 10:15 AM
Marriott Riverwalk, Alamo Ballroom Salon E, 2nd Floor Elevator Level BR (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Heather R. Edwards, PhD, Assistant Professor, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI
Louise Samuel, MSW, Doctoral Student, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI

With increasing funding cuts for human services, it is important for child welfare advocates to be effective in their attempts to persuade policy makers.  Unfortunately, the empirical evidence informing this policy practice is limited.  This paper addresses this gap with a computer-aided rhetorical analysis of federal child welfare hearings testimonies.  This work draws upon a conceptual framework of rhetoric from Aristotle:  Ethos (credibility of the speaker), Pathos (appeal to emotions), and Logos (knowledge and facts).  This research will answer the following questions about testimonies submitted to the U.S. Congress after the passage of the landmark Adoption and Safe Families Act:

RQ1: What type of rhetoric did witnesses use in testimonies to influence child welfare policymaking?
RQ2: What political context factors best predict testimony rhetoric?
RQ3: What is the relationship between testimony rhetoric and legislative outcome?


This computer-aided content analysis examines all 647 testimonies submitted to the 43 hearings held in the 106th – 112th Congresses (1999 – 2012).  Testimonies were retrieved from the Government Printing Office and congressional committee websites.

Political context variables were used to measure the environment in which testimonies were submitted: (a) political ideology, (b) Congress, and (c) committee.  Researchers obtained scores of members’ positions on a liberal-conservative continuum from the VoteView database.  For each hearing, they then computed (a) average committee scores and (b) average differences between Republicans and Democrats.

The hearings reports and legislative histories from the Proquest Congressional database were used to determine whether hearings resulted in a law, and this information was included in each testimony record.

Researchers identified concepts to serve as proxies for rhetoric.  With regard to ethos, investigators considered witnesses’ (a) professional affiliation, (b) level of influence (invited, non-invited), and (c) whether the witness was from the same state as a committee member.  Hearings transcripts were used to determine whether or not a witness was invited to submit testimony.  Researchers coded testimonies to determine witness affiliation and state.  Word counts and calculations available in the Diction software program measured pathos and logos.  A factor analysis of rhetoric variables yielded two factors that were used as criterion variables in two linear regression analyses to answer Research Question 2.  


The paper reports descriptive statistics for ethos, pathos, and logos in testimonies.  Evidence suggests that political context variables significantly predict testimony rhetoric.  However, a logistic regression indicates that most rhetoric variables were not significant predictors of legislative outcome.  Only testimonies submitted without invitation were significantly associated with enactment of law.  


While this study found relationships between political context and rhetoric, some constructs within these categories were more meaningful than others.  This research increases understanding about the history of child welfare policymaking while generating knowledge to inform future interventions and research.  The key practice implication is that change agents may be able to signal public interest in an issue and motivate Congress by submitting more non-invited testimonies.  This research also provides guidance for shaping analyses of testimony content, and promotes translation of studies into effective state and local social welfare policy practice.