What is the significance of research on equivocation for our understanding of political communication?

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Exam number: Y2272309

What is the significance of research on equivocation for our understanding of political communication?

Politicians are roundly derided by the media for their use of equivocation. In some instances, it can become a defining characteristic of their rhetoric - giving them a reputation for deceitful doublespeak that can shadow them for their whole political career. For those not in the political spotlight however, equivocation can be viewed merely as a method used to evade a potentially awkward situation (Bavelas et al., 1990). Defined as: “[The use of] ambiguous language…to conceal the truth or avoid committing oneself (with direct speech)” (Abate, 1999), equivocation has remained a central area of interest in research on political communication, shedding light on the complex relationship between interviewer and politician.
        Bavelas et al’s (1988, 1990) equivocation theory makes the fundamental assumption that when faced with two or more unappealing options (an avoidance-avoidance conflict) in response to a posed question, we will equivocate. Put simply, "equivocation is a good solution to a bad situation" (Bavelas et al, 1990, pp.60) An ‘avoidance-avoidance conflict’ is used to describe the psychological conflict of approaching a question, only to find that every potential answer would result in similarly compromising consequences. Bavelas et al (1990) argue that equivocation is not a characteristic of a particular type of personality, but of a particular type of discourse, and that the pressures of a political interview lend themselves to these conflicts (Bull, 1998). Bull and Mayer’s 1993 microanalysis of eight interviews with Margaret Thatcher and eight with Neil Kinnock showed the two politicians to have directly answered only 41 and 44 per cent of questions posed, respectively.  This supported Harris’ (1991) earlier research, in which the same politicians answered 39 per cent of the time, suggesting that certainly in terms of interviews with these politicians, equivocation is prevalent.

In order to illustrate why equivocation is such a distinctive feature of political discourse, many researchers have offered examples of avoidance-avoidance conflicts, focusing specifically on its relevance to politicians. Bavelas et al (1998, 1990) outline factors that may house these conflicts, such as controversy, divided loyalty, time limits, and lack of knowledge. Politicians are often questioned on highly controversial issues where any given answer is likely to offend a proportion of voters; this can ultimately lower the politician’s popularity, leaving equivocation to appear to be the lesser of several evils. A divide between constituency and party is another instance in which politicians may feel pressure from several groups. If the politician's party is backing a policy that would impact negatively on the politician's own constituency, this would result in an incredibly difficult role conflict. In situations such as these, a politician could well feel that equivocating is the only way they could resolve the dilemma without offending either party or constituency. This loyalty is admirable, and in stark contrast to the stereotype so often portrayed of politicians; it suggests that the motivation for equivocal language is important, even when limited to an avoidance-avoidance conflict, and can be the difference between a politician avoiding being unnecessarily cruel, and one trying to escape blame for irresponsible behaviour.

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 Time restrictions can add further pressure, leaving the politician either to give a partial answer that will leave their audience dissatisfied, or to try to answer fully in the given time, and risk appearing “long-winded, circuitous and evasive” (Bull, 1998, pp.39). Perhaps one of the most obvious needs for equivocation is a lack of knowledge. If a politician has to battle with the conflict of admitting ignorance on a particular subject matter or concocting an answer to a question he knows nothing about, avoiding a direct answer completely may seem to be the safest option available.

Bavelas et al ...

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