Miriam Locher's Website

The SNF LHO-Sub-Projects

While the two sub-projects share the main theoretical pillars and the overall research aim, each study will also pursue individual and clearly different research questions derived from the specific theoretical setting and data situation. As the graph outlines, the subprojects broaden our scope in all three research fields.  We are specifically looking at two distinct practices of health communication: smoking cessation and counseling. Whereas smoking cessation deals with adjusting or preventing risk behavior, counseling supports a client in an emotionally difficult situation. Both sub-projects look at written, asynchronous communication. However, by choosing differing modes of online communication, we can further our understanding of challenges and possibilities in these specific modes. The subproject on smoking cessation works with website and forum data that is public, while the sub-project on email counseling looks at private and one-to-one exchanges. Finally, our linguistic focus differs slightly stemming from the specific data sets that we have chosen. The “smoking cessation” project deals with persuasion in a more direct way as persuasion is a clear aim of the participants involved on the sites. Persuasion in the “email counseling” project, on the other hand, differs in that the therapist does not try to persuade a client to carry out a specific proposed action. Rather, the therapist and client work on the client’s issues through their relationship. While the two approaches clearly overlap, this diversification of the over-arching research questions will allow us to give a more rounded account of persuasion and relational work in health communication online. Please also read the information on the sub-projects “Persuasion in smoking cessation online” and “Relational work in email counseling” below.


Persuasion in smoking cessation online (M.-T. Rudolf von Rohr)

In this subproject, we concern ourselves with persuasion in public health discourse online. We are interested in how the health risk “smoking” is communicated in a computer-mediated context, how it is constructed through language, what patterns emerge and how we can link these findings to persuasion. Therefore, we will analyze a variety of public smoking cessation online resources, which range from governmental websites to lay peer-to-peer forums. We will focus on the interpersonal dimension of persuasion; that is, how it exploits relational as well as informational aspects of language.

Setting the scene
Smoking cessation is an ideal topic to investigate. On the one hand, the dangers of smoking to one’s health are undisputed; according to Cancer Research UK, it is “UK’s single greatest cause of preventable illness and early death […]”. Hence, lifestyle changes reduce harm posed to the individual. On the other, as it says on the same Cancer research website, the UK health department considers “help for the individual to stop smoking” and education as part of necessary measures to reduce smoking related deaths. Education is action through language geared to persuade addressees to quit smoking or not to take it up at all. The underlying idea is that the right information empowers patients. 

Much educational material has been relegated to online sources, in form of institutional or professional websites, providing different informational resources. Searching the Internet for health information seems to become common practice. Armstrong et al. (2011) point to a survey in 2009 in the UK, which shows that the practice of looking for health information online has drastically increased among users. Another important part of public health discourse online is peer-to-peer sites, such as forums. These sites are an ideal place for establishing networks between non-experts, in which users support each other, give each other advice, reevaluate their reasons for quitting and make sense of stopping smoking.

One of our aims is to contribute to linguistic theory by shedding light on the link between persuasive linguistic strategies and relational work. Relational work is defined as “[…] all aspects of the work invested by individuals in the construction, maintenance, reproduction and transformation of interpersonal relationships among those engaged in social practice” (Locher and Watts 2008: 96). Traditional rhetoric has identified “three working principles of persuasion”: 1) credibility/trust, 2) emotional appeal, and 3) truth of arguments (ethos, pathos, logos). In our opinion, these principles point to the importance of the interpersonal in persuasion. Our goal is to figure out how persuasive strategies interplay or overlap with strategies that are employed to construct relationships. For example, strategies that appeal to solidarity can simultaneously have a relational and a persuasive function.
We are also interested in the impact of the medium on persuasion in smoking cessation sites. Warnick (2007) has identified interactivity and intertextuality as rhetorical elements that are specific to online sources, and which have an effect on the language used. One of our interests lies in investigating the interplay between text and multimodal elements (photographs, videos, audio material).

Main research questions

  • How is each site set up? How are they similar to and different from each other?
  • How can we define “persuasion” for a linguistic analysis, situating it on an interpersonal dimension?
  • What patterns of language are employed in the different practices? How can they be linked to the aim of persuading the readers to quit smoking? What are the most common arguments to persuade?
  • How are experts positioned on professional websites in order to get their points across in acts of persuasion? How are expertise and credibility created through language to persuade?
  • How are smokers portrayed on professional websites in order to be persuaded? What linguistic strategies are used?
  • In analogy, what strategies of persuasion can be found on peer-to-peer sites and how do they differ from professional sites?
  • How do the identified strategies of persuasion differ from or overlap with strategies to enhance a relationship?


Relational Work and Identity Construction in Email Counselling (F. Thurnherr)

This subproject is concerned with the interpersonal aspects relational work and identity construction in counseling online. The focus lies on the interpersonal communication between therapist and client: how is the relationship between therapist and client – the therapeutic alliance – discursively constructed when the communication is solely in written form? In order to investigate the therapeutic alliance, we will analyze how the practice of e-therapy through email works, what kind of activities are used in the email exchanges, and what linguistic realizations are used to convey these activities.

The resulting descriptive framework of linguistic strategies will then be analyzed in light of their interpersonal aspect: how can the strategies be linked to either endangering or enhancing the therapeutic alliance. By conducting the first study that explores written email counseling from a linguistic perspective, we work in collaboration with practitioners in order to shed light on the use of language. Additionally, we will add to the emerging research direction in interpersonal pragmatics of linking relational work and identity construction. 

Ethical Considerations
In a study on email counseling, it is of course vital to closely look at ethical considerations and to ensure that both the therapist as well as the client are protected from any possible harm through the study. We strictly follow the four ethical pillars of the Georgetown Mantra on Ethical Medical Research and the ethical guidelines put forward by the Association of Internet Researchers (AoIR) Ethics Committee (Markham et al.: 2012), in order to ensure that the therapists’ as well as their clients’ confidentiality and anonymity is protected at all times. We have outlined a specific data collection plan in order to comply with these guidelines:

On the one hand, the therapists will be the sole contact between researcher and client. Hence, the therapist asks his or her clients whether they agree to release their data to us for research in an anonymized form (including publication of linguistic examples). We have chosen this data collection process for two reasons:

  • The client can be assured that no identifying information will be revealed in the study, not even to the researchers.
  • Since the therapists are more knowledgeable of the identifying markers of their clients, they will be able to anonymize the appropriate information more accurately.

On the other hand, we will make sure that any information left that seems to be identifying the client or the therapist will be checked with the therapist and made anonymous as well. These careful steps will warrant the privacy of both therapist and client appropriately and impeccably. All these ethical guidelines will be upheld during the entire duration of the project.  

Research Questions
In addition to the overarching research questions of the project, the following research questions are investigated in this sub-project:

  • What are the technical characteristics of email counseling? i.e.: what medium specific elements can be identified for email counseling?
  • What activities (discursive moves) can be found in the practice?
  • What consecutive structure of discursive moves can be found throughout the email exchanges?
  • How can the discursive moves be linked to relational work that endangers or enhances the therapeutic alliance?
  • How are the therapist and client constructing their identities in the exchanges?
  • How can the structure of discursive moves throughout the exchange be linked to possible changes in relational work and the construction of identities?
  • What strategies concerning relational work and identity construction seem to especially enhance the therapeutic alliance?




LHO-Activities and transfer


Miriam Locher's Website