The term “coercion” comes from the Old French word, “cohercion,” or “cohertion” and has been used since the turn of the 15th century to refer to the application of force or exercise of compulsion and restraint to control the action of a voluntary agent (Oxford English Dictionary Online). Although “compulsion,” “force,” and “control” are key principles of coercion, the crucial word in this definition is “voluntary.” In his 1987 book, Coercion, Alan Wertheimer argued that society’s moral and legal responses to (and justifications of) individual behavior were based on the “voluntariness principle” (Wertheimer, 1987, p 4) that all statements and behaviors are only legitimate when arising from an agent’s free volition rather than out of coercion.Aristotle also addressed the question of an agent’s motivations in the Nicomachean Ethics, in which he distinguished voluntary causes of behavior from “those things [that] are thought involuntary which take place under compulsion…of which the moving principle is outside, in which nothing is contributed by the person who is acting (Aristotle, bk III, sec.1110).” Hence, coercive forces are seen to act upon an agent from an external source of power and authority, while internal and uncoerced acts are voluntary and therefore indicative of an agent’s ‘true’ motivations.

Wertheimer’s interest in developing a theory of coercion stemmed from arguments and concerns in the field of law, where the validity of a testimony, responsibility for a crime and the legitimacy of reciprocal punishment hinged on the question of whether an agent directed his behavior freely, or whether coercive factors mitigated his legal culpability. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem addressed similar issues of coercion and accountability in its discussion of the Nuremberg trials in which Nazi officers defended themselves by saying they had been commanded by their superiors to commit the heinous acts for which they were standing trial (Arendt, 1994). Hence, the concept of coercion is typically studied alongside concepts of behaviorism, persuasion, influence, legitimization, authority, responsibility, and duress.

Coercion in Communication Scholarship

Looking beyond the fields of history, politics and the law, one finds that coercion is also an important term in communication scholarship, particularly in the sub-fields of rhetoric and argumentation, and organizational communication.

Coercion in Rhetoric and Argumentation

The concept of coercion offers rhetoricians insights into the reasons an orator might have to speak under certain circumstances, with the force of coercion making up the “rhetorical situation” (Bitzer, 1968) or one of the exigencies necessitating a speech or persuasive appeal of some sort. The motivations behind a speaker’s words and an audience’s response are thus important in explaining why an orator would choose to speak, why he’d choose to say A rather than B, and why an audience would respond in one way and not the other.

Scholars of argumentation are familiar with the argumentum ad baculum, literally meaning “an argument on a stick” in which an argument “turns on a threat or reference to dire consequences” (Woods, 1998, p 493). The coercion inherent in the ad baculum renders it a fallacious argumentative device in which speakers commit “the blunder of concluding the truth of a proposition on the basis of an appeal to force, for it is the “fear of force [which causes] acceptance of a conclusion" (Carney & Scheer, 1980, p 390) and the “abandonment of reason” (Copi & Cohen, 1990, p 130). Hence, coercion is seen to invalidate statements and conclusions because of its “appeal to force” and “abandonment of reason,” suggesting that a more legitimate form of influence would be one that is less forceful.

Nonetheless, although coercion is often placed opposite to its less forceful cousin, persuasion, other scholars of rhetoric have argued that the two concepts are more closely linked than might appear at first sight. In 1969, James R. Andrews suggested that persuasion and coercion [were] part of the total rhetorical process, and that “rhetoric becomes less persuasive and more coercive to the extent that it limits the viable alternatives open to the receivers of communication" (Andrews, 1969, p 10). Coercion, instead of being defined only by the manner in which it presents alternatives (forcefully, violently), can thus also be defined by whether it presents audiences with alternatives at all and how feasible these alternatives are. Naturally, because what is feasible or acceptable differs with every situation and set of actors, coercion is also highly contextual.

Coercion in Organizational Communication

Scholars of organizational communication have used the concept of coercion to study types of bureaucracies and administrative structures, as well as to examine relations between employers and workers. For example, Adler and Borys distinguished between “enabling” and “coercive” bureaucracies, arguing that coercive bureaucracies demonstrated greater degrees of abrogation of individual autonomy and power asymmetry between managers and employers than did enabling bureaucracies (Adler & Borys, 1996, p 62). In addition, Douglas McGregor's posits that managers within an organization who fall under the assumptions of Theory X are more likely to see their employees as lazy and as needing to be coerced (as opposed to Theory Y managers who view employees as self-motivating in the right conditions) (Cole, 2004, pp 36-37). Scholars argue that managers who ascribe to Theory X embody the more negative characteristics of Classical Management Theory (Miller, 2009, p 40).

In their study of coercion’s role in employer-employee relations, Riccillo and Trenholm found that managers tend to influence trusted employees with persuasion and use coercion with untrusted employees, pointing to the need to consider additional dimensions of trust and reciprocity when discussing coercion (Riccillo & Trenholm, 1983, p 336). An additional feature of coercion highlighted by organizational communication scholarship is that coercion is self-perpetuating. Stickland argued that using coercive tactics generated a spiral in which those led to use coercion would lose all trust in subordinates, attribute subordinates' efforts to the result of supervision, and hence choose even more coercive methods in future (Strickland, 1958) in order to communicate with employees and influence their behavior.

Coercion in Health Communication

Within the context of health communication, coercion has been studied at both the provider-patient level as well as the health campaign level. Traditionally, doctors hold a great deal of power over patients (patients themselves may use coercion as a means of leveling this power) (Beiseker, 1990, p 106). However, scholars who follow in the footsteps of philosophers such as Habermas believe that the provider-patient relationship should be free of coercion (Barry et. al, 2001). Furthermore, some scholars argue that doctors should not use coercion even when it may result greater public health (Goodyear-Smith & Buetow, 2001, p 458).

In the context of health campaigns, many tout persuasion as being more advantageous than coercion (Cassell et. al, 1998, p 73). Snyder (2007) argues that health campaigns that use the mass media and avoid coercion have an affect size of 5 points. However, other scholars, while they acknowledge that coercion can sometimes be highly effective, still believe that coercion within health campaigns is a concept that is fraught with ethical dilemmas such as whether the patients have the right to autonomy and to make their own choices (Guttman, 1997 pp 160-162).

Related Words: Force, Duress, Influence, Authority, Context, Control, Behavior, Reason, Argument.

Moderate Edits by Heather Zupancic (July 2012).

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