Guilty. (Charney)

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Central Works in Technical Communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford UP, 2004. 281-299. Print.

(originally published in CCC 47.4, 1996)

An anti-anti empiricism argument, concerned with the critique of science, scientific methods, and too-close alignment with the ideals of the workplace in composition and technical communication research. Charney’s overriding point is that “critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways that have been challenged by others sharing their political commitments” (283). Basically, not all social/qualitative method users are compassionate and ethical, and not all empirical/experimental method users are opposed to postmodernist values.  Charney argues for an openness to empirical approaches to research rather than an outright a priori condemnation on the basis of ideological purity.

Composition has tended to mischaracterize (genrally by unfairly lumping together) various -isms like positivism, empiricism, and rationalism into a “timeless, unitary ideology” (283). Also, the objective/subjective divide is not nearly as clean as researchers would like; objectivity is not a fixed feature but rather a means for large and geographically distant communities of scholars to reach “provisional consensus” through the working out of formalized procedures and rules (284). Charney also carefully argues that science, rather than being a mysoginistic and marginalizing approach, has often played a massive role in effectively exposing injustice through quantitiative studies. The critique of science, she notes, has progressed in an unfair manner, “imposing an ideal standard” of strict adherence to rules and order in the interest of rational progressivism on science that isn’t necessarily true. (A countercritique of Berlin and Bizzell is offered here–both of whom were opponents to empirical research on the grounds of ideological alignment to technocratic/capitalistic ideals) Many philosophers of science, she points out, emphasize the role fo guesswork as well as rationalism; the “hyperconstructivist critiques of science” (287) generally go much further in lambasting science than writers such as Kuhn and Geertz (who such arguments are often based on) ever do. Science is communal and constructed, cumulative rather than absolutist.

One paragraph is particularly persuasive on a number of counts. (Charney is answering the critique that scientists don’t think of themselves as composing argumentative discourse and are thus being ideologically deceptive or slaves to methodological mechanism) :

“if teachers and scholars persisted too long in treating scientific and technical discourse as the bare transmission of determinate facts, it is because we failed to recognize its rhetorical character. It is fair to hold scientists responsible because we did not appreciate the rhetoric of their discourse better than they did? We are supposedly the ones skilled in discourse analysis and steeped in rhetorical theory. But if we now dismiss objective methods as irrelevant or as opposed to the social functioning of scientific disciplines, we will again be misconstruing the case. […] Scientific consensus building occurs with the aid of, not despite, the use of objective methods. By facilitating communication and effective social organization, objective methods promote sustained focus on specific problems and the refinement of concepts and methods. Those who use objective, scientific, or experimental methods may not be nearly as self-aware as they should be about the nature and consequences of their rhetoric–but the same may well be true of those who use more subjective, qualitative methods” (291).

Overall, though ‘subjective’ or qualitative studies may be excellent, but they don’t move the knowledge base of composition forward. (This argument runs parallel to Haswell’s description of RAD methodology.) As Charney notes, “by producing numerous individual subjective studies, we have constructed a broad shallow array of information, in which one study may touch loosely on another but in which no deep or complex networks of inferences and hypotheses are forged or tested” (297). No aggregation, no replication, no data, no interconnection of the work.




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