"Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word."

Davida Charney

College Composition and Communication

47.4 (1996) 567-593.


Through a congeries of epithets, critics in composition have demonized scientific practices and practitioners. I argue that critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways that have been challenged by others sharing their political commitments. No research method per se can deliver up authority or power. Rather, credence--and provisional credence at that--emerges from the day-to-day critical negotiation in which disciplines identify interesting questions, decide what kinds of answers to consider, and actively critique both methods and results. Drawing on philosophical, historical, and rhetorical studies of science, I argue that the very qualities that the critics most object to in scientific work are those that afford the most productive communal discussion. Scientists may not be as self-conscious of their methods as they should be, but arguably their practices engage them more deeply in collective knowledge construction than ours do.

Our over-reliance on qualitative studies and repeated disparagement of objective methods is creating a serious imbalance in composition studies. To promote the growth of a complex and inter-connected framework of knowledge and methods, we need both qualitative and quantitative empirical methods. We should take seriously our responsibility to improve our methods by setting higher expectations for training in research methods and in the terrain we wish to study. We should promote the publication of research that extends and refines previous work. And we should encourage reviews of previous studies that compare findings and methods in particular kinds of sites, to generate questions and hypotheses that can be pursued with a full range of methods.