Charney: "Empiricism is not a four-letter word"

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” Central works in technical communication. Ed. Johndan Johnson-Eilola & Stuart A. Selber. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. 281-299. Print.

Originally published in College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593.



Like that she says that this "insisted on being written" (281).


Seems to me a rhetorical analysis / position piece concerning quant/qual debate.




Question of whether empirical research has place in comp studies, and if not, how to get academic cred without. Highlights distaste/distrust for "Science." aka "masculinist" techniques. Seen as giving in to a positivist power structure.


States "I will argue here that critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways that have been challenged by others sharing their political commitments" (283). Why does every ethnographer have to be promoting liberation pedagogy? Why, then, must each quantitative researcher be termed in opposition?


"I argue that no research method per se can deliver up authority or acceptance...consequently, by disparaging objective methods and advocating increasingly subjectivist methods, we may also be impairing our ability to improve our own work and use it to promote social justice" (283).


Radical Mischaracterizations of Science


The badmouthing of science in comp studies. Cites misconceptions as to methods and ideologies. Argues "absolutism and positivism are not intrinsic to science" (284). Interesting (and, I think, accurate) evaluation: "the critics see objective, quantitative, and empirical methods as ways for scientists to avoid interpretation, eliminate the human element of subjectivity that supposedly contaminates the study of individual cases, and go on misrepresenting the world as manageable, fully determinate, and reducible to clear and accurate formulas" (284).


Implicating Science in Injustice


perceptions of science/scientists/those who use sci methods as cold, disassociated, "dupes of industrialists and bureaucrats" (285). Sexism-- disprivileges other sorts of knowledge. Argues that the feminist attacks may perpetuate under-representation of women by discouraging them from entering sci fields/ using experimental methods. Really attacks the kind of pseudo-conspiracy theory rhetoric concerning science.


The Equation of Indeterminacy and Power Politics


Radical critics set ideal standards on science. Critiques of using science in composition. "this approach has also led to a degree of pedagogical squeamishness--a hesitation to teach effective rhetorical strategies for fear that students may use them for purposes we do not approve" (286).


Charney doesn''t deny that sci knowledge and methods are (in part) socially constructed (287). Rather, issue with binary approach. Search for middle ground "between dogmatic skepticism and absolutist scientism" (287). Undeterminism != anything goes.


Second part of critique is that scientific methods are bound to entrenched power structures. (Popper throws this back against the critics). Reformers have to recognize that not all organizations are the evil oppressors or oppressive. "dissociate facts from values, ruling out the automatic definition of right with current or future might" "Rhetorical theory reminds us that while facts may never be represented neutrally, the values associated with them are not preordained (288).


Alternative Motives for Objectivity


Not just for glory/institutional power.


Objectivism allows for scrutiny of information and the methods used to collect it


facilitates communication


The Social Construction of Quantitative and Objective Methods


argues scientific disciplines "work hard at active social construction" (289). Most studies far from definitive-- most scientists do not assume "that their methods ensure certainty and universally generalizable results  (Blyler 290) or even take this as a goal" (289). Cites how media misrepresents scientific findings.


Crux: "the point of this should by now be clear: authority does not devolve automatically on anyone who uses an objective, quantitative method" (290). Need to recognize rhetorical character of sci/tech discourse.


Researchers and Participants


questions if anti-sci perceptions stem from views of researchers/participants. Objects of study = objectification. However, Charney argues that researchers are being characterized by their methodology, which is not indicator of morality/personality/epistemology (291). Just b/c ethnography doesn''t mean researcher more sensitive and caring. Recognize that the science journal isn''t necessarily the context for discussing ethical concerns (tho IRB sessions, research methods classes, planning sessions are).


Alternative Motives for Proximity and Distance


Discussions concerning the difficulties of sampling, countered with claims of ''impersonality'' for large samples. Notes that in qualitative studies with smaller samples, idiosyncracies "may then take on more significance than they should" (294). Qual studies with close interactions may increase risks of exploitation.


Objectivity as Collective Rather Than Personal Authority


subjectivity vs objectivity changes the types of arguments that are appropriate. Cites Porter-- adopt formalized objective methods.  Subjective can''t be replicated/reapplied (e.g., ethnography). "The credibility of a subjective study settles almost entirely on whatever signs of skill and personal authority the researcher can muster" (296).




the binary rift creating imbalance. Need both methods (can''t we just get along?) must be critical; set higher expectations for training and research. interconnect work.