Berkenkotter: “The Legacy of Positivism in Empirical Composition Research”

Berkenkotter, Carol. “The Legacy of Positivism in Empirical Composition Research.” Journal of Advanced Composition. 9.1/2 (1989) pp. 69-82. Web.


Berkenkotter responds to two JAC articles by David Foster and John Schlieb whO lament the residue of positivist frameworks in composition research, as contrasted to hermeneutic approaches. Berkenkotter traces a history of positivist thought (Comte, Durkheim, Mill) through the social sciences, with opposition from social science idealists (Dilthey & Weber): “Understanding these differences between nineteenth century positivism and idealism as they related to the emerging fields of the social and human sciences is important if we are to place our own debates over knowledge in composition studies into a cultural and historical context” (72). The rise of logical positivism as assembled from the works of the Vienna Circle introduced the empirically-centered verifiability principle of meaning, later taken up by American behaviorists. Berkenkotter then explores the rhetorical analyses of Bazerman, Swales, McCarthy, et al., showing how discourse communities shape meaning and knowledge through their selective attentions, and how the APA Publication Manual operates as a “charter document” (77). Berkenkotter then engages in an analysis of a research methods monograph, demonstrating how a positivist worldview is rhetorically invented. Conclusion: “In short, I suspect that the fear of a positivist-minded hegemony that I see hermeneutically trained colleagues ritually professing is the product of a sort of epistemological ethnocentricity. To the extent that we do not understand each other’s models of knowing, rivalry and hostility are, I think, inevitable” (79).


methods, empiricism, hermeneutics, research

Bibliographic Notes

Words: ~6,000

Pages: 13

References: 23

Affiliation: Michigan Tech

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