Charney: “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word”

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication. 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Web.

Circumplex structure of personal values

Charney provides a vigorous defense of empiricism. Charney first shows how the lived world of research is more complex than generalize polemics against certain methods (i.e., empiricism does not necessarily equal positivism; “Objectivity then is not a fixed feature of particular methods [571]). Charney bristles at critiques that conflate and totalize Next, Charney responds to radical critiques of science and empiricism, showing how “dogmatic skepticism” (vs “absolute scientism”) can be traced through philosophy and then locates it in the field of composition (cf. Bizzell, Conners, Berlin), specifically showing counter-intended results in technical and professional writing (574). 

“Rhetorical theory reminds us that while facts may never be represented neutrally, the values associated with them are not preordained” (576).

Charney details the motivations behind objectivism (e.g., skeptical public, clear communication), and further explores the overstatements of critiques against science, including ironic assertions of being blind to social construction. Charney is most forceful in responses to empirical methods, which are characterized as detaching and elevating researchers over the people who are their objects of study. Such a rhetorical stance, Charney insists, produces “characterizations [that] smack of the worst kind of exclusionary identity politics” (581). Denigrating purity, Charney argues for mixed observational/qualitative and experimental/quantitative methods, citing their mingling as complementary overlap and methodological restraint (584-85).

Conclusion:  “Our over-reliance on qualitative studies and repeated disparagement of objective methods is creating a serious imbalance in studies of technical and professional writing-and the same may be true in composition studies as a whole” (589) … “To promote the growth of a complex and interconnected framework of knowledge and methods, we need both qualitative and quantitative empirical methods” (590).


empiricism, objectivity, ethnography, subjectivity, methods, research

Bibliographic Notes

Words: ~12,000

Pages: 26

References: 46

Affiliation: Penn State

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