Reflections on October 4 readings for 8011

3 Oct

A critical turn

Most of this week’s readings come out of the cultural or critical studies orientation. (Blyler and Thralls and Blyer explore this orientation in general terms; Longo employs it in her history of technical writing.) The only exception is Smagorinsky. I’ll share some observations about the first three, along with some questions I have about the critical/cultural orientation. Then I’ll consider Smagorinsky briefly.


Blyler, N. (1998). Taking a political turn: The critical perspective and research in professional communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 7(1), 33-52. (Page number here refer to Johnson-Eilola, J., & Selber, S. A. (Eds.). (2004). Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition.). Oxford University Press, USA.

Blyer here sets out to argue that “research in professional communication ought to take an increasingly political turn.” (269) She argues that a move to critical research should follow the move to critical pedagogy, which has shifted from merely providing students tools to be tools to providing them insight into power relationships, etc. (269)

She identifies critical research and researchers as sharing the following characteristics:

  • “Critical research… aims at empowerment and emancipation.” (271) Critical researchers’ primary research goal is to “’free individuals from sources of domination’… and to effect social action.” (272)
  • Critical research holds that “researchers and participants are at once ‘partners’… and co-learners engaged in their common research process.” (271)
  • Critical researchers agree they need to understand and articulate their own positions and they also need to transform their research to “unlearn[] accepted ways of thinking.” (272)
  • Critical researchers are interested in ideology, defined as “’the interpretive frame within which each social actor is able to make sense of the practices in which he or she and others engage in the process of social interaction.’” (272)
  • Critical researchers believe that the research results belong first and foremost to participants. (277)

The critical nature of this research creates some problems. In research generally, “[r]esearch questions… are often those that sponsors want answered, and research frequently takes place at sponsors’ organizations.” According to Blyler, this might lead critical researchers to select “questions and sites more amenable to the critical perspective—those that involve marginalized groups…” (277) How do these researchers avoid their views being skewed because their perspectives are formed from a limited number of vantage points; isn’t this analogous to the “non-response” bias of surveys? I think the same question is raised where Blyler argues that funding for critical research needs to come from organizations traditionally aligned with its goals or from ones that can be persuaded to be aligned with its goals. (278)

Thralls and Blyler

Thralls, C., & Blyler, N. (2002). Cultural Studies: An Orientation for Research in Professional Communication (Chapter 10). In L. J. Gurak & M. M. Lay (Eds.), Research in Technical Communication: (pp. 185-209). Ablex Publishing.

Thralls and Blyler set out to provide an overview of shared concerns of scholars employing a cultural studies orientation, identifying both the rich variation in their approaches and the approaches most likely to be fruitful in TC research. (186) They explore the “formulation, or version, of cultural studies” that “reflects a line of development in current cultural studies informed by feminist and poststructuralist perspectives,” one that rejects “essentialist” and “reductionist” conceptions of culture. (187)

The focus of cultural studies, they assert, are “articulations” or “linkages” (189) – the contingent relationships of “practices… to other practices, reconstructing connections across practices, including the relations of terms, texts, and practices to a wider network of historical institutions, discourses, and social structures.” (188)

They provide a useful overview of the shared concerns of cultural studies (185-86):

  • “political effects of social practices”
  • “belief that culture—its objects and practices—is complex.”
  • “concern… with the social practices and social discourses of everyday life.”
  • “agency and social action: how people can intervene to change social and discursive practices.”

Thralls & Blyler assert that if technical communication researchers want to “rearticulate” their practices to come into line with a critical studies orientation, they need to

  • “complicate and more rigorously contextualize what they examine”
  • “view the researcher as always already positioned”
  • “endorse empowerment as the goal of the research”

The authors maintain (201) that empowerment as goal can be achieved “(1) through analyses—written largely for academic audiences—of relations of power and (2) through participatory research, where the researcher and the participants collaborate as coinvestigators in the research process.”

They summarize benefits of cultural studies research (205):

  • Complicating and contextualizing research “enables them to view these entities in a richer and more complex way, thereby increasing their understanding of the world.”
  • Cultural studies “furthers initiatives [in tech comm research] already underway” like opposition to “objectivism”
  • Allows incorporation of the political into research agendas

I have mixed feelings about incorporating the political into research agendas. The authors really do not establish the extent to which cultural studies actually confers them. But I think I need much more exposure to works by folks adopting this orientation before I can make my own assessment.

The authors acknowledge (206) that there are complications in critical studies research:

  • Cultural studies’ “belief in the instability of truth problematizes any easy connection between research results and the desires of research sponsors to obtain concrete and lasting answers”
  • Cultural studies’ “commitment to empowerment may complicate both access to research sites and funding”
  • “[D]espite cultural studies [sic] call for self-reflexivity [bnl: is there a different kind?], academic colonization of objects of and participants in research projects remains a challenge.”


Introduction, Chapters 1 & 2: Longo, B. (2000). Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing. State University of New York Press.
Longo’s states the purpose of her book in the introduction (xiii-xiv): tracing the “development of the system of knowledge and power that technical writing controls in the late-20th-century United States.”
She also sets out the objectives for this week’s two chapters this way:
  • Chapter 1 “explores a selection of studies in technical and professional communication to illustrate how this cultural history can explore silent voices within traditional objects of inquiry.” (xiv)
  • Chapter 2 begins “to construct a social history of technical writing and textbooks as cultural artifacts” and discusses Francis Bacon. (xiv)

I’ve taken a lot of notes regarding Longo’s historical accounts. But here, I’m really interested in identifying some of my questions.

Longo describes research by McCarthy & Gerring (6), who conclude that DSM IV had the following effects: (a) further solidfying dominance of the biomedical model of psychiatry… (b) maintaining the status of psychiatry (c) achieving acceptance of psych as a high-status profession among competing disciplines. I wonder seriously what epistemological stance could allow them to conclude that on the basis of a cultural studies analysis (or really on the basis of any analysis). I can see trying to identify those as objectives of the drafters of DSM, but drafters often do not get their ways with reality, even if they do get them with their texts.

Long says (21) “scientific knowledge dominates in 20th-century United States”. Is this really true? Think of belief in UFOs, ghosts, etc., embracing of non-scientific thinking like opposition to evolution.

Longo cites (42) Robert Faulkner in saying Bacon “was concerned with reforming and securing the governance of the state as much as improving the condition of its inhabitants.” “It is an art of managing people [with the promises of improvements in their lives] that Bacon set out as much as a project for dominating Nature.” I wish Longo had offered more support for this claim at this point, as I think it’s central to her arguments about science and power.

My questions about the critical studies approach in general

I had a couple other thoughts after reading the cultural/critical studies materials for this week:

Blyler (270) says “the critical perspective is concerned not with describing and explaining a given aspect of reality, but rather with discovering what that aspect of reality means to social actors.” I wonder whether and to what extent the former is a necessary condition for doing the latter effectively. Why should I be interested in your assessment of why X is so, when you have not done anything to establish that X is so?

Blyer (270) talks about how the researcher must disclose her stance (political, etc.) to participants and in the research. Can researchers really disclose their stances, invite subject to participate, and expect that the participants in studies will be peers? Couldn’t this just be a charade where the researcher maintains her power position but pretends as if she does not?

Thralls and Blyler (194) say “cultural studies believe that change and empowerment are always possible.” I wonder: Given the cultural/critical tradition’s stance regarding the enactment of power relationships, why would its adherents believe this? Assumption? Wishful thinking? Illusion perpetrated on them by the dominant discourse?

Longo (8-9) notes Katz Ethic of Expedience article and says (at 9) “Katz clearly placed current technical writing practices in contests for power and knowledge legitimation, a research outcome that … could not be accomplished with conservative description alone.” (My emphasis.) I wonder: Katz does not really demonstrate anything with his study… he makes and implies pretty broad claims, but he does not back them up. Isn’t a problem with this sort of research that it finds bogey men because it is necessarily not anchored to “conservative description” – in other words, it is freed from needing evidence and causal chains so that it can make whatever statements (a) sound interesting and (b) are consistent with the researcher’s views? Conservative description may not a sufficient condition for a thorough understanding of any subject, but isn’t it a necessary one?

Longo (12) says of a study by Stephen Doheny-Farina that it “does not question why the text includes the information that it does and not other information that would be equally possible to include.” Longo asks (19) “Why has common sense about technical writing taken the form it has when other forms of common sense were equally possible?” (Emphasis in both cases is mine.) I wonder: How do we know in a given case, whether other information really was “equally possible to include” or whether “other forms of common sense were equally possible”? I feel I need to see this kind of research conducted and more of the results it offers to assess it; but its claims to authority seem dubious to me now.

Smagorinsky (397, see below) says “impressionistic data reports often involve selectively chosen data designed more to confirm a researcher’s preconceived thesis than to mine the data exhaustively to understand what they suggest or reveal.” I wonder: In light of this problem cropping up in quantitative and qualitative research, how can we rely on the results of critical studies methods to provide meaningful research unless their authors exhaustively itemize what they did and did not consider in the process?


Smagorinsky, P. (2008). The Method Section as Conceptual Epicenter in Constructing Social Science Research Reports. Written Communication, 25(3), 389 -411. doi:10.1177/0741088308317815

In this little article, Smagorinsky argues “that greater attention to the Method section [in social science research reports] would strengthen the account of the conduct of the research for the benefit of both author and readers and serve as the nexus for other sections of the paper’s organization and alignment with one another.” (390)

I don’t have much to say here about this article, though see my question arising from it in the critical/cultural questions section above. I took some notes from it, but I have every intention of stapling my copy of this into my copy of Marshall & Rossman and rereading it carefully before conducting my own social science research.


2 Responses to “Reflections on October 4 readings for 8011”

  1. Brian Larson October 4, 2010 at 3:30 pm #

    “Cultural” vs. “critical”: Have in common looking at issues of power and emancipatory mission. Cultural studies focuses on “articulations” – assuming a methodology and framework – that critical studies does not go that far. The critical perspective criticizes social construction. Not mutually exclusive – lots of overlap.

  2. Lee-Ann October 28, 2010 at 3:25 pm #

    Great comments here about the readings. Your questions about the critical and cultural studies approach are thought provoking–though not easily answered. It will be interesting to return to this journal as you progress through the course and your own research proposals.

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