Introducing “disciplinary, professional, and technical communication” (DP&TC)

11 Aug

The diversity of research in scientific and technical communication (S&TC) is both exciting and maddening: exciting because it permits researchers to approach the subject of S&TC using a wide variety of theoretical orientations, methodological approaches, and objects of study and analysis; maddening because the diversity makes it difficult to pin down “the” discipline of S&TC. Taking the second issue first, I attempt in this post to provide a definition of S&TC, substituting the name “disciplinary, professional, and technical communication” and showing how studies considered part of S&TC really span these three subcategories, often addressing more than one of them at a time.

DP&TC (as its name suggests) addresses questions of communicative practice in three broad classes of communication: disciplinary (including scientific), professional (including business and legal), and technical. DP&TC is distinguished from other forms of communication by the relationship among its authors, subject matter, and audience. All forms of DP&TC have two things in common: (1) they relate to “technical” subject matter, and (2) they are prepared by or on behalf of experts in the technical subject matter (SMEs). (The hedge “more-or-less” could fairly be placed before each of these criteria.) I am glossing over the concerns about what “technical subject matter” is, legitimately raised by Miller (1979) and others.[1] See Durack (2004) for an expansive definition of “technical,” which would include technologies like sewing. I propose to define it based on the relationship of author’s knowledge to some kind of more broadly defined society. If the author is sharing knowledge that most other folks do not have (e.g., regarding a scientific field or methods for assembling a piece of furniture or means of assessing responsibility for an oil spill) that knowledge is sufficiently “technical” for purposes of this definition. The final criterion for admission to this broad category, and a means for distinguishing the three species of DP&TC from each other, is a description of the audience. The audiences for DP&TC are either (a) disciplinary peers of the authors (or at least distinguished from society in general by their shared disciplinary knowledge); (b) members of the same professional or organizational group as the authors or persons interacting with the authors in business or professional transactions; or (c) persons in an asymmetrical knowledge relationship with the authors who are seeking out the communication to proximally mediate an action or belief. Below I will more clearly identify these three sub-categories and claim that they mediate and condition each other, but acknowledge that there some overlap among them. Before I do that, though, I’d like to talk briefly about some older definitions and why I do not embrace them.

The term “technical communication” has enjoyed a variety of definitions from scholars/researchers. Consider Dobrin’s (2004) “writing that accommodates technology to the user” (p. 118). Anschuetz and Rosenbaum (2002) offer two alternatives, both elaborations of Dobrin:

(1) a field that involves the design and development of information products—print documentation, online help, interfaces, multimedia presentations—and whose aim is to communicate technologies so that users can assimilate them into their everyday goes and work. (p. 150)

(2) a comprehensive network of activities, knowledge, and skills that help technologies be useful, usable, learnable, enjoyable, memorable, marketable, competitive, and of high quality. (p. 150)

If contemporary textbooks on technical communication are any indication, these definitions are too narrow: For example, Johnson-Sheehan’s Technical Communication Today (2009) includes chapters on writing email, resumes and application letters, letters and memos, and proposals, with many examples that do not appear to be directed at achieving the objectives of Anschuetz and Rosenbaum’s broader definition. But Johnson-Sheehan himself defines technical communication as “a process of managing technical information in ways that allow people to take action” (p. 5).

I argue that the discipline styled as technical communication (or even scientific and technical communication) is broader, in practice, than the name suggests. Nevertheless, my definition provides a relatively constrained wrapper around DP&TC, excluding most journalism, which is usually not produced by or under supervision of SMEs and is addressed to a more diffuse audience; marketing, which usually does not have technical subject matter and usually is not addressed to the type of audience required; political advocacy; private writing; etc. Nevertheless, the definition results in the inclusion of most (but not all) of the research canonically accepted as S&TC, with some exceptions noted below. Further, this definition provides a means for distinguishing kinds of communication within DP&TC; to the extent it fails to do so, the failures still help to show that DP&TC is still the proper overarching category.

To explore these claims, I’d like to look first at the sub-category of disciplinary communication, then at technical communication. Professional communication shares some affinities with each of the other sub-categories; I’ll describe it last and also note how many studies combine elements of professional communication with the other sub-categories.

The audiences of disciplinary communication are the peers (or nearly peers) of the authors, who may be seeking the communication of the authors to keep up on the discipline, to support their own research, to assess their own standing (e.g., by examining works that cite them) or to identify places where they can join the disciplinary conversation. “Disciplinary” here should not be confused with the “disciplines” of the discipline of “writing in the disciplines.”[2] In this group, we could classify scientific journal articles and related communications, as studied by Berkenkotter and Huckin (1993); Bhatia (1993; see Chapter 4, addressing research article abstracts); Longo (2000); and many of the essays in Harris (1997), especially Bazerman; Campbell; Halloran; Lyne & Howe; Myers; and Reeves. The modes of disciplinary communication tend to be very conventionally constrained. In the case of science, the research article, not a YouTube video, is the accepted mode for disseminating one’s research (see, e.g., Myers, 1997; Latour & Woolgar, 1986; Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1993). In the case of a court’s opinion, a text document and not a flow chart will be regarded as a sanctioned mode of communication.

The audiences of technical communication are in asymmetrical knowledge relationships with the authors of such communications; these are audiences who are seeking out the technical communications to proximally mediate some action or belief of the audience. Examples here could include subway maps for travellers (Barton & Barton, 1993); opinion letters from accountants (Devitt, 1991, cited in Hafner 2010) or lawyers (Hafner 2010) to their clients; instructions for the assembly or operation of some device; a report explaining the likely causes of an oil spill commissioned by a legislative review panel, etc. Of the three subcategories of DP&TC, technical communication might have the greatest freedom of mode because it is the least bound by conventions established by professional or disciplinary communities. So, for example, a car owner’s manual might be in print form, and it might be in the form of an iPad. Instructions might be in verbal, graphic, or video form.

The audiences of professional communication are usually members of the same organizational groups as the authors or are persons interacting with the authors in business or professional transactions. For example, Bhatia (1993) studies job applications; and Longo (2000) takes up management communications, including timesheets and production reports. This sub-category is the locus of greatest overlap among studies in technical and professional communication, but that overlap among sub-categories may actually help to show the coherence of the overarching category. The overlap may subsist in research studies that consider more than one sub-category. So, for example, Latour and Woolgar (1986) explore the construction of knowledge in a biology lab through varieties of writing—professional communication on my account; but they also consider how the knowledge is disseminated outside the lab in research articles—paradigmatic disciplinary communication in my view. Some other studies show the relationship between scientific disciplinary communication and professional communication related to its publication. For example, Berkenkotter & Huckin (1993) and Myers (1997) explore the process by which an author gets her scientific article published. The research articles are certainly disciplinary communications on my account, but here the communications between the author and the editor and reviewers are professional communications in the sense that each author is engaged with the others in a transaction: evaluation and publication of the article. Despite the sub-category overlap, all these studies are squarely within the DP&TC framework articulated above.

The sub-category overlap may also subsist in research studies that consider types of communication not easily assigned to a sub-category of DP&TC. So, for example: Teston (2009) discusses a set of national cancer guidelines and their use in the deliberations of a cancer-care panel in a particular hospital. The deliberations, by a group of doctors working together in a particular locale, are professional communication on my account. The national cancer-care standards pose a problem: they are conceivably disciplinary communication, in that they are prepared by SMEs in cancer care for other SMEs in cancer care. However, the probable asymmetry of knowledge between the national experts and the local care-givers—both are experts but the national panelists are more expert—and the fact that local care-givers consult the national guidelines to proximally mediate care decisions together suggest that this is technical communication. In any event, however, both interpretations fit into the DP&TC framework I have proposed.

Another potential challenge for the proposed DP&TC disciplinary definition is that DP&TC does not encompass all the communications produced by agents in a particular discipline or profession. Consider the legal profession. Bhatia (1993) defines “legal language” as:

several usefully distinguishable genres depending on upon the communicative purposes they tend to fulfill, the settings or contexts in which they are used, the communicative events or activities they are associated with, the social or professional relationship between the participants taking part in such activities or events, the background knowledge that such participants bring to the situation in which that particular event is embedded and a number of other factors. (p. 101)

(I owe my definition of DP&TC in some measure to ideas appearing in Bhatia’s definition.) Of course, these “communicative events or activities” cross all three of the sub-categories of DP&TC I’ve described. For example, Bhatia describes the writing of laws, performed by legislators, their agents and related parties; this is akin to technical communication, as I have defined the term, in that the readers of legislation, whether judges, lawyers, or laypeople, typically consult it to mediate some kind of decision (whether prospectively considering a course of action or retrospectively assigning a legal consequence to one). But the readers will often be judges and lawyers who are at least as knowledgeable of the law in question as the legislators, staffers, and lobbyists who wrote it. Not present here is the asymmetry of knowledge typically represented by technical communication, for example, the author and user of a manual for assembling a piece of furniture, and so this can be seen as disciplinary communication in the context of this audience. The memo from a junior lawyer to the senior partner is probably professional communication, on my account, but it could be styled as disciplinary communication because the mode and conventions are governed by disciplinary structures larger than the law firm. Consider also the advice letter arising from that memo written by the senior partner and sent to the layperson client. Devitt (1991; cited in Hafner 2010) explores such genres in an accounting firm but does not distinguish the “internal” genres (which I’d style as professional) from the “external” ones (which I’d style as technical). Note the fact that Bhatia nowhere mentions the law or legal subject matter in his definition. Thus, the law firm’s bill to its client and the client’s letter complaining about the bill, each of which might be devoid of “legal content,” are still forms of professional communication between firm and client. But the communications of lawyers are not confined to DP&TC. For example, if the senior lawyer writes a law review or law journal article (i.e., an article for a legal audience) on the topic researched by the junior attorney, it is likely disciplinary communication; but if she writes an article or editorial on the topic for the New York Times, it might reasonably be classed as journalism or public advocacy (falling generally outside the DP&TC category altogether). Thus, not all legal communication can be classified cleanly within DP&TC or any of its sub-categories. However, I suspect that all communications necessary to the practice of law can be classed within DP&TC and its sub-categories.

Not all research that might be classed as research in scientific and technical communication is so easily embraced by my disciplinary definition. The major exception category appears in the Harris (1997) collection, where several studies discuss ways in which scientific communication is directed to the general public. Thus, Fahnestock (1997) focuses on the way that anthropologists and archaeologists carried on a disciplinary debate through the popular press about the date humans crossed to North America over the prehistoric Berring land-bridge. Campbell (1997) performs a rhetorical analysis of Charles Darwin’s notebooks and his published works, finding that Darwin was acutely aware of rhetorical concerns in preparing his publications. But the Origin of Species itself was pitched at a popular audience (not merely a disciplinary one), and Darwin’s notebooks are probably private writing, not really part of DP&TC at all. Lyne and Howe (1997) examine an interdisciplinary debate about “punctuated equilibria” in evolution, but they also consider ways that this debate was exported to the popular media. Reeves (1997), too, addresses the way that scientists attempt to portray their discoveries in the popular media. One study outside the Harris collection also considers communication apparently outside the DP&TC rubric: a portion of Bhatia (1993, Chapter 3) is devoted to sales promotion letters sent to consumers. Because the consumers did not seek out the communication to mediate a decision, I would not class this as technical communication. Instead, it appears to be marketing communication, I’d be prepared to concede it might be verging on professional communication, as it at least proposes a transaction. (It might matter whether the consumer receiving the communication was already a customer of the message’s author.)

To summarize: Despite the leakiness (Miller, 1979) of the sub-categories, the overlapping, and the occasional example of a study from a disciplinary text that appears not to lie within DP&TC, I argue that my definition of DP&TC is sufficiently exhaustive and exclusive to capture both the diversity of research in S&TC and to defend it as a separate discipline. DP&TC forms a coherent discipline with a degree of diversity. As the studies discussed above show, that diversity is confined to three subcategories: disciplinary, professional, and technical communication. The research exposes differences among them, but they have much in common and are sometimes difficult to distinguish from each other. Despite this apparent coherence, there may be a sense of incoherence or discomfort in the field about what is “in” and what is “out.” Some, like Spilka (2002), celebrate that and even argue that this diversity is a defining characteristic (at least of technical communication). Some of the discomfort, to the extent it exists, may result in part from the diversity of theoretical orientations and methods that DP&TC welcomes. But given that we are talking about human communications in disciplinary, professional, and technical contexts, it seems likely that a wide range of knowledge claims could be made about DP&TC and that the range of theoretical orientations and methods welcomed in DP&TC is necessary to enable those knowledge claims.

Works cited

Anschuetz, L., & Rosenbaum, S. (2002). Expanding roles for technical communicators. In B. Mirel & R. Spilka (Eds.), Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century (pp. 149–163). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Barton, B. F., & Barton, M. S. (1993). Ideology and the map: Toward a postmodern visual design practice. In N. R. Blyler & C. Thralls (Eds.), Professional Communication: The Social Perspective (pp. 49–78). Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Berkenkotter, C., & Huckin, T. N. (1994). Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication: Cognition/culture/power. Routledge.

Bhatia, V. K. (1993). Analysing genre: Language use in professional settings. Harlow, Essex, UK: Longman Group UK Ltd.

Campbell, J. A. (1997). Charles Darwin: Rhetorician of Science. In R. A. Harris (Ed.), Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (pp. 3–17). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Carter, M. (2007). Ways of Knowing, Doing, and Writing in the Disciplines. College Composition and Communication, 58(3), 385–418.

Dobrin, D. N. (2004). What’s technical about technical writing? In J. Johnson-Eilola & S. A. Selber (Eds.), Central Works in Technical Communication (illustrated edition, pp. 107–123). Oxford University Press, USA.

Durack, K. (1997). Gender, Technology, and the History of Technical Communication. Technical Communication Quarterly, 6(3), 249–60.

Fahnestock, J. (1997). Arguing in different forums: The Bering Crossover controversy. In R. A. Harris (Ed.), Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (pp. 53–67). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Hafner, C. A. (2010). A Multi-perspective genre analysis of the barrister’s opinion: Writing context, generic structure, and textualization. Written Communication, 27(4), 410–441.

Harris, R. A. (Ed.). (1997). Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Johnson-Sheehan, R. (2009). Technical Communication Today (3rd ed.). Longman.

Latour, B., & Woolgar, S. (1986). Laboratory Life. Princeton University Press.

Longo, B. (2000). Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing. State University of New York Press.

Lyne, J., & Howe, H. F. (1997). “Punctuated equilibria”: Rhetorical dynamics of a scientific controversy. In R. A. Harris (Ed.), Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (pp. 69–86). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Miller, C. R. (1979). A humanistic rationale for technical writing. College English, 40(6), 610–617.

Myers, G. (1997). Texts as knowledge claims: The social construction of two biology articles. In R. A. Harris (Ed.), Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (pp. 169–186). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Reeves, C. (1997). Owning a virus: The rhetoric of scientific discovery accounts. In R. A. Harris (Ed.), Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science: Case Studies (pp. 151–165). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Spilka, R. (2002). Becoming a profession. In B. Mirel & R. Spilka (Eds.), Reshaping Technical Communication: New Directions and Challenges for the 21st Century (pp. 97–109). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Teston, C. B. (2009). A grounded investigation of genred guidelines in cancer care deliberations. Written Communication, 26(3), 320 –348.


[1] Note that Miller gives up on defining scientific and technical communication, in a sense, by claiming that all such definitions “leak badly” (p. 614).

[2] In writing in the disciplines, “disciplinary” would be taken to refer to academic disciplines. WID might be best understood as the teaching of writing and other communication skills to university students within courses in academic disciplines other than communications, and where the students are also learning the substance of the academic discipline. See Carter (2007) for a discussion.

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