Week 5 – Is Empiricism a Four-Letter Word?

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” In Central Works in Technical Communication, edited by Johndan Johnson-Eilola and Stuart A Selber, 281-99. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

The article “Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word” reminded me yet again how ferocious the opinions are between not only identifying technical communication as belonging in a particular field but also identifying a consistent definition of “scientific research” altogether.  Charney begins his article by focusing on the two schools of thought within this realm, namely the use of objective methods versus subjective methods for attaining research.  He states that the most beneficial aspects of subjective methods “may also inhibit our ability to attain [an] intensive cooperative focus” but that by engaging in subjective methods “may also be impairing our ability to improve our own work and use it to promote social justice” (283).  In this ongoing conversation, the tension between the “hard sciences” and the “soft sciences” becomes apparent; indeed, most scientists hold tightly to the mentality which seeks to “privilege numbers and disparage words” (284).  However, according to Charney, even the most “absolute” view of science reveals significant injustice and subjectivity.  This becomes evident when observing the sexism of science, indeterminacy, and power politics.

One of the most interesting observations I made while reading this article was Charney’s comments on the collaborative aspects of the scientific disciplines.  Indeed, it is commonplace for scientific researchers “to extend the work of others . . . or to challenge it” in addition to “routinely visit[ing] each other’s labs and us[ing] their own research projects as training grounds for their graduate students” (289).  This aspect is rare in the discipline of English, and it seems to be uncommon in the realm of technical writing as well.  There is something about the technical communication field, whether it be a result of tradition or simply a persistent mentality, which does not encourage this concept of communal knowledge and collaboration.  This unfortunate phenomenon may have developed as a result of what Charney defines toward the end of the article as an “over-reliance on qualitative studies and repeated disparagement of objective methods” (296).  I believe that our field’s resolute emphasis on ethnography and case studies has (unfortunately) disseminated the notion that technical communication is undeserving of a seat at the “science” end of the spectrum.  Because the hard sciences place such value on empirical, objective research, our lack of contributing accordingly has only fed the notion of technical communication’s confinement to the humanities’ discipline alone.

How can technical writers help “promote the publication of research that extends and refines previous work”?  Will incorporating this aspect into our field will be enough to convince those at the “science table” that we are deserving of a seat?


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