Notes: Davida Charney, “Empiricism is Not a Four Letter Word”

Charney, Davida. (1996). Empiricism is not a four letter word. College Composition and Communication, 47(1), 567-593.


Davida complicates the narratives that circulated around empirical ‘objective’ methods at the time and complicates the relationship between empirical methods and the objective, arguing for a more nuanced relationship between compositionists and their methods they employ.

Keywords: composition, disciplinarity, methodology, research methods, writing studies


“In the world view that the critics offer, intellectual authority becomes a commodity that the academic elite buys into at will. With the means of producing authority unfairly monopolized by scientific disciplines, empirical researchers in composition are portrayed as petty sycophants, imitating scientific merchandizing in a futile effort to attract a better market share. In rejecting this perspective, I argue that no research method per se can deliver up authority or acceptance. Rather, credence-and provisional credence at that emerges from day-to-day critical negotiation in which disciplines identify interesting questions, decide what kinds of answers to consider, and actively critique both methods and results” (p. 569).

“Qualitative methods in fields like linguistics, history, and anthropology are often objective and systematic. Conversely, subjective personal insights and experiences have long played an important role in “hard” sciences. Objectivity then is not a fixed feature of particular methods” (p. 570).

“The important point for now is that indeterminacy does not vitiate rationality” (p. 574).

“A second motive for adopting objective methods is to facilitate communication. Formalized procedures and language, including quantification, overcome physical and temporal distance, disparities of experience and background, and absence of a shared natural language. To increase the scope of their communication, professionals reduce their reliance on the sort of intimate, personal knowledge and judgment that can only build up over time in small, tight-knit, and highly interactive groups” (p. 577).

“Qualitative and quantitative approaches struggle with quite similar is- sues for establishing ethical relationships between researchers and participants. Bad qualitative research is just as facile, reductive, and exploitive as bad quantitative research. At their best, both approaches seek to foster socially and intellectually significant research in which the participants’ contributions are treated with respect, whether by minimizing the intrusiveness of the encounter or by establishing trust-worthy relationships” (p. 587).

Questions and Reflection:

I suffer from, what I now suppose is common in the humanities (especially those influenced by post-modern thought) of a certain skepticism of ‘objective’ methods. Empirical methods seemed too highly commodified. I’d even justified my view of this tacitly by thinking that quantitative numbers didn’t adequately address the rich contextual factors surrounding their subjects and that they too easily relegated problematic norms on their subjects.

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