Subjectivism vs. empiricism―how does the conflict play out in Technical Communication?

How is knowledge created and who has the authority to speak? Are there truths that simply wait to be discovered or are the truths we perceive as such socially constructed? Research, as an epistemological process, not unlike everything else we do, must be understood in context, i.e., it cannot be conducted, discussed, or evaluated in isolation as if there were no perceived reality or system of order influencing it. While Nietzsche accounts for truths in general as allusions that we have simply forgotten to be allusions, and Aristotle based truth finding on syllogistic logic, Whatley, a religious apologist, uses science and logic for religious arguments to give them weight because he realized that that was the way to persuade the scientist.

Whatley further argues that, “[t]o move confidently from fact to generalization, logic is necessary.” (Bizzel, Herzberg, 2001, p. 1000) Whatley also acknowledges, and this is in general unison with Foucault’s notion of the episteme, that persuasion, or believing in a certain truth, might be a function of custom and tradition. In the preface of ‘The Order of Things, An Archeology of the Human Sciences’ (1966), Foucault examines the organizing paradigms of human perception and knowledge and how they have changed between the Renaissance and the end of the 19th century. He states that, he is

“[…] not concerned, therefore, to describe the progress of knowledge
towards an objectivity in which today’s science can finally be recognized;
what I am attempting to bring to light is the epistemological field,
the episteme in which knowledge, envisaged apart from all criteria having
reference to its rational value or to its objective forms, grounds its
positivity and thereby manifests a history which is not that of its growing
perfection, but rather that of its conditions of possibility; in this account,
what should appear are those configurations within the space of knowledge which have given rise to the diverse forms of empirical science.” (Foucault, 1966, p. xxii)

George Steiner’s (1971) critique of Foucault’s ‘The Order of Things’ (1966) eloquently summarizes the central argument of Foucault’s theory. “We only perceive that which the conventions of significance lead us to see.” In other words, epistemology is shaped by the currently available landscape of understanding and relations that simultaneously are both, the universe and the straight jacket of our ability to ‘know’.
In the ‘Order of Discourse’ (1971), Foucault theorizes about the conditions and relations that determine the emergence of objects of discourse. The total of societal institutions, processes, behavioral patterns, norms, and types of classification define what we are able to discern and by extrapolation, what we are not able to perceive. Any given object of discourse does not inherently contain some autonomous truth and logic to be uncovered; it rather is made discernible to us, as separate from other objects, as a function of the currently available episteme (Foucault, 1971).

Foucault lists the relations in society as
“[…] between institutions, economic and social processes, behavioral patterns, systems of norms, techniques, types of classification, modes of characterization; […] [The relations] do not define [the object’s] internal constitution, but what enables it to appear, to juxtapose itself with other objects, to situate itself in relation to them, to define its difference, its irreducibility, and even perhaps its heterogeneity, in short, to be placed in a field of exteriority.” (Bizzel and Herzberg, 2001, p. 1439)

Important for Foucault in this context is the acknowledgement that our ways of knowing about phenomena are based on the particular needs and desires of our society and its institutions and the methods of how something becomes knowledge. (Bizzel, Herzberg, 2001) This may vary from community to community and as a function of time. From this construct certain positions of authority naturally emerge who are attributed the ability to create knowledge about a given object of discourse.

As viewed through the lens of Foucault’s theory of an the prevailing episteme, this report will examine the conflicts in which subjectivist and empiricist research methods stand in the field of technical communication. In this report, I will show that the prevailing method of inquiry in technical communication tends to be more skewed toward subjectivist, qualitative research and only to a smaller degree empiricist. I begin with scholars supporting subjectivist research methods, move through mixed methods approaches and end with scholars seeing value in the empiricist research paradigm. In the field of Technical Communication, it would be those opposing an entirely subjectivist paradigm. From an epistemological perspective, a clear view of each stand’s epistemology is of utmost importance for any researcher, especially in the field of technical communication, because so often we find ourselves pressed to define and justify this field and its epistemology. Clearly, this report only touches on the main arguments brought forth in the apparent conflict between subjectivist and empiricist routes to the creation of knowledge; it will not attempt to uncover all of the nuances inherent in such a conflict. The significance of this topic is clearly reflected in the selection of seminal pieces in Johnson-Eilola and Selber’s Central Works in Technical Communication. Nancy Roundy Blyler’s Taking a Political Turn: The Critical Perspective and Research in Professional Communication and Davida Charney’s Empiricism is Not a Four-Letter Word exemplify the spectrum of stances with respect to research approaches in the field of technical communication.

Who has the authority to create knowledge? What are the limitations of creating new knowledge and what can empower us?

Boiled down to the absolute basics, the question at the heart of the apparent conflict between subjectivist and scientific, or empiricist, approaches to research is that of accepted or perceived authority to create knowledge. Nancy Roundy Blyler (1998) discusses the need to frame the teaching of research in terms of politics to enable students to understand and influence the discourse of technical communication. Knowledge about the discourse’s network of social and power relations, shared assumptions, norms, and values allow an actor to invoke change. Blyler draws a progressive, causal, and reciprocal relationship between rhetoric and community. I juxtapose this position, albeit on a more limited scale, with Foucault’s notion of the episteme, the workings and consequences of which one is generally unaware, yet the influence of which is omnipresent. Only once made aware of the constraints of the prevailing way of creating knowledge, can one begin to examine critically its influences and one’s position within it. Citing Putnam (1983), Blyler asserts that critical research concerns itself with what the discovery of an aspect of reality signifies in terms of social action and, thus, the total rejection of knowledge as impartial or innocent. Blyler contrasts the critical, political approach to research with one that is merely descriptive and explanatory in which the researcher is the objective observer of ‘reality’ or of the emergence of an absolute ‘truth’. In critical research, the researcher proactively leaves this stance and attempts to submerge herself into the process as an individual to construct knowledge from her perspective and of all subjects involved. Viewed under the lens of Foucault’s notion of the time and place dependent episteme, this might be rather difficult, especially when dealing with a researcher steeped in Western culture attempting to find truths about other cultures that are subject to a different episteme. Who, then, decides what constitutes truth and knowledge and who is afforded the authority to do so? In part, Blyler acknowledges this conflict by introducing McLaren’s notion of engaging in research as, “theoretical decolonization, that is, in a critical way of unlearning accepted ways of thinking” (Blyler, p. 272) by investigating that what is not apparent from the viewpoint of the researcher. This poses a problem in so far that one needs the ability to see what is beyond the prevailing episteme, beyond hegemonic norms and values.

Feminist and critical theory as a challenge to hegemonic epistemological authority

Feminist theory, according to Lay (1991), offers compelling and useful directions and approaches for researchers in technical communication by allowing for the uncovering of the masculine bias of science and technology. Lay attempts to achieve one way of ‘looking beyond,’ as described above, by advocating the use of ethnographic studies in technical communication, specifically in collaborative writing research. In order to structure her argument, Lay lists the basic characteristics that define feminist theory; celebration of difference, social activism, acknowledged influence of the researcher’s backgrounds and values, inclusion of women’s experiences, study of gaps and silences in traditional scholarship, and new sources of knowledge. Opposing the scientific, objectivist approach to research just as Blyler does, Lay is looking at ethnography as an important way to acknowledge the subjective viewpoint of the researcher and links ethnographic research to social activism in that it, as does feminist theory, deliberately seeks sources of knowledge not prescribed by the power elite in the same way that Blyler rejects the notion of innocent knowledge. It is interesting to observe, however, that Lay in her own research on collaborative writing seems to resort to generalization when reporting on masculine and feminine characteristics regarding the forming of interpersonal relationships. Lay’s argument, as well as that of other feminist theorists, might suggest that the Foucauldian notion of the episteme must be challenged to include our ability to transcend it from within and uncover excluded sources of knowledge. Clearly, however, such an attempt might also be limited by the researcher’s precarious position within the episteme’s carefully spun cocoon.
Shope (2006) approaches the philosophical question of authority in epistemology from a very concrete and personal perspective. Highly critically, she examines her own shifting assumptions of methodology and epistemology as experienced during her research of rural Black women in post-apartheid South Africa. She compares her research assumptions as a Western researcher prior to and during field work of a research project in South Africa while focusing on the question of who the benefactor of research, and by extrapolation, the resulting knowledge, is. She examines the often unacknowledged influences of language, culture, society, values, grand narrative, gender, history, power relationships, and location on the framing of research by the researcher based on her own experience. Shope acknowledges this epistemological dilemma, “A long history of empirical colonialism, of ‘studying down’ (Harding, 1998), has left its mark on the intellectual landscape. I did not want my research to be another colonizing project, and yet I could not escape the political implications of my social location.” (Shope, 2006, p. 173) Shope comes to the very sobering conclusion that her belief in feminist theory as the solution to problems inherent in research did not hold true in its entirety. The power relations of both, her ‘Northern, academic’ education and those of her discipline would forever prevent her from representing truths from her subjects’ point of view, true in their episteme. Minh-ha (1989), as cited by Shope (2006) dismisses the ability to do research on behalf of the other, rather labels it, “‘manipulation’ of the other on our behalf.” (Shope, p. 175) Along similar lines, Charmaz (2004) frames the health care ethnographic interview in terms of immersion into the phenomenon by the researcher to understand meaning, to realize when silence has meaning, and what meaning certain actions have. She clearly advocates for research practices that seek awareness of interfering factors, such as the researcher’s view of the world, language, cultural background, etc. A factor not addressed so far is the wide variety of actual approaches and interpretations of results that present themselves within the subjectivist theories. A number of scholars, among them Rolfe, Coyne, and in a very recent article, Koerber and McMichael, attempt to streamline the existing terminology and processes within qualitative research approaches to achieve improved result interpretability and validity. Rolfe (2004), for example, challenges the prevailing view of a single ‘qualitative research’ paradigm in the field of nursing from an epistemological and ontological perspective. He examines the varying terminology and interpretations used to describe qualitative vs. quantitative research approaches in nursing. He discusses how, depending on the interpretation of each term and its epistemological and ontological implications, a virtually never-ending continuum between these approaches can be drawn which places quantitative and qualitative research methods either at opposing ends or relatively close together. Coyne (1997) examines qualitative sampling and the associated confusion in terminology and different sampling types. This review of the relevant literature reveals the conflicting use of terminology, application, and process in the description of qualitative sampling techniques. She concludes that there is an absolute need to clarify the terminology for new researchers to be able to interpret and apply research methodology correctly. Koerber and McMichael (2008) present a rationale and offer clarifications of available qualitative sampling methods for technical communicators. Based on the lack of coverage of qualitative sampling methods in the literature when compared with quantitative sampling methods, the authors aim to fulfill a gap in documented research methodology and consistent terminology. Building on the few available sources, their primer is organized to help students of technical communication by answering four fundamental questions concerning the nature, use, and applicability of qualitative sampling techniques. These latter sources are interesting from the perspective of the apparent need to supplement current qualitative research literature to ensure rigor, possibly the rigor that outside of our field still is more outspokenly associated with scientific or empiricist methodology.
The aforementioned scholars create research frameworks and epistemic processes within Foucault’s notion of the episteme, yet, allow for the possibility to somehow liberate themselves from it. In summary, Foulcault affords the shifts and negotiations of power the ability to create room for the emergence of discourses. These discourses, and with them the criteria of what is accepted as truth, are not stable over time, but contingent on the reigning episteme, including the prevailing hegemonic paradigm. The concept of an absolute truth does not hold in this theory. The notion of a subjectivist approach to research aligns itself in part with this theory. However, it also tends to attribute the researcher the ability to consciously step out of the prevailing way of knowing and describe truths that might transcend it or be aligned with another epistemology or the way of knowing of a marginalized group. In essence, the subjectivist challenges the prevailing social and power relations to seek out a truth that is cognizant of the Other. In reviewing the literature, it appears that the above represented viewpoints dominate in the field of technical communication. Clearly, however, there are scholars who advocate epistemological perspectives that are less radically aligned with the subjectivist approach to creating knowledge.

Absolute truth and the scientific method

Independent, in its most positivist interpretation, from any kind of social or power relations, the scientific method is based on the assumption that absolute truths exist in nature and can be uncovered by the researcher with observation and experiment. Harding (1998) calls this very positivistic approach an internalist epistemology that came into existence with the emergence of modern sciences about five centuries ago. With respect to this extreme and clearly pre-postpositivistic notion of the scientific method, Harding says,

“While increasing numbers of scholars no longer believe that the historical evidence lends plausibility to the idea that scientific descriptions and explanation could actually achieve such mirror-like perfection, many of them still think that trying to produce them is the best goal for the sciences. […] It is worthwhile to act as if it were the case as science progresses, its representations get closer and closer to such a singular and perfectly accurate reflection of nature’s unique order, according to this view. […] Therefore, when sciences function at their very best, their institutions, cultures, and practices, including scientific methods, will contribute nothing culturally distinctive to the representations of nature that appear in the results of research, this line of reasoning goes.” (Harding, 1998, p. 3)

Foucault probably would disagree with this statement on the basis that culture is an influence on the episteme of a certain time and place. Of course, there are more than two sides in the apparent conflict between subjectivist and objectivist approaches to research and the respective epistemic processes. In fact, the research for this report revealed early on that a continuum between the extremes not only exists but is often advocated. The review of the arguments of proponents of socially constructed and subjectivist epistemology naturally demands an investigation into the question of the existence of any objective, absolute truth; and, if affirmative, whether this truth can be proved with absolute certainty. This question has been examined philosophically from many angles resulting in many different conclusions beginning with the ancient philosophers.

Representing a postpositivistic view, philosopher and critical empiricist Karl Popper opposes the notion of absolute truth and introduces the principle of falsifiability of a theory or statement, i.e., the proof that the theory or statement is false constitutes the only verifiable truth. In other words, knowledge is provisional until it is conclusively refuted. The scientist, thus, must critically eliminate false theories and decide which of the ‘unfalsified’ theories are most valuable in terms of what they are able to explain and predict. For Popper, statements based on observation (empirically based statements) are also fallible and. Science is not about finding absolute truths but rather about imaginatively proposing theories that then must be critically tested to eliminate the ones that can be positively falsified. I interpret this thought to entail the researcher’s duty to refrain from positing empirical research findings as absolute truths, but rather frame them as a step on the way to eliminating false assumptions or theories. (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006) I do not view this to be in conflict with Foucault’s notion of the episteme but rather interpret it as an acknowledgement of its confines and an encouragement to critical evaluation from within these confines.
Technical Communication scholar Davida Charney is by no means radically opposed to Blyler, Lay, and other proponents of radical theory. However, Charney (1996) advocates a nuanced, critical view of finding truth and takes issue, specifically, with the blanket condemnation of scientific methods and the overreliance on qualitative methods in technical communication by many scholars in this field as well as in other social sciences. She argues that no single method of research, empirical or qualitative, can promise complete credence. Authority and acceptance of results must be negotiated by methodological pluralism. Charney (1996) challenges mischaracterizations of scientific methods and, by extension, mischaracterizations of the researchers who employ them, and aims to dispel commonly held beliefs by researchers in social fields of study. She acknowledges the significance of research methods regarding the authority of technical communication as a field and the perceived value of work in this field. Leaning on Popper’s theory of falsifiability, Charney’s main argument centers on the verifiable authority of the researcher‘s results by others via methodological pluralism, i.e., objectivity achieved collectively rather than individually. Charney also questions the assumption that ethnographic and qualitative research methods are automatically subjective and, simultaneously, asserts that subjective insights have historically had a place in the scientific method. Charney seeks to combat what she calls oversimplified assumptions held by opponents of scientific methodology, among them the accusation that objective methods are sexist. Foucault might agree with that accusation provided the reigning episteme privileges the way of knowing of one of the sexes. Charney is genuinely frustrated with scholars who hold extreme views with respect to quantitative or objectivist research or those who seem to ride the bandwagon of subjectivist methodology uncritically. She provides examples where an impersonal perspective associated with scientific discourse actually removes bias against the disadvantaged sex. Charney warns against the conflation of facts and values because it precludes critical thinking, one of the bases of Popper’s notion of critical empiricism―the constant critical reevaluation of theories and facts which alone can lead to an approximation of truth. In a later article, Charney (1998) traces the shifting attitudes of technical communication researchers toward empirical research from the 1960 to the end of the 20th Century. From the embrace of the scientific method, across various stages of rejection of empiricism to what she calls its demonization, Charney carefully describes the swinging of the research pendulum over time and concludes that there is danger in adopting a stance that rejects any form of logocentrism in favor of radical ethnocentrism that meaningful research is hampered. In summary, she advocates a moderate, multi-method approach to research that acknowledges the ethical shortcomings of each method in isolation, yet does not devalue any method in its entirety. In advocating methodological pluralism, Charney’s position might be described as the bridge between the extreme subjectivist and empiricist positions. She insists on the inherently rhetorical nature of scientific inquiry.
Mary Sue MacNealy (1999) provides what can be called a rare occurrence in writing research, an entire manual on empirical research in writing. Carefully, she guides the novice humanities research student through the processes involved in empirical research. She frames her approach to explaining empirical methods from the perspective of the humanities researcher who distrusts empiricism with all its associated components. In establishing this kinship in thought, she is able to address misconceptions and put forth a convincing argument for the usefulness of empirical research methods in technical communication and other social sciences. It is clear, however, that MacNealy’s book represents a minority in composition studies or technical communication research. Ellen Barton (1999) in her review of MacNealy’s book lauds it as a useful text for introductory research methods courses and writing courses. Barton points out that this is the first book in over 10 years on empirical methods in writing. While she laments the fact that the book does not explore the methodological controversies surrounding empirical and nonempirical approaches to research, Barton concedes that MacNealy clearly establishes the distinction between quantitative and qualitative research by examining the type of question each can answer best. “Qualitative research (case studies and ethnographies) collects descriptive information, typically nonnumerical, whereas quantitative research (experiments, meta-analyses, discourse/text analyses, surveys, focus groups) collects numerical and relational information.”(Barton, 1999, p. 233) Barton views this as especially important because of the ever present conflict between these methods of data collection in composition studies. MacNealy provides adequate tools for students to understand the conflict and critically decide for themselves which approach is suited best for their own research. Barton deems it important that MacNealy clearly defines the difference between empirical qualitative research and nonempirical research by foregrounding the foundational concepts of empirical research: design, systematicity, and replicability. By applying these concepts, so Barton, MacNealy increases the respect of methods traditionally associated with nonempirical research, such as case studies and ethnographies. Barton clearly admits her own preference for nonempirical methods but concedes that MacNealy has succeeded in conveying to an audience with great concerns or fears of empirical research methods a sense of understanding the value of empiricist methodology. A micro cosmic view of the conflict is expressed in Lynn et al.’s 2008 public exchange of dispute, Disputatio Sine Fine, that addresses Larry Luton’s analysis of their book on empirical research in public administration. The authors take position, often sounding emotional, with respect to Luton’s criticism of their work. Describing themselves as empiricists, they take offense to Luton’s alleged oversimplification and discarding of empirical methods in administration studies. This ‘disputatio’ brilliantly epitomizes the ongoing conflict between empiricism and subjectivism that is often highly emotionally charged.

John Creswell (2003) takes a much more neutral, if not to say objective or emotion free, approach when describing quantitative methods in his book, Research Design, in which he explains qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Creswell prefaces his chapters of varying research methods with an examination of research design frameworks. Within this framework, the researcher has to make decisions regarding the knowledge claim, the strategy of inquiry, and the specific methods that will support the knowledge claim. Important in this approach is the asking of fundamental questions regarding the type of research to be conducted. The first question concerns the type of epistemology that is to inform the research. Here, the researcher needs to decide whether to follow objectivist or subjectivist theory, i.e., what will the involvement of the researcher with respect to the research subject(s) be. Next, a philosophical stance regarding the new creation of knowledge has to be determined. Will it be best to adopt a positivist stance or an interpretive one? These steps are followed by questions regarding methodological strategies, such as experimental research or the use of ethnographic studies, and, lastly, the methods themselves have to be chosen. Following the explication of the framework, Creswell delves into more detailed descriptions of each of the elements. He divides knowledge claims into postpositive, socially constructed, advocacy/participatory, and pragmatic. Postpositive claims, also referred to as those based on the scientific method, empiricism, or quantitative research, represent the thinking that developed after positivism which made claims to absolute truths regarding the behavior and actions of humans. Postpositivism acknowledges that knowledge is conjectural and the absolute truth cannot be found and, hence, hypotheses are not proven to be true but rather fail to be rejected. Popper’s theory of falsifiability goes one step further in only accepting as truth the theory that gets proven false. In his chapter on quantitative methods, Creswell provides a rather detailed overview of the involved process and components of surveys or experimental studies. Creswell takes a different approach than MacNealy to teaching research methodology. He aims for a rather unemotional, neutral stance which stands in opposition with the clearly emotion-filled appeals by the aforementioned scholars. While, during the research for this report, I was able to find arguments in favor of the empirical methods, mainly in the form of textbooks, I have not found opinions that exclusively advocate the empiricist theory and research methodology in the field of technical writing.

While I could have included many more scholars’ opinions in this review of the often cited conflict between objectivism versus empiricism, the general picture might not have changed radically. A large number of scholars in technical communication advocate stances that rely more on qualitative methods often associated with more subjectivist research paradigms that seem to acknowledge Foucault’s notion of the episteme with its inherent social and power relations as determining factors in epistemology. Fewer scholars, mostly in textbooks, embrace the scientific method or a variation thereof. However, several scholars attempt to alert us to the benefits of a more varied approach that takes advantage of methods within empiricism to give our field credence and add validity to our research. In summary, I found a continuum of approaches. This continuum, however, is not evenly populated; it appears slanted towards more subjectivist theory and methodology and much more sparsely populated in the realm of empiricist theory. From Foucault’s perspective, this seems to make sense because the subjectivist approach to research and epistemology accounts for the influence of currently prevailing social and power relations on attributing authority to create knowledge and it includes factors of culture, norms, and values. And, importantly, it acknowledges the variation of the above factors over time.
I will close with Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca’s argument against absolutism or dualism of, for example, universally accepted objectivity versus incommunicable subjectivity, or of one reality for all versus values that apply only to an individual. In their own conclusion, the authors state that it will be the theory of argumentation that will help develop what pure logic could not, the “justification of the possibility of a human community in the sphere of action when this justification cannot be based on a reality of objective truth.” (Bizzel and Herzberg, 2001, p. 1377)

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