24-Hour Technical Communication Theory and Research Exam

Using examples from your reading list, evaluate the status of empirical and interpretive approaches to feminist research. In what ways can feminist research be empirical? In what ways can it be interpretive? Is one approach privileged over the other among feminist researchers? If so, why do you think this is the case? Given this background, what approach to feminist research are you likely to take in your own work? When relevant, feel free to share examples from projects you have conducted to illustrate your approach to feminist research.

Approaches to research and knowledge-making in academic disciplines have centered on two modes of inquiry: empirical and interpretive. As feminism has become institutionalized, academic feminists have sought to bring a feminist perspective to their research and design studies that improves the status of women in society in general and public policy in particular. In this essay, I will evaluate the status of empirical and interpretive approaches in feminist research and argue that, although reconciling empirical research practices and feminist values can sometimes be problematic, the feminist movement both inside and outside the academy stands to benefit from both approaches. Not taking full advantage of both modes of inquiry compromises the potential knowledge that can be made in the service of feminist goals. I will begin by providing brief definitions of empirical, interpretive, and feminist research, discuss how each approach can be feminist using examples from Rhetoric, Composition, and Technical Communication (RCTC), and point out two areas of conflict in feminist empiricist research: first, the competing ideals of the relationship between researcher and participant, and second, the planning involved in empiricist research design versus the more flexible feminist research design practices, which often include collaborating with research participants in the forming of research questions. Throughout this essay, my orientation will be from the discipline of rhetoric, composition, and technical communication, and as such, I do not purport to make claims for all feminist research, only that in my discipline.

An empirical approach to research involves “recorded observations of events” (MacNealy, 1999, p. 35). It is “research that carefully describes and/or measures observable phenomena in a systematic way planned in advance of the observation” (MacNealy, 1999, p. 6). Three criteria – planning in advance, collecting data systematically, and collecting data that others can examine – characterize empiricist research, regardless of whether it is quantitative or qualitative. Interpretive research often entails close intertextual reading and the interpretation of artifacts in their cultural contexts through the lenses of chosen theories. Obviously, there is considerable overlap between the two approaches; for example, interpretation is always present in empirical studies, as researchers interpret their findings using theories. Also, interpretive studies can be designed that ask the kinds of questions traditionally associated with empirical research, a point to which I will return later. Feminist research, as Lay (2002) notes, is more a perspective than a method. A feminist approach centers on the values and goals of the research and is sometimes, but not always, characterized by taking gender as “a primary variable,” a nonhierarchical relationship with participants, a collaborative research design in which participants are included, a rejection of notions of objectivity and distance from the subject matter, and a critique of traditional research methods (Lay, 2002, p. 176).

Choosing the right methods is a problem encountered in any research study, and MacNealy's advice represents the consensus of traditional research. She argues that

we should examine possible methods and select those which are most appropriate to the problem or question we want to investigate. If we follow the basics of good empirical research that have been outlined repeatedly in this book, namely, planning in advance, collecting data systematically, and collecting data that can be examined by others, then we have procedures that should stand up to methodological challenges. (1999, p. 232)

It might be argued that MacNealy is engaging in a bit of methodolatry here, but I do not wish to make such an argument; I only wish to juxtapose MacNealy's more traditional view with Naples' feminist view of research. Naples points out that

The argument put forth in most methods books is that the method one chooses should be the most appropriate for specific research questions you wish to answer. While I agree with this sentiment, I also caution that the methods we choose are not free of epistemological assumptions and taken-for-granted understandings of what counts as data, how the researcher should relate to the subjects of research, and what are the appropriate products of a research study. Furthermore, seldom do the authors of traditional methods books acknowledge that the questions researchers ask are inevitably tied to particular epistemological understandings of how knowledge is generated. (2003, p. 5).

Feminist researchers often engage in methodological and epistemological critique as they design studies. As I have previously stated, feminist research in general and feminist research in RCTC in particular both benefit from empirical and interpretive research. The result of critiques of method can sometimes turn into a “method war” which creates an oversimplified binary between the two approaches. For example, MacNealy cites several lines of resistance to empirical research in rhetoric and composition — first, a suspicion of researchers' manipulating numbers to achieve a specific, desired result, second, the belief on the part of some scholars that the humanities and the sciences are at antipodes and that “there is no relationship between numbers and aesthetic concerns” (1999, p. 5). Likewise, there can be resistance on the part of empiricists, who might not see humanities research as “true research” or who might privilege quantitative methods over qualitative. MacNealy points out the need for both approaches – empirical and interpretive – and expresses dismay at the polarization of the two, arguing that “[T]hese attitudes impoverish the field of studies in writing, and if these attitudes persist, they will hinder the development of the field into a fully accredited academic discipline.” (1999, p. 6). I would argue that the same can be said for feminist research. In the sections that follow, I will explain how each approach can be feminist.

Feminist Empirical Research

According to MacNealy, empiricists ask questions such as: “What details best describe something such as a person, event, or community? To what degree are two phenomena related to each other? Is there a causal relationship between two phenomena?” (1999, p. 41). Such questions can easily focus on gender as a primary variable. Longino (2004)1 points out that feminist empirical researchers ask questions such as how things are/were, e.g. distribution of wealth, gender roles in different societies, or prevalence of spousal abuse. When or how did the National Organization for Women emerge? How has it changed over time? What are the effects of western feminists' intervention in women's groups in Afghanistan? How has women's activism changed over time? What changes have been introduced because of women's activism? Feminist empiricism asks what there is and how it works, with an eye toward gender. Lay (1993), in “Gender Studies: Implications for the Professional Communication Classroom,” asks how gender roles affect communication behavior. Lay (1996) asks how computer culture accommodates difference according to gendered styles of learning about math and technology that do not instill confidence in girls, what kind of culture hardware and software developers, programmers, and documenters have created, and how this culture is inculcated in computer documentation textbooks. In the 1970s and 1980s, published feminist studies of composition were starting to emerge, and a much-debated question was whether or not men and women have different writing styles. Pamela Annas' (1985) quantitative, empirical study of men's and women's writing styles contributed much to that debate; Annas exposed the tendency on the part of theorists to essentialize when she showed that men's and women's writing styles were not as different as previously thought.

Feminist Interpretive Research

MacNealy (1999) juxtaposes empirical research with “library-based research,” which appears to be a catchall that includes interpretive research and theoretical research. She describes the process as follows:

Encounter a dissonance

Define the problem

Define the research question(s)

Plan search of published ideas and observations of others

Search for and analyze evidence (Methods: deductive, analogical)

Propose new theory or insights in a thesis and support essay format

Argue for acceptance and significance

Purpose: Build theory

Result: Theoretical: provide hypotheses (p. 7)

Such a process can easily accommodate feminist research. According to Longino (2004), feminist interpretive research attempts to get at what things mean, e.g. textual, visual, aural artifacts. What is the meaning of X [poem, painting, social practice]? What expression strategies does author / painter / practitioner Y employ? How do symbolic / expressive elements of Y convey gendered values? How does one go about understanding particular works and/or phenomena, e.g. formalist readings, historicist readings? Talking about the meaning of artifacts also leads to questions of theory; for example, is there an African American women's language? What is the rationale for constructing such categories, putting something in a category?

We can see much interpretive research in RCTC; for example, Bernadette Longo's Spurious Coin (2000) is an interpretation of the history of technical writing and management through the lens of postmodern cultural studies, including the work of Foucault, de Certeau, and Lyotard. Selfe and Selfe (1996) provide a powerful interpretation of “the complex social, cultural, and political forces articulated with the use of computers as wide-area communication devices in workplaces and schools” (p. 325) and use the theory of de Certeau and Haraway to recommend that technical communicators and teachers of technical communication act as “nomadic, feminist, cyborg guerillas” to resist totalizing power and to serve democratic ends.

Problems in Feminist Empirical Research

Both empirical and interpretive approaches are valuable, but I would argue that interpretive research is somewhat privileged in feminist research practice. Conceptual difficulties can be encountered in empirical research, including the use of terms and categories: What is gender? What do we mean when we say "women" and "gender"? What is work? Another difficulty in (feminist) empirical research is deciding how to be responsible to research participants, how to acknowledge the power imbalance between the researcher and participants. Should the researcher bring the research participants into the research design, collaborate in setting the agenda? Such a design can go awry when the researcher and the participants disagree on the questions and purposes of the research. Still another is how to reveal one's own social location, to avoid being a contextless, value-free observer. One of the primary problems to reconcile in feminist empirical research is the issue of relationships with participants. Although I agree that the power dynamic between researcher and participant is not a simple powerful/powerless binary and that the power shifts as the relationships are continually negotiated (Naples, 2003, p. 4), I would argue that researchers can, to an extent, set the tone for how hierarchical the relationship will be. MacNealy (1999) demonstrates a traditional empiricist view of how to relate to participants (whom she calls “subjects,” which is another telling indicator) in her discussion of external validity and researcher bias:

Bias error can also result when the researcher is acquainted with the subjects (subject/researcher relationship). In this case, the researcher may interpret the results differently because he or she “understands” the subjects, or the subjects may perform differently because they understand what the researcher is looking for. A good check on the possibility of biased interpretation of results is to have an outside person independently rate the results. To avoid biased performance of subjects because of subject/researcher relationship, a researcher can enlist someone else to carry out the project and not disclose that he or she is involved in any way. Obviously, researchers will also want to avoid the possibility of bias error by choosing subjects randomly rather than by recruiting friends and acquaintances as participants.” (p. 68, my emphasis).

In their essay "Beyond the Personal: Theorizing a Politics of Location in Composition Research," Gesa E. Kirsch and Joy S. Ritchie give careful consideration to several problematics in feminist research and critiques of traditional research practices, including the notion of the "value-free observer," the essentialization of the identities of research participants, the lack of reliance on or overreliance on experience as a ground for knowledge claims, the conflict between an ethic of principles and an ethic of caring (for participants), ethical dilemmas encountered in research, and the power differential between researcher and participants. Their view of the ideal relationship between researcher and participant is representative of most feminist researchers; several times throughout the article, they stress the importance of researcher-participant collaboration:

[We] propose changes in research practices, such as collaborating with participants in the development of research questions, the interpretation of data at both the descriptive and interpretive levels, and the writing of research reports. (p. 141)
Since researchers cannot assume that they understand what is relevant in the lives of others or even what are the important questions to ask, research participants must be invited to articulate research questions, to speak for themselves, to choose the occasions for and forms of representing their experiences. (p. 145)
Whether we study basic or professional writers, we need to ask participants to collaborate with us, to help us design our research questions, to ask for their feedback, to answer their questions, and to share our knowledge with them. (p. 146).

I don't mean to imply that MacNealy and other empiricists intend to withhold knowledge from their participants, but the privileging of the purity of the results over the treatment of participants, particularly the dishonesty of not telling participants about one's role as a researcher, runs counter to feminist research ethics. While many empirical researchers do have caring, nonhierarchical relationships with participants, the notions of objectivity and hierarchical distance are rooted in empiricist approaches and must be considered.

Another problem related to the researcher-participant relationship is in the research design itself. Specifically, empiricism calls for planning the research design in advance, before contacting the participants, and feminist research calls for including the participants in the design from the outset. MacNealy (1999) argues that planning the research design before collecting data is a crucial criterion for good empirical research (p. 40). This includes defining the problem, articulating the research question(s), and selecting the method(s). The order of operations is as follows:

Encounter a dissonance

Define the problem

Define the research question(s)

Plan for systematic collection of directly observed activities, products, and other phenomena

Collect and analyze the data (Methods: descriptive, experimental)

Interpret findings in relation to theory and prior findings in and IMRAD format

Argue for acceptance and significance

Purpose: Build theory

Result: Descriptive: provide or test hypotheses

Experimental: test hypotheses (p. 7)

In MacNealy's order, the inclusion of participants does not take place until the research is well underway, which, again, runs counter to the feminist value of including participants in a collaborative research design.

In my own research, which will be a poststructuralist feminist analysis of mothers' weblogs, I would like to use both approaches. Ideally, I would like to collaborate with mothers who blog in the design and find out what questions are important to them, but I realize that there are considerable institutional constraints that have the power to determine to an extent what my study is like. I am speaking particularly of the Institutional Review Board. They have very strict rules of engagement, deeply rooted in traditional empiricism, when it comes to the initial contact of research participants; one must show the IRB a copy of the letter the researcher will use to ask them to participate in the study, and the researcher cannot contact participants until obtaining approval from the IRB. To get approval from the IRB, the researcher must answer several questions about his or her research design (read: the researcher must have it all planned out in advance). From the exemption form for Category 2, Surveys/Interviews, Standard Educational Tests, Observations of Public Behavior:

5.1 Describe the objective(s) of the proposed research including purpose, research question, hypothesis and relevant background information etc.

5.2 Which methods will this study include?

Check all that apply:



Experimental/Control Design

Field work



Oral history




Other, specify :

5.3 Describe the research study design.

5.4 Describe the tasks subjects will be asked to perform. Describe the frequency and duration of procedures, psychological tests, educational tests, and experiments; including screening, intervention, follow-up etc. Reminder: No personal or sensitive information can be sought under exempt guidelines. (If you intend to pilot a process before recruiting for the main study please explain.)

I didn't want to make such a strong claim about the IRB's resistance to feminist research without talking to them, though, so I called them and explained the collaborative approach to research. How are such research designs received by the committees? I asked. The woman on the phone said, "Well, I don't know, you'd have to write a very detailed explanation of exactly how you want to go about your research, how you want to include participants" etc. etc. I asked if there were any precedents that she knew of, if anyone at the university had ever proposed a researcher-participant collaborative research design to them before. She said, "Maybe, but not that I know of." I'm skeptical as to how this kind of study would go over. The impression I got from the IRB is that even if the researcher includes participants in the design, she must still have complete control of the collaboration, which kind of misses the point of collaboration. I know that doing the kind of feminist research I want to do will be difficult given the position of the IRB. That being said, however, I do plan to ask participants to help me interpret the data and will show them drafts of my work for approval. My goal in doing the research is to challenge the gendered meanings of political discourse on weblogs, and, in the end, I would argue that the goal is the most important criterion of feminist research.


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Kirsch, G.E., & Ritchie, J.S. (1995). Beyond the personal: Theorizing a politics of location in composition research. In G.E. Kirsch, F.S. Maor, L. Massey, L. Nickoson-Massey, & M.P. Sheridan-Rabideau, (Eds.) Feminism and composition: A critical sourcebook (pp. 140-159). Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's.

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(pp. 57-80). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Lay, M.M. (2002). Feminist criticism and technical communication research. In L.J. Gurak & M.M. Lay (Eds.), Research in technical communication. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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