Bazerman, Chuck. “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies of Writing Practice.”

Bazerman, Chuck. “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies of Writing Practice.” Written Communication 25.3 (2008): 298-318.

Because it’s so helpful to my work, I’ve decided to engage a detailed post on Bazerman’s article this week. Thanks for the insights, Chuck! When applicable, I’ve sprinkled in some things from a few other readings of this week.

Abstract from WC:

Recent historical examinations of nonliterary, nontheoretical texts within their activity settings have aimed to identify the historically developed communicative and rhetorical resources currently available to writers and to reveal the dynamics of the formation,use,and evolution of those resources. These studies, in examining communal literate practices, combine theoretical, empirical, and practical concerns by building theories of the middle range. This methodological article elaborates how theories of the middle range can guide research
through identifying interrelated levels of research questions (originating,
specifying, and site specific) and identifying strategic research sites. This
article further elaborates methods of finding, selecting, and analyzing relevant texts and placing them within appropriate social and historical contexts.

My notes:

Bazerman begins by noting the shift in historical studies in rhetorical and literacy circles from one of great theoretical texts to those of situated practice in specific context. After noting the range of these studies, from practice of scientific and academic work to situated practice in specific fields, to history of science and work that looks at the textual work in forming social systems of law, businesses, nations, etc (298-299). Bazerman then notes how they can be influential in helping us to understand the textually-mediated and social actor cycle of social change, and that such work helps us to understand social agency and also give us pedagogical tips for helping to socialize students into our world of complex literate systems. Thus, they can help us to argue for the resources necessary to do such work (299). Further, given this work’s social view and its “interest in contemporary practice” it is methodologically in dialogue with the vast array of social research, “whether ethnographic, interview, survey, corpus linguistic, text analytic, or statistical study of indicators” (300). Bazerman notes the vast wealth of books on 300 that are dedicated to methodological factors in those realms. His focus here, then, is on guidance for historical inquiry.

To do so, he introduces the concept of “theories of the middle range” from his mentor in sociology, Robert Merton. Merton was concerned about the gap between the broad theoretical generalizations with explanatory power but little empirical backing in the humanities and the piecemeal situated studies that provided data but little generalizable power. Hence, Merton called for sociological theories of the middle range, and Bazerman calls for a similar approach in writing studies. Though he doesn’t mention it specifically, Bazerman’s call here sounds like a peace offering between those–like Rich Haswell on the empirical side with his “NCTE/CCCs War Against Scholarship” and those on the theoretical humanist side like Douglas Park–that might unite both fronts in the ongoing attempt to make our research matter for larger questions of public policy and educational funding. As so many smart ameliorative approaches before him, Bazerman comes out sounding resoundingly sane on this matter. Which is quite refreshing.

So, how does history enter into the theories of the middle range? After all, as Bazerman notes, “History, of course, always lives under the burden of just being one damn thing after another, and in large part the interest and importance of historical research is to note the contingencies and multiplicity of forces that lead to unique and unanticipated consequences, some of which may be definitional for our current situation. More than a few historians are skeptical about any theoretical approach to the subject, and they advise sticking very closely to the evidence in the archive, which itself is an historical accident of what people wanted to collect at the time. Thus, applying a conceptual social science approach to historical material does not seem the best match” (302). Noting this, he also reminds us that systematically generalizable and clear pictures CAN come from historical studies, using Elizabeth Eisenstein’s opus on The Printing Press as an Agent of Change as a prime example.

To do so, he advocates a tripartite method of questioning, also taken from Robert Merton:

1. Originating Question: These are too big to generalize acceptable answers to. Yet, at the same time, they keep us centered on the importance of why we’re doing the work. Often, they remind us of the stakes involved in our work, and provide the motivation to keep going.

2. Specifying Questions: Bazerman puts it succintly: “The specifying question can focus our research attention, letting us know what we are looking for and suggesting criteria for knowing whether we have found it with sufficient certainty and detail (303). He talks about his interest in disciplinary differentiation (in the early early WAC years) as a great example of a specifying question that leads to work that can “define empirically verifiable phenomena or processes for confirmation and elaboration” (304).

Some examples he posits of specifying questions seemed quite germane to my own developing interest in the historical rhetorical practices (both tactics AND strategies) of radical counterpublics like the Irish Fenian Brotherhood:

“How did social roles and values emerge around the communicative relations of the text? How were the writing actions of particular writers located within the historically developed socioliterate system?” (304).

This first question is especially relevant, as it helps to frame my own questions of the transnational identification practices of the Fenians in such a way that recognizes the mutually constitutive role of people’s consciousness AND the texts and speech-acts in leading them to draw lines around their identification practices that may or may not have cut off access to a more broad-based coalition for a an anti-imperialist politics.

For Bazerman, these questions lead one–through a process of external deadlines (like needing to complete a dissertation! 304), internal affinity and growing skill (304-305), and moments of serendipity (305)–to a strategic and specific research site. Serendipity is certainly how I discovered the Fenians in a final line from a chapter of Marx’s Capital Volume 1 discussing the British imperial history of economic domination in Ireland. As Bazerman notes, “In the course of doing other things,one can come across exactly what you need to shed light on some issue you have been thinking about. The prior thinking and framing of questions allows you to identify something you run across as interesting and useful in addressing a major question, even though to others not engaged in the same way it may seem just another historical detail” (305). This lines up with Beverly Moss’s thoughts on “divine inspiration” (154) as she describes the move from locating a research site in the African American Church, deciding to do an ethnography, and negotiating the insider-status she had as she conducted that work (Moss, “Composition and Ethnography”, Sullivan & Kirsch, 1992).

For everyone else in the Marx class, this offhand reference to the Fenians was just another detail. For me, it became a fantastic place to begin thinking about the rhetorical identification dynamics of one colonized population’s quest for decolonization as they simultaneously participate in other colonizing projects (for the American Fenians, both settler colonialism and the racial hierarchy along the Black-White binary). Hence, this becomes an interesting site to look at early transnational justice rhetoric and how it draws its borders of affinity. It also relates to my family history, which is also a motivational factor for me in my research.

Once you have a strategic site, Bazerman notes that you then develop “site-specific questions…[that] must attend to the particular character, opportunities, and difficulties of gathering data at the site as well as to the kind of analysis the data will allow.” (306).

Bazerman then details the process of finding an appropriate archive (what is available and where), selecting and sampling the data in the archive (308-310…each set of questions requires a specific selection of the corpus…he walks you through one of his decisions in reviewing the change in writing practices in a physics journal), and how one can keep specific records:

Bazerman, p. 311

All is hugely helpful as I think about the actual processes of sifting through an archive for a corpus as well as making decisions about how to systematically analyze that corpus.

These two quotations in these sections loomed large:

“The corpus needs to be framed around the research questions, and the sample needs to be large enough to turn up multiple examples of each variation so that you are not just looking at separate cases with no pattern. The corpus should be constituted by what kinds of documents will tell you what you need to know about your specific research site” (308-309).

And here’s one about the cognitive and inventional process of coming to grips with a large body of data:

I try to offload the cognitive demand of the stuff floating around in my
head whenever I can by externalizing my thoughts, memory, organizational schema,conceptual systems into documents, files, sketches, organized piles of materials on my floor, or other external representations. But the productive creative process that puts the ideas together with facts, sees new patterns, gets to fresh approaches, notices contradictions and objections, and all the other intellectual work requires that some level of work constantly stays dynamic in the front and back of the mind.” (311)

He then moves to various methods available for analyzing this data, which, just like the selection of archive and corpus, have to depend on your “inquiry questions, engagement with the materials as [you] collect them, and the emergent patterns that [you] find in accounting for the data” (312).

In other words, the method begins with the sleuth-work of the letting archive-shrunk-to-corpus actually speak, but it ends in the systematic work of organizing that data into an analytic that locates patterns, categories, and frames. In that way, there is the high concept building merged with the empirical sensitivity and nose to the data.

He then writes up his analysis, keeping it separate from the drafting of a chapter. That way, for him, he can use it to make meaning of the data rather than to concern himself with persuasion. Afterwards, while he may use some of this fully, he may have to re-draft the analysis section from scratch as his relationship to the data evolves.

This shows, then, that nose-to-data, systematized analysis, inventional writing work, and the patience of time (the composting factor) all combine to make a work that comes from the middle range.

It is here, though, that I have to insert the insights of other authors. Beverly Moss, in her piece on ethnography and composition in Kirsch and Sullivan, refers to the importance of self-reflexivity on the part of the researcher conducting ethnography, especially ethnography on a community you’re familiar with. Similarly, Patricia Sullivan’s work on the need to more fully integrate the researcher’s positionality and bias into the frame of the analysis (“Feminism and Methodology in Composition Studies”) makes it clear that the work of moving from data to systematized categories is not nearly as simple as Bazerman would have us believe. And, while he’s open to the synergy and serendipity of letting the data tell its story, he seems less clear on the fact that his own position will necessarily influence–at least to some degree–what he chooses as relevant in each stage of the sifting process that he’s so carefully described.

Interestingly enough, then, Bob Connors’s assertion that the historian’s own prejudice will need to be part of the data analyzed (regardless of some colleagues’ sense that he was a bit too vague on this point) seems altogether absent from the methodological picture Bazerman paints.

Another connection that seems important to note is the way that Pat Sullivan locates feminist methodology as the bridge between critical, “reactive,” humanistic methods of theory building and refinement through critique, and the “proactive” social science methods of data gathering. While Bazerman provides a clear bridge via his middle range, what’s missing is complemented by this feminist social science frame that Sullivan details through Harding: one that starts by locating itself in women’s experiences, to answer questions that will help women get answers they need, and–perhaps most importantly–locates the researcher’s positionality in the frame of the analysis. While Sullivan’s 1992 essay at times seems dated with gender essentialism and also includes no real conception of the intersectional insights of Black and 3rd World Feminist theory, her basic point that feminist research is at once both ideological/theory-centered, AND a praxis from a standpoint (in this case, gender equality) is a point that can easily apply to Bazerman’s theory of the middle-range to lend it even more richness. This, perhaps, is why Kirsch and Royster’s feminist methodology article in last year’s CCCs seems to describe so much of composition research writ large. The message, that self-reflexivity is essential and positionality matters in all steps of research, has in large part gotten through. This is another bridge across humanist and social science research. Taken together, they yield more than they would alone.

Back to Bazerman, he closes by noting that the three realms of conceptual work, empirical work, and practical experience (in teaching and writing) work together–along with the serendipity that gifts insights along the way–to craft persuasive, valid, and effective research accounts that can help our field take our influence to the next level.

Overall, this is a must-read with solid, concrete advice for anyone thinking about engaging an historical project. For that matter, Bazerman’s (via Merton’s) theory of the middle range (especially if it incorporates some of the self-reflexivity mentioned above) seems like the very methodological argument to bridge the humanistic and social scientific impulses that tend at times to seem like they’re working against each other and pulling our field out of cohesion. Bazerman’s theory of the middle range returns it all to our purview. And, for that, we should be thankful.


~ by timrdoc on February 10, 2012.

6 Responses to “Bazerman, Chuck. “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies of Writing Practice.””

  1. […] (Written Communication, 2008), the most fab read for CCR 635 this week, but hot damn if Tim didn’t knock this out of the park already. Instead, I’d like to focus on the piece Tim and my fellow bloggers didn’t […]

  2. Thanks for the in-depth summary, brother. As I was saying on Seth’s blog, I really found this method useful for thinking of my own research.
    When I know I’m at a stage of a process instead of lost (or various other metaphors of panic and distress), that soothes my researching soul.

    Do you think it would be a useful method for 205 students? I think a summary of the key points would be helpful for writers as they start developing research skills.

    Finally–your complicating work of Bazerman is necessary, although it invites some of the panic back in. But if this was just equations for success I suppose we wouldn’t want to be here.

  3. I agree with Ben- thanks for this incredibly detailed summary, Tim! I appreciated how Bazerman pared his explication of concepts (and processes) with his own examples, but I always enjoy more real-life examples of these concepts in action.

    I also appreciate your critique. I wonder if he doesn’t consider his own positionality because, by doing historical work (that doesn’t engage with communities in the same way that, say, Moss’s ethnographic work does), he assumes his own position is less consequential.

  4. […] places. The methods for organizing and codifying, for instance, begin to be outlined nicely in Bazerman. Bazerman’s detailed examples add nicely to the work she quotes from Connors in “Dreams […]

  5. […] systematic ways to approach historical study, perhaps a chapter like this can complement work like Bazerman’s to help us get a sense of how to “do” historical […]

  6. […] Studies of Writing Practice”) as a practical approach to doing historical, archival work, Tim’s criticism of Bazerman’s inattention to his own positionality stuck with me during this week’s readings. These readings were an interesting reinforcement of […]

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