A Taxonomy of Research

I've been meaning to post these notes since January, if only for my own edification as I study for my technical communication theory and research preliminary exams, which are scheduled for July 27-28 (the 24-hour take-home exam) and July 29 (the 2-hour in-house exam). But hopefully they'll help someone else who's trying to explain his or her proposed research to an advisor or committee, too. The notes are from Helen Longino's Feminist Theories and Methods class. I found it to be an excellent laying-out of the differences and overlaps among empirical, interpretive, and analytical/theoretical research. The taxonomy focuses on feminist research, but you could easily substitute concepts and objects of study.

Empirical Research

The questions: How things are/were, e.g. distribution of wealth, gender roles in different societies, prevalence of spousal abuse. When or how did institution X emerge? How has it changed over time? What are the effects of intervention strategy Y? What there is, how it works. For example: How has women's activism changed over time? What changes have been introduced because of women's activism?

Conceptual difficulties: Use of terms, categories: What is gender? What do we mean when we say "women" and "gender"? (This then becomes a question for analytical/theoretical research--but when you rethink it, you can bring it back into empirical research.) 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? That's not easy 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. Example: Comparative anthropology.

Interpretive Research

The questions: 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 those works, e.g. formalist readings, historicist readings? Talking about the meaning of artifacts also leads to questions of analytical/theoretical research. For example, is there an African American women's language? What is the rationale for constructing such categories, putting something in a category? Scholars engaging in interpretive research are also appealing to empirical work. Examples of interpretive research: Psychoanalysis, deconstruction, field of history.

Analytical/Theoretical Research

The questions: Articulation and explanation of fundamental concepts, principles for a field of inquiry or area of activity. Normative explorations, examinations of a concept in different contexts, consisting of synthetic moves. Visions of justice--for example, of what would gender justice consist? How do traditional aesthetics privilege masculinist values? What are the interrelations between gender and power? How do we understand the concept "knowledge"? What do we mean by value? Are values objective properties of things? Preferences? Theoretical research attempts to understand concepts such as race, power, work, and experience. Example: Philosophy.

[End Notes]

I've been thinking more about these three approaches to research and the way they overlap. Most of what I understand as empirical research has interpretive elements, but those are, at times, stashed away like dirty little secrets. My general impression is that in technical communication research, empirical methods are preferred: think-aloud protocol, case studies, interviews, focus groups, discourse analysis, content analysis, surveys, experiments. The questions are empirical, too: How do engineers write? How has the scientific article changed over time? How does peer review change when you go from face-to-face to online?

Before I conclude that empiricist epistemology is paradigmatic in technical communication, though, it's also necessary to look at the landmark books and articles as a corpus. There is plenty of historical research (interpretive), and some analytical/theoretical research. More thinking is in order.


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Interesting taxonomy, esp when thinking about things like quantitative vs. qualitative or where various fields might see themselves (e.g., I think some historians (other than Hayden White) would see their work as empirical, and I'd argue that deconstruction is more theoretical than interpretive). Made me think, too, of the post about method over at Jill/txt from earlier this yr.

And I found myself wondering, mainly in the context of dissertation work here, whether or not anyone's talked about the way that our methodological maps drift over time. For example, I think part of the trouble we (humanities folk) have with method is bc we're pressed (frequently) to identify our specializations, which tend to be topic-oriented. As a field spreads out, to hordes of specialities, we lose the common ground of being familiar with each others' work, and an emphasis on methodology can serve as a substitute. They may not know the second thing about weblogs, for example, but if they can recognize the method, and use it as a shortcut for understanding what I'm doing, then they "know" my work...


Excellent points, Collin

You'll probably be interested to know that I had a lengthy discussion of this topic with Laura Gurak yesterday, and she said pretty much just what you said. It was great of her to chat with me about it; she isn't even writing me a prelims question. She pointed out that in developing a strategy to write about empirical and interpretive approaches to tech comm research, I first have to defend this taxonomy. As I was reviewing the taxonomy before posting it, I did certainly see overlap and messiness, to wit: When answering what Longino terms empirical questions--how an institution has changed over time, what are the effects of such-and-such an intervention strategy, the conclusions are always going to be someone's interpretation. That's why I'd still consider the result of historical research to be interpretive. Sometimes historians ask empirical questions, and sometimes they ask empirical questions with an explicit interpretive framework, such as labor historians, etc. Deconstruction, when understood to be theory of language, is analytical/theoretical research, but when applied to a specific artifact, it becomes an interpretive framework (as does psychoanalysis). Depends on the object of study, I guess.

Laura also mentioned the drift over time you posted about. She encouraged me to look at technical communication research chronologically as well as in terms of landmark works (as I intended to go about it). She said that in the 80s, 90s, and 00s there have been calls for various approaches. That way, I can give more of a long view of where the field is and where it's going.

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