Today’s Research Climate
The current U.S. political climate has catalyzed intense public conversations about our relationship with facts and the truth. Declarations we have entered a Post-Truth Era vie with demands for renewed attention to the authority of facts. Attacks on science-based knowledge are countered with a form of scientism locking society into a discursive stalemate. These debates place many in technical communication (TC) and rhetoric of science (RoS) in a position of having to choose between political and epistemological commitments. This leads to growing disciplinary and public criticism of the work we do and the results we share. Resisting the assault on science can feel like a hypocritical endorsement of positivism. Yet TC and RoS are uniquely poised to contribute to a public conversation of scientific or technical concern. Our journals are replete with insights about effective approaches to technical and scientific communication practice. Little of this research, however, seems to have affected public discourse. This context raises a critical question: How can our research more effectively engage (in)these broader societal conversations?
The Research Challenges
Unfortunately, communicating the insights of TC and RoS research to scientists is fraught because of our epistemological anxieties. Indeed, we have always had an uneasy relationship with social scientific guarantors of epistemic authority (e.g., constructs like validity, reliability, and replicability). Interestingly, research from our own disciplines indicates when such constructs result in findings that carry greater caché. Indeed, the publication of a recent report by the National Academies of Science suggests one of our core external audiences does not find our work persuasive. This situation creates tension between concerns over the function of knowledge claims and the need to develop a persuasive evidence base for our research practices. We argue, therefore, it is still incumbent upon TC and RoS to develop methods and methodologies a) responsive to critical insights about epistemology, and b) capable of producing robust findings that support effective practices in the field.
A New Perspective for Research
We find the science and technology studies (STS) notions of durability and portability promising avenues for future inquiry. Durability and portability provide a foundation for addressing notions like rigor and epistemic authority, while avoiding a retreat to positivism. According to Bruno Latour (1978), durable research survives methodological “trials of strength” (e.g. inter-rater reliability) (p.78). It is made more robust through surviving the discursive trials of strength involved in methodologically-critical peer review and post-publication scholarly engagement. For Latour, durability is the foundation of portability – results ready to be considered, tested, and even used by other fields. Methods that allow for any and all explanations to equally explain the findings of study fail to achieve durability. Limitless interpretive possibilities make research non-portable because findings are generally seen as meaningless and not respected beyond disciplinary boundaries. A promising future for TC and RoS research would be one where the findings are:
- Durable = developed in recalcitrant methodological environments—those that leverage constructs like reliability, validity, and replicability to buttress the epistemological authority of findings, and
- Portable = can be disseminated to non-disciplinary audiences with the markers of epistemic authority that will make findings more persuasive to those audiences.
The Focus of This Special Issue
This special issue of Technical Communication Quarterly examines leveraging insights of existing TC, RoS, and allied STS research to develop methodological approaches that carry more epistemic authority. The idea is to focus on approaches extra-disciplinary audiences view as durable and portable while avoiding positivistic defenses of science, facts, or rigor. Accordingly, we seek theoretical explorations, methodological exemplars, and critical engagements with the notions of methodological durability and research portability.
Specifically, this CFP invites proposals for articles that address these questions:
- What theoretical or methodological constructs from TC, RoS, or STS might be used to support durable and portable methods while resisting positivism?
- Are there ways to better understand and/or use traditional social scientific constructs like reliability, validity, and replicability in TC and RoS without jeopardizing epistemic commitments
- How might we adapt existing methods to support durable, portable research in TC and RoS?
- How might we use methods from other disciplines to support portable research in in TC and RoS?
- What features of TC and RoS research make findings more or less portable? s
- How might we approach or revise prior research (and related claims or findings) in the field to test or review it in more durable and portable ways?
- How can we use durable and portable research to create broader and effective discussions and debates in our field, across fields, and in greater society?
This listing is not exhaustive, and the editors encourage any submissions that engage the issues outlined in this CFP.
Submission and Questions
Please email 500-word proposals to Scott Graham (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Kirk St. Amant (email@example.com) by 19 Jan. 2018. For accepted proposals, complete manuscripts will be due by 30 March 2018 with the issue being published in the spring of 2019/second issue of 2019. Individuals are also welcome to email the guest editors with questions or prospective ideas for the special issue.
Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP.