Theory and Method

Theory and Method

Jill’s post regarding method in the humanities triggered some thoughts. I have sympathies with the idea that “‘method’ is mere rhetoric forced upon us by social scientists.” However, as a rhetorician, I’ve got a problem with phrasing it as mere rhetoric. In the discipline of rhetoric, the method of the social sciences sneaks in with the call in many programs for empirical research. I don’t really care for it, and I’ve been forced to take classes that focused on types of research I will never do. It is interesting, in my own discipline, where it comes from.

Rhetoric programs in the United States do not exclusively reside in the humanities. Some programs are parts of business colleges, agricultural colleges, etc., positioning them closer to the sciences than the humanities. Empirical research is part of the move to legitimize rhetoric as a science rather than an art. People conduct empirical research, believe it or not, in such important areas as where to put a staple in a document. [Parallel to the long edge is the preferred choice among most executives, by the way]. I can’t for the life of me think of anything that is more boring.

Even in the humanities based departments though, a growing emphasis on method is also directly related to increased regulation of human subjects research. Asking subjects to write narratives publish an analysis of the grammatical features is deemed potentially harmful, in the same way that drug testing is. So, in order to protect themselves, courses in research methodology are deemed essential. I don’t think it’s about preserving the quality of research as much as it is a matter of covering oneself against possible litigation.

I recently did a readings course with the Director of Graduate Studies in Journalism here. The first question he asked me to journal about in the articles is “What method was employed?” In graduate study in the United States, method is everywhere. It is the dividing line between undergraduate and graduate, really—consciousness of the methods used to arrive at results is big in History departments, Journalism departments, and Rhetoric departments. The only undergraduate exposure to method, however, that I had was in the English department.

The difference was that there, they called it critical theory. It was not present across the curriculum, but only in a few select courses. Evaluating what reliable methods there were for discussing texts was important to me. Method, when it comes to empirical research, often does seem to be “mere rhetoric,” but when it comes to a theoretically informed praxis for interpreting texts, well, it ceases to be just decoration. Everyone has a method—it’s just that they aren’t always conscious of it.

Just producing endless “interpretations” of texts is pretty pointless past a certain level. Without some method of comparison, it’s just wank. I felt bad for the students who, having only old-school “essentialist” close-readers, concentrated on producing their expositions on what the text really meant to them. That’s a good point of departure, but it’s not all there is to the humanities. Without method (and not wankish empirical methods), it becomes impossible to say anything that means much. But this is really just a semantic dispute—what I’m really talking about is praxis, theoretically informed practice, not pure method. Praxis is fashionable umbrella term for all sorts of practices, both good and bad, in rhetoric.