CCR 635: Advanced Research Practices

A Contextualist Research Paradigm

Cindy Johanek’s Composing Research: A Contextualist Paradigm for Rhetoric and Composition addresses composition’s debates over the values of quantitative and qualitative research methods, creating a false dichotomy of epistemologies [e.g. narrative vs. numerical]. The showdown between quant/qual is self-defeating: it limits what research methods we can use, thus limiting the research itself. To move away from these competing epistemologies and limitations, Johanek argues for greater attention to context:

In what contexts do we construct arguments about our research? In what contexts do we conduct research in the first place? Which contexts demand certain research methods more than other methods? In what ways does the current research debate in composition decontextualize the problems we debate? (1)

Specifically, Johanek develops a Contextualist Research Paradigm that prompts us to focus on “the contexts in which we and our students need to explore fully the nature of composing, learning, and teaching” (7).

We only had to read select chapters, but I saw some “guiding assertions” while skimming the other chapters that seemed useful for grounding a discussion of context—assertions that contextualize the need for a new research paradigm. Johanek makes six major claims that are woven throughout this text:

  1. Comp theorists blame a scientific epistemology for the current-traditional paradigm.
  2. The field’s social-constructivist interests have shifted focus away from contexts that could benefit from scientific inquiry.
  3. This shift has resulted in newly valued research methods. [Here, I assume Johanek is referencing the influx of narrative and anecdote-as-research.]
  4. Humanities training does not prepare us for scientific inquiry, which means we tend to construct and value non-scientific knowledge.
  5. Most of the available (comp) research guides are inadequate in their articulation of design, sample choices, and statistical gathering and analysis.
  6. All research methods are limited in what questions they can answer within particular contexts. Also, all research methods are valuable within particular contexts. (27-28)

The crux of Johanek’s argument emerges in Chapter 4, “From Epistemology to Epistemic Justification: Toward a Contextualist Research Paradigm.” Here, she directly addresses some of the issues we have discussed in class: the troubles with arguing which research methods are “good” (ethical) and which are “bad” (unethical), our preferences toward narrative, and—most controversially—our inattention to context. Johanek writes, “To argue instead that narratives, anecdotes, and stories are always more true than numbers, that numbers are always for some reason out of context and narratives are not, that it is always appropriate to share a researcher’s personal voice ignores the very thing to which we claim to be rhetorically most sensitive: context” (88). I feel like this is a moment (among others) where Johanek is really calling out compositionists, challenging us to reframe our epistemological stances. In many ways, she’s calling out some of our readings for this class that try to argue which methods are sensitive to context (thus “othering” those that are not). In place of this discussion, Johanek offers a new set of questions:

“In what context does that sort of argument make sense? In what context does such division naturally occur? In what contexts do divided ways of knowing serve us well? In what contexts in other areas of our lives do we make such distinctions?” (90)

With these questions, we don’t limit ourselves to sweeping arguments about whether narrative research is better than numerical; instead, we refocus on the goals, values, and needs of the research itself. We move from Is narrative better? to Is narrative more appropriate in this particular context? This reframing challenges what Johanek defines as the “truth” of our discipline: “we live in all words, in all modes of knowing, but we are trained to understand only some, unable to discuss the ‘other,’ and unwilling to see the narrow channels of scholarship we have imposed upon ourselves” (97).

Contextualist Research Paradigm for Rhetoric and Composition
Contextualist Research Paradigm for Rhetoric & Composition (Johanek 112)

Moving beyond some disciplinary shaming (reading this book stings a little!), Johanek develops a Contextualist Theory of Epistemic Justification [CTEJ], which “is grounded in the assertion that all justification of beliefs is a social act” (105). This is valuable to our research because it emphasizes the context. A CTEJ “forces us to focus not on numbers vs. narratives, but on the questions that motivate us to learn in the first place” (109). Johanek argues that is we adopt a CTEJ and begin (again) to value diverse research methods, we can better understand “why researchers make the decisions they do” (114), an understanding that would allow us to reflect on our research choices and whether they sync up the rhetorical context of our research.

Though Johanek provides some examples of this kind of work in subsequent chapters, what I found most valuable was the matrix she provided for how a Contextualist Research Paradigm applies to Rhet/Comp specifically (pictured above). I could see this being really useful to apply to any research project, and I appreciate that it covers all stages of the research process.

Finally, Johanek concludes with one last push toward a Contextualist Research Paradigm (“In a Contextualist Research Paradigm, one kind of research is not automatically more valuable than another, and one kind of evidence does not guide our quests” [207]) and one last reminder: “Numbers alone won’t reveal everything we need to know. Stories alone can’t do it, either” (209).


  1. Johanek is direct, blunt, and—at times—scolding, which, for me, was a reflection of how urgent she sees the research situation in comp. This book was published in 2000 and awarded an NWCA Outstanding Scholarship Award, which (I assume) means that this book has had some type of impact on the field. Do we know of other notable research in the field that makes the types of research moves that she advocates? Do we still see a lot of examples of the research that she reacts against, that relies on narrative and storytelling when a scientific inquiry is more appropriate?
  2. What did you all make of her mixing of research methods within this book? She provided a lot of examples of quantitative research and data, and—somewhat ironically—I found myself skimming over those examples. Does our training continue to devalue quantitative research methods?
  3. This book has interesting pedagogical implications. Johanek discusses this briefly in references to how we need to refocus both our own and our students’ research practices. With the time constraints of a semester, how could we productively adopt a Contextualist Research Paradigm in a class like WRT 205? It seems like the matrix she provides would be a good starting place…

Johanek, Cindy. Composing Research: A Contextualist Paradigm for Rhetoric and Composition. Logan, UT: Utah State UP, 2000. Print.


3 thoughts on “A Contextualist Research Paradigm

  1. Not that I’m the measure of all things, but I remember stumbling across this book maybe 4-5 years after it came out, and wondering why I’d never heard of it before, so I’m not sure that it had the kind of impact that the award might imply. I found it pretty provocative as well…


  2. I also came across the title by chance a few years ago and then found it useful, so Collin’s observation also sums up my impression. Given the methodological “wars” of the past few years, one would expect there would be a broader and deeper engagement with Johanek’s argument and proposal here. To be fair, in “NCTE/CCCC’s Recent War on Scholarship,” Haswell cites Johanek but only to dismiss her. The only reference comes here–“Calls for an end to the rift between quantitative and qualitative research methodologies continue (Johanek, 2000…)” but then, Haswell hastens to assert that “The metaphor in my title remains current” (199)!!

  3. Great summary, Allison. As someone who sees great value in quantitative analysis, I’m tempted to read all this in a too victorious frame of mind, given that 90% of what passes as research in composition is anecdotal and narrative. However, the even-handed tone presented in the text (and re-iterated in your summary) is so much better than rah-rah-ing. I could take a lesson from it. Probably the best thing we can do to avoid any “methodological in-fighting” is just to start doing research the way Johanek challenges us to do it: contextually, and not eschewing one research paradigm over the other. No more manifestos about what’s better than what, or on who is othering whom.

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