Research Writing as Conversation
In Chapter 2, we reviewed how reading is a rhetorical and social act. Writing also is a social process. Texts are created to be read by others, and in creating those texts, writers should be aware of not only their personal assumptions, biases, and tastes, but also those of their readers. Writing, therefore, is an interactive process. It is a conversation, a meeting of minds, during which ideas are exchanged, debates and discussions take place and, sometimes, but not always, consensus is reached.
When anyone – students or scientists, for example – conduct research, they are reading and interpreting the information that analyzes the topic, a topic that has been discussed, perhaps for decades. As such, these researchers are CONTRIBUTING to a discussion.
The 20th century rhetorician Kenneth Burke compared writing to a conversation at a social event. In his 1974 book The Philosophy of Literary Form Burke offers this analogy to illustrate this process:
This passage by Burke is extremely popular among writers because it captures the interactive nature of writing so precisely. Reading Burke’s words carefully, we will notice that the interaction between readers and writers is continuous. A writer always enters a conversation in progress. In order to participate in the discussion, just like in real life, writers/students need to know what others have been talking about. So a writer/student listens (reads). Once they feel they understand the conversation, they say (write) something. The text is read by others who respond to the ideas, stories, and arguments with their own. This interaction never ends!
To write well, it is important to listen carefully and understand the conversations that are going on. Writers who are able to listen to these conversations and pick up important topics, themes, and arguments are generally more effective at reaching and impressing their audiences. It is also important to treat research, writing, and every occasion for these activities as opportunities to participate in the on-going conversation of people interested in the same topics and questions.
Our knowledge about our world is shaped by the best and most up-to-date theories available to them. Sometimes these theories can be experimentally tested and proven, and sometimes, when obtaining such proof is impossible, they are based on consensus reached as a result of conversation and debate. Even the theories and knowledge that can be experimentally tested (for example in sciences) do not become accepted knowledge until most members of the scientific community accept them. Other members of this community will help them test their theories and hypotheses, give them feedback on their writing, and keep them searching for the best answers to their questions. As Burke says in his famous passage, the interaction between the members of intellectual communities never ends. No piece of writing, no argument, no theory or discover is ever final. Instead, they all are subject to discussion, questioning, and improvement.
A simple but useful example of this process is the evolution of humankind’s understanding of their planet Earth and its place in the Universe. For example, in Medieval Europe, the prevailing theory was that the Earth was the center of the Universe and that all other planets and the Sun rotated around it. This theory was the result of the church’s teachings, and thinkers who disagreed with it were pronounced heretics and often burned. In 1543, astronomer Nikolaus Kopernikus argued that the Sun was at the center of the solar system and that all planets of the system rotate around the Sun. Later, Galieo experimentally proved Kopernikus’ theory with the help of a telescope. Of course, the Earch did not begin to rotate around the Sun with this discovery. Yet, Kopernikus’ and Galileo’s theories of the Universe went against the Catholic Church’s teachings which dominated the social discourse of Medieval Europe. The Inquisition did not engage in debate with the two scientists. Instead, Kopernikus was executed for his views and Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for his views.
Although in the modern world, dissenting thinkers are unlikely to suffer such harsh punishment, the examples of Kopernikus and Galileo teach us two valuable lessons about the social nature of knowledge. Firstly, Both Kopernikus and Galileo tried to improve on an existing theory of the Universe that placed our planet at the center. They did not work from nothing but used beliefs that already existed in their society and tried to modify and disprove those beliefs. Time and later scientific research proved that they were right. Secondly, even after Galileo was able to prove the structure of the Solar system experimentally, his theory did not become widely accepted until the majority of people in society assimilated it. Therefore, new findings do not become accepted knowledge until they penetrate the fabric of social discourse and until enough people accept them as true.
Burke, Kenneth. The Philosophy of Literary Form. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1941.