Bazerman, Charles.  “Theories of the Middle Range in Historical Studies of Writing Practice.”  Written Communication 25.3 (2008): 298-318.


Recent historical examinations of nonliterary, nontheoretical texts within their activity settings have aimed to identify the historically developed communicative and rhetorical resources currently available to writers and to reveal the dynamics of the formation, use, and evolution of those resources. These studies, in examining communal literate practices, combine theoretical, empirical, and practical concerns by building theories of the middle range. This methodological article elaborates how theories of the middle range can guide research through identifying interrelated levels of research questions (originating, specifying, and site specific) and identifying strategic research sites. This article further elaborates methods of finding, selecting, and analyzing  relevant texts and placing them within appropriate social and historical contexts.


  • B. notes that by considering nonliterary, nontheoretical texts in particular activity systems/settings researchers attempt to identify the historical and rhetorical resources and communication methods that writers utilize to convey information.  He finds this sort of methodology in the work of Atkinson (1999), Batalio (1998), Ceccarelli (2001), and Swales (1998).  Specifically, this sort of method builds on the work of Jack Goody (1986) – Goody’s work studied “the formation of modern literate society” (300).
  • As B. notes, authorial options are shaped by the generic demands and cultural-historical activity systems wherein particular authors participate (an Activity Theory analysis); however, B. also claims that “individuals make strategic choices to meet their local needs and interests” (300) [1. This sounds a lot like the “splicing” that Spinuzzi mentions in Network – these are the moments when actors exert agency toward politico-rhetorical ends in the sort of network connectivity theorized by ANT.].  By understanding this entire system of agency, genre, and social relations, B. claims that Writing Studies can make a public case for it’s relevancy. . . . we are the discipline that can assist folks in negotiating the sea of literacy practices and processes in which  we exist.
  • This article concentrates specifically on “historical inquiries” of the social nature of shared literacy practices.  As B. notes, “As well, although the theory and work are primarily social and historical, they have potential theoretical and empirical relations to psychology and cognition from Vygotskian, pragmatist, or phenomenological perspectives. Such perspectives suggest that the contents, attention, and operations of our minds are influenced by cultural history, culturally produced and transmitted tools (including the symbolic tools of language), and the social circumstances from which we construe our rhetorical situations. Such perspectives tie the history of writing to the history of consciousness and tie personal writing development to intellectual and emotional development (Bazerman, 2006, in press). (301)
  • B. claims that this historical work is both theoretical and empirical.
  • Theories of the “middle range” recall Merton’s theories of the middle range: empirically researchable phenomena, relations, and mechanisms that when researched across multiple sites, can be extrapolated into further-reaching theories whose ground is still empirical (but are also always subject to revisions through further empirical research) (300-1).  B. finds this approach particularly important for writing studies because of the micro and macro levels of writing theory and practice.
  • B. notes that many historians are suspicious of theory because they want to stick so close to the “burden of just being one damn thing after another” or the evidence of the archive (which B. notes is just an “accidental” collection).  Eisenstein’s work on the printing press is an antithesis to this wherein a large amount of historical data and archival research yielded a theoretical account of change in social, economic, political, and religious sectors of human society as a result of technological innovation in the medieval and renaissance periods.
  • “Orientating questions” :  “fundamental questions that form basic curiosities and motivations for inquiry; they are also often the sort of questions grand theories try to address directly and speculatively, with incomplete or uncertain evidence” (302-3).  Examples of “orientating questions” in writing studies:  “How do people write?  Why do people write?  How do people learn to write?” (303).
  • “Specifiying questions” : “define empirically verifiable phenomena or processes for confirmation or elaboration.  The specifying question can focus our research attention, letting us know what we are looking for and suggesting criteria for knowing whether we have found it with sufficient certainty or detail” (303).  These include questions like: “When did modern citation practices begin to emerge in science? And How were the writing actions of particular writers located within the historically developed socioliterate system?” (304)
  • “Committing to a focused research episode” : this occurs after a researcher has formulated a potentially answerable research question and begins to investigate an empirical site for research (304).
  • “The strategic research site” : This is the location that you research to find the evidence to answer your specifying question to such a degree that you can actually analyze and interpret the data (304).  B. reminds researchers to always look for the serendipitous possibilities while conducting research at various strategic sites.
  • “Site specific questions” :  These are questions that form the research design and methodology of any project.  As B. notes, “Once you have identified the strategic research site, your collection and analysis of data should be defined by what you want to know about the site in relation to your specifying question” (306).
  • On corpus selection:  A textual corpus for research should be selected and framed around research questions, needs to be large enough to turn up multiple examples (rather than two examples) so as to be able to form a pattern, needs to be specific to your research site(s), must spread across time enough to account for both continuity and change, and should be tagged with some sort of metadata so you can recover “contextual materials” to help with interpretation if necessary (309).
  • Some recommendations on keeping records of texts:  1) get an overview of the entire corpus by keeping charts or tables that help group the selections into categories or themes; 2) develop a conceptual understanding of the details of the corpus by reading the material collected as soon as possible before returning to it later for more work; 3) thematize the focus on texts in relation to conceptual concerns by attempting to code or categorize texts into specific topics; 4) always have texts available; and 5) maintain good bibliographic records (311).
  • B. recommends analyzing the data without an attention to writing up the final product.  This means that recording data analysis without (or as much possible without) the persuasion/argumentative elements found in the final write up of empirical data toward conclusions (312).
  • B. highlights the reciprocity between conceptual/theoretical orientations and empirical analysis when he states, “There is no privileged place of universal inquiry, a pure place from which to proceed.  The conceptual and empirical program I have described is neither simply bottom up nor top down” (315).  I imagine this points to the generative nature of research – don’t simply set out to prove a theoretical point or conceptual idea of how writing might operate; rather, use theory and data throughout the process to refine conclusions and assumptions generated from the work – use “serendipity.”


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