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6.4: Application of the Concept of Discourse Communities to Research Writing

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    7390
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    Kuhn’s theory of knowledge making is useful for us as researchers and writers because it highlights the instability and changeability of the terms “fact” and “opinion.” As I have mentioned throughout this book, the popular perception of these two terms is that they are complete opposites. According to this view, facts can be verified by empirical, or experimental methods, while opinions are usually purely personal and cannot be verified or proven since they vary from one person to another. Facts are also objective while opinions are subjective. This ways of thinking about facts and opinions is especially popular among beginning writers and researchers. When I discuss with my students their assumptions about research writing, I often hear that research papers are supposed to be completely objective because they are based on facts, and that creative writing is subjective because it is based on opinion. Moreover, such writers say, it is impossible to argue with facts, but it is almost equally impossible to argue with opinions since every person is entitled to one and since we can’t really tell anyone that their opinions are wrong.

    In college writing, such a theory of fact and opinion has very tangible consequences. It often results in writing in which the author is either too afraid to commit to a theory or points of view because he or she is afraid of being labeled subjective or biased. Consequently, such writers create little more than summaries of available sources. Other inexperienced writers may take the opposite route, writing exclusively or almost exclusively from their current understanding of their topics, or from their current opinions. Since “everyone is entitled to their own opinion,” they reason, no one can question what they have written even if that writing is completely unpersuasive. In either case, such writing fails to fulfill the main purpose of research, which is to learn. 

    What later becomes an accepted theory in an academic discipline begins as someone’s opinion. Enough people have to be persuaded by a theory in order for it to approach the status of accepted knowledge. All theories are subject to revision and change, and who is to say some time down the road, a better research paradigm will not be invented that would overturn what we now consider a solid fact. Thus, research and the making of knowledge are not only social processes but also rhetorical ones. Change in human understanding of difficult problems and issues takes place over time. By researching those problems and issues and by discussing what they find with others, writers advance their community’s understanding and knowledge.

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