“Don’t Sweat the Technique”: On Spinuzzi’s Rhetorical Research Approach

Spinuzzi, Clay. “Lost in the Translation: Shifting Claims in the Migration of a Research Technique.” Technical Communication Quarterly 14.4 (2005): 411-46. Print.

“Don’t sweat the technique.”  -Rakim

While I’m sure Clay Spinuzzi has never met Hip-hop legend Rakim, it seems fitting that they rendezvous in this post. Spinuzzi’s claim that as researchers, particularly in comp/ rhet and technical communication fields, our emphasis should be more on technique and its rhetoricality as opposed to rigid and limited views of method. In essence, he urges us to not “sweat the technique,” (Rakim’s terms) but to embrace it or them and employ as needed in response to one’s context and rhetorical situation.

To clarify, Spinuzzi makes his distinction between method and technique by stating:

“Whereas a method (from methodos, way of inquiry) is a way of approaching a problem within a particular problem domain, a technique (from techne, art of knowledge applied to making things) is a step in implementing method – an investigative tool that might be deployed in various methods.”  (413)

Spinuzzi uses prototyping as his technique of choice in this article and “translates” this technique to apply to four different contexts with varying socioeconomic environments, power structures, and goals. For Spinnuzi, translation is the process in which a technique is made flexible, while still retaining enough coherence  (416). This process elucidates the ways in which research techniques are rhetorical and “adapted to the locally grounded and contingent arguments we make, even as those techniques are presented as stable and unchanging building blocks” (413). Spinuzzi’s argument that research must be approached as rhetorical aligns with Johanek’s (2000) view that not approaching research in such a way “ignores the very thing to which we claim to be rhetorically most sensitive: context” (88).

In addition to necessarily being responsive to context in a rhetorical approach to research, this approach also allows us as researchers to reflect on and assert our own agency because we have to consciously and rhetorically adapt our approach for our research projects (414).

Spinuzzi uses Latour’s (2004) breakdown of social power and action to explain a research technique as a token that can only be “moved” and effective when it is translated to fit the new context and goals of the stakeholders (both human and nonhuman).

Lest all of this seem very abstract, the four case studies that Spinuzzi presents work well to illustrate the numerous adaptations made by researchers and other stakeholders in order to use the prototypes in very different contexts. While the details of the particular case studies are not particularly interesting to those working outside of technical communication, or labor movements, the take-aways inform both research methodology and pedagogy.

For one, Spinuzzi makes a strong case, in my opinion, for research to be viewed as rhetoric wherein the research components are arguments, but in my case he was already preaching to the choir. In this light, instead of learning research methods the focus should be learning research argumentation and instead of doing research to researching rhetorically. With this understanding, although Spinuzzi does not address this, we can view the composition process as well as the research process rhetorically. This reinforces the notion that research documents, although they need not be grounded in social science, need to be conceptualized and written about persuasively (Smagorinsky 2008) and that we need to consider all available means when contemplating methods and methodology (Barton 2000, Johanek 2000).

The key to researching rhetorically is remembering our agency as researchers and that our research approaches, must be just that– ours – because they in-and-of-themselves are our arguments, and that we make and structuring the arguments we use (441).

The end result of employing rhetorical research skills behind the scene, such as translation, is the appearance of a smooth and seamless research technique; no sweat.

With this in mind, I wonder why this rhetorical approach to research hasn’t been a given in Rhet/Comp?

What ideas, possibilities, concerns, and questions does this approach raise for the scholarly work you want to pursue?

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