Posted by: soniahs | July 4, 2010

Exam reading: “Opening spaces”

So, one of the things I want to use this blog for is a place to post summaries of and thoughts on for my candidacy exam readings. We’ll see how consistent I end up being with this as I go along.

My first post is on Opening Spaces: Writing Technologies and Critical Research Practices by Patricia Sullivan and James Porter (1997). This book outlines the authors’ critical research philosophy. I had a difficult time getting through this book- part of that reaction stems from my own research orientation/background, which is very different from that of the authors. I felt that they oversimplified the traditional research process, which they characterize as picking a preset set of methods, applying, then writing about results (though I’m probably oversimplifying here). Granted, most research reports imply that this is how research works, glossing over changes in method, vagaries of the specific research situation, etc. I have to keep in mind that I’m coming from a very different theoretical background here.

Summary: The authors advocate critical research practices, in general and specifically in the context of technology and composition.  Their philosophy is that methodology should be heuristic and context-dependent, knowledge generated should be situated, and that praxis (critical practice) is key to generating knowledge.  Their emphasis is on practice, rather than ideology or methods (the other two elements of research).  Key concepts are that researchers should be alert for bias, conscious of situated and customized practice, willing to critically change methodology during research, aim to liberate study participants, focus on user-technology interactions (rather than technology only), consciously involve the researcher in the research, and highlight the implications of methods in writeup.  There is a distinction between fixed methods and malleable methodology.  Their rhetorical/political goals include: respecting difference, caring for others, promoting access to rhetorical procedures enabling justice, and liberating the oppressed through participant empowerment.  They offer several ways for enacting their ideas, all of which center on exploring tensions in the research process: disciplinary tensions (use methodological framework mapping; list multiple binaries); environmental tensions (mapping the research scene-location, technologies, events, relationships, data collection capabilities; metaphor analysis-participants’ vs. researchers’); between ideal methods and realizable positions (assumption analysis); and researcher-participant tensions (competing narratives; advocacy charting).

Comments: The authors strongly advocate for empowering participants, but object to “objective” measurements of study success.  How, then, can we determine if there has actually been a material improvement in participants’ situations? It seems like it’s enough to merely give them tools for liberation. In research examples, they cite an imperfect study in which examples illustrated the theory presented, but did not “challenge” or “complicate” it. This is counter to my previous understanding of the roles of theoretical framework and empirical examples in research (different field, different expectations).

Links to: Feenberg (instrumental/substantive views of tech), Johnson (User-centered design), Bolter & Landow (comment that their research implies technological determinism/substantive view of media)

Edited 8/28 to correct Johnson’s name.



  1. I can’t find out how to “follow” your blog – so I am leaving a comment so I can click the nice little box “send me site updates”:)…….you have some very technical insight to these texts – which I am not very good with….so its great to be able to read your POV because it really makes me question some of the POVs I came away with… thanks:)

  2. Hmm… I’ll have to figure out if I have to add something so people can do that.

  3. […] co-creates [Hayles] or explores [McGann] texts), Tufte (questions form/design of texts), possibly Sullivan & Porter (quantum poetics rejects set methods of analysis or single […]

  4. […] (and that apparently annoying “evidence is used to support my theory, not contest it” thing). However, it does provide a needed perspective to the program, and I’m not sure what an […]


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