PAB #4 – Barton

Barton, E. (2000). More Methodological Matters: Against Negative Argumentation. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51 No. 3, Feb. 2000 399-416.

Ellen Barton

Ellen Barton (link for CV)

 “The ethics of all research demand that subjects participate with full consent and that researchers present data in its full complexity, and the way that these standards are met by empirical studies needs to be better known in the field of composition. With positive argumentation, ethics could become a common ground between empirical and non-empirical researchers, establishing an area of conflict resolution. With the continuation of negative argumentation, though, ethics will remain a point of contention, needlessly continuing the unproductive conflict over the value of empirical vs. non-empirical methodologies in composition research.  The contact zone between methodologies should no longer remain a war zone, but become a resolution zone, with empirical and non-empirical researchers making positive arguments for their methodological approaches without succumbing to the temptation of throw-away negative arguments, however rhetorically satisfying they may be” (405).  

The Question

In my previous PAB selections, I’ve endeavored to demonstrate moments and fields of study where RAD research and empirical thought in general is not only often dismissed or misunderstood, but at times even attacked by academics whose personal interests and research habits lead them to oppositional views of data-driven, replicable research.  Largely, these arguments from Haswell, Driscoll, and Perdue have been a lead-up to this article by Ellen Barton, which asks, quite simply, two questions:  where is non-empirical research taking the field, and what happens if opponents of empiricism do manage to drive RAD research out of the scholarly mainstream?


At the core of Barton’s “More Methodological Matters” is an exploration of the ethics of research, the ethics of how we talk about research, and the methodologies that best produce ethical research.  Barton fears, at the most basic level, that the “ethical turn” in composition research is a philosophical movement away from the fundamental internal ethics of knowledge and data within the empirical model of research towards an external ethic defined by the discipline according to teaching and research philosophies valuing “participatory and collaborative relationships” between the researcher and participants and the “self-reflexive relationship” of the researcher with his/her own data and analysis (400).

Although this is her primary fear, her primary concern is with language implying negative assessment of empirical values within the research protocols of non-empirical research reporting.  Examples given in Barton’s text include authors describing their ethnographies as contrasted against the “traditional, imperialistic hegemony” of empiricism (401) various and general implications that the humanistic, shared elements of qualitative research are somehow inherently more ethical than the cold, distant pragmatism assumed in RAD/empirical study.

While exploring the potential rift caused by the ethical turn, Barton attempts to establish the risk that this turn has for continued ethical empiricism in research, as systematic knowledge and data is devalued by the mainstream.  Especially and particularly, she argues that “negative argumentation” is at risk of permanently limiting the field of compositional and rhetorical knowledge, by limiting available methodologies, restricting access to purposeful data, and – under the guise of ethics – ignoring ethical protocols (403).

She is, at the core of her argument “evoking the empirical-non-empirical dichotomy,” which she herself recognizes as “problematic” (412).  However, as she notes, the evocation is necessary, if only in defense of the scholars who have already leveraged that dichotomy to argue for the opposite, including heavy hitters in the field such as Lunsford, Berlin, Berkenkotter, and Dombrowski.

In the end, what Barton is calling for is an ethical diversity that includes research which is ethical for its close, collaborative interaction with its subjects (qualitative non-empirical ethnographies, for example), as well as research which is ethical precisely because it maintains its distance and a degree of data hygiene by reducing noise and interference within data to give the fairest and most accurate representation of interpreted reality.


Isn’t this just the other side of the “I don’t understand it, so I hate and fear it” reaction you’ve been rejecting for two weeks?

Yep.  Nobody’s perfect.  Not me, and certainly not Barton.  We’re all human.  I’d like to say she’s more optimistic than Haswell, since she’s less general doom-and-gloom and more specifically dealing with the threat of negative argumentation in research philosophy statements.  I’d like to say that, but honestly I’m not sure she’s not more pessimistic than I am, even.  Barton is, however, an earnest ethicist in the field at the core of this argument.  She’s not necessarily studying the how and why of what is “good” and “bad” but the social influence of specific behaviors—in this case, the negative assessments of empirical value present throughout non-empirical reporting in the discipline.

I thought you just said in your last PAB that “there aren’t any bad guys.”  Don’t academics devaluing others’ valid work for personal gain and professional security qualify as “bad guys?”

Barton has, in her moderately careful, conservative, academic language, certainly located some “bad guys” in her text.  But that doesn’t make her the “good guy,” and I don’t think she’d say it does.  She is roundly within the camp of “just a bunch of guys.”  I’m also not going to ascribe to the notion that those people who reject empirical philosophies of research are bad scholars, because I view them as—at worst—uninformed about the value that empirical thought and protocols can provide the composition researcher.

Nor am I going to vilify even those who outright attack empiricism as positivist malarkey (Burke, Berlin, Mortensen and Kirsch, Williams, etc.) – I can recognize self-perpetuating professional survival instincts in their actions, and I understand that fear.  Burke et al. simply believe there is a finite amount of attention available in the scholarly public for composition research, and they want their ethnographic studies to receive the full attention they believe they deserve.  It’s inherently selfish, but that doesn’t make it inherently evil.

And this brings me circuitously back to the qualitative vs. quantitative (take a shot!) debate.  Opponents of empirical thought don’t want to be labeled as “non-empirical.”  As Barton points out, they instead often embrace the label of “qualitative researchers,” in their opposition to empiricism, failing to notice that nothing about RAD empirical methodology excludes either partially or completely qualitative research (410-411).  To Barton, Mortensen and Kirsch, as well as scholars like Williams, are definitely her “bad guys” (More like adversaries? Rivals?  Antagonists?  Whatever it is, it’s undoubtably pejorative, but these people aren’t evil.)  But that doesn’t mean she dislikes them.  Instead, she disapproves of the rhetorical moves they make to decentralize forms of inquiry that might falsify their own findings and approaches.  It’s a disingenuous approach to scholarship, but like I said – we’re all human.

Whether naming and targeting specific scholars for stepping on empiricists’ toes is helpful is another question – one I’ll be investigating more fully in a section of my paper on Epistemological Alignment (no. 5).

What does this mean for me as a scholar?

That’s a difficult question to answer.  Look out for examples of negative argumentation, and always be wary of the rhetorical move, I suppose, that posits the unethical nature of non-correlative research because of the ethical nature of correlative research.  Remember that just because we study rhetoric doesn’t mean we don’t use it against each other.  Consider the value of empirical thought and protocols in your own work, and be apprehensive of those folks who would rather see less information than more in the name of ideology or expedience.

Don’t lead us into a dark age of decaying moral truth and research ethics because you have math anxiety, is, I guess, what I’m saying.  Just don’t do that thing.  Don’t turn us into one of the other humanities disciplines that came before us and decided information ethics didn’t matter as much as feel-good ethics (may they all rest in unfunded peace.)


Barton, E. (2000). More Methodological Matters: Against Negative Argumentation. College Composition and Communication, Vol. 51 No. 3, Feb. 2000 399-416.

Barton, E. (2015). [Personal photograph] retrieved from video still,


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