Empirical Research in Writing, by Mary Sue MacNealy

MacNealy, Mary Sue. Empirical Research in Writing.
Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon, 1999.
This book is a mandatory resource for researchers in the field of composition and rhetoric. Due to the fact that the field is relatively new, MacNealy has filled in a gap in the literature on conducting empirical research on writing of various kinds. The book focuses on how to effectively conduct and report on research in writing. The first two chapters provide an overview of what empirical research is and what it should do in order to be considered valid and valuable. MacNealy differentiates between Library-Based and Empirical Research, and suggests that empirical research is needed to provide a basis for the study of composition that goes beyond teacher experience or “lore.” She also explains why we need theory in our field, “Put simply, theory . . . can be defined as a belief that is the basis for actions . . . research produces and shapes theory; conversely, theory generates hypotheses for research to test” (11).  In chapter 3, MacNealy provides an “Overview of Empirical Methodology,” giving the reader a broad sense of what is to be accomplished and avoided when conducting this type of research. The three essential characteristics of empirical research are as follows: it is planned in advance, the data are collected systematically, and data collection produces a body of evidence that can be examined by others (40-41). MacNealy then outlines the “Common Categories of Empirical Research,”  explaining the differences between quantitative and qualitative research. She goes on to define the different “Classifications by Data Source” as follows: historical studies, descriptive studies, experimental studies, and meta analysis studies. She then explains the various classifications for the purposes of research: basic, evaluative, developmental and instrumental, and action research. (42-49).
Chapter 4 covers the “Concepts Basic to Quantitative Research.” MacNealy explains the importance of conducting valid research and outlines the internal and external threats to validity within a quantitative research study. This chapter is particularly valuable to those who are unfamiliar with the statistical elements of collecting quantitative data and who have concerns about the effectiveness of their design strategies. She explains the concepts of randomization, probability, and the null hypothesis as terms that will limit “the various threats to internal and external validity in experiments” (70).  She closes this chapter with “A Few Words of Encouragement,” stating that the terms and definitions presented will make more sense as the reader becomes more familiar with the methods of research available, and she assures us that while there is no way to be “entirely free of threats to either internal or external validity,” it is possible to create a study that will be strong and valuable to the field (75-76). This encouraging tone is an important aspect of this text, as MacNealy is encouraging throughout.
The following chapters are each devoted to the following methods: Experimental Research, Meta Analysis, Discourse or Text Analysis, Surveys, Focus Groups, Case Study Research, Ethnography, and Qualitative Research with Special Lenses: Feminist and Teacher Research. Each chapter provides specific details on the methodology, the different approaches available, and how to set up an effective research design. She also gives specific examples for each methodology and the advantages and disadvantages for using particular methods and strategies. Each chapter is a comprehensive overview of the methods discussed, and provides a solid framework for conducting research studies in the field of composition.
Of particular importance to my interests are the chapters on Discourse or Text Analysis (specifically Rhetorical Analysis), Focus Groups, Case Study Research, and the section on Teacher Research. These chapters will be an excellent resource as I am writing my prospectus and conducting my research in the coming semesters. MacNealy not only provides extensive information on the various types and methods of research, she also offers words of encouragement to the novice researcher. Along with specific examples of research in the field, she gives simple examples that make the complexities of doing research seem less daunting. It would be nice to see a more current edition of the book; however, the basic principles discussed are still relevant and valuable to any researcher in the field of composition and rhetoric.

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