Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Persuasion, Interaction and the Construction of Knowledge: Representing Self and Others in Research Writing

Academic journal article International Journal of English Studies

Persuasion, Interaction and the Construction of Knowledge: Representing Self and Others in Research Writing

Article excerpt


It is now increasingly accepted that academic knowledge is closely related to the social practices of academic communities, and particularly to their discourses. Texts are persuasive only when they employ rhetorical conventions that colleagues find convincing, and in recent years corpus analyses have helped to underpin this social constructivist position and to reveal some of the ways this is achieved. In this paper I discuss the role of interaction in this process. Based on an analysis of 240 published research papers from eight disciplines and insider informant interviews, I explore the nature of interactive persuasion in this genre. I show here the importance of interaction in academic argument, suggest some of the ways this is achieved, and indicate how these choices reflect and construct disciplinary communities.

KEYWORDS: academic writing; rhetoric; stance; engagement; interaction.


The view that academic writing is persuasive is not news. It dates back at least as far as Aristotle and is widely accepted by academics themselves. The ways that this persuasion is achieved however is more contentious, and raises a number of important issues, not least those concerning the relationship between reality and accounts of it, the efficacy of logical induction, and the role of social communities in constructing knowledge. In the past decade or so analyses of academic corpora have brought new empirical insights to these enduring debates in epistemology and the sociology of science, challenging the role of induction or falsification and emphasising the importance of rhetorical practices in academic persuasion.

In this paper I bring my own small contribution to the discussion. In particular, I want to look at what rhetorical interactions tell us about the ways persuasion is accomplished in academic contexts and how knowledge is socially constructed. I am interested in what this tells us about writers' ideas of appropriate writer-reader relationships and how this, in turn, contributes to knowledge-making in the disciplines.


I want to begin with a few words about academic persuasion. Academic discourse is a privileged form of argument in the modern world, offering a model of rationality and detached reasoning. It is seen to depend on the demonstration of absolute truth, empirical evidence or flawless logic, representing what Lemke (1995: 178) refers to as the discourse of 'Truth'. It provides an objective description of what the natural and human world is actually like and this, in turn, serves to distinguish it from the socially contingent. We see it as a guarantee of reliable knowledge; a form of persuasion free of the cynicism with which we view the partisan rhetoric of politics and commerce.

This view is most strongly represented by the natural sciences. The label 'scientific' confers reliability on a method and prestige on its users, it implies all that is most objective and empirically verifiable about academic knowledge. As a result it has been imitated by other areas of human inquiry which are often considered softer and more rhetorical in their forms of argument. Underlying this realist model is the idea that knowledge is built on experiment, induction, replication, and falsifiability. Scientific papers are seen as persuasive because they communicate truths which emerge from our direct access to the external world. The text is merely the channel through which scientists report observable facts. A reason, no doubt, for the marginalization of academic literacies at universities, where writing is typically regarded as just reporting more important things that go on elsewhere.

But scientific methods provide less reliable bases for proof than commonly supposed. Although we rely on induction in our everyday lives, believing that the bus we take to work will pass by at 8am tomorrow if it has passed at 8am every day for the past week, it has been criticized by philosophers of science. …

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