Argumentation, Rationality, and the Fragility of Reading and Literacy Research


When we began our editorial tenure, the RRQ office was located in a prime area in the main College of Education building: first floor, next to the offices of the dean and the associate deans—high visibility. Both the heat and air conditioning worked well, and we had contemporary office furniture; it was a pleasant place to work long hours. Then, we were moved to a distant third floor office: It was not so visible, and the air conditioning and heat did not work so well, but the windows were large, and we had lots of natural light and great views. It did not take long before we were moved yet again—this time to the basement: no views, erratic heat and air conditioning. How quickly the glow goes. Daily, one has to look beyond the tedium of the mundane, bureaucratic, and repetitive nature of journal operations to envision the potential of the research imagination embodied in a journal.

As each of us and the RRQ editorial staff read and discussed the 200-plus manuscripts submitted to the journal each year, it was surprising how often there was a brilliant idea or concept even in those manuscripts that were not recommended for publication. Additionally, the comments of reviewers frequently were equally as insightful. Whether in a prime first floor office or in the basement, we were in a privileged position to experience and witness the talent that permeates our field across its broad range of research traditions.

We have always believed that the journal belongs to the RRQ community—and the RRQ community is huge. By our calculations, during our editorship, approximately 1,500 authors submitted manuscripts; 400 people reviewed at least once (with most reviewing multiple times over the years); dozens of people worked on the journal from the RRQ editorial office at OSU, IRA headquarters, or elsewhere; and some 14,000 people subscribed to the journal, with many times that number reading it online through various library services. As is evident from the RRQ editorial board and the people who submitted manuscripts, the RRQ community is truly international. We have appreciated all of you and are truly thankful for all of your efforts. We are honored to have been temporary caretakers of the journal.

As caretakers of RRQ, we quickly learned how fragile the journal is—how vulnerable it is to myriad challenges. There was the challenge of money. It takes a lot of money to run an editorial office dedicated to publishing the highest quality research across research traditions. There was the challenge of deadlines. Although we only once missed a deadline (by three days), pressure to meet a publication schedule led some to recommend that we accept good manuscripts even though they might not represent the highest quality research. It was a recommendation that we did not take. There was the challenge of moneyed and political influence. Government, business, and private monies permeate the field of reading and literacy research, influencing directions and foregrounding particular programs of research. Research journals, including RRQ, need to be independent of such influences, neither privileging nor deprivileging any manuscript because of its financial base or its relationship to agendas promoted by government, business, political groups, or others.

And then there was the subtle but dangerous challenge of routinization (similar to what Bloome, Puro, & Theodorou, 1989, called procedural display). Without fully realizing it, one gets into a routine in the editorial process, or an author sees the success of a particular writing formula, and there is a risk that the routine or formula gets repeated again and again, with scant regard for the substantive contribution of the manuscript.

It has only been with the support of the entire RRQ community that we have been able to address these and other challenges and resist them. Perhaps only those people who have been editors of a research journal like RRQ truly understand how fragile a high-quality research journal is; thus, we want to acknowledge our appreciation to all the former editors of RRQ for their support and advice and extend to the new editors our best wishes and our support.

When we began, we had a series of goals that were stated in our opening editorial. We sought to (a) make RRQ a home for researchers of reading and literacy regardless of research tradition or paradigm, (b) increase the diversity and international membership of the editorial board and of the authors published in RRQ, (c) bring some coherence to the field by soliciting reviews of research on key topics, and (d) maintain and perhaps enhance the journal's standing as publishing the highest quality reading and literacy research. Others can judge how close we came to accomplishing these goals. In this last editorial, we want to reflect on some of what we have learned over these past six years. Part of what we have learned is that principled, pluralistic argument is not a sufficient definition of high-quality reading and literacy research; it is important, but it is also important to go beyond this notion.

Moving Beyond Research as Principled, Pluralistic Argument1

When we began our editorship, we wrote about the importance of pluralistic, principled argument (Wilkinson & Bloome, 2008). We have worked hard to make that a guiding framework for our decisions. At the time, the American Educational Research Association (2006) had just released its “Standards for Reporting on Empirical Social Science Research in AERA Publications,” and we were inspired by its underlying theses: warranting and transparency. We were inspired by the argument that there were multiple research traditions and that the field was best served by judging each research effort in terms of the traditions of the research perspective and paradigm in which the research effort was located. The two of us come from different research traditions, and yet we both appreciated the logic of inquiry of each other's research traditions as well as that of others.

One consequence of an emphasis on principled, pluralistic argument is that we frequently asked authors to clarify their warrants and to provide additional detail so their procedures and interpretations were transparent and understandable. We pushed authors to write both for those who come from the same research tradition and those who do not. Occasionally, this resulted in slightly longer manuscripts than might ordinarily be found in research journals. We hoped that readers would spend the time to read manuscripts outside of their own research traditions. We hoped that greater transparency and specification of warrants would make it possible for readers across diverse research traditions to appreciate the eloquence of research traditions that were not their own—and, as such, bring a kind of coherence to the field.

As one looks at research trends in our field as well as in other educational research fields and across disciplinary fields, there is increasing discussion of argumentation. Educational and social science researchers, in general, want authors to express views well warranted by data and logic. They want authors to make their logic of inquiry transparent so warrants and grounding can be assessed. For some, doing so defines the integrity of the field.

The emphasis on argumentation may be viewed as a shift in the social, political, and cultural ideology of Western society. Instead of telling one's story and appreciating the stories of others, instead of examining the underlying small stories and grand narratives that structure personal and collective experience and memory, transparent, warranted claims grounded in data and facts are emphasized. To us, this is not so much a shift in research genres as it is an indexing of diverse definitions of rationality. In what follows, we posit that it may not be sufficient to insist on principled, pluralistic argument. As a research community, we need to examine the definitions of rationality that undergird the arguments we compose, publish, consume, and use to define reading, literacy, and being human (cf. Williams, 1977).

Perhaps the most frequent reference to argumentation has been to Toulmin's (1958) classic work. In addition to providing a vocabulary for discussing the nature of an argument, he provided ways to account for ambiguous and complex circumstances (through qualifications) that make argumentation sensitive to social contexts. What makes an argument persuasive is that one provides strong warrants and grounding and addresses counterarguments, such that the claims for which one is advocating appear to others more compelling than alternative claims. This is a particular definition of rationality in which claims are set in competition with each other. Reading and literacy research grounded in such a definition of rationality presents findings as part of a complex and dynamic system of human behavior that although not totally predictable, nonetheless has sufficient predictability to warrant pedagogical actions and policy.

A related form of this rationality can be labeled utilitarian or implication rationality. This form of rationality is rampant in reading and literacy research. A scholar completes a study and adds a section at the end of the manuscript regarding the study's implications for classroom practice or educational policy. The relationship between research findings and practical classroom implications is one of the most undertheorized areas of scholarship in our field. In many cases, these add-on implications sections are not warranted. So too are the claims of many articles that seek to validate an a priori program or practice (in which too frequently an author has an interest). Government funding notwithstanding, the use of so-called clinical experiments by themselves neither fill a theoretical void nor supplant an unexamined and often decontextualized rationality.

Habermas (1984, 1987) offered one alternative for defining rationality, which he called communicative rationality. In brief, rationality is defined by people being open to others’ arguments and working toward consensus. The competitive nature of argumentation, which characterizes the definitions of rationality discussed earlier, is absent here as people engage in communication with one another strive for an intersubjective understanding. Habermas argued that communicative rationality is an important foundation for a democratic society.

Perhaps Habermas (1984, 1987) was too optimistic about the potential for communicative rationality. It would be hard to argue that the past few decades have seen much of it in the field of reading and literacy research. Many people would view arguments about the nature of reading and literacy as being arbitrated by the state and its distribution of resources. Simply put, it may be naive to define rationality as distinct from structures of power relations. This is a point that Foucault (1965, 1991) made about rationality, arguing that the state promotes particular forms of rationality and ethics that are powerful in getting people to control themselves, what they think, what they value, what they feel, and what they do. In brief, it would be hard to define rationality or argument as existing outside of a context of power relations.

All of these definitions of rationality and their subsequent embodiment in argument eschew narrative and story except as an illustration of a warranted claim. Yet, a definition of rationality and its realization in argument can also include abductive processes and analogic reasoning. From this perspective, what constitutes rationality is the collection of narratives and stories that a collective holds for interpreting its experiences. As the scholarship of folklorists, anthropologists, and others makes clear, both as individuals and as collectives, human beings narrativize their experiences—what Rosen (1988) called the autobiographical impulse. These narratives become interpretive frameworks for what people experience in the future. It is to be expected that in a diverse society, there would be diverse narratives and stories that differ from one another substantively and structurally—and, similarly so, in a diverse field such as reading and literacy research. As such, narrative constitutes a particular definition of rationality and is available as a particular form of argument.

All of this discussion of rationality notwithstanding, it is still an open question about whether rationality and argument precede action or are an afterthought. For whatever reasons, an individual or collective may desire a particular outcome, and then, to justify it to others and to themselves, they construct an argument in support, grounded in whatever definition of rationality is nearby.

The question for a research journal, such as RRQ, is how to embody the relationship of diverse rationalities, argumentation, and the representation of human behavior. What we have learned over the past six years is that it is important to engage in the dialogue about what constitutes rationality and argument. While at one level a research journal like RRQ provides a service for the field by disseminating a broad range of research studies, at another level of equal importance, what the journal does is construct and promulgate a definition (or definitions) of argument and rationality. Editors, authors, readers, and the RRQ community as a whole need to recognize and overtly discuss these dual functions, with all of their complexities, ambiguities, contradictions, and indeterminacies.

As we end our tenure as editors of RRQ, we want to thank everyone in the RRQ community for allowing us the privilege of taking care of the journal for the past six years. We have appreciated your trust, good faith, and generosity of time, expertise, and spirit. There is not space here to mention everyone deserving of a callout, but we would be remiss if we did not mention Rose-Marie Weber who handled the book reviews, the editorial associates Ruth Friedman and Tara Cyphers, and the editorial assistants Marlene Beierle, Jamie Crowsley, Patricia Vocal, and SangHee Ryu. We want to acknowledge significant support from the College of Education and Human Ecology and the School of Teaching and Learning at The Ohio State University. Throughout our tenure, college and school administrators have valued the intellectual and practical contributions of RRQ, and we have appreciated their understanding of the time, effort, and commitment needed to produce a high-quality research journal. We also want to acknowledge our colleagues at IRA headquarters with whom it was a joy to work. We have appreciated their professionalism and commitment to the journal.


David Bloome


Ian A.G. Wilkinson


  1. 1

    We;want to acknowledge SangHee Ryu and Allison Wynhoff Olsen for their contribution to the discussion of rationality here; whatever flaws remain are solely ours.