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Writing and the Social Sciences

Disclaimer: In this essay, the author uses the term, "social scientism," but I do not believe that he is using the term critically despite its common connotation. Neither will I. In sum, I am not critical of the social sciences and do not believe the author is critical of the social sciences.

In the essay, "Is There Life After Process? The Role of Social Scientism in a Changing Discipline," Joseph Petraglia examines the interconnectedness of the development of social science with the transition from process to post-process ways of thinking and teaching writing composition. He states that with the advancement to contemporary social scientism and post-process theory, not much has changed in the professional writing field and writing production, something that does make sense.

In previous articles, I call into question the likelihood and productivity of changing generalized writing construction too radically too quickly because there are established professional writing parameters. In an ideal situation, changes to writing instructions to reflect diverse writing styles, cultural identities, and ways of thinking would be better accommodated. Hopefully, in time, new professional standards can be implemented and taught and hopefully we can make the needed accommodations that can allow for this development.

Petraglia elaborates on the movement from writing as product to writing as process, stating that students that provided text based on instruction did not question how or why the texts appeared the way they did. He uses the analogy of psychology, explaining that their shift of focus into how or why certain complex behaviors were produced was necessary in providing more accurate feedback and diagnoses to patients. In the same way, writing theorists sought to provide something beyond writing as product to a series of procedures and choices, writing as process. Many post-process theorists have their own explanation of how this changed took place and have a similar consensus as to what this change added to the discussion on writers' cognition. I interpret Petraglia's take on this as "writing as a science." So, not only does writing reflect other disciplines in the social sciences, but it can be seen as a science. This isn't a new revelation, others have used it before, but it's helpful to understand how he frames his work.

Moving forward with his analogy, Petraglia describes that until around the nineteenth century, scientists in all fields sought to emulate the kind of clarity and certainty that Newtonian physics promised, but this doesn't always work in the social sciences. This is in part due to what humanity may perceive as a "social ill" from one point to the next. To illustrate an example, because there used to be such a stigma against writing with the left hand and that was perceived as a social ill, social science at the time validated that. Social science doesn't always follow stigma, but it can perpetuate and validate concepts that can be seen as counterintuitive or harmful.

The same can be said for writing cognition. Having distinct writers' voice is not an indicator of bad writing, but writing that doesn't fit a certain set of standards might not be prioritized even if the intention and message behind that writing could be valuable. So, when encountering a text for which the intention is, broadly, to be understood, the question should be something like: "What does this text need in order to be better understood?" The answer may vary by culture and background. This question can be reproduced to state: "What do you need in order to be better understood?" Suddenly, this doesn't solely apply to writing.

When applying the social sciences to writing directly, that is to say that a writing process can be both understood and "fixed." This leads to another pitfall. Ideally, a rhetor or writer can have a writing process that is close to the way they think. It is meant for the rhetor to explain. Then, once it is explained, it can be reproduced into a form that can help the same rhetor feel understood. The same cannot always be done when the writing process must be dictated to them.

This leads to my criticism of Petraglia, though it is possible he contradicts himself. He states that he views post-process theory as a full rejection of the formulae that process theory posits when many post-process theorists don't reject them at all. These theorists might state that the formulae is limiting, but that's not a revelation. In a lot of ways, especially now, we need process theory, but writing processes don't always have to be the same thing every time. That's why, as an add, post-process theory can help. The subject of the writing can be understood in relation to their communication with themselves, the world around them, and with other subjects. The writing can be said to "come from somewhere." Also, the writing can be interpreted. Using these as parameters and items to be mindful of can and has helped when engaging in a writing task and can make their process, in whatever form it takes, less daunting.

Petraglia includes a useful chart to explain old social scientism, new social scientism, and four different ways in which the study of writing was situated in each.

First, while writing was first seen as a collection of general skills, it became a "socio-cognitive phenomenon dependent upon historical and cultural context" (Petraglia, 1999).

Second, while the purpose of researching writing cognition came from the discovery of process by which writing can be taught, a deeper understanding of the complexity of that came from this research.

Third, while the product of writing research were tools that assisted composition teachers, it became a description of unique writing behavior patterns.

Fourth, while the discipline used to be pedagogy-centered, it is now somewhat theory-centered.

This means, and Petraglia acknowledges this, that social scientism is much more self-aware than it used to be and is more likely to acknowledge its own limitations. There are some studies of writing that do not do this. Academic standards, for example, will often prioritize a more active voice and accuracy in the same breath when the two do not always coincide, seeing an active voice as indicative of confidence and passive voice as lack thereof. This is not always true either. This doesn't mean that it's wrong to be confident in asserting a point, but that there are more ways to articulate a point than academic parameters may dictate.

Passive voice might be objectively adequate, but this does not guarantee that others will see it that way. Is this the fault of the overall system, the teacher, or the writer? I would argue that there is no fault, just a lot of inconsistencies. Petraglia does posit re-introducing the social sciences [as they are now] to the discipline of writing, meaning research into writing theory and research. Barbara Couture does address this to an extent, framing a writer as an agent. I discussed this essay in "Taking Agency in Writing." Adding social sciences writ large to studies of writing theory would add, broadly, cultural studies which would encompass construction of identity, the development of various ideologies, and other relevant components.

Another possible solution Petraglia gives, which is also broad, is prioritizing writing pedagogy over further writing production. The social sciences could be added as an essential component to that education. A lot of those resources appear more accessible after a great deal of training when they might be just as productive as a part of training.

While I don't reject alternate interpretations of post-process theory, this essay reads as a slight misunderstanding of that, but presents excellent points on the integration of different social sciences into the study of writing, writing pedagogy, and writing theory. Lately, in my own editing process, I have been including the principles of post-process theory into my feedback. This is partly so that I can conduct tests of my own and partly because these takeaways appear to help a great deal. My writers have been extremely receptive to this feedback and more mindful in their approaches. I have seen a great deal of positive development in the writing samples I've received because of this.

As always, I'm so grateful for all the support and engagement that I've received through Purposeful Prose and all the wonderful feedback. Feel free to ask any questions and, if you'd like to engage more directly with my posts and the Purposeful Prose community, you can become a member. Let me know of anything that you'd like me to research in the future!

Since I was asked this a couple of times, if you'd like me to research a topic, you do not need to have a source ahead of time. You can send me any ideas through my forum, by sending it through the "chat" feature, by commenting on one of my posts, or by contacting me by any other means (available on the home page).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Petraglia, J. (1999). Is there life after process? The role of social scientism in a changing discipline. Post-process theory: Beyond the writing process paradigm, 49-64.

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Vita Viviano
Vita Viviano
May 11, 2021

Thank you so much for bringing light to the issue of writing across the social sciences. Hoping that there will be a movement toward addressing the inconsistencies mentioned to help insure clarity. Nice job!!!

Replying to

Thank you so much! I hope so too

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