Monthly Archives: November 2014

Paper #5 – Theories and Epistemology

Theories and Epistemology

One of the most interesting and fulfilling facets of using Critical Race Theory to examine law and race in African American Literature is that the multidisciplinary approach inherent in CRT doesn’t require me to align my theories to narrow, artificial boundaries.  There are two theories, however, that are central to, and intertwined with, CRT and African American literature:  Narrative Theory, Legal Rhetoric (as a component of CRT), and New Historicism.  I do not have preferred Objects of Study, as I am open to any text that allows for the reclaiming or recreation of personal and cultural identity.  Thus, my personal objectives and professional objectives in Narrative Theory, Legal Rhetoric and Critical Race Theory, and New Historicism are inseparable.  Additionally, these theories influence and are influenced by my social constructionism epistemological alignment.



Narrative theory “concerns itself with the structure of narrative – how events are constructed and through what point of view” (“Critical Approaches).  The applicability of narrative theory to literature of any genre is obvious.  I, however, want to go a step further in analyzing the language and structure of narrative to examine how law and race

Frederick Douglass reading at his desk in Washington, D.C.

Frederick Douglass reading at his desk in Washington, D.C.

influence, among other things, literary characters, plot, and themes even when the narrative does not directly address issues of race.  Race is an inescapable lived experience and Narrative Theory examines how socially and culturally African Americans are impacted by those experiences.  For example, Frederick Douglass’s “Learning to Read and Write” is an important example of the how narrative and the creation of narrative is essential to understanding oneself as an African American.  Frederick Douglass knew that he was a slave, but until he read the narrative of another slave in “The Columbian Orator” he did not know how to give voice or thought to his own condition.  A narrative text enabled him to examine his own personal narrative and the voices, events, and structures that created who he was and how he thought about the world.  Once he was exposed to this narrative, he was able to deconstruct it and begin to recreate it from his own point of view and perception of events.  It becomes even more meta in that he was then able to create a written narrative from his own experience that deconstructed the narrative that others would try to create for him.  This ability to create self-narratives in opposition to the damaging self-serving portrayal of African American masculinity, femininity, family, and history, among other things, is essential in establishing healthy self-perception and cultural identity.

Legal Rhetoric and Critical Race Theory:

Narrative Theory, Legal Rhetoric, and Critical Race theory converge and is where my theoretical interests are most clearly reflected.  Critical Race Theory focuses on the explicit and implicit interaction between power, race, and the law.  Although there are many ways to engage with CRT, I am most interested in how legal rhetoric creates both personal and cultural identity and how the law and African Americans reinforce and/or resist the narrative created by those in power.  As Haney Lopez states, the law is not a monolithic entity (114), but a system of interdependent mechanisms by which legal rules, social taboos and expectations, and “legal actors” engage in a system of racial definition and separation.  How these racial definitions are redefined or reinforced in African American literature and how African American authors and readers create identity in opposition to the legal rhetoric that creates identity and the laws that reinforce racialization is the thrust of my inquiry.

The dominant narratives and legal personas created by the law and legal rhetoric provide no real sense of authentic identification for African Americans. Examining African multiracialidentityjpg-706114dd0fbeed1dAmerican literature through a CRT lens limns the previously unacknowledged counternarratives and spaces that reshape and reclaim personal and cultural identity through resistance to legal definitions of race.  The “mixed-race” movement in which people refused to acquiesce to the black/white binary established by the legal system resulted in an expansion of racial categories on the U.S. Census and other legal documents is one example of this resistance.  Furthermore, this lens also exposes the ways that narratives and lack of personal or cultural resistance against them foster cultural and personal anxiety.  Thus, personal and professional interests in how language creates identity drive this theoretical approach to my study.

New Historicism:

New Historicism “reflects a concern with the period in which a text is produced and/or read” (“Critical Approaches”).  It also ties the texts to a broader range of ideas such as biography, cultural studies, the self, and literature as cultural texts.  The necessity of using a New Historicism lens is evident given the reliance on how both Narrative and CRT and Legal Rhetoric are so closely tied with historical categories of race and examinations of identity and classification over time.


Social constructionism:

Zina O’Leary describes “social constructionism” as a “theory of knowledge that emphasizes that the world is constructed by human beings as they interact and engage in interpretation” (7).  Social construction helps us understand and get our bearings about race, the law, language, and our place in the world.  Some things we know only because we experience them and some things we know because we are given the language to relay our personal experience.  All of that can only be understood or interpreted in light of the social constructs that give them context.  However we define knowledge, it’s always bounded by the culture we live in.   Thus, for me, knowledge and truth is based on lived experience and human interactions with the law and the social boundaries in which we exist.

Works Cited

“Critical Approaches to Literature.” Critical Approaches to Literature. Purdue University, n.d. Web. 18 Nov. 2014.

Haney Lopez, Ian F.  “White by Law:  The Legal Construction of Race.”  White by Law.  New York:  NYU Press, First Ed. 1996,  111-153.

O’Leary, Zina. “Taking a Leap into the Research World.” The Essential Guide to Doing Your Research Project.  Chapter 1, 1-17.SAGE Publishing. Web. 17 Nov. 2014.


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Paper #4 — Mulling Over Methods

Mulling over Methods

While some scholars lament what they see as the end of literary studies as we have known it, others such as Sreevvidya Surendran recognize that literary studies has not disappeared, but it “has suddenly widened to include a cornucopia of diverse media” (Surendran).  In his article “Of Methods and Methodologies in Literary Studies and Humanities” Surendran states that incorporating  objects of studies from other disciplines into literary studies,  literary studies has broadened so much from its original methods and objects of study that it is “almost melding into that field of terrifying and infinite variety:  Cultural Studies” (Surendran).   This can be seen in many English Departments across the country that combine the Literary & Cultural Studies into one discipline.  Where one ends and one begins is a debate within English Studies departments across academia.  This debate centers around issues of funding, legitimacy, and prestige, among other things, as we’ve discussed this semester.  It also, however, has a basis in theories, methods, and methodology. We’ve seen similar contentions over methods within the Game Studies narratology versus ludology discussions and World Englishes debates over standardized or community centered English learning.

How to choose which methods to apply to African American Literature and Critical Race Theory within a department are even more complicated by the marginalization of those studies within English Departments.  While some universities have African American Literature and Cultural Studies departments, a study of African American literature and/or Critical Race Theory will often be placed within an English Studies department but require scholars to seek classes and expertise in other disciplines and methods from other departments.  This is where the interdisciplinary approach to Literary Studies is helpful.  However, it’s also where contentions in what are considered acceptable methods can take place.  Methods and objects of study within an African American Studies department, Sociology, or Psychology may not be traditionally accepted within a Literary Studies tradition. Therefore, as Surendran suggests, what is needed is “to integrate disparate ideas and identities that teem under the umbrella term of ‘Literature’ and create a method that is not applicable to all, but one that allows itself to be suitably tailored for each research question” (Surendran).  Thus, I believe, the major questions in addition to the research questions will guide the approach to history, objects of study, and methods rather than artificial boundaries of study and inquiry based upon disciplinary predetermination and departmental posturing.


A critique over methods is presented by Aldo Nemesio in his article “The Comparative Method and the Study of Literature” in which he claims that contemporary research is more focused on gathering information and not as concerned with producing new areas of knowledge (Nemesio).  Nemesio asserts that academic biases and personal vanity impede true literary research or knowledge (Nemesio).  By way of example he cites the over 6000 articles about Shakespeare in just one decade (Nemesio).  While his claim that no one scholar can access and research all of these articles is valid, his assumption that these articles were only about “celebration, entertainment, or satisfaction of vanity” lacks basis or clear rationale.  More importantly, his argument decenters reading texts as objects of study because the finds that method vapid and counter to true learning and knowledge.  Instead, he advocates a comparative method of study in which “nationalist” texts are disfavored and human literary study which incorporates “what happens elsewhere . . . in the comparative method” is elevated (Nemesio).  While this seems inclusive, multicultural, and multiethnic, it poses a danger for already marginalized departments and studies (such as Asian literature or African American literature) that are already marginalized cultures within the “nationalist” literary tradition.  Nemesio is taking a very privileged view of “national” and what literature is by not even considering the possibility that his assumption of what human literary history is excludes a vast number of humans.  His attempt at inclusivity is oppressive and his choice of methods reaffirms what already exists in the academy  — the larger voices, no matter the canon or “nation”, will be heard.

Nemesio’s view is not a loud voice in the field of methods and literary studies, but it’s one of the ways that African American Literature and indeed, the voice of other marginalized texts and studies have to consider how some methods are privileged over others.  As with Surendran’s article, it demonstrates that research and literary study may be influenced through a determination of what methods are available and privileged.  They also brings to bear the questions of research and academic careers in departments in which my methods and research questions are not considered as valid as others.

Racialized bodies in American Culture: "Black bodies are already imagined, constructed as exotic, violent, alien, primitive, inferior and thus treated as out of the ordinary by hegemonic discourses and groups. The image below plays on the tried-and-tired trope of Black male sexuality as inherently heterosexual, dangerous and misogynistic."    -Egbert Alejandro Martina

Racialized bodies in American Culture: “Black bodies are already imagined, constructed as exotic, violent, alien, primitive, inferior and thus treated as out of the ordinary by hegemonic discourses and groups. The image below plays on the tried-and-tired trope of Black male sexuality as inherently heterosexual, dangerous and misogynistic.”
-Egbert Alejandro Martina

Because I have chosen to focus my research on Critical Race Theory and African American Literature, both of which involve narrative and counternarrative, the inclusion of Cultural Studies is necessary in order to examine the ways in which race and identity are created through, among other things,  the media, law, art, music, and texts.  I anticipate that my research will borrow heavily  social science methods as well as law in forming methodologies and theories.  These methods will include, but are not limited to social science methods such as:

Archival research – Articles, other research and data already collected, manuscripts, first-person accounts of important events and life stories, databases, etc.

Visual“This includes using the visual as a documenting tool to produce visual records, in interviews to elicit comments from informants, in participant observation to research ways of seeing and understanding, analysing visual and material culture and using visual media to represent the findings of such research” (Pink).

Ethnography“Ethnography is a type of social science research that investigates the practices and life of a community, by becoming one of its members. It is based on learning about a context and the people living in it, by understanding their values, needs and vocabulary. It requires faithful reporting of what is experienced or observed, avoiding any interpretation or evaluation as far as possible” (“Ethnographic Research”).

Biographical“Rather than concentrating upon a ‘snapshot’ of an individual’s present situation, the biographical approach emphasises the placement of the individual within a nexus of social connections, historical events and life experiences (the life history). An important sub-stream of the method focuses upon the manner in which the respondent actively constructs a narrative of their life in response to the social context at the time of interview (the life story)” (Miller).

As evidenced by just some of the methods above,  the methods I will use vary widely as are the academic departments and theories I apply to my research.   In fact, Kim Fahle’s  October 28, 2014 comment on my last paper   “For instance do you see yourself using legal and cultural documents to contextualize and interpret literature, or are you examining literature in conjunction with other documents as equivalent texts that provide a window to theorize and discuss racialized bodies?” has helped shape the direction of my research because I was, until then, trying to articulate how I was going to approach the discussion of racialized bodies.  Knowing the research question or at least the direction of the research question is essential in determining methods.  I am going to use literature and other documents as equivalent texts to theorize and discuss racialized bodies.  Legal methods will included written law, quantitative and qualitative analysis of the law and public policy, and a historical view of the law.  Much of my approach to incorporating Cultural Studies into my research will include the above social science and legal methods.  Thanks, Kim!


Works Cited

“Ethnographic Research.” Experientia Putting People First. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Miller, Robert. “BIOGRAPHICAL METHODS.” The A-Z of Social Research (2003): n. pag. : SAGE Research Methods. SAGE Publishing, 2003. Web. 02 Nov. 2014

Nemesio, Aldo. “The Comparative Method and the Study of Literature.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture. Purdue University, Mar. 2007. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.

Pink, Sarah. “VISUAL METHODS.” The SAGE Dictionary of Social Research Methods (2006): n. pag. : SAGE Research Methods. SAGE Publishing, 2006. Web. 02 Nov. 2014.

Surendran, Sreevidya. “Of Methods and Methodologies in Literary Studies and Humanities.” Sociological Imagination. N.p., 27 June 2011. Web. 27 Oct. 2014.


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