Authority is Constructed & Contextual

by Joseph M. Moxley and Grace Veach and | Hit Count

Authority is (1) Constructed and (2) Contextual addresses two core information literacy competencies, as conceptualized by the Association of College and Research Libraries.


Deciphering information has always been surprisingly tricky. When you look out on the horizon and see the sun setting earlier and earlier during the end of the summer, you surmise that winter is coming. Chances are your friends standing alongside you may agree with you. Yet as the stars come out, as astrological patterns emerge, disagreements may emerge. Perhaps your friends believe the stars predict human behavior, that people under Pisces are confident and freedom loving whereas those under Gemini prefer being alone. 

Authority is a Constructed

First, the authority of a source is constructed. Here authority refers to “expertise” as opposed to “power.” Authority is a quality that lends weight to an argument due to the expert’s research methods or personal and professional qualifications.

In order to use their own authority, writers must be an expert on a topic. How a person becomes an expert can vary by discourse community. Plus, expertise exists along a continuum, from complete beginner to internationally recognized authority. The actual assumption of the title “expert” may be formal (i.e. the conferral of a graduate degree) or informal. While college students might have expertise in some areas (e.g., sports and the performing arts), they are novices in most academic and professional circles. If they need to write in these areas, they can supplement their lack of expertise by citing from recognized experts in the field.

Thus, writers can add authority to their writing in two ways:

  1. they can use their own expertise, or
  2. they can “borrow” the expertise of someone else.

Whichever is used, the authority is constructed and contextual in the same ways. For example, the authority of a knowledge claims is substantiated by

  • who cites the knowledge claim
  • the credibility of the author’s research methods,
  • by the placement of knowledge claim in relationship to ongoing conversations about that topic over time, and
  • by the publication source.

Thus, you would be, most likely, wiser to follow the health advice of a board-certified oncologist over that of an online spiritualist or life coach if the oncologist told you have an estrogen positive form of cancer. If you were forced to decide between five years of tamoxofin or a mastectomy and the oncologist recommended the mastectomy based on the most recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, you would probably follow that advice over the spiritualist’s claim she could read your chakra and promised a juice diet would do the trick based on her past experience and journal notes.

When researchers are conducting a study, they follow research methods that are accepted by their discourse community as reasonable and valid methods. When other writers cite these studies, they inform their readers about the researchers’ methods to explicitly confirm they followed the rules of the game.

Another marker for authority is repeated citations. The weight of a knowledge claim evolves over time by the process of other writers citing a particular knowledge claim. One of the tenets of rigorous textual research is that writers need to identify the foundational texts–the research studies and theories that first made the knowledge claim.

All that said, from history we know we cannot judge the authority of a claim solely based on a rhetor’s ethos. The economic value of information can sway institutions and people to interpret knowledge claims in specious ways.

‘More doctors smoke Camels than any other cigarette,
From the collection of Stanford Research Into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising

How, then, can you construct your authority as a writer? People’s life experiences all contribute to building their ethos. High school, college, and graduate diplomas all represent advancing levels of expertise. Extensive reading on a subject helps. Being previously published in a given area also builds authority. Personal experience such as working at a specific career also increases someone’s expertise. Each time someone adds more experience or knowledge in a topic, their authority increases.

Authority is Contextual

Second, the authority of a source is contextual: The Communities of Practitioners who inhabit a rhetorical space, a context, have distinct ideas about what constitutes a valid knowledge claim. Academic disciplines—for example, mathematics, psychology, physics, engineering, or business—have different ways of conducting and evaluating research. An anthropologist’s account of kinship patterns in a tribe of Native Americans bears almost no resemblance to a cognitive psychologist’s investigation of sensory responses to light stimuli. Even within a particular academic discipline, researchers may disagree over what makes good research.  Different researchers employ different research methodologies because they have opposing, sometimes contradictory ideas, about what constitutes a valid knowledge claim. 

Not only do people disagree about appropriate methods of research, but their ideas may change over time. Conceptions about knowledge, available technologies, and research practices influence each other and change constantly. For example, capturing gorillas and studying them in cages might have been considered good research in the 1920s. The work of later researchers like Dian Fossey, however, demonstrated how animals might be better understood in their natural environment. Today, research based on observations of wild animals in captivity would gain little support or interest.

The poignancy, currency, and perceived accuracy of knowledge claims are contextual. While a writing teacher may be an expert in the academic discipline of English composition, you may be more of an expert at playing the violin, so they could teach you in a college course and then turn around and take violin lessons from you. Depending on the context (i.e. rhetorical situation), different people are experts by virtue of their previous study and experience. Society also provides context. For example, women were rarely recognized as authorities, in spite of any expertise they might have, until very recently, and in some societies, women still fight to be acknowledged. 

Interestingly, Elsevier recently found that “37% of researchers trust only half of the articles they read

Source: https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0011/908435/Trust_evidence_report_summary_Final.pdf

Authority is Constructed and Contextual & the Writing Process

  1. Ethically Representation of Context
  2. Ethical Use of Data
  3. Ethical Use of Sources
  4. News or Opinion
  5. Non-traditional Types of Evidence
  6. What Might be a More Credible, Reliable Source?

The textual practices of discourse communities reflect epistemological assumptions of practitioners regarding what constitutes a knowledge claim and how knowledge claims can be tested. For instance, to make or test knowledge claims, scientists may conduct in objective, empirical observations whereas scholars in the humanities may debate interpretations of texts.


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