Where is the evidence? On one limitation of Empirical Research Paradigms

Daniel Gile

December 19, 2008



In a recent paper, I wrote that Danica Seleskovitch of ESIT was opposed to experimental research on interpreting. My claim was challenged and I was asked to produce evidence of this position. Actually, my statement was based on first-hand experience: as a doctoral student at one of Seleskovitch’s seminars, I heard her say many times that experimental research on interpreting was not valid because interpreters who did not work for delegates in a genuine communication setting could not be assumed to have the same type of motivation and to work in the same way as in real life. Nevertheless, when I set out to find written evidence of this attitude, I could not find any easily. Having failed to produce evidence which would be considered solid enough by my challenger, I decided to withdraw the claim from my text though I ‘know’ it is true. This is one limitation of empirical research, at least in some of its forms. Available knowledge cannot always be used directly if no norm-compliant evidence can be presented. In experimental research and naturalistic research as carried out in cognitive psychology and psycholinguistics, a direct quote would probably be the minimum requirement for the evidence to be considered serious.

In contrast, when cultural anthropologists make claims about positions of ethnic groups they study, their comments based on field observation and personal interpretations of what they hear and see are not challenged as weak because of lacking evidence. Why are they allowed to do what analysts of TS sociology are not allowed to do? Perhaps because it is tacitly recognized that it is not realistic to require them to bring recordings and specific declarations by the people they observe as evidence for every claim they make, while TS scholars are by definition publishers, and it is expected that their publications reflect rather comprehensively their views on research methodology. Ironically, if one looks at available ‘solid’ evidence, one finds that Seleskovitch’s doctoral dissertation (published as a book in 1975) does rely on an experiment. In other words, the evidence of her doctoral dissertation, which is ‘solid’, would contradict the claim that she opposed experimental research, which is difficult to substantiate.

Norms which determine the solidity of evidence to back up claims vary depending on the subject area and on the specific research method(s) used. However, in empirical research, in many cases, it would seem that some existing knowledge which we know to be true and which would be uncontroversial in everyday life cannot be used in the research environment. This is one of the limitations of Empirical Research Paradigms.