“We need, I believe, a far more integrated theoretical vision which can explain how context cues cognition, which in its turn mediates and interprets the particular world that context provides.”
–Linda Flower

In “Cognition, Context, and Theory Building” (1989), Linda Flower problematizes a dichotomy between “cognition” and “context” models of composition studies. She explains how the cognition-based approach, such as The Hayes/Flower cognitive process model, identify a role for environment, they fail to “account for how the situation in which the writer operates might shape composing” (740). On the other hand, the social-based or context approach “is likewise limited by a failure to account for the experience of individual students or writers within a group and to accommodate a vision of human agency, original contributions, and personal or intellectual development” (740). An interactive theory, Flower argues, must go farther than either of these models and cannot be limited by their dichotomy. Flower moves quickly to call for the practical needs of any theoretical framework, noting that “Educators do not work with abstractions; they work with students. As a teacher, I need an interactive vision of the writing process that can address the hurdles student writers often face, that can account for the cognitive and social sources of both success and failure, and that can talk about the experience of writing by being adequately fine-grained and situated in that experience” (Flower 741). Thus she has set out the practical needs of such an interactive theory.

Flower tackles the practice of peer-response early on in the article, noting that it makes sense if writing is treated as “a social, context-driven event” (742). However, from a cognition standpoint, she points out that it is difficult to be certain that students will take from the activity the intended internalized experience that an instructor might hope for. Indeed, just as likely as an increased understanding of reader response to their prose, students may contrive workarounds to avoid engaging with the assignment–far from the intended purpose (743). She cites a study by Sarah Friedman (1987) to justify this description of peer response, noting for example that students are only on task approximately half the time, yet she also points out that this is not intended as a critique of peer response activities. Rather, it is an example of how differently an activity designed to affect cognitive processes may play out from the way it was planned. This illustrates the risk of focusing on only social/context-driven approaches or cognitive approaches rather than considering both (743).

Flower notes that she is not calling for a monolithic “integrated theory” that would solve all of composition pedagogy’s ills, but rather she calls for “more balanced, multi-perspective descriptions and more rigorously grounded theoretical explanations of various aspects of the writing process” (743-744). She identifies the present moment of her writing as a time for reflection, revision, and more analytical approaches to composition pedagogy–a field which has become a combination of composition, rhetoric, and psychology (744). To this end, Flower proposes the following:

“Let me propose three principles that inform this more complicated interaction and suggest that both cognition and context may in a sense construct one another. One principle is that cultural and social context can provide distinct cues to cognition. The second is that context is also and always mediated by the cognition of the individual writer. And the third is that the bounded purposes that emerge from this process are highly constrained but at the same time meaningful, rhetorical acts.” (Flower 744)

Context Cues Cognition

Flower argues that context shapes cognition, both in the sense that past experiences and knowledge influence what is known and how that knowledge may develop, as well as serving as a “cue to action” that “triggers specific processes” (745). As an example of this, Flower cites the tendency of early college writers to continue to repeat the tasks expected of them in high school writing (primarily operating in the mode of summary) due to the past experiences that have shaped their cognitive processes, “which leads them to suppress their own ideas and to avoid critical engagement with the texts they read” (746). Context, Flower writes, also shapes expectation through the criteria by which texts are evaluated. Given these interrelations, she asserts that understanding the power that context has to influence a writer’s cognition–either to nurture or to oppress–is key to understanding student development (746).

Cognition Mediates Context

Here Flower points out that context must be processed by cognition to impact a writer. That is, understanding cannot come from nowhere–it must spring from a specific context, a particular rhetorical situation. She indicates that this is not a simple act of conscious decision, nor is it a mere act of interpretation. Rather, the process of cognition is interactive, that understanding context is “a part of the sustained cognitive process of planning, problem-solving, and making trial-and-error stabs at doing the task” (747). This process, she indicates, may be unspoken and immediate or consciously focused and pondered upon, and the process may begin to seem more “automated” with increased learning and practice. However, this kind of automated thinking carries the risk of limiting reflection on the process and critical thinking (747-748). The process may not be entirely self-aware even during a more focused contemplation of choices and how to proceed, though it may be more “sustained and complex” (748).

A Bounded Purpose is a Meaningful Rhetorical Act

Flower asks, “Are writers ‘determined’ by their situation, or do they ‘control’ the meanings they make, or is ‘originality’ only an illusion and ‘purpose’ a fiction of rhetoric texts?” (749). In considering this matter, she identifies the concern of the writing educator as to ask where and how within this situation that human agency may assert itself. To this end, Flower asserts that “Purpose in writing is always a bounded purpose” (750). That is, purpose is always constrained by some specific rhetorical situation, whether systemic, task-based, or material in nature. She indicates that writers may either operate within these constraints, making them a part of the project, or that they may challenge them, working against the constraints of the situation. In addition, the bounded purpose must serve the goals of the writer, herself (750). In practice, when a writer negotiates these decisions, “we do not see a single statement of purpose, but a web of purpose–a complex network of goals, plans, interpretations, and ideas,” the creation of which is a “richly interactive social and cognitive event” (750).


To further this theory, Flower argues, the consideration of context and cognition must be made situational and examined in specific cases. In building such an interactive theory, Flower calls for observational research to play a major role (753). She outlines from here a number of criteria for theory-building, including logical consistency, clarity, frugality, and scope. In particular, she claims, a rhetorical theory that integrates cognition and context must fit be clearly applicable without being forced and must offer a meaningful explanation of the process for educators and theorists (754). She acknowledges that theory-making is itself a rhetorical act, but she also recommends an observation-based rather than idea-testing approach so that it may pose questions and revise the approach rather than simply test a concept (755). In the remainder of the paper, Flower seeks to foster discussion of of observation-based research by examining its goals, limitations, and challenges (756). She indicates that data always offer more possibilities than researchers can grasp, that it must always be interpreted and turned to a particular end. This requires researchers to move beyond data, that evaluating and interpreting data is itself always a rhetorical act (758). In summation, she characterizes any theory of any observation-based theory as a cumulative effort that can never be completed by any one researcher or theorist. Further, such a theory must “create, on the one hand, a meaningful interpretation of the world and, on the other, to test that constructed reality in clear and careful ways, against the rich and contrary data of experience” (769).


Flower, Linda. “Cognition, Context, and Theory Building.” 1989. Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 2nd Ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva. Urbana: NCTE, 2003. Print.