Problematising theorising

Saturday, December 6th, 2008 | Design and research, General, Theory

In the last week I have attended a workshop with Mieke Bal as well as a seminar on ‘research by design’. It has been a strange but interesting experience. The events presented me with two different approaches to theorising in practice-based research.

Mieke Bal talked about the case study. In her opinion, a case can be anything, including design experiments produced by the researcher. If I remember correctly, she described the case study as a “tool for polemics”, that is, a tool for critical theorising. Implicitly, theorising is the unquestionable goal of this process.

In the ‘research by design’ seminar, Chris Rust presented a different view. His advice is to avoid an excess of theorising. He referred to problems in the social sciences of developing grand theories that are not connected to reality. We should pay attention to theory, but not let the polemic take over “when there is work to do”, as he formulated it. I am not sure what kind of work he was referring to.

I guess the need for theorizing will depend on the specific research question, and research field. If the problem one tries to solve is “practical”, then it might not be necessary to develop much theory to solve it. However, a conceptual problem needs theory to be solved. And as far as I have understood, academic research (including a scholarly based PhD) requires a high degree of reflection or theorizing. Therefore, a regular design problem does not qualify as an academic research problem.

Then the remaining question is: how to find the balance between theorising and not creating a polemical monster disconnected from reality?

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