Knowledge Contributions | Discourse Analysis

design, design research, design theory, knowledge tools, philosophy of science, science, theory

Borrowing from a personal email exchange, in my final paper I’d like to look at “how publications in a journal like Nature talk about their knowledge contributions and how publications in a journal like Design Studies talk about their knowledge contributions.” The interest stems from a parallel research project I’m doing about theoretical vs schematic knowledge contributions.

One of the things driving this topic is the seemingly perpetual comparison (stacking up?) that seems to happen between science and scientific knowledge and other disciplines and other types of knowledge in the academy. I’m not really taking issue with the comparison. Of course, one way disciplines come to achieve “self” knowledge is by comparing themselves to others. It’s important for design to compare itself with science, art, sociology, psychology, medicine, etc. in order to map the intersections and divergences. Divergences. That’s a key for me right now.

Wooffitt writes, in the section on externalizing devices, “How can we use language to establish that something is ‘out there’, and that it has an independent objective existence?” And in the context of the chapter (and elsewhere) it’s quite apparent why we would want to do that. It enhances our credibility in casual conversations and in publishing academic research. I pulled the following from a document that serves both as part of my final project research for this class and as a part of an outside research project:

After skimming five [design research] articles, there seems to be a balance between the use of the language of “truth” and that of the language of “utility” with regard to the knowledge contribution. I looked both at abstracts and conclusion sections as primary sites in the texts for talking about the knowledge contribution(s)…

There are lots of instances of what could be construed as scientific buzz words [words that lend themselves to the idea of objective existence] like “experiment,” “results,” and “hypothesis.” These words are of course flexible and they are not necessarily connotative of [empirical] science. However, when these words are used primarily by authors in talking about their “observations” or “experiments” it seems fairly obvious that, in context, they are imbued with the values of empirical science. In other words, they are tools for affirming the objectivity of the claims being made.

There’s no 1:1 correlation between the language of truth as I describe it in the above paragraphs and the language of utility. And actually the question I’m grappling with right now is whether it’s possible to warrant a claim to utility without appealing to the language of truth. For instance, one of the texts I read contains the following quote:

“We have repeatedly observed that with descriptions of biological phenomena, designers tend to rely on non-analogous associations over analogical reasoning… Our work suggests that specific mapping instructions and problem-independent scenario mapping could enable designers to better focus on analogical reasoning.”

The “observations” in the first sentence seem to me to be an example of language use that establishes that “something is out there” and not “from the researchers themselves.” This is what I’m calling the language of truth. The second sentence is interesting, too, because it contains elements of the language of truth. The blue text imbues “our work,” which is not the same thing as “us,” with the authority of more objective truth to warrant the utility claim highlighted in green. Note that the scientific language in the first sentence reaffirms the “objective truth value” of the blue text. It creates some space between the scientists (who are biased and flawed) from their work, which, so long as it followed a scientific process, transcends their biases and flaws.

Currently, I’m curious to know how these claims can be made in different ways. And so this is where I think something like Jorgensen’s analytical tools can come in handy. Something like substitution, perhaps? How do the words “repeatedly observed” effect the claim? How does the claim “read” differently with words cut and/or swapped out?

With descriptions of biological phenomena, designers tend to rely on non-analogous associations over analogical reasoning… We suggest that specific mapping instructions and problem-independent scenario mapping could enable designers to better focus on analogical reasoning.”

What’s lost? What’s gained? There is certainly objectivity lost. But could it also be argued that “designerliness” is gained? Maybe. Maybe not. I don’t know yet. It is an agenda-laden question, too. I ask it as someone currently trying to understand what makes a designerly knowledge contribution different from a scientific one and, ultimately, probably, to argue for making more the former in design research publications in order to build design as a discipline.

2 thoughts on “Knowledge Contributions | Discourse Analysis

  1. Hm…I really enjoyed reading your “analysis” in this post. One thing that struck me is the place of rhetoric in an analysis of “designerly knowledge contributions.” It seems that academic discourse is something that could be analyzed through the lens of rhetoric, as in many ways academics are “trained” in particular rhetorics to build their case, the legitimize their identities, etc. Thoughts on that?

  2. What’s cool about being a student is having the opportunity to see how the “rhetorical training” manifests itself with different collaborators. Of course, I’m “trained” by reading papers and unpacking them in order to understand how their pieces fit together–partly as an exercise to understand and respond to someone else’s contribution and partly as an exercise to cultivate and refine my own “rhetoric” as an academic writer. But there’s also the training that happens when writing with one (or more) collaborator(s). Some folks I’ve written with are quite explicit about why they structure their claims the way they do (e.g. “we have to say it this way… this is the way the conference organizers want us to say it) whereas others just seem to write in certain ways without being explicit about the underlying reasons. It makes me think about the degree to which we’re aware of the rhetoric we’re trained in and, thus, are perhaps in a better or worse position to question it.

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