Generative Metaphors in Discourse

Generative Metaphors. In his original post to the listserv, Mauricio took up a position on research through design and its role in PhD-level research. “I add that ‘research through design’ and ‘research-creation’ are not, yet, mature approaches to reliably use them in PhD level research.” He does acknowledge that it is possible for these approaches to become mature approaches. But this is part of a set of qualifiers that others on the list use in order to justify their argument that certain ways of doing research are legitimate and others are not—an argument that they refuse to abandon or modify. The set of qualifiers could be averaged in a statement like, “I am not arguing that RtD can never be research. I am simply arguing that in order for it to be research it must adhere to established definitions and criteria.”

But what is perhaps interesting about Mauricio’s statement is his use of the word “mature” to denote worthiness of use in PhD-level research. This is a normative statement. An approach to research should be mature in order for it to qualify for (reliable) use in PhD-level research. His use of the word mature thus creates a binary opposition between mature approaches and immature ones, where maturity is the “legitimating” characteristic and “immaturity” a characteristic of illegitimate research. It would be interesting to explore the reasons behind Mauricio’s claim. But he does not provide any. He simply characterizes by implication RtD and “research creation” as immature, or “maturing,” and thus unworthy for PhD-level research. What does this characterization do?

Of course it reaffirms the legitimacy of research (as defined by Ken and others) as fully formed or fully developed. Perhaps we can see evidence of this “fully-formedness” in Ken’s definitions and sets of criteria. When a thing is fully formed, then it can be observed, analyzed, and described. When a thing is forming, then it can be observed, analyzed, and described in terms of the process of formation rather than its final form. A description of research through design, for instance, could use Ken’s definitions or criteria as an analytical framework. It could attempt to describe where research through design is relative to its “fully formed” final state and theorize about how to move RtD to this final state in an effective and efficient way. But this points to one of the other functions of descriptors like “mature.”

They shape the way the reader thinks about the thing they describe. They are generative metaphors, a term I borrow from Donald Schön. Schön describes generative metaphors in as “[producing] a selective representation of an unfamiliar system that sets the values for the systems transformation. It frames the problem of the problematic situation and thereby sets directions in which solutions lie and provides a schema for exploring them.” (Schön, 1993) Generative metaphors are part of Schön’s theory of synthesis, which describes how designing happens. I am suggesting that “mature” is one among many generative metaphors used by the discussants on this listserv that set the directions in which the solution to the problem of “research through design” lies and provides a path for exploring possible solutions.

When I read that RtD is not yet “mature,” I start to explore its path towards maturity. I perhaps assume that maturity better than immaturity when it comes to research approaches even though this is not necessarily the case. To subscribe to such an assumption is to commit a logical fallacy: things are neither better nor worse simply because they are mature or immature. But I am nonetheless inclined to think this way since generative metaphors “embody normative ideas.” Mature is better than immature.

And throughout the listserv messages, similar metaphors operate—metaphors that could “live in the same neighborhood” as maturity—in order to establish the path towards solutions. Serious is better than lax. Significant is better than insignificant. Useful is better than useless. “Serious, significant, and useful,” like mature, function (normatively) to set directions in which solutions lie. Legitimate research must be serious, significant, and useful, and the definitions for even these metaphors are highly precise and prescribed by those who invoke them. In other words, the ways to be serious, significant, and useful have already been defined. But this is something that (I suspect) Schön would find problematic.

Generative metaphors point towards inquiry, but they do not prescribe the ways of exploring nor do they presume (an) outcome. The generative metaphors used in the RtD listserv presuppose that a concrete definition of (or set of criteria for) research exists and that this definition is sufficient. All paths lead back to the definition (or criteria). Schön would argue that generative metaphor presupposes no outcomes and has no foreknowledge of its final destination. It is simply designed to initiate the journey. It raises interesting questions about the words these discussants use. What does it mean to be mature? What are the strengths and weaknesses? What are the strengths of immaturity? What are the many ways in which one might define seriousness or significance? How many kinds of usefulness are there?

These questions presuppose the flexibility of language. The internet, not the fishing net. There are many ways to understand usefulness and possibly many ways for an approach to be useful to a research community. One of Ken’s tacit assumptions must therefore be that definitions and criteria have to be strict if they are to be meaningful. In other words, even if definitions and criteria are agreed upon or decided by consensus, they become objective through the process. This can be understood as the movement from social meaning to objective meaning—an ontological shift. This does not exempt the things that I describe as “becoming” objective from malleability. The meaning of “research” can change, but perhaps the change is more likely to happen slowly over time. Perhaps it is likely to change because of discussions like the RtD listserv thread.

What is important to keep in mind is that readers remain keenly attuned to the way metaphor shapes their interpretation of a text and that they not fall victim to the trap of assuming that mature is better than immature, significance is better than insignificant, or, as is the case with this thread, that there is one and only one way to be significant or serious or useful.

2 thoughts on “Generative Metaphors in Discourse

    1. Thanks for the resources, Jessica! They will definitely come in handy as I explore this particular content a bit deeper in anticipation of a fall conference submission deadline : )

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