In an earlier post, I discussed adolescence as a metaphor for HCI research.
One thing that’s especially cool about this metaphor is the way it inspires thinking about time increments and their implications for knowledge growth. For instance, we might not expect a discipline “in its adolescence” to have a substantial body of theoretical knowledge. Consider, for example, the way Kit Fine riffs on this idea in the abstract of his text, Mathematics: Discovery or Invention?
Mathematics has been the most successful and is the most mature of the sciences. Its first great master work – Euclid’s ‘Elements’ – which helped to establish the field and demonstrate the power of its methods, was written about 2400 years ago; and it served as a standard text in the mathematics curriculum well into the twentieth century. By contrast, the first comparable master work of physics – Newton’s Principia – was written 300 odd years ago. And the juvenile science of biology only got its first master work – Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of Species’ – a mere 150 years ago.
A mere 150 years ago…!
One thing that’s especially cool about this is the different conception of time that arises when one sees the world from the perspective of a field or discipline. It becomes possible to see something 150 years old as an infant or toddler (not even an adolescent). And so HCI can be framed as a discipline not even close to its adolescence!
This is a crucial insight given that some researchers in HCI evaluate its theoretical adequacy as though the field is mature beyond its years.
In Making Social Science Matter, Bent Flyvbjerg examines the possibility that “the study of social phenomena is not, never has been, and probably never can be, scientific in the conventional meaning of the word science; that is, in its epistemic meaning,” and he explains why other fields tend toward such strong natural-scientific theoretical ambition. There is a logical simplicity to the natural science paradigm and the natural sciences have impressive material results.
Chapter Three, Is Theory Possible in Social Science, includes a brief exploration of the argument that natural science is “historically conditioned and requires hermeneutic interpretation” (p. 28). Flyvbjerg characterizes social science as “pre-paradigmatic” in the Kuhnian sense, which means that it “is in a state of constant reorganization, characterized by a multiplicity of directions” (p. 30). He then dispenses with the pre-paradigmatic argument that, with enough time, the social sciences can achieve the status of paradigmatic science.
Flyvbjerg argues that social science is no closer to achieving cumulative progress and that some natural sciences that are younger than social science already display such progress. He cites the hermeneutic/phenomenological argument. In social science, individuals and groups dialogue with researchers who themselves acknowledge the situatedness of their research activity. They are not separated from their subjects.
If I had to identify one thing I do well in the classroom, it’s this: I create an environment where it’s the norm to take risks, fail, and explore half-baked ideas.
My guess is that I model all three of these things. I fail up pretty much all the time, and I’m in the habit of sharing ideas before they’re well formed. And I think that’s great.
How else does an idea become fully formed or baked unless it’s subjected to questioning and critique from a smart group of students? Yes, it feels awkward, but I think it’s a mistake to wait until you have something to say. How will you know when to stop waiting if not by sharing what you have so far and learning from the reactions? The sooner ideas make it into a conversation the sooner they become stronger.
Lately, I’ve developed a strong interest in children’s books (cf. Martin Salisbury’s research) and the important role they play in shaping crucial perceptions and actions later in life (e.g. seeing artificial constructs as natural or treating certain subjects as taboo). There are two related to the concepts of idea sharing and failing up that are worth a read. I hope you find them as interesting and important as I do:
My wife (and daughter) gifted me a Lumio last week. I love it. It’s beautiful and fun. It sits on my desk next to my laptop and I find myself reaching for it several times a day. Each time I open it up, I pay attention to different details: the quality of the light filtering through the paper, the sound the paper makes as it expands and contracts, the feeling of the wooden cover on my fingers, the flexibility of the spine. Sometimes I turn off my desk lamp and I just sit for a little while enjoying the light.
Some additional good news to report. I submitted an abstract for a short paper to the upcoming IASDR conference in Cincinnati about some early-stage research that I’m working on with Erik Stolterman, and the abstract has been accepted! So now we’re writing the short paper and creating a poster to present at the conference.
Here is the abstract we submitted:
Scholars in a variety of academic disciplines have studied the peer review process. There are examinations of the biases that pervade peer review (Lee, Sugimoto, Zhang, & Cronin, 2013). Other studies propose tools or methods that might be useful for improving or standardizing the peer review process (Hames, 2008; Onitilo, Engel, Salzman-Scott, Stankowski, & Doi, 2013). Still others examine the kinds of criteria that ought to be relied upon in peer review processes, and in some cases these criteria are widely known and agreed upon. In the natural sciences, for example, we might say that there is a relatively stable set of criteria that can be used to assess the rigor, relevance, and validity of a scientific knowledge contribution. In this paper, our aim is to examine the process of peer review as it pertains to research through design. We aspire to build an understanding of the criteria scholars use when a design or prototype is the main contribution. How do reviewers evaluate designs as knowledge contributions? Is there any uniformity or stability to the review criteria? Are criteria from other fields (e.g. scientific criteria) used to evaluate designs? Toward this end, we report the outcome of a survey conducted with a group of meta-reviewers (n=15) from the design subcommittee for the 2017 Computer-Human Interaction (CHI) Conference, which is the flagship conference in our field of expertise. The design subcommittee reviews papers that “make a significant designerly contribution to HCI [including but not limited to] novel designs of interactive products, services, or systems that advance the state of the art.” Our findings suggest that there is little agreement on a common set of criteria for evaluating research through design.
I look forward to sharing more as this important project moves forward!
Terrific (not-so-new) news! She Ji: The Journal of Design, Economics, and Innovation published an article I wrote with Erik Stolterman about whether knowledge claims could be a useful way to distinguish research communities from one another. Here is the abstract:
While much has been written about designerly knowledge and designerly ways of knowing in the professions, less has been written about the production and presentation of knowledge in the design discipline. In the present paper, we examine the possibility that knowledge claims might be an effective way to distinguish the design discipline from other disciplines. We compare the kinds of knowledge claims made in journal publications from the natural sciences, social sciences, and design. And we find that natural and social science publications tend to make singular knowledge claims of similar kinds whereas design publications often contain multiple knowledge claims of different kinds. We raise possible explanations for this pattern and its implications for design research.
… and a link to the article, which is freely available for download. I’d welcome any comments or feedback. This is part of a broader project investigating the transfer and interplay of knowledge in research communities.
After a few years of submitting papers to HCI venues and learning how to cope with rejection after rejection after rejection*, I finally managed to get one accepted at ACM Designing Interactive Systems (DIS) 2017.
It’s a full paper, and it’s the outcome of a collaboration with Erik Stolterman. Here’s the abstract:
What are big questions? Why do scholars propose them? How are they generated? Could they be valuable and useful in HCI research? In this paper we conduct a thorough review of “big questions” literature, which draws on scholarship from a variety of fields and disciplines. Our intended contribution is twofold. First, we provide a substantive review of big questions scholarship, which to our knowledge has never been done before. Second, we leverage this summary as a means of examining the value and utility of big questions in HCI as a research discipline. Whether HCI decides that generating and having big questions would be a desirable path forward, we believe that examining the potential for big questions is a useful way of becoming more reflective about HCI research.
I’ll add a link to the draft soon, so if you find the abstract intriguing please do check back to download the paper. Can’t wait to visit Edinburgh!
*If you’re looking for an entertaining text on rejection-proofing yourself, I highly recommend Rejection Proof.
James Baldwin is a wonderful writer. I’m working my way slowly through The Fire Next Time, and the following passage just punched me in the chest:
Here was the South Side – a million in captivity – stretching from this doorstep as far as the eye could see. Ands they didn’t even read; depressed populations don’t have the time or energy to spare. The affluent populations, which should have been their help, didn’t, as far as could be discovered, read, either – they merely bought books and devoured them, but not in order to learn: in order to learn new attitudes. (Baldwin, 1993 p. 61)
Never have I ever felt so nailed by a critique. Have I ever really read to learn? Or has it always been to learn new attitudes? What’s the difference between learning [x] and learning a new attitude? What sorts of books is Baldwin talking about? And how does Baldwin distinguish between learning and learning new attitudes?
This last question seems to me to be a consequential one, and I would love to know how Baldwin makes the distinction (and if he is on record explaining it anywhere, I would love to read/watch.. so please leave a comment if you know).
I quoted from the First Vintage International Edition of the book, published in 1993.
I look forward to the day when more conferences in my fields of interest offer alternative forms of presentation. I recently received an email from the IASDR conference, which will be held later this year in Cincinnati. Part of the email states that:
“To allow all world citizens to participate in the IASDR2017 conference, every effort will be made to accommodate alternative forms of presentation such as recorded video or real-time online video conferencing.”
I was really pleased when I read this, and my hope is that others will make similar efforts. No one should miss out on the opportunity to present research because of backwards policy..