January 21, 2009

Is this anything?

When Julka and I had our "let's start elmtwig collective" conversation one of the first things we did was feel around for a topic that we both found interesting. We were looking for something that provoked our curiosity and that we felt like diving into to see if there was a there there. We decided on money.

Money was certainly in the news. An economic crisis and tales of doom greeted us on every newspaper. (Apparently a lot of America's money was imaginary and we all stopped believing in it at the same time.) We'd both been doing our own bit of belt tightening which necessitated some self-reflection. So we wondered in the most broad terms, what could studying people and money tell us about the human condition? We certainly weren't the first people to ask this question, but the point wasn't to be original. It was mostly just to be curious.

When I undertake research like this, my first step is simply to turn on my radar. While I'm reading or talking to people or watching movies or television or doing crosswords or whatever, I try to be hyperaware of the moments that spark a connection with the topic and put them away somewhere. Often I simply put them into my brain which is not a great idea because their recall becomes dependent of other factors so now I try to put them down on paper. And then put them in a pile. Or sometimes on the wall. It is not a sophisticated system and it could definitely use some evolution, but it works. Most of the time.

In the name of evolution, I'm going to try using the elmtwig blog as my wall. Posting some of the things I see or read or hear about that make me think of money or finance or economics. And then after awhile, we'll look back and ask "is this anything?"

January 20, 2009

Theories and facts

A few years ago I went to see an exhibit about Darwin at the Field Museum in Chicago. They used Darwin's journals and animals (actual lizards and birds!) to recreate his journey on the HMS Beagle and attempt to allow you to have the experience of seeing what he saw; the moments and observations that would form the basis for the theory of evolution. It was an amazing exhibit. (Describing it now, I realize how much it is reminding me of John Dewey's Art as Experience. sigh. I guess I did learn a few things in grad school.)

But perhaps my favorite part was at the end when the exhibition took on the issues surrounding evolution and intelligent design through Q&As with scientists. One of them said, "Theories are not facts. Theories explain facts." And I was almost bowled over by what a succinct, powerful statement that was in part because it illuminated a fundamental issue in our misdirected national conversation. When we argue about evolution and intelligent design, we're not only arguing about theories, we're arguing about what counts as a fact.

And that is such an interesting argument. In Darwin's time, a fact was an observable truth meaning (maybe. I'm making this up as I go. Write to understand, remember.) that others could look at it and see the same thing. Birds on one island had different types of beaks than birds on another island. But somehow, that act of looking has become so much more subjective, influenced by belief as much as observation. Theories begetting facts as opposed to facts begetting theories. What qualifies as a fact in today's day and age? How is it different in different academic disciplines? We tend to use the same words (data, facts, theories, arguments) but we're not really referring to the same things and at what point does our quest for a common language (an absolute necessity in our multi-disciplinary world) hide important conversations that we need to be having?

This post includes more questions than answers, but I suppose that is as good a place to begin as any. I think Darwin would be proud.

January 19, 2009

The Other (Half) of Elmtwig Collective

I'm nervous to write this post because this blog feels so Julka, but I suppose it is better to jump in rather than wade.

(splash) Hello. I'm Maggie.

It was Julka and I's wintertime conversation(s) that led to the rejuvenation of this blog as a place to have, share, and evolve thoughts we have constantly about theory and design practice. And after a long couple of weeks, here I am. I won't try to explain more than that because well...that's what the blog is for; we write to understand.

Additionally, our goal (my goal?) is to see if the blog is helpful in allowing us to move beyond individual thoughts on a topic and towards something more like our conversations which always leave me heady and excited about possibilities. I'm not convinced it will, but my enthusiastic side loves nothing more than to prove my skeptical side wrong.

January 5, 2009

Here is an outtake from one of my interviews on our project about money. She is insightful, endlessly entertaining, and in love with JCPenny.
The first Elmtwig Collective design research project will explore the domain of money. We are currently working to define our research question and to start interviewing and collecting stories. Through the process of defining our project we've had an interesting conversation about methodology. We would like to strike balance between academic research, journalistic research and design research, but this has presented an interesting challenge. While academic research (and here I am referring to the social sciences) offers the most robust method and theoretical foundation, it is generally only accessible to a small population of academics. Journalistic/nonfiction research reaches far more people, but tends to be a bit more shallow with a less robust data collection method (which can be due to constraints like time) and lacks a strong theoretical foundation. Truthfully, I don't fully understand the methodology of journalists and have been reading this to gain some insight. Finally, design research is very applied and solutions focused. It generally prefers practice to theory (while in reality they are actually related). Design researchers might not like it when I say this, but most design research lacks a theoretical foundation. What design research is great for is offering contextual solutions and opportunities to make changes or take action (I am being very reductionist on all three accounts, but you get the idea).

My question is, how do we collect data that will be academically robust (so that we can make claims or theoretical generalization from the data we collect), accessible and interesting to a larger audience and offer solutions and ideas for action?

The starting point is deciding who is part of our population. We know the kind of data we want to collect and we know we are interested in stories and narrative, but how do we know who to include in our project? This is particularly challenging for me because in my own academic research my population must always be clearly defined.

As part of my research, I have turned to three people to consider how they collected data on a broadly defined domain, Studs Terkel (pictured above), Alastair Cooke and Alexis de Tocqueville. Who was their population? What were their units of analysis? How did they get their information? They are all very different, but their work has qualities that seems relevant here at least to finding the balance between academic research and journalism. Maggie and I will continue to post about these ideas as we work through them.