January 5, 2009

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.

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