Forms of inquiry in design and research | Erik Stolterman | May 17, 2013 | Transforming Grounds

Extending Churchman’s inquiring systems to design, by @estolter and Harold G Nelson with (i) the true, (ii) the ideal, and (iii) the real.

… in the chapter “The Ultimate Particular” […] we discuss three forms or designs of inquiry and action that humans can engage in. We suggest “… that design, as presented in this book, is based on a compound form of inquiry, composed of true, ideal, and real approaches to gaining knowledge.” It is possible to also make the case that research and science also in most cases consists of compound forms of these three. There is not simple and direct mapping between them even though it may be tempting to assume that.

I will not here go into any detail about this, just copy two of the schemas we use in the chapter to show what kind of considerations are involved when anyone makes a decision on how to design a particular form of inquiry.

In Figure 1.4 (below) we present a schema that lays out several aspects of inquiry and action and how they can be understood for each of the three forms of inquiry, that is, the real, the true and the ideal. This is a quite rich schema with dense concepts, but reading each line carefully gives insights about how different the three are, but also where they are somewhat overlapping. So, in making choices about what form of inquiry to choose in your research or design, a schema like this may help since it not only explains but also provides with concepts that can guide the understanding of purpose and measure of success. For instance, you can examine what your intention is, what you motivation is, what your preferred form of understanding is, etc. Given any choice also tells you what the measure fo success should be. So, if you are truly looking for inquiry for understanding (under ‘fundamentals’) that can lead to ‘enlightenment’ of some kind, it is not appropriate to see ‘facts’ to be part of the measure of success.

Figure 1.4:  Designs of inquiry: the real, true and ideal

However, choosing a research approach or a design approach is not a simple question of deciding which ‘design of inquiry and action’ to “use”. The richness and specifics of the particular situation, your purpose and intention leads to complex considerations regarding how all three forms can inform and enrich an inquiry. This is shown in Figure 1.5 below.

Figure 1.5: Design inquiry: an emergent  compound

Design or research is never a question of finding out what the correct or best existing approach is, instead it is a complex process of judgment that weighs all aspects in an attempt to reach an approach that makes sense, that is guided by intention, that has a purpose and is based on a clear understanding of what the measure of success is.

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3 comments on “Forms of inquiry in design and research | Erik Stolterman | May 17, 2013 | Transforming Grounds
  1. David Hawk says:

    Nice attempt to open reason up to that which perhaps is not and maybe ought not be overtly rational. As a by-product it illustrates how the subject area, whatever we come to label it, is overfilled with attempts to derive and place a rationale, i.e., someone’s idea, near the center of the thought process that is thinking about it. While always interesting this approach is seldom helpful to understanding that last.

    Key: I’m hesitant to embrace the categories of “real, true and ideal” as they are not mutually exclusive, well understood, or susceptible to ah ha experiences.

    The real? This has become a code word for someone being paranoid about the ambiguities of “reality”, especially those that emerged in science since the emergence of quantum physics. Most non-physics depictions since that time revert back to Newton or hide from the implications of modern physics by ignoring them and instead following the Wittgenstein approach to deciding whether a picture of a pipe is, or is not, a pipe. I would instead look to those who resist using the term “real” anywhere in their approach to understanding. Goethe is helpful, Lao Tzu is great, as is most of the translation work by Walter Kaufman.

    The true? Well, it has similar shortcomings. Religion put a few nails in its conceptual coffin a long time ago, then science added a few more (with some outstanding exceptions such as Heisenberg), and the judicial process running amok in a societal search for truth, via unintelligent lawyers doing unintelligent things, has pretty well buried the construct. It now is pretty well insulated it from any possibility of being helpful to meaning.

    The Ideal? The Platonic construct for explaining why humans are pretty well screwed by the limits of their mentality. Plato’s approach was consistent with the attitude of humans in the Old Testament, of the infamous Bible that 90% of politicians hold but can’t read. Ackoff,, attempted to avoid this Platonic limitation by allowing “the ideal” to move, change and morph into whatever humans wanted it to be. This was to be done via his depiction of design. Ackoff claimed he took his thinking from Plato, but it was radically transformed via the taking. Plato’s approach was fundamentally different to Ackoff. I tend to be attracted to it, and drop design from the process. For Plato, that the ideal simply is, and probably does not change, but even if it changes, humans can’t know the change because “the ideal is the reality behind appearances that humans cannot access.” Ackoff side-stepped that detail, but at a cost. I would be careful of the ideal as a construct for design.

    Not sure if this helps, probably not. From my time with Ackoff and Churchman, it seemed that Churchman was quite thoughtful about planning, and Ackoff has a similar strength with design. Each ran into limitations when they went into the alternative area; e.g., Ackoff’s “On Purposeful Systems,” and “Churchman’s “Design of Inquiring Systems.” Ackoff, perhaps because of his architectural background, felt pretty secure in the three-dimensional world, and showed it, but was uneasy in the fourth. Chuchman, perhaps because of his pessimism about the human condition, easily occupied the fourth dimension but always kept his reservations about the human potentiality for good from the first three dimensions.

    Just some thoughts.


  2. lezlie1 says:

    Fascinating. I have been thinking along these lines in designing an inquiry into a subject in popular culture that is of interest to me. I particularly like how it incorporates the “ideal” – something I have tried to do in formulating a theoretical underpinning for art-informed inquiry as well. thanks for posting!


  3. Personally, I am seeing class conflicts or placement in positions that are not “true” in my experiences. But the concept is ideal.


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