Methodological aspects of the PhD: Ways of Making Meaning

A modified audio recording (and so has an oral cadence, a cyclical emphasis. The modifications have been added to provide context. The text is primarily careful advice to a creative practice PhD student starting off). Not great by itself – but I am posting anyway as a place to keep this text.

The other way of doing PhD is Okay

So when you do an inquiry based PhD you are actually going into a field-area and there is a topic for your phd. And so you then produce knowledge about the topic area.

Many creatives refer to this is a ‘traditional’ PhD. A way to appreciate the Inquiry-Based PhD is to delve a bit into the two TROPES about the inquiry-led PhD – one trope dismisses it to deny its value and the other, my current contribution, privileges the virtues of a mode that has delivered a cadre of useful scholars to the planet. So first let us look a the way to diss the inquiry based PhD: It is formulaic and a factory that produces very little value. Industrial designers doing a management PhD can be embarking upon a pathway to nowhere, except to the PhD degree. You will encounter this position when people in design schools talk about the loss of culture and the spirit of design – the PhDs have moved in they say dismissively. [I said something similar years ago when sustainability became a thing for the management types – “wow! The suits have moved in” I proclaimed. That was the 1990s – and yes environmentalists became the ‘old way’ just like that]. How much better to learn to sing, than to do a PhD on music – that also I have heard.

But there is another way to value the ‘inquiry’. Its pure form is Alfred Russel Wallace who tramped about the Malay archipelago in the 1860s collecting species. He would shoot the Orangutang purely as the ‘documenter’ of species. The book The Malay Archipelago is a scream to read – and an amazing journal of a quest for pure knowledge (and bit of excitement along the way). There are others in smelly labs doing Wallace like projects – going deep into the darkness of the bush. I have encountered many such inquiries and have said – in my next life I will opt for that option for my intellectual life. In essence nothing to decry here. So doing a PhD as a reading holiday lasting a few years is pure gold in this narrative.

So if we want a party to arraign the other – the inquiry PhD – I won’t be joining in. Thanks for the invite.

This is Russel in Singapore in 1862. He writes about tigers carting away unsuspecting people in Singapura (singhon ka pur).

The Creative Practice PhD

The sort of dominant form of PhD research that we have when we use words like practice or creative practice is slightly different. So what happens is that you have a content-area – so if you are a designer of vehicles the content area in a particular instance may be a car and in another instance may be a motorcycle. So you have a content area – however this content is merely the arbitrary subject of a project. The notion of the creative practice then is about the ‘practice’ that engages with the project (and therefore the content). I use the notion of content area to distinguish the two modes of the PhD – one engaging with the content (a particular form of cancer research), and the other engaging with ‘ways of undertaking practice’. This is simplistic – but you get the picture. In one instance we use method (the knife) to cut, and in the other we stop to marvel at the knife (and are not very concerned with what we cut).

Now research undertaken by a practitioner – upon their own practice will involve a process of reflection. In effect the PhD candidate has a practice and will be bracketing the practice -then in due course will undertake an unpacking the practice to define its methodological aspects. So when you unpack a practice there exists evidence of a practice, there exists some sort of agency in the practitioner which then breaks into the fact that:

  1. You might have an ideology (the creative as author),
  2. You might have aesthetic preferences (an alignment with what history would refer to as a Genre), and narrative affinities,
  3. Your practice is contextually responsive, and defined by the context,
  4. The evidence of the practice is specific Works.

These 1-4 aspects is one form of a theoretical framework for art appreciation – which I have used to teach history of design for a few decades now. I have therefore appropriated this to design practice. You could use this 4 part framework (Art appreciation model) of: Artist, Genre, Context, & Work – to conduct an autopsy on a design work or practice. This therefore is a useful too to undertake a reflection. [Framework 1]

Practice in this narrative is a body of work or an ecology of practice that can be unpacked. Ecology of course gives us the Bertalanffy and also the structuralist framework:

  1. It a whole
  2. It is composed of parts
  3. It is a holon – a part-whole duality
  4. It has interactions
  5. It has a life

That is Practice and the thing to be reflected upon can be framed as a ‘system’. [Framework 2]

Then I also have used the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT) and Actor Network Theory (ANT) – two inter-related frameworks used to unpack technology as a socially constructed artefact. Design Practice equally is amenable to unpacking as a network – comprising a constellation of heterogeneous human and non-human ‘actors’. (Trevor-Pinch, Bijker, Law) [Framework 3]

As you can see – evidence of artefacts or human activity can be framed and unpacked. And we begin to have fun with the arbitrariness of the theoretical frameworks deployed. One can of course be agnostic about the actual device (framework) – we don’t care what car we take so long as we get to the destination!

Social science of course keeps giving – and many people deploy ‘practice’ as in practice-theory (deCertaeu, Bourdieu) within the creative practice PhD discourse. [Framework 4]

Artefact evidence of practice – products, furniture, building and stuff – can be subject to an unpacking using three poles: Agenda, Approach, Artefact. What is the agenda (of the author?), How was the project developed (approach), and what is the artefact ecology (material, technology). This framework serves both for individual artefacts (technical stuff) and also for a practice ( a series of projects and artefact production as collection). [Framework 4]


NOTE: This unpacking, this sociological turn as it were, is demonstrated in the literature referred to within design and creative practice PhDs. The sociological turn in method is evidenced quite strongly in practitioners looking for ways of interrogating practice – through works such as that of Foucault (Order of Things, Archaeology of Knowledge), Bourdieu (on Practice and Method), and de Certaeu (Practice).

And if you were to attend a lot of these presentations that are happening over the weekend, or even the examinations, you will see that there is a quest to unpack the typology of practice. So we get these two knowledge domains – one is the content domain and the other is the practice domain. So what you probably need to do (going forward) is to try and understand the construction of your research project. What then is my research project? Often you can be talking about content – but you are using words which are practice words. So there is two things happening – and we need much more of a distinction between those two.

Where design practice is both Technological-scientific work (Kuhn and Feyerabend) and work as in Craft (sociology of craft, Sennet) – its is is also Practice as in rites, ritual, performance.

An interesting example would be – in ANT there is the work of Annemarie Mol talking about body multiple. She is a sociologist using the social construction of technology (SCOT) frameworks as the theoretical framework. And she spent years and years in a Dutch Hospital looking at Arteriosclerosis. So there exists a medical narrative and there also exists a human narrative and the challenges of dealing with it (Note – discuss Mol’s work. How is Mol’s work relevant for D4Health? Compare with Peter Jones).

What Mol is interested in is meaning construction – so how is meaning constructed by the different actors subscribing to different discourses – expert discourses in medicine, nursing and administration. So how is embarrassment, or shame or incidents, or events or someone walking in and standing/ waiting – each event constructed as meaning making in action. So these are all to be documented and then you would want to systematically unpack that event as a social artefact. So when you have unpacked these artefacts you can put them in separate boxes and reconstruct the fact that there exists a particular category of negotiation or navigation that people use to construct meaning. So social construction is essentially about – how do people engage in meaning making. So there are other works in that particular area; if you were to go into medicine there exists a particular way of unpacking medicine or health which is outside of the knowledge domain of medicine. The knowledge domain of medicine is what is a particular form of cancer and what are cures and procedures and how do you look after the body. Whereas if we are looking at a condition as a social construct – or a social artefact: The fact that you have prostate cancer and the fact that it is a medical condition is not of that much relevance – it is merely an abstraction/ an abstract knowledge domain way of describing what is hidden, or revealed through diagnostic tests. What is relevant is that you are going to be wheeled in, anaesthetised, you are going to be explained to/talked at, someone will cut you up (which you will give permission for), – so there exists artefact evidence and physical evidence and how you engage with it, and how do you pack and unpack that – so there exists this body of work – that looks at the ‘actors’ in the ‘network’ of meaning construction about technology.

So – we have these notions of reflection, these notions of practice and if you are looking at literature, there is a lot of literature out there which can inform your understanding – a lot of it is popular literature about medicine (Gawande) – but there are specific examples which might be of use – if you looking at a particular, you are bracketing a particular category of people. And what their particular category constitutes is reasonably arbitrary for the purposes of an intellectual inquiry. Because that is the content – and therefore that is somebody else’s subject. (Design has its own way of construction the design-subject).

So when you look at literature you might have to have – methodological literature in design, there exists literature in meaning making (which might come from social sciences), there could be different places where you could get input in terms of literature. What is also quite useful is that a candidates journey up to this point – up to the point of undertaking the PhD – contains many projects. Projects that need to be unpacked – before which they need to be effectively framed.

NOTE: So I have laid out 5 Frameworks – as theoretical constructs that can be used to make meaning through a study of empirical evidence. Empirical evidence such as a designer’s practice is amenable to a theoretical framing and unpacking.


You can frame your projects as pertaining to different periods – construct them as projects, document them then unpack them – so then what you get is a history of a set of projects. The process of documentation of ones work is different from documentation for display or publication. This is documentation that will permit an analysis within a specific theoretical framework – so intellectually robust unpacking presupposes the existence of a theoretical framework or an ecology of categorisations. 

  1. So everybody here will do that – as a way to systematise the arbitrary, the opportunistic or the stylistic which is how design describes the decisions and the deployment of design within projects.
  2. So the arbitrariness is transformed into an understanding by cataloging a discernible pattern – a tendency as it were of the creative individual.

This is the Reflection [disc below]. Then what happens is that – if I have these set of practices, then within my research/practice there may be a set of random projects I am going to do (opportunistic) – which don’t have to be coupled. You would couple them if you want a single project. So now there is a discussion to be had, between the candidate and the supervisor to define the Design of the Research:  (a) is it a set of projects which then builds on design knowledge, (b) is it a single project which is potentially a venture, or looking for a new innovation, or looking for a ‘change’. Now both ( a and b) are equally valid however the specific Design of the Research will have to be articulated. Therefore:

  • If it is a singular project a lot of the the material gets shut out because then in a singular project CONTENT actually enters into the PhD Research. You don’t keep it out.
  • But if it is multiple projects you have to necessarily bracket content out. 

Singular Project

(I use this to frame an alternative to the inquiry as the mode of the project)

If you do a SINGULAR Project then there exists a different way of constructing and describing. There will be notions of knowledge contribution, there will be notions of research question and there will be potentially the ethics approval (to function in a project with human subjects). You much have to address notions of truth and falsity – which means you will probably need to reexamine the knowledge that you have. So the knowledge that you have currently gleaned (developed understanding) is not to be used inside the PhD project. You will have to construct and service new knowledge. So if you want to know something about people’s experiences what you have is ‘general understanding’ – but for the purpose of the PhD you will have to conduct a questionnaire, (or interview, or participant observation studies). Which means you have will have to start to bring in to the PhD verified knowledge. So there exists these domains of established practice.

Multiple Projects/ Reflection Project

The reflection turn – everyone reflects. Its how modern society today constructs details in meaning. Nursing relies on reflection heavily – but so do business and process theorists. Design too privileges reflection. I have a short hand for reflection which I refer to as the Triple A model (like the alkaline battery). The AAA Model describes three aspects of creative practitioners’ oeuvre – Agenda, Approach, Artefact – which can for the basis of a reflection.

The Journey

The PhD journey – the normal journey – can be described using a timeline model comprising of Literature Review, Projects, Writing-Up – as three key phases. 


These are some methodological texts – domains – that I have referred to in the text above. Method discussion, and method theorists are the subject of cartoons – and I have borrowed freely from the interweb for some light feeling.

The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel FoucaultFoucault argues that the contemporary study of the history of ideas, although it targets moments of transition between historical worldviews, ultimately depends on continuities that break down under close inspection. The history of ideas marks points of discontinuity between broadly defined modes of knowledge, but the assumption that those modes exist as wholes fails to do justice to the complexities of discourse. Foucault argues that “discourses” emerge and transform not according to a developing series of unarticulated, common worldviews, but according to a vast and complex set of discursive and institutional relationships, which are defined as much by breaks and ruptures as by unified themes.

The Practice of Everyday Life, Michel de CerteauThe Practice of Everyday Life begins by pointing out that while social science possesses the ability to study the traditions, language, symbols, art and articles of exchange that make up a culture, it lacks a formal means by which to examine the ways in which people reappropriate them in everyday situations. This is a dangerous omission, Certeau argues, because in the activity of re-use lies an abundance of opportunities for ordinary people to subvert the rituals and representations that institutions seek to impose upon them. With no clear understanding of such activity, social science is bound to create nothing other than a picture of people who are non-artists (meaning non-creators and non-producers), passive and heavily subject to received culture. Indeed, such a misinterpretation is borne out in the term “consumer”. In the book, the word “user” is offered instead; the concept of “consumption” is expanded in the phrase “procedures of consumption” which then further transforms to “tactics of consumption”.

Practice TheoryPractice theory is a theory of how social beings, with their diverse motives and their diverse intentions, make and transform the world in which they live. It is a dialectic between social structure and human agency working back and forth in a dynamic relationship. Practice theory, as outlined by Sherry Ortner, “seeks to explain the relationship(s) that obtain between human action, on the one hand, and some global entity which we call ‘the system’ on the other.” The approach seeks to resolve the antinomy between traditional structuralist approaches and approaches such as methodological individualism which attempted to explain all social phenomena in terms of individual actions.

Karl Ludwig von BertalanffyIn the social sciences, Bertalanffy did believe that general systems concepts were applicable, e.g. theories that had been introduced into the field of sociology from a modern systems approach that included “the concept of general system, of feedback, information, communication, etc.” The theorist critiqued classical “atomistic” conceptions of social systems and ideation “such as ‘social physics’ as was often attempted in a reductionist spirit.” Bertalanffy also recognized difficulties with the application of a new general theory to social science due to the complexity of the intersections between natural sciences and human social systems. However, the theory still encouraged for new developments from sociology, to anthropology, economics, political science, and psychology among other areas. Today, Bertalanffy’s GST remains a bridge for interdisciplinary study of systems in the social sciences.

Structuralism, In sociology, anthropology and linguistics, structuralism is the methodology that elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure. It works to uncover the structures that underlie all the things that humans do, think, perceive, and feel.

Constructivism, Jean PiagetConstructivism is a philosophical viewpoint about the nature of knowing. Specifically, it represents an epistemological stance. There are many “flavors” of constructivism, but one prominent theorist known for his constructivist views is Jean Piaget. Piaget focused on how humans make meaning in relation to the interaction between their experiences and their ideas. He considered himself to be a genetic epistemologist, which means he considered this interaction in relation to how humans are set up by their genetic make up to develop intellectually. His views tended to focus on human development in relation to what is occurring with an individual as opposed to development that is influenced by other humans.

Art Criticism, Art criticism is the discussion or evaluation of visual art. Art critics usually criticise art in the context of aesthetics or the theory of beauty. A goal of art criticism is the pursuit of a rational basis for art appreciation but it is questionable whether such criticism can transcend prevailing socio-political circumstances.

Art AppreciationArt Appreciation for Dummies

Thomas KuhnKuhn made several notable claims concerning the progress of scientific knowledge: that scientific fields undergo periodic “paradigm shifts” rather than solely progressing in a linear and continuous way, and that these paradigm shifts open up new approaches to understanding what scientists would never have considered valid before; and that the notion of scientific truth, at any given moment, cannot be established solely by objective criteria but is defined by a consensus of a scientific community. Competing paradigms are frequently incommensurable; that is, they are competing and irreconcilable accounts of reality. Thus, our comprehension of science can never rely wholly upon “objectivity” alone. Science must account for subjective perspectives as well, since all objective conclusions are ultimately founded upon the subjective conditioning/worldview of its researchers and participants.

Paul FeyerabendIn his books Against Method and Science in a Free Society Feyerabend defended the idea that there are no methodological rules which are always used by scientists. He objected to any single prescriptive scientific method on the grounds that any such method would limit the activities of scientists, and hence restrict scientific progress. In his view, science would benefit most from a “dose” of theoretical anarchism. He also thought that theoretical anarchism was desirable because it was more humanitarian than other systems of organization, by not imposing rigid rules on scientists.

Richard SennetTypically his new book considers craftwork very broadly. Sennett does not stop at potters making mugs or Moroccan leather grainers, though such people do come into it, but extends his warm embrace to the crafts of making music, cooking, the bringing up of children. This is a book about perfectionist skills, the desire to do things well that (he thinks) resides in all of us, the frustration and damage once these urges are denied. When we downgrade dedication we do so at our peril, Sennett argues, in an erudite and thought-provoking work.

Transient craft: reclaiming the contemporary craft worker, Helen Holmes

Ritual, Various.

Published by Soumitri Varadarajan

Soumitri lives in Melbourne, Australia - #probonodesign #codesign #sustainability #patientexperience #quantifiedself #mdg

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