Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Designing a PhD thesis in a conceptual age

It does not seem to me that we have been as quick, in academia, to prepare ourselves for new threats, new dangers, new tasks, new targets. Are we not like those mechanical toys that endlessly make the same gesture when everything else has changed around them? Bruno Latour

How might the academy change? Taking a more personal concern, how might a PhD thesis be designed? If we take a whole new mind to information and to concepts as suggested by Daniel Pink in moving from an Information age to a Conceptual one, what might be the implications for the Univeristy and for PhD writing if such a shift were taken seriously? How might this inform a thesis undertaking?

Information age:

Knowledge accumulation

Conceptual age:


The thesis of the knowledge era suggests functionality: get accredited by following the rules: the thesis presents the coherent argument, is logical, focused, serious and contributes to the knowledge base of the world. In doing so, new approaches to learning are not being transferred, the institution that is the academy is lagging behind.

In a a thesis crafted in design, the very foundations of purpose are shaken.
According to Pink, design is utility enhanced by significance (p.70).
Design is more than titivation, it's about value added portrayal.
Latour's speech at design Cornwall argues design as a drawing of things together.
My undertaking as drawing things together involves a work of alchemy; combining myself, a supportive professor with a bent toward actor-network theory, and a voluntary organisation thirsty for establishing an evidence base for newer practices. The next challenge is in drawing in the academy to credential my doctoral work - to positively entice, bind and glue such readers to the undertaking.

In telling the story of change, I plan for intersecting slices of stories of practice. In story telling,a provocation is made where the reader is not a passive spectator but enters into the story. Stories encapsulate the knowledge, the context and the emotion into a compact package. In an argument, the information sledgehammers a point, and the outcomes are constrained, agree or disagree, yet such binaries no longer serve so well, if they ever did. I am not arguing against an analytical position but that such knowledge might be shared with a means that creates contextual relevance. As Pink describes it, "what stories can provide - context enriched by emotion, a deeper understanding of how we fit in and why that matters." In such a conceptual orientation the outcome is not telling others what to think or do; instead there is space for making local, contextual, even personal, meaning at a given point in time. An approach more akin to projecting light on certain aspects while recognising such practice also creates shadows. Given an orientation that suggests all knowledge as mediated, truths have a small 't' and have have limited portabiltity.

My study lends itself to a symphony approach, the knowledge gained, illuminated, presented and (re)presented require involvement. I am involved, and in that involvement, there's a negotiation between myself and others, myself and the material, myself and the reader.Such a thesis could not be seen as a one way viewing window, nor a sport for spectators. (And I am really not sure that the academy is ready for this radical provocation in their marking criterias.)

Being empathetic involves having the ability to see an issue from many different perspectives. There are politics then in choosing to be empathic, to consider others and to consider the issues of what is made visible or invisible. A dispassionate approach is one that I cannot accept as valid; people's lives can be made more and less tenable through such acts. Performing a thesis is therefore a political, ethical and moral act. What is studied and how this is portrayed and to what purpose are all critical questions.

Taking a serious stance often leads to total risk aversion. There needs to be space for error, for exploration, in this sense seriousness needs to be revisited. A more playful orientation can allow for ideas to be explored more fully. To toy with one's ideas, to bounce them around are not such unusual concepts to thinking peoples. Taking play seriously though will also need to accept imaginative possibilities. Imagining such change inside of well established 'tried and true' processes may have shattering implication. Will such explorative 'play' be accepted?

Making meaning to my mind, is the ongoing act of this alchemy, for meaning gets created in contexts, locally. The craft is in opening up possibilities, for as an actor network approach would have it, things can always be otherwise.

A final word on designing from Bruno Latour on design:
"To design is never to create ex nihilo. It is amusing that creationists in America use the word “intelligent design” as a rough substitute for “God the Creator”. They don’t seem to realize the tremendous abyss that exists between creating and designing. The most intelligent designers never start from a tabula rosa. God the designer is really a redesigner of something else that was already there —and this is even truer for His Son as well as for the Spirit, who both are sent to redeem what has been botched in the first place... If humanity “has been made (or should I have said designed?) as the image of God”, then they too should learn that things are never created but rather carefully and modestly redesigned. It is in that sense that I take the spread of the word design as a clear substitute for revolution and modernization. I do so furthermore, because there is always something slightly superficial in design, something clearly and explicitly transitory, something linked to fashion and thus to shifts in fashions, something tied to tastes and therefore somewhat relative."
A link to the pdf file of the speech is available here-


  1. Martha Valentine7:45 PM

    This would certainly help a lot of people who find it hard to write phd thesis and dissertation. PhD thesis writing can be tedious and hard, so it would be a good to equip yourself with knowledge and information you need to get over the task.

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