By Michael Persson
We all have them; those disjointed abstractions of proto-knowledge. Churning around in the mind of every aspiring scholar is a blurred, incomplete blueprint of themes and contexts that we arduously strive to build onto, with the dream of one day reaching the point where it is focused enough to be put onto paper and called science. Being less than two months into my PhD studies, I have found myself in a position where most of you have likely been too, and where some of you probably still remain – overwhelmed by the amount of topical knowledge that we do not yet possess, exacerbated by not having a clear context in which to deposit the ideas and themes we come across.
This problematique appears inherently ontological – as researchers we spend what seems to be the majority of our time asking ourselves what the specifics of our subject is, and how these specifics relate to other knowledge in the subject. What I want to focus on in this blog, however, is a more epistemological approach to being a researcher. Through contemplating the nature of knowledge, I believe that it can be useful to think about your subject in a more fluid manner, that more closely aligns the creation of knowledge with the communication of knowledge.
Basically, to make our research count, there is a need to disseminate it into the greater academic context, mainly through publishing, but also through conferences, workshops, and if possible, through more mainstream editorial pieces. This requirement of making oneself understood is a very natural part of being a researcher, but from my experience it has generally been one of the last steps in the scientific process: the presentation of knowledge in a palatable manner. We have all heard the ubiquitous adage “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t know it well enough”, and maybe that just means that until we are ready to publish, we don’t actually know enough about the subject. So how would it look if we pretended to know enough about the subject to actually start communicating it? And how would that communication look, sound, or feel?
There are many different ways to communicate a subject, but since I am personally inclined towards illustration, I’m going to go with the usage of a graphical schema. A schema, taken from the greek word “σχήμα” (shape, or plan), is presented by Stolterman and Nelson in their book “The Design Way” as a way for designers to be able to communicate ideas to everyone involved in the design process. Having utilized schemas for the purpose of understanding subjects I have previously studied, I decided to do so again, but this time for the subject of my PhD research – “Value co-creation in Connected Health services”. The first draft of this schema can be seen below:
By this point it should be clear to everyone that a single instance of a schema is not enough to explain a theory by itself, which should reasonably mean that most schemas require further explanation. What the schema above tries to illustrate is an application of folk physics onto the concept of value, where value is to be considered the radiation of energy from a service or an idea: it seeks a lower state by “decaying”, and in order to keep it alive and make it grow, the service providers need to actively provide it with energy until it reaches a level where the value it radiates can reach the user. The user can then, in turn, provide value back to the service providers in the shape of feedback, funding, data, et cetera. Furthermore, if a service, or an idea (or really, anything) is not nurtured, it will slowly fall into disuse or be forgotten.
“But wait”, you say: “This is not value co-creation! This is just normal value creation!” And you would be correct. But this graphical depiction, even if it is not correct or complete, has provided us with a platform of discussion based on a physics metaphor that help situate abstract concepts into a context where it is easier to make changes and experiment on them. Let us say, that we wanted to turn this schema of value creation into a schema of value co-creation. To do so, based on the literature, we would need to bring the end user closer to the service providers. How much energy expenditure would this user involvement require from the service providers or the users? And if they did get there, how much more energy would their presence yield for the service? How much less energy would the service providers need to expend to reach the same results? Are the “user-designers” that have been put into the service design process no longer comparable with “normal” users? Are there exceptions to the “decay” of services and ideas? And before you know it, you have a lot of new questions to explore, and a basic interpretative framework to do so in. Oftentimes, you can even try to fit new knowledge into the confines of the framework, to see if it somehow fits, or if you can change the framework to fit it instead. In that sense, it is a very malleable representation of your knowledge. This emergent thought of knowledge is, at least to me, very engaging to work with. The process of creating and iterating on schemas, visual or otherwise, is a rewarding experience that serves not only to explain your research to others, but also to build on your own understanding of both your research and how to relate to new shapes of knowledge in an epistemological fashion.
Which other mediums or concepts could be used to represent your knowledge? Is the contribution your research clearly understandable for a person who do not possess advanced knowledge of your field? What are the differences between external and internal knowledge? Do we relate differently around ideas that can be explained by physical phenomena than to those who can’t, or aren’t currently explained in that manner? These are a few of all the questions we can ask ourselves and others to spark debates regarding how we relate to knowledge as a construct, and by extension, our research.
ESR15 Michael Persson