Researching emerging practices of making/production

In our department’s 2017 doctoral Summer School, run by Prof Idil Gaziulusoy, the theme was ‘Concepts and Contexts for Design for Sustainability’. I gave a talk on ‘Researching emerging practices of making/production’. Due to popular demand (a request from one colleague), I’m posting some of the advice here. (The whole slideshow is on Slideshare.)

To clarify, much of this advice is based on frustrations with reading and reviewing article drafts and submissions written by junior researchers that keep repeating the same weaknesses. There is way too much conceptual speculation out there and too little empirics. Everyone is writing about what should-be could-be and not about what is actually happening in DIY making and grassroots activism. DIY making and repair has the potential to dematerialize consumption/production, so everyone writes about this potential instead of actually trying to determine how or if we are experiencing dematerialization or transmaterialization. I have had excellent conversations about this with the stellar Irene Maldini, who wants to investigate the claim that citizen involvement in production and person-product attachment can actually have an impact on consumption – doing the follow-up studies needed to try to observe what people do when they leave the FabLab or clothing workshop.

In other words, Irene and I agree strongly on this: there are surely positive impacts when people do DIY making and repair activities, but don’t try to make the claim that this is going to impact material consumption volumes if you’re not willing to do the work to provide evidence for this. So what then are the impacts? Are you prepared to observe and articulate what they are? What do you have access to and what are you actually observing? Is it about social learning? Something related to ’empowerment’? ‘Agency’? What does empowerment and agency actually mean in your research site? How can it be observed, identified, tracked?

And then, in order to demonstrate the should-be could-be, many articles use the same examples over and over again as illustration, proof of concept, evidence. RepRap. Open Source Ecology. LilyPad Arduino. Again and again and again the same examples – and again and again the same claims that this one example represents something giant and revolutionary instead of something indicative, marginal. Again and again avoiding the conceptual and analytical work in articulating what this example, in its context, tells us about grassroots innovation and sustainability. And worse: writing descriptions of these case studies based on second-hand texts written by others on websites instead of doing case study work (interviews or investigating primary sources and archives).

In research we are supposed to be doing research, not writing manifestos. (Or: do the research first and then write the manifesto so you know what you’re up against and you have some experience under your belt.)

Another common weakness is citing the could-be should-be in popular mainstream books as if it were evidence instead of what it is – discourse (e.g. Chris Anderson’s Makers). Or citing the summarizing discourse in books like Charles Leadbeater’s We-Think or David Gauntlett’s Making is Connecting instead of examining the actual studies those summarizing narratives are based on and citing that. Books like We-Think and Making is Connecting are aimed at wider, more mainstream audiences than academia, and they are therefore written in a different way: there is research cited and described, and then the chapter ends with rhetorical summarizing and proselytizing. I call this proselytizing the Blah Blah Blah. Junior researchers love to cite this blah blah blah, and it drives me mad.

Moreover, the proselytizing in the mainstream lit is often written in what one of my colleagues calls gush: oh, DIY making is so lovely! And everyone and everything is so beautiful! And they are so happy! And all this will obviously change the world and make it a better place because there are no politics and no negativity! Activism is all just so lovely lovely!

In Finnish, lovely lovely = ihana ihana! (The same gush colleague, Eeva Berglund, and I published a book on urban activism in Helsinki in 2015, and in discussions with the publisher and the graphic designer, we were all in agreement that we avoid any kind of ihana ihana book cover.) But junior researchers seem to love the ihana ihana texts, and they liberally sprinkle their articles with ihana ihana citations. This also drives me mad.

Hence the list.

Please please don’t:

Cite ‘should be’ as ‘is’.

Cite (only) the blah blah blah. What studies is the blah blah blah based on?

Misrepresent studies and overgeneralize findings on SCP (Sustainable Consumption and Production). Check the product category, demography, study aim….

Romanticize. Don’t use the same ‘gush’ ‘ihana ihana’ tone as mainstream books.

Catalogue and inflate. Don’t choose only a few niche examples as ‘cases’ (usually overused anyway) and expect them to represent something significant. Be explicit about your case choice and what it represents/doesn’t represent.

Please don’t:

Avoid getting your hands into your data. Analysis is not (only) about a rigorous set of codes defined beforehand. Coding is just a way to get to know what is in your data and find it easily. Write descriptive overviews. Make diagrams (Clarke 2005) and mindmaps. Get hints on ways to analyse from Qualitative Data handbooks.

Avoid making memos or notes about data collecting or analysis.

Hide your data or analysis process in papers. Spell it out.


Formulate your research question according to what you are actually studying and able to study. What can you access?

Choose your terminology ‘xx’ according to the field you are aligning with. Be clear and honest with yourself: when I am studying xx, what does that mean in terms of data collecting, and how do I observe it in my data?

Be creative (in a way that is researchable). What designerly ways will deliver data and knowledge? Design interventions / experiments? Workshops?

Be clear and explicit about what ‘sustainability’ is. Choose a definition and principles. Use better, more exact phrases (transition to a more sustainable society, less negative environmental impact, more equity in access to resources…).

Be clear to yourself about what you are studying. The ‘sustainability’ of a system, or participants’ beliefs about the sustainability of the system? Principles for a Circular Economy or how this group encountered/defined barriers and opportunities for transition to a circular economy? Keep this distinct.

And… good luck.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *