Within the humanities and social sciences there is an increasing variety of scholarly approaches to design as an object of historical and cultural study. The last decade has seen the establishment of a number of undergraduate and postgraduate programmes, research schools, and associations connecting specialists and enthusiasts within and without the academic world. This growing and heterogeneous area displays commitments and affiliations to a plurality of—occasionally incompatible— theories, methods, literatures, and research traditions. The question of the empirical material adds another level of complexity to this meshwork. If we advance from the premise that the materials we collect and produce are not only determined by the theoretical frameworks we use, but also impinge upon those very frameworks, then our choices and convictions have radical implications on our research results.
At the same time, like any other field of academic enquiry, what is accepted as ‘valid’ research is
constantly kept in check by conventionally acknowledged gatekeepers, such as grant providers,
conferences, journals, publishers, or museums. Subscribing to a certain tradition or another can
hold the key to reaching a wider audience or not. Despite the centrality and universality of these
issues, an explicit and articulated debate on the relationships between theory, method, and empirical
materials in the fields of design history and design cultures is still in its infancy. As support
for academic research across the board becomes increasingly contingent on ‘social relevance’ and
the ability to ‘prove’ the validity of research outcomes, it becomes imperative for design scholars—
especially those in the beginning phases of their career—to articulate clear positions on the
relationship between theory and practice.
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