Research or the active engagement with the world

Research is an active engagement with the world (based loosely on Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel in his Phenomenology of Mind from 1807). We make findings; according to this (Hegelian, Arendtian) sense, the cognitive process is labour. The research process is structured into various phases and perspectives, in which we (have to) set different emphases. In structuring these perspectives, we refer to linguistics when we speak of semantics, syntax and pragmatics.

In the first phase or perspective — semantics — we are concerned with what-questions: what do we want to research, what is our motif, what do we know already and from what sources or connections, what is the problem to be researched? Semantics in linguistics is the theory of meaning. It is concerned with meanings and givens. The second phase or perspective — syntax — considers how-questions: how can we collect relevant data, with which methods do we want to investigate the research problem, how do we analyse collected data, how do we articulate our findings? Syntax in linguistics refers to the structural interrelations of words within sentences, i.e. orderings, dependencies, word orders. At this stage, we are concerned with contexts of meanings and the grammar of our research project. The last phase or perspective — pragmatics — deals with the actual realisation and related difficulties, including uncertainties: How do we enter the field, how do we conduct interviews or observations, how do we deal with the data, how do we behave vis-à-vis our subject and the people and the things that play a role in our research, how do we organise the research process? Pragmatics in linguistics refers to the speech act, i.e. the practiced agency of (mostly unconsciously learned) grammatical constructions, but also dialects. Here we are facing the actual doing and realisation of research activities.

We adopt this three-part methodology of spatial research by Gabriele Sturm (2000) and expand or transform it into the four Modes of Play that take into account even more strongly the active and agentic character of research as agency.

Modes of Play

Research in the sense of an active engagement with the world starts with a motif. There has to be a motif that urges the researching person to engage in research und follow a research interest. Patrick Heiser (2018: 22) helps to disenchant this grand notion of ‘research interest’: ‘At the beginning of a research process, there is often an irritating observation that stirs the researcher’s interest.’ The notion of the ‘motif’ helps to engage with the reasons for this interest and ths irritation, and it serves to articulate why a specific interest exists, why something irritates. The research interest is what I want to know more about; the motif is what moves me — as the person undertaking research. It is important to think the (necessarily subjective) motif in its context and embed it within the contextualised research interest, that is in the scholarly discourse, in the discipline, within the theoretical discussion.

A good example is a relatively old text that has long figured as a classic. Although Davidoff doesn’t use the word ‘motif’ he states very clearly that planning (and this holds for research, too) is never neutral. It is quite an art to combine one’s own position towards a subject, a particular matter (of concern) or a phenomenon with the disciplinary bodies of knowledge, discussions and positions so as to be able to not only articulate but to justify the research interest. Davidoff has explicated this motion or movement in a practice approach to planning and founded the so-called ‘advocacy planning’ that understands planners as advocates for those who live in the planned environment.

In his text ‘Advocacy and pluralism in planning’ (Davidoff 1965: 331) he states: ‘The society of the future will be an urban one, and city planners will help to give it shape.’ Here, he expresses a matter (of fact) in simple words while simultaneously using planning language. He continues: ‘the prospect for future planning is that of practice which openly invites political and social values to be examined and debated.’ The verb ‘invite’ hints at the fact that political and social values are so far (1965) not studied and discussed explicitly in planning. ‘Acceptance of this position means rejection of prescriptions for planning which would have the planner act solely as a technician.’ These three sentences visualise how the research interest emerges and can be embedded within an existing discourse. In order to follow his motif to practice planning like an advocate for particular publics it is necessary, of course, to read the full text, but we can anticipate: Paul Davidoff studied law at first, then planning and he saw a structural deficit in planning, which is being acted out top down, yet would have to work closer together with the people who are affected by planning. This is how he arrives at the notion ‘advocacy planning’ and demands that planner as well as advocates must work for their clients.

If the motif is the motor to perform a study, the research interest is the finish line: motif and research interest are closely connected and mutually dependent. The research and planning programme Urban Design at HafenCity University Hamburg has developed a minimal structure for the research process: Modes of Play (Dell et al. 2017). The four modes or ways of playing are described in the following.

Coming into Play — Starting the game

At the beginning, our concern is to articulate our motif and the research interest and to contextualise them in concrete terms. The motif — the motivation to undertake something — eases the researching person into play; the game starts with the formulation of the motif and the research interest. It is useful to understand already this first step or articulation of interest and a motif as part of the game ‘research’ as the researcher can’t free themselves throughout the research of subjective and subjectively perceived interests and perspectives — and there is no reason to attempt to do so in qualitative research.

How to Play — The rules of the game

In a second step, we develop and refine questions, decide on the method(s) of data gathering and data analysis and construct a research design. This step determines the frames of reference for the research project: Who is in what ways participating in this research? What do I want to find out and how and why do I find out? What is the state of the art in this field; what are others saying and writing, what is visualised and developed on this topic, its theoretical context, the place, space or phenomenon? How do I enter the field? How do I address ethical and legal questions; how do I present my project to participants and how can I attain their declaration of consent? What kind of data do I want to gather and unearth? Which methods will serve this generation of data? How will I organise and analyse the data? Which methods will need to be employed here? How do I represent the research process and its results? The rules of the game resemble a robust and simultaneously a preferably flexible structure that frames the research process and enables us to react to unforeseen challenges or emerging difficulties. One advice is to understand the setting of the rules of the game itself as an iterative process that can be reflected upon and modified in every new loop so as to contribute to a continuing refinement of the project.


The third phase presents the actual research process. Here, we are concerned with the doing: We determine a case study, speak to research partners, gain informed consent, gather data, organise data, analyse data, bring to representation the analysis. This process reflects how robust and flexible the rules of the game are and whether they allow for a profitable game. An interview, for instance, can be extremely well prepared and yet take unexpected turns from what is expected or hoped — the more I seriously engage with my expectations and insecurities, the better can I pay attention during the interview to make sure I receive responses to my questions. It is also important that I can zoom in and out during the game, that is, keeping the greater picture in perspective and at the same time dealing constructively with the details.

If the working out of the rules of the game has taken up much time and labour, it can be difficult to move from the preparatory stages to the realisation phase. It is therefore useful to understand the divide between the design of the game (How to Play) and the actual game (Play) als movable and permeable. It is possible and sometimes sensible to revise the rules of the game while playing. Similarly, the development of the rules of the game is always accompanied by posing the questions how to operationalise them and where potential difficulties can emerge.

Because the game includes data gathering, data analysis and the mediation of the results, we can encounter discrepancies or difficulties between these steps, with which we have to deal. The ways in which we ‘play’ are not called Modes of Play in vain: In play, we can playfully test, sound out and work out things; yet playing is at the same time understood as a metaphor: a pianist can play the piano playfully or seriously. It is tremendously helpful to understand research at least partly in a similar way: as a performative, testing, sensibly meaningful analysis.

Understanding the Play — making sense of the game

The overarching fourth phase serves to combine what has been established with the theoretical conceptual context: what does this research mean in the light of other approaches, case studies, theories? At this point, we step back from our own research and zoom out to look at the greater picture: How can we interpret the results of our own research? What do our results mean?

In this phase, we are further concerned with representing and recapitulating the results as well as the whole research process. We can call this meta-level ‘project archaeology’. This meta-level is insofar important for Urban Types as the materials page is an archive of individual cases, but also an archive of its parts in different formats that can conversely become the subject of research (Coming into Play, How to Play, Play) by querying, sorting, analysing, interpreting, comparing and contrasting them anew. This superimposed meta-level is both the end and a (new) beginning for research, in the larger frame, is never a fully concluded process. Each research project builds on already existing research findings, contributes ideally to existing research by offering new results, imitates already existing results by way of new case studies, confirms or revises already existing results, and so on.

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