Normative Point of View

  1. Interest Groups
  2. Mediating Opinions in Contrast
  3. Forecasting Opinions

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Normative research differs from descriptive studies because the target is not only to gather facts but also to point out in which respects the object of study can be improved. Usually the project even includes planning an approach for carrying out the necessary improvements. Depending on whether the project continues as practical development or not, there are two styles of normative research:

Developing design theory1. General normative research (fig. on the right) produces theory of practice for a professional activity, such as design, which can consist of recommendations, rules, standards, algorithms, advices or other tools for improving the object of study. It does not necessarily include any practical operations of development. This type of study is discussed under the title Theory of Design.

Development project2. Normative case study (fig. on the left) purports to find out methods to ameliorate physically the object, for example by reducing known human problems in the daily lives and work processes of people, by developing an activity or a new product. When the project includes also carrying out the improvements, it is called "research and development", R&D.

Interest Groups

Normative research aims at improvements, which means that it includes evaluation of the present state of things and also of the direction of future development. By definition, evaluation is only possible from somebody's point of view. There may be a few questions - such as safety and health - about which almost all people agree, but on most topics opinions disagree more or less, which then at once makes it necessary to define whose point of view should be used in the evaluation.

When assessing any normative proposal which is expected to affect the lives of many people, it helps if these people (which often are quite numerous) can be categorized into distinct groups. For a commercial or industrial company such interest groups exist both inside and outside of the company:

The interest groups around a product development project are examined in more detail in Points of View in Evaluation. Do not forget that the users of the product may include people with reduced abilities.

In more general terms, we can categorize the stakeholders of a development project:

The above list (which is abbreviated from Guba and Lincoln) contains people which live now and can participate in the evaluation. However, when assessing products or programs which shall exist a long time and will affect the lives of people not yet living, the list should be completed, e.g.:

The category of agents contains mostly professionals in the field, such as artists, architects or industrial designers. These are today often organized into associations which may want to play a role in the evaluation, especially when the product is important and it has chances to become an exemplar which later indicates the direction of future design. Of course, the experts are well aware of, and usually wish to support, the needs of average beneficiaries. However, professionals often emphasize topics that are relevant only inside of the art in question, such as 'originality', 'novelty', 'witty deviation from tradition', 'boldness', 'logic' etc. Properties like these are sometimes taken - inside of the profession - as indicators of distinction, i.e. excellence which brings renown and authority to the maestro, especially when the products are published in professional journals, exhibitions etc. Cf. Bourdieu, 1984. All this means that it is usually advisable for a researcher to keep apart the opinions of the professionals and of the users of the products.

The alternatives and available procedures for demarcating a population of study are discussed elsewhere. If the target population turns out to be very large, it may be advisable to pick out a sample of it. All these operations must be done carefully, otherwise you risk getting bias or tendency in your results, which often would be very difficult to remove afterwards.

Mediating Opinions in Contrast

No matter how meticulously you define the people whose evaluations shall dictate the direction of practical operations, it quite often turns out that these evaluations are more or less in conflict. Evidently each subjective evaluation is based on the person's individual values which in turn depend on the social environment and experiences. In descriptive study this variation is often welcome and interesting and the normal practice is to collect the opinion of each person. The study can then continue, for example, by finding out which groups of people agree with each opinion, how these groups relate with existing social classes or which are the social and psychological reasons for supporting each opinion.

As a contrast, in normative study which is expected to point out the optimal strategy for subsequent practical operations, a large variation in opinions can be a nuisance because it hinders selecting the goal for practical action.

Variation of opinions may be a problem, but even more problematic can be the task of reducing the opinions to one. Therefore, when it seems that people in the demarcated population have a variety of opinions on the direction of desirable development, the researcher should first find out whether it is really unavoidable to have only one single strategy for the subsequent practical development, or could it perhaps be possible to define two (or more) parallel outcomes (procedures or products), each one for the benefit of a different group of people? For example, in product development it is sometimes possible to create not just a single product but a series of slightly different versions of it.

If parallel approaches seem possible, you do not need to compress all the contrasting opinions into one but instead into two (or more) alternative views, which can be easier to do. There are special methods for clustering a collection of opinions, cf. Exploratory Classification, after which you can proceed to defining the collective opinion of each cluster with the methods described below. The work should now be easier because there will be much less variation in each cluster than in the original population.

When circumstances allow only one strategy for realization, the researcher needs methods for condensing the distinct opinions into one collective resultant which then determines the choice of practical actions. In the following there are some approaches which you can use to attain such a consolidation:

Note finally, that the very concept of compressing people's opinions is somewhat crude. A personal opinion is something which a researcher can never profoundly understand, let alone competently modify. That is why it is advisable to use any of the preceding methods with caution. In any case, you should always keep the recordings of the original opinions ready to be consulted in the case of eventual revision.

Forecasting Opinions

Normative research and development usually aims not only at improving the present state of things as it is evaluated today, but at creating a state of things which people continue to accept in the future as well. It is also possible that this improvement need not be achieved right away but at a certain moment in the future.

For example, when the objective is to create a successful new product, the decisive point of time when the product has to satisfy the customers is the period when the future new product is being marketed - which period will perhaps begin in a year of the present, and it ends two years later.

It thus often becomes necessary to project into the future the evaluations that you have recently collected, or in other words, forecast the opinions that can be expected to exist at a given point of time in the future.

For forecasting, all the methods that are explained on the page Forecasting can be used. Usually predictions are obtained by combining two or three types of information:

For making reliable predictions, you would need all these three pieces of information, although especially the third one, the explanatory model of people's evaluations, is often available only by doing some empirical research.

One possibility of explaining the evolution of fashions and people's preferences concerning the products and services that they buy, is to use the sociological theory of Pierre Bourdieu, presented mainly in the book Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1979), in which he connects a person's aesthetic judgements to his or her position in social space. Bourdieu explains that many seemingly aesthetic choices that people make are in fact intended to make a distinction to others, that is, with the unspoken purpose of preserving or upgrading one's appreciation and standing in society.

According to Bourdieu, people that already belong to a well established and culturally appreciated class in society usually try to reinforce their position by buying and using conspicuous avant-garde products, and their choices are then often imitated by ordinary people in less distinguished classes of society, who thus try to get accepted into the higher class. This phenomenon can be seen especially in the fashions of clothing, see The product as an indicator of a social role.

A peculiar phenomenon related with forecasting the development of fashions is their tendency of self-fulfillment, i.e. a prediction that is well known by all people often tends to come true. Many people want to wear the newest fashion, defined in fashion magazines. They buy what is recommended by the magazines, and the predicted fashion thus becomes reality. This phenomenon is being exploited in, among other fields, the clothes and automotive industries, where it is today normal practice that directors of design in the largest companies annually meet and agree on the colors, patterns and other conspicuous trends of new design during one or two following years. These "predicted" trends are then made public through professional and fashion magazines.

Indeed, no company that has some resources needs to limit its manoeuvres into just predicting passively the coming fluctuation of people's preferences. The company can also actively influence the customers, with the help of a campaign of publicity, see Advertisement As Message.

The process of normative research is explained on the pages Normative study of literature, Recording Normative Data, Normative Analysis, Evaluating Normative Proposals and Normative Reporting. Examples of applying it into a few particular fields are given under the titles How to Create Theory of Design and How to Create Theory for an Activity.

Examples of normative theories created with this approach are several Theories of Production, Theories of Design of various products such as architecture or furniture, and theories about goals of product design, in topics such as usability, beauty, message, ecology, economy and safety of products.

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August 3, 2007.
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Original location: http://www2.uiah.fi/projects/metodi