the joys of creative re-description


Working with data is a creative process. Yes I know data word has got to be systematic and thorough. You can’t make up your results. But working with data is also always about interpretation. And interpretation, at some point, is about a creative idea.

And where and when do you get creative? Well, one place where it can be very helpful to have a creative idea is when it comes to saying what you think are your major results or The Result.

The creative moment comes when you dream up a re-description, a new name for something. Your research has said that a, b and c are important. If there isn’t already an existing name for a,b, and c then you get to create the name for what a.b.c mean. You decide on what this new category (a.b.c.) is going to be called.

The idea of re-description comes from the US philosopher Richard Rorty (1). Rorty differentiated between argument and re-description. Re-description, he said, was a way to think about a better world – if you offered novel, interesting and attractive re-descriptions of what the future world might be, then people would become interested.

Now Rorty’s writing about re-description isn’t entirely popular with other philosophers, but it does have some resonance with what you may need to do with your research. The idea of offering a novel term is one which is helpful when you come to think about your claim to the production of knowledge.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that you make up a new term if there is a perfectly good one out there already. That’s not only a waste of time but it’s also a problem. Simply inventing new words, as if you’ve found something new when you haven’t, suggests that either you don’t know the literatures well enough to know the existing term, or worse still, you want to claim something is your idea when it actually isn’t.

So you do have to be careful when it comes to coining new terminology. But let’s imagine that you actually do have a new constellation of results that are different to what’s already out there in the world. Then you get to name it. The you get to be creative,

Let’s see what that might mean.

Say you have a new something to be named, something a bit different to what’s out there but part of the same family. You’re probably looking for a new adjective + existing name. So think about the noun that’s already in use. And then what the new bit is that you can add.

If you are a scientist there might be rules about how  invent a name. But lots of scientists do get to name new things. New bits of theory. New plants or insects or fish or animals that have somehow escaped the eye of science up till now.

And if you have got something that doesn’t belong to a pre-existing family, then you get to decide the whole new name. Like… String theory. Pulsar. Just to name two.

Let’s make up an example. Say I’m working on something where there’s already a lot of research. Academic writing. So my noun is writing.

Now imagine I have done some research about writers of articles rejected from journals. My research shows one group of papers where writers feel so terrible that they can’t go back to the papers ever again. They stick them in a drawer and can’t face them, can’t even bear to talk about them. But they can’t forget them.  The papers don’t go away. They are in a kind of writing limbo.

I’ve also found another group of people who find rejected papers a challenge. They get annoyed, yes. They might even stick the papers in a drawer. But they can’t bear to dump them altogether because they see this as a waste of effort and a hurdle to overcome. They rewrite. And resubmit to another journal. And another. But the papers comes back and back and back, journal after journal. And these writers just won’t give up. They keep trying and trying.

So I have two kinds of writers with two kinds of papers. Now is my chance to be creative.

Let me see.

I’m going to call the first abject writing because the papers are in the process of being cast off, but never actually get there.

And the second? Well I’m going to call this sisyphean writing after that poor fellow who had to keep  trying to roll the rock up the hill no matter how often it came back down.

Or perhaps. But i wont’ bore you with my brainstorm about possible names. They were just my first thoughts. I can do better I’m sure. Fun, eh.

When we researchers develop more than one term for our research results, then we are actually building a new vocabulary. Our new vocabulary might help other people to see things differently, start a conversation or they might extend what we did.

And this kind of creative re-description is often how we signal our claim of adding to knowledge. We have given a new name to a set of results –  our work with them, the patterns we have produced, the constellation of results we have made, has produced something not quite like everything else out there. So we have a new term.

The act of re-description is creative, and legit.

Play. Enjoy.


(1) I first saw redescription used in relation to research in a chapter by John Laws in the book Using social theory. Thinking through research. This version is my application of his insight.

Photo by Mervyn Chan on Unsplash

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, creativity, data, data analysis, redescription and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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