Descriptive and prescriptive assumptions

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

(T847, Block 1, Activity 3)

The module materials talk about a theory-based (or theory-guided) approach to research.  It refers to the fact that “a theory or model has been proposed as to how the object of what is being researched operates, or what the outcome(s) or impact(s) are likely to be.” It is important to explicitly identify the theory (or theories) that underlie a research project.

The materials cites Chen (2005) who refers to these as ‘assumptions’ and differentiates between two types:

Descriptive assumptions concern the causal processes that lead to whatever problem/issue/event is being investigated.

Prescriptive assumptions prescribe those entities and activities (components, resources, systems, people, etc.) that the designers and/or other key stakeholders in a research project or programme deem necessary to successfully tackling the problem/issue/event.

It seems that in order to think about these assumptions in relation to my research, I need to be a little clearer about the problem/issue/event that I am investigating – I have not yet articulated that explicitly enough.

The capacity and capability to do ‘partnership working to improve wellbeing and health’ is in part determined by stakeholders ‘conceptualisations’ – both of ‘wellbeing and health itself’ and of ‘what it is to do partnership working’.  My interest is in the latter ‘what it is to do partnership working’.

Descriptive assumption = our ability to understand/think about partnerships and working in partnerships affects our ability to do partnership working [thinking/understanding and doing/acting are mutually interdependent].

In other areas of organisational research, there is a shift to move from positivist, mechanistic, deterministic perspectives of organisations and strategy to viewing organisational life as a dynamic social system with fluxes of events and ideas over time.  I have seen this in literature relating to ‘organisations’ and also in literature relating to ‘doing projects’.  To date, I have not seen this in literature relating to public policy partnerships.

Descriptive assumption = it is a ‘useful thing’ to view partnership life as a dynamic social system with fluxes of events and ideas over time

Descriptive assumption = that the theories and concepts that have been developed through, and used in, research at the level of ‘projects’ and ‘organisations’ are also appropriate to the level of partnerships

My interest is in ‘conceptualisations’ of stakeholders and I am drawing on theories that see language and in particular metaphor as a window into those conceptualisations – what people are thinking.

Descriptive assumptions = language can tell us how people are making sense of their social worlds and the meaning they construct for it – following on a strong tradition in the turn to discourse in social sciences (as covered in D843 discourse analysis) and also as mentioned in activity one the work of Lakoff and Ison.

My observations (rather than research) to date as an ‘insider’ to the situation leads me to believe (or hypothesise?) that current ‘conceptualisations’ about doing partnership working are ‘holding back’ our collective ability to improve wellbeing and health.  I have a sense that stakeholders predominantly think about partnerships through a hierarchical, mechanistic metaphor.  There are now studies making recommendations that this  mindset is not appropriate to what we have to do and that a ‘mode’ based on Systems thinking and practice (systemic as broader context for systematic) would be more effective (see post on Governance for health).  I also have a sense that some stakeholders are beginning to coin words associated with systems thinking into their day to day language (e.g. wicked issue) but don’t always seem to have internalised the conceptions that go with these new ‘words’ in a way that changes the way they talk about issues and the way we should act to improve them (in fact there is still a lot of ‘problem solving’ language being used).

So one research project idea is to research into existing language-in-use (primary research would include documents written, observations in meetings, potentially recording of meetings) and use that databank to see whether my ‘hypothesis’ holds true.  Whilst this seems like an obvious option from the course perspective – for me, the research idea is not active enough – it would not engage anyone except myself in change.  I’ve spent too much time ‘observing’ partnership life with various theoretical lenses – all that does is make me more able to analyse – it does not change the current situation.

This makes me more interested in theories that have prescriptive assumptions (views on starting to change the situation).  I am interested in whether deliberately creating/introducing metaphors or images can initiate social learning and new perspectives on partnership working.

Prescriptive assumption = deliberately evoking and using metaphors/images increases the ability to understand partnership life and therefore to act appropriately in it. This is where Images of Organizations and Images of Projects (mentioned in activity 1) come in.

Emphasising this second area brings out a different type of research project – more of a collaborative inquiry.  This does have implications – for my own time and that of those I conduct the inquiry with.  But it does fit more with my underlying motivations and all the work I have been reading on action research.  I would also need to home in on a particular group of stakeholders – there is no way I could include everyone involved in improving wellbeing and health!

As I have written this post, I’ve realised I can now begin to home in on research project options but in part that requires me to start reading (rather than skimming) some of the literature in this field.


Chen, Huey-Tsyh (2005) Practical Program Evaluation, Thousand Oaks, CA, Sage. – cited in T847 module materials

Share what you think...

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.