The discussion started with a very practical question about the structure of a dissertation with practice-based research. However, there are very powerful linguistic factors (like this strange Ph.D.) that shifted the talk from the structure of practice-based dissertations to the linguistic and conceptual disturbance in our scholarly world.
The whole confusion stems from an Anglophone practice to use the term Ph.D. (Philosophy Doctor) for everything. It is an anachronism. It has made sense when it has been used initially. After that, it has been used in so many areas, that in some areas it sounds strange and in others it is a misnomer. Another issue is that the Anglophone economies and educations systems are so strong that they practically wiped out any other competitors, different conceptualizations, and practices. In such moments, I realize that a little bit of diversity might be of great help to Anglophone culture, to realize where it is, where it is going, and why it is going there. All that said, I want to express my admiration for the achievements of that culture. It is so powerful that even I oscillate terminologically between several conceptual systems, as you will notice in this post.
In a number of European countries the standards, criteria, and requirements for doctoral work and degree are defined differently in each discipline/profession. The requirements and practices for doctoral work in Physics and Sociology are very different from the requirements for doctoral work in Architecture or Mechanical Engineering.
There is a long tradition to use professional endeavors for dissertation purposes without diluting and contaminating the concept of research and without inventing strange animals like practice-based research or practice as research (if practice is research, then why should we nurture two concepts?) or ....
In engineering it's a tradition to make an invention and then to format it as a dissertation. (I narrow down the options for simplicity.) Actually, in some countries in order to get a doctoral degree in engineering, dissertators need to have at least three patents regarding the artifact they design/invent. The difference between a mere invention and a dissertation based on this invention is in the analytical and retrospective component. The dissertator has to follow particular standards for explicating the process of invention and knowledge production associated with the invention. There are chapters on the literature about this artifact and the methods to design and reinvent it; there are chapters on the theoretical approach to the specific invention situation and the process of invention; chapters on describing the artifact/mechanism; chapters with reflections on the method and process, assessments, conclusions, and recommendations for future work on that subject.
This is a pretty schematic and one-sided description, but in illustrates the specifics of doctoral/dissertation work in particular areas. No one expects pure philosophy, no one expects only data collection, and no one actually will award a doctorate for these activities if they are done for themselves. (With the exception of dissertations with non-design, basic science character. Again, I simplify.)
In the field of architecture, this dissertation type is most often referred to as "building type study/research." Nobody can imagine that these architects are doing philosophical work. The typical product is a building type study or a design guide.
In the arts, when an artist reflects on his/her oeuvre and formats this intellectual work in a particular framework, we get a dissertation. The major contribution of the dissertation is the production of new knowledge through analysis of the state of the art, the process of making, and the oeuvre itself.
Of course, both in engineering and in architecture there is place and actually there are a lot of "pure" Ph.D. dissertation situations. For example, when studying basic science problems, theoretical problems, social factors problems, and so forth. The professions have so many aspects and levels that even in a single profession we can see a multitude of dissertation types of different nature and tradition.
Another problem is the insistence of some faculty to accept an artifact as a research product. The artifact or oeuvre by itself is not research. It is not even practice-based research. And the artifact by itself doesn't produce new knowledge. That is one of the logical fallacies that many people follow. Or, maybe it is not a fallacy, but a deliberate promotion of personal interests. The scholarly act is the act of knowledge production. In order to have a scholarly act, we need to analyze, explicate, and present the artifact and the process of making in accordance to particular methodological standards and criteria that are developed in the discipline/profession.
Unfortunately, because of time constraints I cannot go further in a more detailed description of practice-based dissertations. I wish I have more time and can do all the things in the world that fascinate me. C'est la vie.
Lubomir Popov, Ph.D.
Interior Design Program
American Culture Studies affiliated faculty
Bowling Green State University