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What Toulmin claims

The notion of a claim as a key element in design rationale entered the field of interaction design and human-computer interaction through Carroll and Kellogg’s 1989 “Artifact as theory nexus” CHI paper. In that paper, they describe a claim as the psychological effects (positive and negative) that are caused by an artifact. They outline how claims can be used to guide design through the development and understanding of goals, plans, actions, and evaluation.

But certainly the roots of design rationale predate this artifact paper. Notably, Stephen Toulmin’s classic The uses of argument–the book that several researchers (e.g., Alistair Sutcliffe and Janet Burge) point to as the seminal point in argumentation and design rationale–introduces the notion of a claim as a key part of argumentation. Similar to Carroll/Kellogg, Toulmin spends large stretches of his book noting that claims are interesting because they are falsifiable–they may be true, but perhaps not, and must be re-evaluated as context changes. For example, on p.220 Toulmin makes the summative statement that “we may accept over-hastily the suggestion that a claim to knowledge that proves mistaken must have been an improper claim” as the benefit comes from the creation and analysis inherent to claims. He criticizes our (very human) need for “a God’s-eye view” that is universally true and instead encourages us to embrace the uncertainty as method. So does this apply to claims in the Carroll/Kellogg sense? Short answer: yes; longer answer: maybe (I’ll have to think about it).

According to the preface to the 2003 edition, the Toulmin book originally was meant to “criticize the assumption…that any significant argument can be put in formal terms”. Instead, he ended up with a work that “expound[ed] a theory of rhetoric or argumentation” in a way he calls “informal” but to me seems more analytical. Other books operationalize Toulmin’s concepts in more digestible form–my favorite is The craft of research by Booth, Williams, and Colomb. It’s somewhat ironic that it seems people now view the Toulmin method (and the methods based on it) as too formal and rigid—but it’s quite influential to the notions behind Carroll’s scenario-based design and the IBIS-gIBIS-Phi-QOC-Compendium methods and tools that I discuss in another post.

Alas, Toulmin is now dead. I mention that because he hasn’t been dead for long (since 2009)–though many people assume that the person who wrote the 1958 classic “The uses of argument” has been dead for many decades. In the preface of the 2003 edition of his book (the one I used in this post), he notes as much through a great story…one of many, it seems. Just as others built on and operationalized his work, he points to Aristotle, Descartes, and others as the masterminds behind the concepts he espouses. So add them to the reading list!

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  1. January 18, 2012 at 12:04 am
  2. March 25, 2013 at 5:24 pm

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