What is research?
The parameters that define research depend on who is the researcher. For a common person, the word research is often simply used to describe the act of gathering information. Yet, for an organization, conducting research generally means to use a methodical process to find out new knowledge. Finally, research in academia, despite following a methodical process, is typically not deemed valid until it has been documented, shared, and accepted by research peers. Therefore, research is constrained by the social context in which it lives.
If our social goal is to bring awareness and healing to the world, then research at the collective level involves going back to the root of why we desire knowledge. The ultimate reason, I deduce, is to know more about who we (human beings) are and why we exist in this world.
Therefore, at its core, research is the pursuit to rediscover what we already know but have forgotten as human beings.
Traditional research, particularly approaches based on the scientific method, assumes that knowledge is objective, and researchers must remain unbiased. But human experiences can never exist in physical or psychological vacuums. Therefore, in reality, research is biased because human experience is biased.
We can communicate with each other and make sense of the world because we already have preconceptions of the world within us.1
We all have existing biases about the world. To create new knowledge means to disturb the existing biases we have and re-establish new agreements of understanding.2
Although you, I, and other people may share collective memories and knowledge that make up a shared worldview (i.e., a collective bias), nevertheless, we can never truly share our personal experiences (i.e., our personal bias/worldview) with each other. We can only learn about each other through the narratives of our experiences.
Thus, to learn about humanity, we go through a process of storytelling and storylistening.
To change the paradigm of who we are, we must disturb old collective narratives and re-establish new ones by adapting new narratives.
Doing research on the meaning of landscape is the opportunity to disturb existing narratives of our human existence.
While the word landscape is used to describe images of natural scenery in common language, in landscape architecture, planning, and geography, “landscape” is much more ambiguous. Landscape, beyond a simple image, is the proxy for humanity’s predicament in finding place in the world.
Exploring the meaning of landscape involves:
1. Evaluating the relationship between nature and culture
If landscape can be designed, planned, and studied in tandem with the history of human civilization, then landscape is the linkage between nature and culture. The narratives we have regarding landscapes reveal where culture (i.e., human activity) resides: as subset of nature or in opposition to nature.
2. Considering the limitations of language
Beautiful landscapes can be enticing. Some of these landscapes can even leave us feeling spellbound. Inspiring the creative expressions of musicians, painters, and poets for centuries, the effect of landscapes can be greater than the words we have to describe them. Through landscapes, we understand that there is more to the world than human language.
3. Acknowledging the reciprocity of life
Landscapes have the capacity to move us to tears, calm our souls, or awake our sense of wonder. Landscapes can move us if we allow them to. Therefore, all that is landscape outside of us has the agency to create change within us. A reciprocity exists between us and other animals, organisms, things, and processes in the world.
4. Choosing how to participate in the world
The legacies of past landscapes show how humans have participated in the world ecologically, socially, and spiritually. When humans aligned well with their environment, a sense of belonging is felt in the present-day landscape. When humans mishandled their participatory roles in the environment, this legacy of placelessness persists—the memory of trauma lives on as part of the landscape, as part of the human psyche, and as part of our narratives.
Research with the intention towards collective flourishing means learning how to live and grow as part of the landscape.
If the world was metaphorically a garden, we would be the seeds, the plants, the designers, and the gardeners. We each play roles in all the processes of making the landscape a place we come to belong to. Our predicament: knowing when to take on a role, when to work with each other, and when to support another.
We can only clarify our ever-evolving roles by evaluating our past, present, and future participation in this landscape, individually and collectively. Our reflections are our stories: we can give space for more individual stories, especially our own, so that more of our collective narratives can be broken open.
Have a landscape or research project that needs a dose of eco-philosophy and/or participatory landscape storytelling? Contact me to discuss.
1&2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 1960.
The above synthesis about landscapes and place-making originates from my PhD research which involved “narratives” from 15+ documents from landscape architecture organisations, 53 survey participants in the profession, 14 interviews of flourishing landscape architects, and an in-depth self-reflection from me, a researcher who considers landscape to be one of her greatest teachers of love. You can read the full dissertation here or a summary from my winning LACF grant submission.