“There is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution. The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest maybe, while in the swamp lay the problems of greatest human concern. The “leader” is confronted with a choice. Shall she remain on the high ground where she can solve relatively unimportant problems according to her standards of rigor, or shall she descend to the swamp of important problems where she cannot be rigorous in any way she knows how to describe.
Nearly all professional practitioners experience a version of the dilemma of rigor or relevance, and they respond to it in one of several ways. Some of them choose the swampy lowland, deliberately immersing themselves in confusing but critically important situations. When they are asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, or muddling through. When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor. When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the “hard” zones of their practice and the apparent sloppiness of the “soft” ones.
People tend to feel the dilemma of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point, they ask themselves, “Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems ill formed, vague, and messy that I have discovered to be real around here? And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently.”
From “Knowing In Action” Donald Schon, 1983