Descriptive Study of Static Objects

  1. Intensive study of products
  2. Extensive study of products
En Español  In Finnish   Contents

"Objects" include products, of course, but also people can be studied with same methods, if the researcher is only interested in the exterior appearance and dimensions of human beings. An example of this is the study of human measurements which are necessary when you design furniture.
"Static" means here that the object is not moving or changing, or if it is, the change is not essential and it will not be recorded. (For the study of movement or change, see Observation.)

Before starting to gather data from empiria it is advisable to spend a minute in considering whether the information that you need could be reachable with other methods than the often relatively arduous empirical work. Such methods might include:

If you, however, decide that empirical information has to be gathered, one of the first questions to resolve is the extent of the study. There are two decisions that you have to make:

  1. Demarcate the study by asking yourself which is the set or the entire multitude of those cases, specimens or individuals where you want to say that your future findings are true? It is often more or less identical to the set of cases where your findings shall be applied if such application is foreseeable.
  2. Select the sample from which empirical data are collected, if you cannot or do not want to study the entire set defined above.

The extent of your study, in other words the number of objects that you need to study, has an influence on the choice of method when doing the empirical recording. There are two principal alternatives:

Intensive study of products

In an intensive study of one interesting object only, the purpose is to portray the object exhaustively and include all that can help understanding why the object has become to its present state. Which aspects and properties of the object have to be recorded, it is not always obvious at the outset. Sometimes it becomes clear first after a few days of analyzing your material, and then you perhaps have to return to your empirical object to get some more data. In other words, in an intensive study you cannot always make a clear division between gathering data and analyzing them. Such a procedure of research is discussed on the page Case Study.

If you are studying just one specimen of a product, you will perhaps want to record everything that can be known about its history: the designer, his or her intentions in creating the work, the manufacturer, manufacturing technology, the original commissioner or buyer, the succession of the product's owners, its use, later modifications to it, etc. Histories of celebrated old buildings are great examples of such thorough studies of just one product. The appearance of each object is, of course, registered accurately through photographing or detailed drawings like the one on the right, made by Auguste Choisy for his history of architecture.

Boat typesThe method is applicable when studying not only one single object but also a series of practically identical objects. For example, all the specimens of Volkswagen model 1945 are practically identical and you do not need to differentiate between them. The same method is possible even when there are differences between the specimens but this variation is not of a kind that would be of interest in the project. In the study of yachts, for example, you can decide that you need to differentiate between schooners, yawls, cutters etc., but you do not need to register more details of them than are presented in the figure on the right.

In the intensive style it is also possible to study a group of different objects. In that case the target usually is to describe the larger structure that these objects are parts of. This larger structure can be, for example:


Documenting becomes necessary when a valuable product is expected to disappear or deteriorate and we wish to conserve a description, an image or an inventory of it for later study.

Additionally, there are several types of temporary products and works of art, like packages, exhibition architecture, theater staging and ice sculpture. All these are physical objects, but there are also "diachronic" works of art like music and theater plays where the physical essence consists mainly of activity and only secondarily of objects. All these need documenting, otherwise very little will be left from them afterwards.

Often the need for documenting a product arises first when the product has already existed for a long time, during which it has perhaps been transported to a new location, sold, put to a new use, modified, etc. All these changes could perhaps interest later researchers and you should determine whether you should record them, too, or only the original conditions of the creation of the product.

Beside the product itself, you will normally want to register data about its makers and commissioners, documents related to it, and the views of persons related to it, if these people can still be interviewed.

Normally you will wish to record a holistic view of the product, in other words both its general appearance and also all relevant details. The normal method is photographing or by one of its modern equivalents. Usually you will record a series of views, both of the whole and of those details that are not clearly visible in the general view.

As a complement to photographs there is a large variety of methods for measuring dimensions, weights and other physical attributes, and the various drawing techniques that designers of comparable objects use, cf. Registering Shapes and Registering Qualities, below.

The selection of media for long-term storage of data is a science of its own, see Filing the Report and Material.

Age of an Object

When studying old objects we often need to know their age. If it is documented nowhere, the normal method is to measure one of those attributes of the object which we know varies in time according to a known pattern. Research methods that are based on this principle include:

Some methods rely on measuring physical processes which have taken place in the object and the speed of which is known: Luminescence is a useful method when studying the age of old objects. It is based on the fact that when objects are exposed to ionizing radiation from natural radioactivity, electrons are liberated in the crystal defects of the substance that the objects are made of. The amount of ionizing radiation remains constant. That is why luminescence can be used as a dating technique, especially for pottery. In this technique, you heat the object to determine its age (or you expose it to sunlight). For instance, if you know the time when a pot was excavated from under the sand, the thermoluminescence that has been produced before the point when the object was dug up shows the age of the pot.

The electrons which are liberated cause a soft, glowing light, i.e. luminescence, and the more luminescence there is, the newer the object is. This is because in older objects, more trapped electrons have already been liberated because of the quantity of ionizing radiation to which the objects have been exposed. And, of course, each additional year that the object has existed increases the quantity of ionizing radiation the object is exposed to. You must, however, remember that in heating and exposure to direct sunlight, the luminescence clock of the object is set to zero, and it starts building up again if the object is buried again. Factors like chemicals and other types of radioactivity which the objects have been exposed to can, however, jeopardize the reliability of luminescence dating.

Luminescence dating is especially appropriate when radiocarbon dating is not possible, for instance if no remaining organic material is found in connection with the objects that we want to date; or when the relationship between the organic materials and the archaeological contexts is uncertain; or when the age of the archaeological site is greater than the 50,000 year limit for radiocarbon dating.

The radiocarbon method is based on the fact that living organisms contain three carbon isotopes, of which C12 and C13 are stable and C14 is unstable or radioactive. The amount of all the three remains stable in live organisms, but as soon as the organism dies, C14 starts decaying at a predictable rate (after 5568 years only half of the C14 carbon will be left) because the animal or plant ceases its metabolic carbon uptake and stops replenishing the C14 supply.

By comparing the proportional amount of the stable isotopes C12 and C13 which do not decrease, and that of C14, we can determine the age of the organism. It is not possible to use the radiocarbon method to date organisms that are older than 50 000 years, because these have already lost all of their initial C14.

Extensive study of products

As a contrast to intensive studies of objects, the goal in the extensive type of research projects is to register not as many facts as possible but only the interesting attributes of the object. These often belong to the following types:

More exactly the selection of attributes can be deduced from the initial problem of the project and from the model which we perhaps have selected as a starting point and which roughly defines the invariance we are searching in the material of study. In the research of products, some of the most typical attributes which we will want to record from the objects of study are:

Registering Shapes

Ancient potWhen gathering material, not for documentation but for analytic research the goal is not to register as many facts as possible but only what interests us in the object - its shape or those properties that pertain to the target of the project. If the target is related with the shape and appearance of an object, the problem often is that we would like to get a pictorial registering of the object, but with the normal method of photography the shape of the object gets lost among superfluous detail.

Photographers have, to be sure, several well known tricks that they can use for removing undesirable details from the picture. Already at the moment of pressing the button it is possible to reduce the depth of focus so that background becomes grey and misty, and to use lights so that background fades in darkness. Even more powerful are the modern tools of manipulating the image files afterwards with the help of a computer. You can, for example, consider reducing color intensity or letting the unimportant parts of the picture fade into black, or to white, as has been done to the photograph of an ancient Egyptian clay pot (on the left).

Despite of clever manipulation the photo of the Egyptian pot still leaves something to be desired. It awkwardly highlights the broken and missing parts which only distract us if we want to get a picture of the original shape of the object. Therefore, in each research project, we should try to find such a method of presentation which emphasizes the essential things and hides the coincidental ones. This can often be accomplished by transforming the photograph into a line drawing.

Decorated potOn the right, there is an example of a usual archaeological method of presenting pottery in such a way that one picture portrays both outward and inward decoration and also the cross section. Each researcher can choose which details are important in his study and leave out the rest. (The two illustrations above come from Holthoer.)


Historically, the proportions in the dimensions of products have been among the first static invariances that researchers have found. They are documented already in antiquity by Vitruve, and again in the Renaissance they were eagerly studied. On the right is a study from Leonardo, showing the ratios 1:3:1:2:1:2 that he found in the proportions of the human face.

When studying a number of objects with very little variation of shape it can be possible to do without any pictorial presentation and just to register a few salient measurements of the objects. This method has the advantage that powerful quantitative analysis methods can be used. The instruments, definitions and scales of measurement can often be borrowed from the designers of comparable new products, or from physical and engineering sciences.

Once the empirical measurements or estimations have been recorded the study can proceed to the phase of analysis. There are a few methods that can be used in the analysis of pictorial presentations; these include the methods of Comparative Study and Classification. A larger number of methods exist for the Quantitative Analysis of dimensions, proportions and other arithmetic invariances.

Registering Qualities

As stated before, the goal in the analytic type of research is to register not as many facts as possible but only those interesting attributes of the object which are contained in the model which we have selected as the starting point. This model defines, at first tentatively, the invariance we are searching in the material of study.

In the research of products, typical attributes which we will want to record from the objects indicate material, surface finish, colour, weight and other such straightforward properties which we can measure with standard instruments used by designers of these products.

Tick one box on each line
Light _ _ _ _ _ Heavy
Solemn _ _ _ _ _ Cheerful
Classical _ _ _ _ _ Modern
If there is no standard method of measurement, we can often record the attribute with the help of human observers. These are asked to describe the object in verbal adjectives, perhaps with the help of semantic differential scales. If the property is difficult to define, like "beauty" or "style" of an object, the assessments of people will include much variation which sometimes is of interest to the reseacher, sometimes not (cf. Human Subjectivity and Objectivity). In the latter case the researcher then can try to remove it in various ways. Two usual methods are:

A common difficulty in the research of products is that these are connected in the lives of their users in intricate ways that the users find difficult to analyze. Some approaches for tackling this problem are listed on the page Modes of Knowing, and they often mean that you have to complement your methods with observation and/or with interrogative methods.


Once the empirical measurements or assessments have been recorded the study can proceed to the phase of analysis, the methods of which are discussed on another page.

En Español  In Finnish   Contents

August 3, 2007.
Comments to the author:

Original location: