Don’t forget your self

In Freedom is an Endless Meeting, Francesca Polletta writes about how community organizers in the IAF in the 1960′s were able to get broad support for common definitions of the problems that communities faced, and what actions the community should take to address them.  Organizers would go door to door, engaging in deep one-on-one interviews, emphasizing each person’s self-interest and needs.  Then, the organizers would consolidate stories, relate them, and build a shared understanding of common problems.

Organizers say that what makes the consensus authentic – what prevents people from kowtowing to their pastors or to organizers – is the emphasis organizers place on self-interest. Self-interest rather than altruism or ideological principle is what motivates people to effective action, organizers maintain. (Freedom is an Endless Meeting, 2002)

The IAF organizers believed that even in a participatory community process, self-interest was the key to effective action.  But the discourse on codesign in seems to have little emphasis on the role of the designer as a self-interested actor. Among the many introductions, handbooks, toolkits and manifestos for participatory design methodologies are arguments and justifications for why participatory design is valuable – generally falling into the broad categories of pragmatic arguments (participatory design strategies lead to more successful results), or normative arguments (participatory design strategies are morally better).[1] But I have yet to find a justification within the PD literature which comments on the role of the designer as an actor with self-interest, emotions, and needs, operating within institutional constraints.

The designers themselves face institutional, social, and personal constraints that influence their work, and might limit their ability to use a participatory method. For example, an academic designer may face academic hurdles such as theses, dissertations, publishing, tenure reviews, and mentorship. An industry designer will have concerns of employment and promotion. Whatever the circumstance, there will be constraints that limit the designer’s capacity to do work within any given methodology. As I read case studies of successes and failures in participatory design practice, I find myself asking repeatedly: who was the designer?  What circumstance of their design practice led to failures in choice and execution of design methodology?

What’s your motivation?

The participatory design literature might benefit from greater reflection on designers’ interests. This is an area where literature and practice of participatory research in the social sciences may be taking the lead over similar research in design. Participatory Action Research (PAR) emphasizes the importance of incorporating the researcher’s self, emotion, and affect into the research process. The aims of PAR are very consonant with the aims of codesign – the main difference is just that PAR comes from the background of social science, rather than design:

Action research aims to solve pertinent problems in a given context through democratic inquiry in which professional researchers collaborate with local stakeholders to seek and enact solutions to problems of major importance to the stakeholders. (Greenwood & Levin, 2000)

However, it’s not always straight forward to integrate such practices with the expectations of academic institutions. Janet Moore writes in Living in the basement of the ivory tower: a graduate student’s perspective of participatory action research within academic institutions:

In a model of true participation, participants have more control over the outcomes and process of the research.

This emerging paradigm of research enables researchers to be engaged in collaborative knowledge production, but it does not fit within traditional academic models for writing, publishing or promotion. Collaborative inquiry challenges academic institutions to create a system that accepts (and even rewards) these alternative processes for research. As a graduate student I am attracted to the often promoted collaborative projects within academia; however, my success within the institution is more often related to my individual endeavours (grades, publications, presentations, etc.) (Janet Moore (2004))

Research is conceived as a process of mutual growth and liberation; but it may not follow the demands of an institution.  This is a positive feature insofar as it enables research trajectories which undermine racism, sexism, imperialism, and class barriers that operate within academic institutions.  But it can also limit the practical ability of researchers to engage in the practice.

Designer as another self

As students in this class embark on participatory design projects, I wonder whether we are being sufficiently mindful of the communities we will be working with, and sufficiently self-reflective about our own motivations and needs. Perhaps, as the organizers of IAF suggested, we should reconsider and reformulate our project plans in the language of self interest.

“A person’s self interest incorporates all of their concerns, values and desires, including the need for self-preservation, creativity, self-definition, power, money, love, and the meaning of life,” Cortes writes…. Common interests and agendas are not assumed; rather, they are arrived at through a process of negotiation. (Polletta, 2002, p183)

The responsible thing to do, it seems, is to share with community partners in any codesign process the details of our own needs and circumstances, including the uncomfortable details of professional constraint that might impact the collaboration, and to work towards a consensus that can meet both community and designer’s needs. To ignore this is to open the door to the moral hazard of an engaging in a research practice which uses the language of participation, but fails to deliver, instead extracting the energy and participation of the community partner for the benefit of academic classwork alone.

So here’s my worry: I’m couching my dissertation work within a nominally trans- or anti-disciplinary (but actually more technology-focused) academic program on a participatory process. What do I do if I find through the participatory process that the most appropriate designs don’t meet the needs of the academic hurdles I face?


[1]: These two broad justifications (pragmatic and normative) parallel the division in justifications used by the OSI and FSF for promoting free software – the OSI argues that open source software leads to better quality (pragmatism); the FSF emphasizes the moral imparative of freedom. Benjamin Mako Hill argues in When Free Software Isn’t Better that the fact that free software projects often fail is a threat to the pragmatic argument.  It would be interesting to pursue a similar line of argument with regard to participatory design. Does the moral imperative justify the methodology, even if the outcome is not always better?

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