Design sociology part 3: critical, speculative, and ludic design

This is the third part of my series on design sociology (see here for part 1, and here for part 2).

Critical design is another term that is frequently used in the design and HCI literature. Rather than taking a utilitarian and commercially-oriented perspective, critical design incorporates social and political theory into the design process, and is sceptical and questioning of the ideals and practices of mainstream design. It identifies the social and political dimensions of objects and systems and recognises complexity and ambiguity. The language of design is used to ask provocative questions, identify and challenge tacit norms and assumptions and explore alternative futures (Bardzell & Bardzell, 2013; Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2012; Malpass, 2013).

Some design and HCI researchers use the term agonistic design, adversarial design or design activism to describe an approach that is overtly and specifically directed at political activism and challenging the status quo, often including marginalised or disempowered social groups in the design process. This design approach is viewed as offering a counter to the corporatisation and neoliberal political orientation of design thinking by returning to the socialist roots of participatory design (Björgvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, 2012; Markussen, 2013).

One example of a critical design project was the Neighbourhood Networks project, based in Pittsburgh, USA (DiSalvo et al., 2012). Neighbourhood residents were invited to take part in activities using environmental sensors and a prototype of a handheld environment sensing and robotics platform designed specifically for the workshops, and to compare the two types of sensor technologies. They were then asked to invent their own uses for the platform, involving a storyboarding activity that used images and texts and then building their own prototypes. The overall objective of this project was to encourage the participants to become more aware of the environmental concerns in their neighbourhood and to express their concerns in the form of their designs.

Speculative design involves configuring future imaginaries that may not be expected to come to pass. Unlike some design approaches, therefore, it is not directed at problem-solving, but rather at problematising futures. Speculative design can come together with participatory design approaches. It has been advocated as a way of engaging publics with science and technology and identifying their understandings of new technologies and the benefits or risks they see as associated with these technologies (Dunne & Raby, 2013; Gaver et al., 2015; Michael, 2012; Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2015). Speculative design often draws on satire, exaggeration and allegory (Malpass, 2013). By inspiring or responding to speculative design artefacts and ideas, participants are provoked into thinking differently and creatively, perhaps raising questions about conventions and assumptions. Speculative design methods can also uncover the rationales and meanings behind what might be considered to be unusual, irrational, unexpected or perverse uses of objects; and in doing so, contribute to new ways of thinking about their possibilities as well as their deficiencies (Malpass, 2013; Michael, 2016; Michael, 2017).

Using speculative design research, HCI and other researchers have designed objects that are meant to provoke imaginative responses. Thus, for example, as part of Persuasive Anxiety, a project seeking to investigate self-tracking, Gross and colleagues (Gross et al., 2017) invented three design artefacts that were designed to be controversial. These devices were made to be deliberately intrusive as a way of foregrounding the performative nature, anxiety-inspiring qualities and privacy implications of collecting self-tracked data for health and behaviour change. Participants in their study were asked to use the devices over a period of six months in their homes, with the researchers meeting regularly with them to interview them about their experiences and conducting observations of how the devices were used. The researchers were interested in how these devices worked to defamiliarise and disrupt conventional assumptions about self-tracking technologies, opening up new ideas about how these technologies might be employed in everyday life.

Ludic design is explicitly directed at playful and curiosity-driven engagements, and can be an aspect of speculative design. In an example of speculative and ludic design, Gaver and colleagues (Gaver et al., 2013) made several devices as part of their Indoor Weather Stations project, and asked people to use them in their homes. These devices were designed to reveal the microclimates of the homes by highlighting air movement, the colour of ambient light and temperature differentials inside the homes. The purpose of this project was to explore approaches to environmental conditions that departed from the often-moralistic and individualistic focus in HCI design on persuading people to change their behaviours in response to initiatives directed at environmental sustainability.

In the next blog, I will wrap up this series of posts with a discussion of where design sociology can head from here.

References

Bardzell, J. and Bardzell, S. (2013) What is critical about critical design? Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3297-3306.

Björgvinsson, E., Ehn, P. and Hillgren, P.-A. (2012) Agonistic participatory design: working with marginalised social movements. CoDesign, 8 (2-3), 127-144.

DiSalvo, C. (2012) Adversarial Design. Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I. and Akin, A. (2012) Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28 (3), 48-61.

Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2013) Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D.W.T., Hauenstein, M., Jarvis, N. and Pennington, S. (2013) Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris: ACM Press. pp. 3451-3460.

Gaver, W., Michael, M., Kerridge, T., Wilkie, A., Boucher, A., Ovalle, L. and Plummer-Fernandez, M. (2015) Energy Babble: mixing environmentally-oriented internet content to engage community groups Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’15), Seoul: ACM Press. pp. 1115-1124.

Gross, S., Bardzell, J., Bardzell, S. and Stallings, M. (2017) Persuasive Anxiety: designing and deploying material and formal explorations of personal tracking devices. Human–Computer Interaction, online ahead of print.

Kimbell, L. (2012) Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4 (2), 129-148.

Malpass, M. (2013) Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5 (3), 333-356.

Markussen, T. (2013) The disruptive aesthetics of design activism: enacting design between art and politics. Design Issues, 29 (1), 38-50.

Michael, M. (2012) De‐signing the object of sociology: toward an ‘idiotic’ methodology. The Sociological Review, 60 (S1), 166-183.

Michael, M. (2016) Notes toward a speculative methodology of everyday life. Qualitative Research, 16 (6), 646-660.

Michael, M. (2017) Enacting Big Futures, Little Futures: toward an ecology of futures. The Sociological Review, online ahead of print.

Wilkie, A., Michael, M. and Plummer‐Fernandez, M. (2015) Speculative method and Twitter: Bots, energy and three conceptual characters. The Sociological Review, 63 (1), 79-101.

Design sociology part 2: terms and approaches

In the previous post I introduced the idea of design sociology. In this post, I begin to outline some of the key terms and approaches and discuss their relevance for the development of design sociology.

Key terms in design

Design and design thinking

The concept of design, as it is used in professional design circles, refers to developing an idea about a product, system or solution, and devising a plan for executing that idea. Design involves an iterative process of problem solving that includes identifying the practices of end users, generating and testing ideas and then implementing them. Most design-related research works towards developing a set of recommendations for how the design of objects or systems can be developed and improved for their targeted users. It therefore has a future-oriented perspective that can move from what is currently known to what might occur (Bergman, Lyytinen, & Mark, 2007; Dorst, 2011; Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012): A design problem is developed, which the actions of designers need to address to achieve a better solution for the relevant stakeholders (Bergman et al., 2007). Success is measured by how well the proposed solutions work for the intended purpose.

Design thinking is a design-based approach to problem solving, change or idea-generation beyond the domain of professional design that emerged about two decades ago. Design thinking became popular as a new mode of creating solutions because designers were viewed as possessing particular creative and innovation skills, able to adopt a human-centred approach and possessing a privileged sensitivity to how changes in culture can be identified and built on in developing new cultural forms. In the neoliberal and entrepreneurial context prevailing in most wealthy countries, in which the capacity for developing innovation, creativity, novelty and futures forecasting are prized as ways of fostering economic group, these attributes have achieved high worth (Drazin, 2013; Kimbell, 2011). The design thinking approach has been taken up in particular in the contexts of management, business, information technology, and organisation, but also by those working towards social change and policy development (Bjögvinsson, Ehn, & Hillgren, 2012; Brown & Wyatt, 2010; Dorst, 2011; Kimbell, 2011).

The design workshop is the archetypal set-up for running design research activities, involving bringing together professional designers or design research teams with end-users and other stakeholders to identify challenges and develop new ideas. Methods of running participatory design activities often involve some kind of design artefact, used to challenge perceptions and stimulate ideas and new ways of doing. These artefacts are developed from consultations with commissioning clients or previous research into the topic under investigation, which may involve reviewing the existing literature as well as conducting new social research to define the problem, typically using the standard methods of surveys, focus groups or one-to-one interviews. Design artefacts are usually a kind of material object that can be viewed or handled, but may also be concepts that are expressed verbally (Drazin, 2013). As they are used in design workshops, design artefacts operate as boundary objects because they enable design knowledge to cross social worlds and facilitate alignment of interests across these different contexts (Bergman et al., 2007; Vines, Clarke, Wright, McCarthy, & Olivier, 2013). Design artefacts need to possess the capability for common representation, to transform design knowledge, mobilise for action, and legitimise design knowledge across heterogeneous social worlds (Bergman et al., 2007).

Examples of design artefacts that are typically used in workshops include descriptive or functional prototypes and mock-ups, images, fictional narratives, videos, games, dramatic performances, storyboards, scenarios, inspiration cards, or cultural probes (objects that invite people to perform certain tasks). Sometimes design artefacts are given to participants to be deployed or worked with at home or in work settings. Ideally, these artefacts work to spark responses that go beyond the obvious, reveal gaps and ambiguities in understandings, and inspire new and often provocative ideas that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions. Design artefacts are often made by the research or design team before research participants encounter them, but in some projects, they are developed together with the participants as part of workshops.

In seeking to understand human behaviour, design and HCI research has traditionally adopted cognitive psychological models of behaviour that focus on individual responses (Vines et al., 2013). The practices associated with an object or system have often been examined without recognition or identification of related practices that contribute to an ecology of use, involving other humans and nonhumans, space and place. Design thinking and research has also been subjected to criticism for its limited, individualistic and predominantly utilitarian and commercially-oriented approach (see, for example, Dunne & Raby, 2013; Kimbell, 2011, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Vines et al., 2013). In recent times, however, many design and HCI researchers have begun to include sociocultural and political perspectives in their work. In HCI research, this is referred to as the third paradigm (following the engineering and cognitive psychology paradigms) one that has been gathering momentum for several years (Harrison, Sengers, & Tatar, 2011; Harrison, Tatar, & Sengers, 2007; Sellen, Rogers, Harper, & Rodden, 2009). The term reflective design has also been employed in the HCI literature to encompass researchers’ attempts to question taken-for-granted values and tacit norms and assumptions, move beyond single authoritative interpretations to elicit multiple viewpoints and develop ideas for alternative possibilities (Gaver et al., 2013; Sengers, Boehner, David, & Kaye, 2005; Sengers & Gaver, 2006).

These developments in design and HCI research bring its interests, perspectives and methods closer to those of sociology. Many of these approaches involve end-users at some point in the design process. The process of collaboration with publics and other stakeholders is often referred to as co-design or participatory design. Co-design and participatory design have been described as a process of experimentation, mutual learning and reflection in action involving multiple participants beyond designers. The underlying ideal is that those who will use these ideas, processes or objects (the end-users) are able to have a say in how they are designed. The origins of participatory design lie in social rights movements. Activities are therefore often directed at incorporating the ideas of community groups, with a focus of achieving social change or improvements to people’s living conditions.  (Bjögvinsson et al., 2012; DiSalvo, Louw, Holstius, Nourbakhsh, & Akin, 2012; Malpass, 2013; Muller, 2003; Robertson & Simonsen, 2012, 2013). Some researchers have sought to include the participation of social groups who have traditionally have been excluded from the design process, such as those from culturally and linguistically-diverse backgrounds, with significant health conditions, children or older people or people of low socioeconomic status (for example, Hendriks, Huybrechts, Wilkinson, & Slegers, 2014; Lindsay, Jackson, Schofield, & Olivier, 2012; Vines et al., 2013).

An example of participatory design is the method of participatory forecasting and backcasting. Groups of stakeholders are asked to imagine desirable probable, possible or preferable future scenarios, which may involve brainstorming exercises and ideas clustering. Once a set of scenarios has been developed, they are used as a tool for the development and assessment of strategies and solutions. When backcasting is used, these future scenarios are developed, and then participants work back to the present to develop interventions to achieve these futures (Carlsson-Kanyama, Dreborg, Moll, & Padovan, 2008).  The scenarios are sometimes represented using images, and then presented to further groups of participants to invite their responses. This approach has mostly been used for such topics as environmental sustainability (for example, Carlsson-Kanyama et al., 2008; Robinson, Burch, Talwar, O’Shea, & Walsh, 2011) and household consumption and energy use (for example, Davies, 2014; Doyle & Davies, 2013).

The next post will continue looking at approaches, covering critical, speculative and ludic design. 

References

Bergman, M., Lyytinen, K., & Mark, G. (2007). Boundary objects in design: an ecological view of design artifacts. Journal of the Association for Information Systems, 8(11), 546-568.

Bjögvinsson, E., Ehn, P., & Hillgren, P.-A. (2012). Design things and design thinking: contemporary participatory design challenges. Design Issues, 28(3), 101-116.

Brown, T., & Wyatt, J. (2010). Design thinking for social innovation. Development Outreach, 12(1), 29-43.

Carlsson-Kanyama, A., Dreborg, K. H., Moll, H. C., & Padovan, D. (2008). Participative backcasting: a tool for involving stakeholders in local sustainability planning. Futures, 40(1), 34-46.

Davies, A. R. (2014). Co-creating sustainable eating futures: Technology, ICT and citizen–consumer ambivalence. Futures, 62, Part B, 181-193.

DiSalvo, C., Louw, M., Holstius, D., Nourbakhsh, I., & Akin, A. (2012). Toward a public rhetoric through participatory design: critical engagements and creative expression in the neighborhood networks project. Design Issues, 28(3), 48-61.

Dorst, K. (2011). The core of ‘design thinking’ and its application. Design Studies, 32(6), 521-532.

Doyle, R., & Davies, A. R. (2013). Towards sustainable household consumption: exploring a practice oriented, participatory backcasting approach for sustainable home heating practices in Ireland. Journal of Cleaner Production, 48, 260-271.

Drazin, A. (2013). The social life of concepts in design anthropology. In W. Gunn, T. Otto, & R. C. Smith (Eds.), Design anthropology: Theory and practice (pp. 33-50). London: Bloomsbury.

Dunne, A., & Raby, F. (2013). Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boehner, K., Boucher, A., Cameron, D. W. T., Hauenstein, M., . . . Pennington, S. (2013). Indoor weather stations: investigating a ludic approach to environmental HCI through batch prototyping. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 3451-3460.

Harrison, S., Sengers, P., & Tatar, D. (2011). Making epistemological trouble: Third-paradigm HCI as successor science. Interacting with Computers, 23(5), 385-392.

Harrison, S., Tatar, D., & Sengers, P. (2007). The three paradigms of HCI. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’07), San Jose, CA. ACM Press, pp. 1-18.

Hendriks, N., Huybrechts, L., Wilkinson, A., & Slegers, K. (2014). Challenges in doing participatory design with people with dementia. 13th Participatory Design Conference (PDC ’14), Windhoek, Namibia. ACM Press, pp. 33-36.

Kimbell, L. (2011). Rethinking design thinking: Part I. Design and Culture, 3(3), 285-306.

Kimbell, L. (2012). Rethinking design thinking: Part II. Design and Culture, 4(2), 129-148.

Lindsay, S., Jackson, D., Schofield, G., & Olivier, P. (2012). Engaging older people using participatory design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’12), Austin, Texas. ACM Press, pp. 1199-1208.

Malpass, M. (2013). Between wit and reason: defining associative, speculative, and critical design in practice. Design and Culture, 5(3), 333-356.

Muller, M. J. (2003). Participatory design: the third space in HCI. In A. Sears & J. A. Jacko (Eds.), Human-computer interaction: Development process (pp. 165-185). New York: CRC Press.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2012). Challenges and opportunities in contemporary participatory design. Design Issues, 28(3), 3-9.

Robertson, T., & Simonsen, J. (2013). Participatory dsign: an introduction. In J. Simonsen & T. Robertson (Eds.), Routledge International Handbook of Participatory Design (pp. 1-17). London: Routledge.

Robinson, J., Burch, S., Talwar, S., O’Shea, M., & Walsh, M. (2011). Envisioning sustainability: recent progress in the use of participatory backcasting approaches for sustainability research. Technological Forecasting and Social Change, 78(5), 756-768.

Sellen, A., Rogers, Y., Harper, R., & Rodden, T. (2009). Reflecting human values in the digital age. Communications of the ACM, 52(3), 58-66.

Sengers, P., Boehner, K., David, S., & Kaye, J. J. (2005). Reflective design. Proceedings of the 4th Decennial Conference on Critical Computing: Between Sense and Sensibility, Aarhus. ACM Press, pp. 49-58.

Sengers, P., & Gaver, B. (2006). Staying open to interpretation: engaging multiple meanings in design and evaluation. Proceedings of the 6th conference on Designing Interactive systems (DIS 2006), University Park, Pennsylvania. ACM Press, pp. 99-108.

Vines, J., Clarke, R., Wright, P., McCarthy, J., & Olivier, P. (2013). Configuring participation: on how we involve people in design. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’13), Paris. ACM Press, pp. 429-438.

Design sociology part 1: a research agenda

Over the past few years I have become interested in experimenting with approaches to social research and theorising that I am calling ‘design sociology’. I think that design approaches have much to offer the development of novel modes of sociological inquiry, especially for research that seeks to understand people’s engagements with objects and systems, better engage publics and other stakeholders, work towards social change, and identify and intervene in futures. One example of a project in which I have used design methods is a study on public understanding of big data with Mike Michael (see here and here for publications from this). I am now working with a professional design research studio to develop methods for new projects.

While not all design approaches are relevant to the interests and preoccupations of sociological researchers, many designers and HCI researchers have become progressively open to incorporating sociological and anthropological concepts and theories in their work. For their part, anthropologists have begun to realise the possibilities of taking up design approaches. Design anthropology as a sub-discipline of anthropology is new but rapidly evolving, as evidenced by the publication of several edited volumes since 2011: Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century, Design and Anthropology, Design Anthropology: Theory and Practice, Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology and Design Anthropological Futures. As outlined in these books and other design anthropology literature, like sociologists, anthropologists are focused on developing concepts and ideas about the way social groups operate. They tend to be oriented towards the past and the present rather than the future, and on documentation rather than social change. Design anthropology takes a more applied, future-oriented and interventionist approach than do other modes of anthropological inquiry.

With some notable exceptions, thus far sociologists have not been as open to engaging with design and HCI perspectives – or indeed, even with design anthropology. Design sociology as a term is hardly ever used. Yet design sociology as a field of research can fruitfully incorporate the strengths and foci of design-oriented approaches while maintaining the critical and sociocultural emphasis of traditional sociological enquiry. Sociologists can productively build on the existing critiques of design thinking processes that have been raised by designers and HCI researchers. From a conceptual and theoretical level, design sociology can also extend the literature on design that represented the design process and design artefacts as sociomaterial phenomena that are situated within specific sociocultural and political contexts. It can develop insights into how objects and systems are designed, developed, promoted to users and taken up by users and also retain a reflexive perspective on the use of design research methods as themselves context-specific and discursive research devices, involving multiple and often contested knowledge claims that can work to serve or support certain interests and futures over others.

In my next blog post I will I review key terms and approaches in design research that offer possibilities for applied sociology.

Review of Social Media for Academics

I have written many times on this blog about my own experiences of using social media and other digital tools for academic work and my research focusing on how other academics are doing this.

One of the people I have encountered along the way is Mark Carrigan, an early career British sociologist. Appropriately enough, we first met on Twitter a few years ago, around the time I began experimenting with various digital tools for professional purposes. Since then, we have had many discussions there and on other online forums, as well as by email, about using social media in universities (and a couple of in-person meetings as well). Mark has now written a book on Social Media for Academics. It is the first book I know of to present a ‘how-to’ manual combined with reflections on the wider implications of  academic social media engagement.

Mark is a great example of someone who has strategically used social media while still in the very early stages of his career (completing his doctorate) to create a high profile for his work. He has now built on this experience not only to work in various positions involving promoting academic journals, departments and organisations, but to produce this book. In its chapters, Mark employs a casual, chatty style to painlessly introduce readers to the art of academic social media.

The book is distinctive because Mark’s sociological training allows him to contextualise the social, cultural and political implications of academic social media use. Yes, he offers  a multitude of helpful tips and advice about how best to communicate online, what platforms and tools are the most effective, how to develop your own voice, how online engagement helps in promoting one’s research and reaching wider audiences outside academia, building networks, curating interesting material you have found on the internet, finding time to use social media and so on. But there are also reflections offered on what academic social media means for professional identities and for academic work in general. In addition there are many pithy remarks drawing on Mark’s observations, for example, of the awkwardness that sometimes accompanies the experience of colleagues meeting in the flesh after having developed a hitherto purely online relationship, or the potential pitfalls of live-tweeting conferences or writing a tweet or blog post in haste and anger that then becomes widely circulated well after the initial irritation has subsided.

This book is highly recommended for higher degree students and faculty staff members who are interested in the possibilities of academic social media for both research and teaching, as well as researchers interested in future directions for the university workplace and academic identities.

 

Digitised dissection: medical procedures on the internet

 

This is an excerpt from my book in progress, Digital Health: Critical Perspectives, to be published by Routledge in 2017.

With the advent of websites, social media platforms and apps, the internal organs and workings of the body have moved from being exclusively the preserve of medical students and surgeons. Digital medical devices have entered into the public arena of the internet, offering new possibilities for lay people to gaze inside the spectacle of the human body. A vast volume of computerised medical images of human life from conception to death are now readily available online. Tapping in such keywords as ‘human anatomy’ will call up many apps on the Apple App Store or Google Play which provide such details. While these apps have been explicitly designed for the use of medical and other healthcare students and trainees, they are readily available to any person who may wish to download them. The Visible Human Project developed by the US National Library of Medicine is an earlier example of how human flesh can be rendered into a digital format and placed on the internet for all to view. The developers of The Visible Human Project used digital technologies to represent in fine detail the anatomical structure of two cadavers (one male and one female). Each body was cross-sectioned transversely from head to toe. Images of the sections of the bodies using MRI and CT scans and anatomical images were uploaded to the Project website. They can also be viewed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC. A similar website, The Visible Embryo, displays images of embryos and foetuses from fertilisation to birth, with a week-by-week display showing the stages of foetal development. The data used for this website were drawn from digitising microscopic cross-sections of human embryo specimens held on slides in The National Institutes of Health’s Carnegie Collection of Embryos as well as from 3D and 4D digital foetal ultrasound images.

Many opportunities are provided on the internet for people who want to view detailed images of surgical and other medical procedures in their full gory detail. YouTube has become a major provider of anatomical and surgical technique videos for medical training. Some medical specialists and surgeons upload images and videos of their work to Snapchat and Instagram, mostly in the effort to promote their services (cosmetic surgeons are in the forefront in this practice). Instagram does not allow users to upload images that are considered too explicit (such as those portraying surgery on breasts or genitals), so some doctors have turned to Shapchat as an alternative forum. One infamous such specialist is Sandra Lee, a dermatologist known as ‘Dr Pimple Popper’. Her Instagram photos and YouTube videos showing her at work have received many millions of views. Perhaps the best-known Snapchatting medical specialist is the cosmetic surgeon ‘Dr Miami’ (Michael Salzhauer), who uploads detailed photos and videos of his surgical procedures (including controversial procedures like labiaplasties, or surgery designed to reshape women’s external genitals). ‘Dr Miami’ is unafraid to Snapchat images of himself brandishing a wad of body fat he has just excised in a tummy tuck. He employs two full-time staff members to manage his social media accounts.

The use of web-streaming services is employed by a number of hospitals to host webcasts of surgical procedures for any interested person to view. The US National Library of Medicine provides a list on its website of several such webcasts with hyperlinks, from numerous different American hospitals. Lay people may now even view live-streamed surgical procedures using a smartphone app and wearing a virtual reality headset to provide a 3D immersive effect, as offered by the Medical Realities company in April 2016. This technology is designed principally for training medical students, but also allows lay people who participate to feel as if they present in the operating theatre.

Pinterest, an image-curating and sharing platform, features many collections of images related to medical matters. Several of these relate to patient experiences of health, but others are curated by medical and nursing students and practising healthcare providers. Some are humorous, featuring memes, cartoons or other images designed to appeal to medical and nursing students and other trainees in the health professions. Other Pinterest photographs feature novelty commodities, again clearly directed to the same audience (for example, anatomical heart or ECG heart beat cookie cutters, human-organ and stethoscope-shaped jewellery, coffee mugs in the shape of spinal vertebrae). While these images are vastly outnumbered by the serious photographs in Pinterest collections that show anatomical images and other medical information (some of which are explicit photographic images that detail flesh, bone and blood), they offer alternative representations of the ways in which human bodies and the practice of healthcare are represented online.

The major differences offered by the latest digital technologies that document and monitor the human body are the continual nature of the surveillance opportunities they present, their expansion from the clinic into domestic and intimate spaces and relationships and their feedback mechanisms, which allow their subjects to ‘read’ and interpret their own bodies via biometric measurements. Medical practices that were once embodied in the flesh, including the development of doctors’ expertise in touching the patient’s body and determining what is wrong, have increasingly become rendered into software such as the video conferencing services offered in remote telemedicine technologies. Virtual bodies have been developed for medical training purposes, allowing students to conduct virtual surgery. To achieve this virtuality, the processes by which doctors practice – their customs, habits and ways of thinking – are themselves digitised. Both doctors and patients are rendered into ‘informatic “body objects”, digital and mathematical constructs that can be redistributed, technologized, and capitalized’ (Prentice, 2013: 20).

Many digital health technologies are directed at illuminating the exterior or interior of the human body with the use of metrics that may represent features of the body as numbers or graphs. The use of apps to collect information about body functions and movements, for example, generates a continuing set of images that represent the body. Biometric data serves first to fragment the body into digitised pieces of information and then to combine these pieces into a recombinant whole that is usually presented in some kind of visual form. Amoore and Hall (2009: 48) use the term ‘digitised dissection’ to refer to the ways in which biometric whole body scanners at airports operate. This term is even more apposite when adopted to discuss the fragmentation of bodies in the context of digital health. Digital technologies are able to peer into the recesses of the body in ever-finer detail, creating new anatomical atlases.

References

Amoore, L. & Hall, A. (2009) Taking people apart: digitised dissection and the body at the border. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 27, 444-64.

Prentice, R. (2013) Bodies in Formation: an Ethnography of Anatomy and Surgery EducationDurham, NC: Duke University Press.

 

 

 

Digital sociology and human-computer interaction research

I have been thinking for some time about some of the shared interests of digital sociology and human-computer interaction (HCI) research. In December 2014 I gave a paper at the major annual Australian HCI conference (known as ‘OzCHI’), offering a sociological perspective on self-tracking cultures. And I recently submitted a brief position paper for a workshop on everyday surveillance, to be held as part of the preeminent conference on HCI internationally (referred to as ‘CHI’), to be held in May 2016. Here is what I have to say in this position paper.

Everyday Surveillance: What Digital Sociology Can Offer

In this position paper I outline how perspectives from digital sociology can contribute to researching and theorising everyday surveillance. I contend that sociologists and human-computer interaction (HCI) researchers have tended to conduct their research in relatively separate spheres that would benefit from collaboration and greater use of the literatures in each discipline.

Thus far there has been little interaction between sociologists and HCI studies. Yet there is much potential for the approaches of each area of study to draw insights for each other’s work. Sociologists can learn from innovative methods presented in HCI. For their part, HCI researchers could benefit from the sociocultural theory developed in sociology to provide greater depth to their investigations. While they engage in approaches to researching user experience that offer interesting new methods for sociologists, their work tends to draw on psychological models of behaviour that fail to incorporate the broader social, cultural and political dimensions of everyday beliefs and practices and are often paternalistic in their approach.

Digital sociology is a subdiscipline of sociology that is beginning to blossom. This work draws on a long interest on the part of sociologists in the social, cultural and political elements of the internet, cyberspace and personal computer use. In line with the traditional interests of sociologists, those scholars who have directed attention at digital technologies have emphasised the social determinants of technology use: structuring factors such as gender, age, social class, geographical location, race and ethnicity. As such, their perspective tends to be critical, interested in identifying the power relations and tacit assumptions that underpin social relationships and institutions.Sociologists have adopted a range of social theories, including Marxist-influenced structuralist conflict theory, feminist and poststructuralist Foucauldian theory as well as Latourian actor-network theory, to generate insights into people’s use of digital technologies and the social impact of these technologies.

More specifically, in relation to everyday surveillance, HCI researchers have yet to fully engage in the ground-breaking work of sociologists who have explored the social elements of digital surveillance technologies and the ways in which these technologies are used across a range of domains and for a multitude of purposes.

Several sociologists have sought to investigate how people within specific social groups engage in voluntary and participatory surveillance, typically using ethnographic, focus group or interview-based research to do so. Some survey-based research has sought to identify people’s attitudes to the ways in which their personal data are used by third parties and the accompanying data security and privacy issues, as well as the influence on attitudes of membership of social groups.

An important sociological literature has developed that takes a critical approach to covert or disciplinary surveillance and the spread of such monitoring into many nooks and crannies of everyday life, often without people’s knowledge or consent. Analysis of the social implications of algorithmic sorting on people’s life chances and opportunities (sometimes referred to as ‘algorithmic authority’) has also begun to develop. This literature is part of critical data studies, a developing multidisciplinary field of research incorporating not only sociology but also anthropology, cultural studies, internet studies, media and cultural studies and cultural geography.

As a digital sociologist who has researched digital data practices and data materialisations, particularly in relation to self-tracking cultures, big data politics and understandings, digitised academia, and parenting cultures, I am interested in learning more about user-experience methods in relation to surveillance technologies as they are employed in HCI, but also contributing my sociological perspective to broadening HCI’s hitherto often individualistic, instrumental and uncritical approach. I argue that bringing greater awareness and more in-depth analysis of the social into HCI research on surveillance to a greater extent would enrich the field.


Digital Sociology now out

Digital Sociology has now been published (click here for the Amazon link and here for the publisher’s link).

 

The publisher’s blurb is below:

Digital Sociology

We now live in a digital society. New digital technologies have had a profound influence on everyday life, social relations, government, commerce, the economy and the production and dissemination of knowledge. People’s movements in space, their purchasing habits and their online communication with others are now monitored in detail by digital technologies. We are increasingly becoming digital data subjects, whether we like it or not, and whether we choose this or not.

The sub-discipline of digital sociology provides a means by which the impact, development and use of these technologies and their incorporation into social worlds, social institutions and concepts of selfhood and embodiment may be investigated, analysed and understood. This book introduces a range of interesting social, cultural and political dimensions of digital society and discusses some of the important debates occurring in research and scholarship on these aspects. It covers the new knowledge economy and big data, reconceptualising research in the digital era, the digitisation of higher education, the diversity of digital use, digital politics and citizen digital engagement, the politics of surveillance, privacy issues, the contribution of digital devices to embodiment and concepts of selfhood and many other topics.

Digital Sociology is essential reading not only for students and academics in sociology, anthropology, media and communication, digital cultures, digital humanities, internet studies, science and technology studies, cultural geography and social computing, but for other readers interested in the social impact of digital technologies.

Chapter abstracts for my Digital Sociology book

I am pleased to announce that my latest book, Digital Sociology, has now gone into production with Routledge, and is due for publication around October this year. Here are the chapter abstracts to give some idea of the book’s contents.

1 Introduction: life is digital
In this introductory chapter I make an argument for why digital sociology is important and why sociology needs to make the study of digital technologies central to its very remit. It is argued that ubiquitous and mobile digital media have changed the ways in which social life is represented, conducted, monitored, managed and analysed. Digital technologies affect social relationships, concepts of identity and embodiment, the monitoring and organisation of people’s movements in space and the creation of and access to information and knowledge. I provide an overview of how digital sociology has developed and outline its four main aspects: professional digital use, analyses of digital technology use, digital data analysis, and critical digital sociology.

2 Theorising digital society
Chapter 2 provides a foundation for the ensuing chapters by reviewing the major theoretical perspectives that are developed in the book. The literature reviewed in the chapter is mainly drawn from sociology but also includes contributions from scholars in media and cultural studies, science and technology studies, surveillance studies, software studies and cultural geography. The perspectives that are discussed include analyses of the global information economy and new forms of power, the sociomaterial perspective on the relationship between humans and digital technologies, prosumption, neoliberalism and the sharing subject, the importance of the archive, theories of veillance (watching) that are relevant to digital society and theories concerning digitised embodiment.

3 Reconceptualising research in the digital era
Chapter 3 focuses on sociological and other social research in the digital era. The aim of the discussion is not to outline how to do digital research in detail. Rather I present an overview not only of some of the approaches that are available and their possibilities and limitations, but also of the more theoretical and critical stances that sociologists are taking to digital social research. I also devote attention to innovative ways of performing digital social research that are part of attempts to invigorate sociological research practice as a way of demonstrating the new and exciting directions in which sociology can extend in response to digital society.

4 The digitised academic
The higher education workplace has become increasingly digitised, with many teaching and learning resources and academic publications moving online and the performance of academics and universities monitored and measured using digital technologies. Some sociologists and other academics are also beginning to use social media as part of their academic work. In this chapter I examine the benefits and possibilities offered by digital technologies but also identify the limitations, drawbacks and risks that may be associated with becoming a digitised academic and the politics of digital public engagement.

5 A critical sociology of big data
Chapter 5 takes a critical sociological perspective on the big data phenomenon. The discussion emphasises that big data sets are systems of knowledge that are implicated in power relations. Big data are both the product of social and cultural processes and themselves act to configure elements of society and culture. They have their own politics, vitality and social life. Following an overview of the ways in which big data discourses and practices have achieved dominance in many social spheres, I discuss how digital data assemblages and algorithms possess power and authority, the metaphors used to describe big data and what these reveal about our anxieties and concerns about this phenomenon, big data hubris and rotted data and the ethical issues related to big data.

6 The diversity of digital technology use
Chapter 6 reviews research that has studied the use of digital technologies in different areas of the globe and how socioeconomic, cultural and political factors shape, promote or delimit the use of these technologies. I move from a discussion of the findings of large-scale surveys involving large numbers of respondents from specific countries or cross-nationally to in-depth qualitative investigations that are able to provide the detailed context for differences in internet use. The chapter shows that digital social inequalities are expressed and reproduced in a range of ways, including cultures of use as well as lack of access. Social inequalities and marginalisation may also be perpetuated and exacerbated online.

7 Digital politics and citizen digital public engagement
In Chapter 7 I examine the politics of digital veillance, activism, privacy debates, calls for openness of digital data and citizen digital public engagement. It is argued that while digital activism and moves to render digital data more open to citizens can be successful to some extent in achieving their aims, claims that they engender a major new form of political resistance or challenge to institutionalised power are inflated. Indeed digital technologies can provide a means by which activists can come under surveillance and be discredited by governments. Other negative aspects of citizen digital public engagement are outlined, including the ways in which the internet can incite discrimination and vigilantism and promote the dissemination of false information.

8 The digitised body/self
Chapter 8 addresses the ways in which digital software and hardware are becoming part of our identities as they store more data about our experiences, our social relationships and encounters and our bodily functioning. Digital sociologists and other digital media researchers have recognised the ways in which human embodiment and concepts of selfhood are represented and configured via digital technologies, digital data and digital social networks. It is not only the data or images produced via digital technologies that are important to research and theorise, but also how the objects themselves are used in practice. This chapter examines the incorporation of digital technologies into everyday lives across a range of contexts.

A review of Punk Sociology

ShowJacketSociology in the Anglophone world has been in the doldrums for some time. Since the heady days of poststructuralism and postmodernism, until very recently few advances had been made in theory or method. British sociology, however, is seeing a renewed impetus and vigour, with several sociologists beginning to talk about a move from ‘zombie sociology’ to ‘live sociology’ (Back, 2012) or ‘inventive methods’ (Lury and Wakeford, 2012), in which creative approaches and different ways of communicating are suggested to move the discipline out of its doldrums.

Punk Sociology, by British sociologist Dave Beer, is a welcome contribution to this new and exciting approach. As its title suggests, Beer attempts in this short book (part of the Palgrave Pivot series, itself an innovative approach to academic publishing) to show how sociology might be shaken up and re-energised. Punk sociology looks outward, is subversive and willing to try new approaches and also ready to engage with alternative forms of knowledge outside sociology. It means investigating forms of research and representations of social life that are beyond the textual, such as audio-visual material, and, as Beer puts it, ‘to coach ourselves to see sociology in sources where we may not be expecting to see it’ (p. 38). It also includes working with, rather than on, participants in sociological research, and experimenting with different approaches to writing about one’s work: blogging, podcasts, YouTube videos and tweets, for example. Beer encourages sociologists to take courage in conveying ideas that may still be raw and engaging with others’ responses to them, a practice that social media avenues encourage.

I am no fan of punk rock, but I very much like the concept of punk sociology. The term itself denotes a fresher approach to the sociological canon and accepted assumptions of what sociology is and should be. I would have loved to have read a book like this as an undergraduate in first-year sociology in the early 1980s, when unfortunately I found myself bored rigid by the dry and dull way in which the discipline was taught. I suspect that undergraduates and even postgraduates in sociology today would also welcome Beer’s thoughts on enlivening sociology.

Exponents of critical sociology have always been a little bit punk in their reflexivity and their efforts to challenge the status quo and identify hidden power relations. Beer talks about the vibrancy and energy of the punk ethos That, for me, is what sociology can contribute at its best, and what has impelled me in my own sociological writing and research (including this blog). I am always interested in new ideas and approaches in my discipline and making new connections (including with other disciplines) and investigating where I can take them.
Sociology is inherently fascinating to many: it is about our own lives and times. Sociologists are able to offer many important insights into social life and selfhood, and it is it downright negligent for us not to be able to convey these insights to others. To render sociology dull is a great disservice to what it can promise.

Beer has chosen to represent the punk ethos in positive terms in this book, largely ignoring its sometimes nihilistic, violent and often overly confronting tendencies. I don’t think he wants to argue that sociology should go down this road. Punk at its most extreme was gritty and hardcore, and my reading of Beer’s argument is that he is espousing a somewhat gentler and optimistic version.

I would have liked to have seen some more concrete examples of punk sociology practice in the book. Beer makes suggestions for how to go about being a punk sociologist, but they tend to be general. Some specific cases of how sociologists might employ new ways of practising the craft in the ways suggested by Beer and how they have gone about it would have been helpful and interesting.

I agree with Beer that there is no point in wallowing in dismay about what some see as an apparent crisis in sociology. The discipline needs to be reactive, energetic and nimble — and yes, even confronting like the original punk musicians were — in response to the social changes that are continually occurring and new forms of social research that are emerging (particularly those related to digital media and digital data).

Beer suggests a punk music playlist to listen to as part of his call to arms for punk sociology. Join him in cranking the music up loud and getting to work on a sociology that is new, imaginative, in the moment and ever-so slightly anarchic!

References
Back, L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review, 60: 18-39.
Lury, C. and Wakeford, N. (2012) Inventive Methods: the Happening of the Social. New York: Routledge.