Design sociology part 4: wrapping up

This is the last in my series of posts introducing design sociology, following part 1 (introduction), part 2 (terms and approaches) and part 3 (critical, speculative and ludic design). For an article outlining a project in which Mike Michael and I used design sociology, see here (and an example of one of the design tasks we used is shown to the right). design sociology

Design sociology approaches offer many opportunities for sociologists to expand their research horizons, particularly in relation to applied, practice-based, sociomaterial and future-oriented research. There are several compelling reasons why they should begin to do so. Design sociology can bring together theory and practice in exciting ways. It can be viewed as one element of the ‘live sociology’ to which Back (2012) refers, in which new ways of investigating social worlds are developed.

One of the strongest contributions that design sociology can make is to inspire creative thinking not only for sociologists but also for people, groups or organisations outside academia who take part in their research, developing the multiple vantage points, new ways of telling and showing, and imaginative responses to which Back refers in his vision for live sociology. It also offers a route for productive multidisciplinary collaborations, in which sociology researchers can work with people in design, HCI and anthropology, among others, in exchanging and building on their respective areas of expertise.

Further, in their incorporation of the participation of publics, design-oriented approaches work towards many sociologists’ desire to work with communities in co-research activities and to disseminate their research widely. Design sociology can contribute to research that has broad applications. In many wealthy nations, sociologists and other social researchers are being called upon to orient their research more towards potential users outside the academy. Policy developments in higher education such as the ‘impact’ and ‘innovation’ agendas, measurements of engagement with stakeholders and publics and associated changes in programs for funding research and universities have led to the need for academic researchers to reconsider their research topics, methods and collaborators.

Design sociology can include three different, but interrelated, perspectives (based on Gunn and Donovan’s  (2012) useful tripartite definition of design anthropology). First, it can engage in the sociology of design: that is, sociological research directed at identifying design cultures, or the discursive and material practices which professional designers enact, and the broader sociocultural and political contexts in which design as a way of thinking and a profession is situated. This approach means devoting attention to the ideas, design artefacts and other material objects designers use in their working practices, as well as the spaces and places in which they work. Second, design sociology can involve conducting research through design: that is, by using design methods and concepts as research devices to generate insights into other topics. Both approaches acknowledge the social worlds and material practices of designers and the other participants who might work with them, as well as those of the end-users of designed objects and systems.

Third, design sociology will also often need to embrace sociology with design. Sociologists have not been trained to think in ‘designerly’ ways. Most need help to conceptualise how to go about incorporating design perspectives into their research: and this means collaboration outside sociology. Thus far, of the small number of sociologists who have experimented with design research, most have training in design as well as sociology or have used designers as consultants, or worked on multidisciplinary research teams including designers or HCI researchers. Sociologists who want to incorporate design research approaches but have little hands-on experience of them may need to consider making connections with academics working in design or design anthropology or commission design consultants who have experience in the types of design research outlined here to work with them in planning and executing their projects.

Whichever design sociology approach is taken up, designed phenomena should be positioned as dynamic and contingent assemblages of humans and nonhumans, including ideas, practices, things, spaces and places. Design sociology approaches offer a way of developing greater insights into what people do with objects and systems, such as those involved in digital technologies, and not just what they say they do. Furthermore, they can build on these insights to develop future-oriented perspectives that can contribute to the further development and improvements in the design of objects and systems, including making recommendations. Design sociology can contribute more formative and conceptual research that can contribute to the design process by uncovering the meanings and uses of objects or systems that are already part of everyday lives, or by asking people to consider or generate new ideas about future objects or systems before they have entered everyday life. As such, this research can be helpful in shaping design decisions, both during the design process and when the design is tested.

An important element of a sociological approach to design methods to consider is that of multiple vantage points and contestation. The sociology of expectations and of public engagements with science and technology, for example, often involve identifying disputes and controversies arising from debates about futures (Michael, 2017; Wilkie et al., 2017). This recognition of the possibility of contestation (often between publics and government or big business) remains important to the development of design sociology approaches. For example, rather than assuming that all stakeholders involving in a participatory design process will share imaginaries of the future, a critical sociological approach will be alive to the possibilities of conflict and contestation. The reasons for differences in future imaginaries can be important in understanding the vested interests and politics of the different groups involved.

To conclude, design sociology offers one direction for sociologists to think through how they might orient their research to meet these new expectations and demands in ways that also allow them to maintain their broader intellectual interests in the meanings and practices of social identities, social relationships and social institutions. Depending on how it is applied, design sociology can be considered as a method for social critique and the identification of social inequalities, disadvantage and marginalisation. It can be a form of participatory social research or action research. Design sociology research can also be a way of contributing to the development of new technologies and systems for the benefit of communities, activist groups, government agencies or industry. In many cases, more than one of these outcomes can be achieved.

References

Back L. (2012) Live sociology: social research and its futures. The Sociological Review 60: 18-39.

Gunn W and Donovan J. (2012) Design anthropology: an introduction. Design and anthropology. London: Ashgate, 1-16.

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

Wilkie A, Savransky M and Rosengarten M. (2017) Introduction: beyond the impasse of the present. In: Wilkie A, Savranksy M and Rosengarten M (eds) Speculative Research: the Lure of Possible Futures. London: Routledge.

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.