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.