Curious and Dangerous: Participatory Design Research and Identities

A summary of a recent article, co-authored with Dr Katta Spiel.

We, design practitioners and researchers, care a lot about our participants’ identity. We invite them to participate because they belong to a group – a company, a classroom, a labor union, a community. Or because of one of their characteristics – they are children or they are over 60s. We try bringing to the fore marginalised point of views. We care about how our participants enact their identity through materials and crafts. We are attentive to our roles in the participatory design activities, mirroring our attention to the roles taken by children or adult participants. We rarely, however, describe our characteristics as researchers and designers and how they affect this process. Nor do we examine how participants may reject the very characteristics or identity labels that led us to invite them to participate.

Katta Spiel and I noticed this dichotomy last year while working on micro-ethics in participatory design. We thus recently published a paper, based on case studies from three research projects with disabled children, demonstrating how our characteristics as researchers shaped the research we do. We focus on gender and disability given how central they are to our experience in these research projects.

Standpoint theory

The concern for the impact of researchers’ identities on scholarship is far from new or specific to Participatory Design. Dewey’s theory of values, or Weber’s efforts to strive towards an elicitation of values so as to make research value-neutral, are a century old. In this paper, we start from standpoint theory. It finds its origin in (feminist marxist/materialist) scholarship: if the position and experiences of women are profoundly different from men’s, then their vision of the world is different.

It so happens we do not fit well in either of these categories. Our experience is of being constantly of the edge between gender; of being perceived as men, then as women or vice-versa; and of violence for failing to be neatly categorised in one or the other. A situation that brings our identity to the fore, as it can create conflicts with parents or with colleagues.

Methodological approach

As identity partially lies in the eyes of the beholder, how do we study its impacts on research? We selected case studies enabling us to study: 1) Boundaries, such as who is welcome to participate in certain activity and structures; 2) Temporal and spatial changes of those boundaries; 3) Reflexive discourses on identities, such as mapping consensus and dissensus between different individuals within a group claiming the same or associated identities (following Adams, 2009).

Once we started looking, these conflicts, frictions and acts of establishing boundaries were many. Some were selected in the paper. Go take a look!

Take-away

Our contribution is primarily empirical: we demonstrate the identity work we had to undertake to become acceptable as queer researchers with children. This includes consciously performing “womanly” attitudes, or retreating when a conflict arises between a child using a male pronoun and an adult rectifying them. Embodying a queer identity indeed affects how children perceive us: children participant find it curious and fairly often inspiring. But researchers and designers part of the queer community constantly find themselves having to address suspicions they have an agenda. Children who relate to these identities can find themselves in conflict with their own community. We are curious, and we are dangerous.

We certainly do have a certain vision of the world. In addition to its queerness, we share a political lens when thinking about disability, which is reflected in the design of our projects and in our design propositions. Children often see disability in a different way: not something they want to identify with if they can avoid doing so. This value work is not usually discussed either.

We suggest that researchers and practitioners could more systematically reflect on four ways identities are enacted in participatory design processes:

  • On Researcher: Deliberately engaging participants communicate about how they identify us (an issue here is how to ensure our own safety).
  • On Participant: Explicitly pointing out how we chose and identified participants and which aspects of their identity we might have ignored through that.
  • Participant Self: Being humble about our assumptions and attuning ourselves to how participants articulate their own identity.
  • Researcher Self: Revisiting our actions within the process and how they tie into our own understanding of ourselves.

This allows positioning ourselves as researchers and designers as we are shaping the design process, as well as contextualising design decisions. It was certainly necessary in our community-oriented research work with marginalised children, but we are hoping to extend the conversation!


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