Micro-ethics in Participatory Design with Children

A summary of our recent work on ethics in Participatory design with Katta Spiel.

There has been quite some interest in micro-ethics in (participatory) design in the recent years. By micro-ethics, I refer to research on ethics focusing on situated moral judgements and decisions – by contrast to, for instance, rights or moral principles, and procedural ethics approaches. In computer sciences and engineering, previous research on micro-ethics has focused « individuals and the internal relations of the engineering profession, » and the risks they embed in products. We are, in this article, outlining ethical challenges in participatory design with children and calling for this type of case studies to be used in the training of new researchers and outline research themes in this area that could be developed.

Contrast, however, is not opposition: we argue in this paper that if indeed ethics principles often end up contradicting each other in the field, we can productively engage with moments of ethical frictions to assess the impact of our decisions and guide future research. This is a timely subject, as a paper published not long after by Piet Tutenel, Stefan Ramaekers and Ann Heylighen on a related issue – exploring the negotiations necessary to do right by ethics boards and right by children participants – suggests. As design and HCI researchers gets more and more involved with vulnerable populations or in sensitive contexts, we find ourselves grappling with ethical frameworks often made for other types of inquiries and our own ethical doubts. As a reminder, the ACM SIGCHI ethics committee is less than five years old!

With this article, we present twelve case studies illustrating situations in which several ethical guidelines conflicted, and how we resolved these dilemmas. Our aim was to provide nuanced insights into the trade-offs required by child-led participatory design processes, generally between participation and protection.

For instance: in many cases, children participants decided to hug, squeeze, hold to, climb, grab, jump on, pull on or tickle the field researcher. This was, on the one hand, a proof the chosen child-led research strategy was working. On the other, it can threaten the researcher’s own safety and comfort, and in our field work, it could be considered not professional. Indeed, other (professional) caregivers establish barriers defining what is acceptable and unacceptable for children to do.

The boundaries-setting process is thus continuous. It illustrates the tensions that can exist between several ethic principles at the core of standard procedural ethics processes (researcher’s safety and professional conduct) and ethical principles stemming from the research literature (child-led processes). While this is discussed informally between researchers, it is little reported.

This lack of reporting have two consequences. It is not formally taught to early career researchers, who thus lack references on which to model their practices. It also means that there are little formal discussions about the kind of trade-offs that are acceptable, or preferred, by the academic community. Finally we identify three challenges for these future discussions: positioning our work to the children’s carers’ values, protecting ourselves, and enabling the (relative) risk-taking associated with participation for children.

The full article:

Katta Spiel, Emeline Brulé, Christopher Frauenberger, Gilles Bailly, and Geraldine Fitzpatrick. 2018. Micro-ethics for participatory design with marginalised children. In Proceedings of the 15th Participatory Design Conference: Full Papers – Volume 1 (PDC ’18), Liesbeth Huybrechts, Maurizio Teli, Ann Light, Yanki Lee, Julia Garde, John Vines, Eva Brandt, Anne Marie Kanstrup, and Keld Bødker (Eds.), Vol. 1. ACM, New York, NY, USA, Article 17, 12 pages. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1145/3210586.3210603


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