We often think of communities in terms of their commonalities, defined by common interests, practices, heritage, or locale. We also talk about communities as neighborhoods, or ethnic groups and their associated beliefs and rituals, or communities of developers or researchers or users.
But communities are not all about commonalities. Indeed they are just as defined by their differences. Heterogeneity is foundational to pluralism and also to democracy . In a truly pluralistic society, difference is not absorbed or ameliorated, it is expressed. And this expression is often seen or experienced as conflict. In fact, we might say that communities are all about conflict. By conflict I don’t mean violence, but rather open disagreement, contention, and dissensus. The debates that occur in community meetings or online forums are productive for those communities because they give voice to differences and work to maintain the heterogeneity of the community. Debates are also defining because they make clear what issues a community believes are importantwhat issues are worth the conflict.
Defining communities by conflict may seem odd or simply counter-productive, but it’s neither. One of the objectives of this forum on Community + Culture is to explore the issues and opportunities of doing community-based work as HCI and design research. An important aspect of that exploration is questioning our assumptions about what constitutes community, offering new perspectives and tracing out their implications.
In that spirit, let’s explore the idea that conflict is defining of communities and that paying attention to this conflict is important, as it can serve to reveal the positions and commitments of actors within a community. To do so, I’ll call upon two examples from a community-based design project I was involved in, and then I’ll step back and briefly discuss why understanding conflict within communities is important to HCI and design research.
To Pirate or Not to Pirate?
Several years ago I was involved in a design research project investigating how robotics and sensing technologies might be leveraged to build technological fluency within neighborhoods. At one point in the project, radio was introduced as a possible format through which to communicate local issues of concern (how we got from robots and sensors to radios is another essay unto itself). The crux of the idea was the participants would broadcast facts about the neighborhoodfrom historical narratives to current pollution levelsand commuters would be able to listen to these programs on their car radios as they drove through the neighborhood. As participants explored the idea of using radio they became more informed about its technical capacities and limitations. They also, very quickly, became aware of its regulation. Frequency is not free, nor can just anyone use it. To establish a radio station on a dedicated frequency would require significant funding as well as working through an extended permit process.
In discussions about the situation, pirate radio was offered as an option. The basic concept of pirate radio is you broadcast on radio frequencies free of costs or permits. If the frequency used is not well policed and the broadcasts are of limited range and duration, it’s a workable tactic. But, in fact, it is also illegal. It falls into that zone of illegality that is often contested, with some claiming that public media should be a right, or at least accessible to a broader public. Ideological positions aside, pirate radio remains illegal.
The suggestion of pirate radio raised the interest of some participants and the hackles of many others. Conflict ensued during that workshop session as participants debated the merits and consequences of pirate radio. There was disagreement about whether this was a plausible option and why this was or was not worth pursuing. For one or two participants, the idea of using pirate radio was enticing precisely because it was illicit and daring. It expressed a self-sufficiency and a defiant stance that embodied the vitality of the community and its do-it-yourself approach to regeneration. But for othersthe majorityit was inappropriate, even dangerous. Pirate radio worked against the systems of governance that were perceived as foundational to the community. These included procedures of decision making and law. Very pragmatic issues were raised, such as “How could we get the city council to approve this? They never would!” It almost seemed as if for these participants pirate radio was an affront to the social fabric of the community.
The question of whether or not to engage in pirate radio was a “within group” conflict about the extent to which the group wanted to adopt an agitational stance, that is, the extent to which it wanted to position itself as contrary to or in alignment with others. To chose pirate radio would be to make a commitment to a civic action and design that was explicitly contestational . The argument against pirate radio, in contrast, hinged on a commitment to the existing social institutions and processes of the community. This was also a disagreement about the identity and future of the community.
Absence as a Signal of Contention
Open disagreements and debates within groups are obvious instantiations of conflict. But we aren’t always witness to them and at times conflict manifests in other ways. For example, absence can also be a sign of conflict. In the context of community work, who has been included and who has been excluded, and of those included, who is participating and who is not, may also be signals of contention within the community.
As the project progressed, we became more familiar with the neighborhood and its residents, organizations, and programs. With this knowledge we learned there were people and initiatives in the neighborhood whom we would have thought would be participating in the program but were not. This was surprising to us as we had gone to great lengths to make the program open and enticing. Why weren’t more youth participating? Why weren’t the local media artists participating? Why did we have the support of the council but not the participation of the mayor’s office?
We came to realize that the conflict we witnessed around pirate radio was a reflection of conflict within the community more generally. There were between six and nine active organizations in the neighborhood; each ran at least one community program, and many ran more than one. These organizations, their programs, and members tended to group together. Over time we discovered the basis for these groupings was not religion or race or social status or what part of the neighborhood people lived in. Rather, these groups had fundamentally different ideas about how change occurs and took different courses of action to achieve change within the neighborhood.
A story told to us perhaps best expresses this difference. The neighborhood had many abandoned buildings and there was a shared desire to have those buildings be re-occupied. But there were some issues. Many of the buildings owed back taxes; many others were damaged and worn from neglect. One organization was working to have the tax liens lifted and to find ways to make the necessary repairs so the buildings could be occupied. The mayor’s response was quite different. The story told is he went down to an abandoned building and cut the lock off the front door and then began inviting artists and small businesses to use the building free of charge. Although aspects of this story may be apocryphal, it nonetheless captures the differences that shaped the loyalties and activities within the neighborhood.
While all of these organizations and programs were working toward the regeneration of the community, their commitments were different. Many of the organizations and individuals had been in the neighborhood for decades. Their commitment was to a base of plans and strategies and procedures that had been developed over time and were projected into a fairly defined future vision for the neighborhood. Other organizations and individuals did not hold those commitments. Their allegiance was to action itself, to making change happen right there, right now, with as little delay as possible. Between and across these groups there was conflict. Although this conflict was not always openly expressed and for the most part the organizations did not actively work against one another, the clash of commitments kept them in a constant tension. Whereas the situation of pirate radio was a within group disagreement and able to be resolved, the situation of disagreement between and across multiple organizations resulted in a state of dissensus: organizations and individuals silently but steadfastly refusing to work together, maintaining their differences even as they pursued a shared desire.
Community and Conflict and Design
These two brief examples provide a glimpse of how conflict can define a community, giving shape to its identity and the activities engaged within. In the case of pirate radio the disagreement about the character of the community and the appropriate forms of action were quite productive. Participants were able to communicate their beliefs and desires and articulate an identity across them. Differences were not ameliorated or absorbed, but rather expressed and acted out.
Regarding the conflict among the community organizations, the contention expressed through a lack of collaboration was also formative. These differences were underlying fault lines of values that had real consequence for the kinds of change that took place in the community and gave shape to it. From a research perspective, if one wanted to understand the community as a whole, these internal dynamics were key to that understanding.
Often in community-based HCI and design research, our work extends understanding and description. A great deal of community-based HCI and design research is concerned with facilitating or directly participating in action. As a result, striving to uncover and make sense of the sources of conflict is crucial. The differences in commitments that give rise to conflict set different possibilities for action, which in turn set different trajectories for design. Uncovering and making sense of conflict is a way of identifying and working toward appropriate design actions in community contexts.
For example, if participants had decided to pursue pirate radio, then a series of activities could have been developed to facilitate this resolution, ranging from sourcing materials to securing the antenna to developing operation guides. Once pirate radio was deemed as not the way to go, other options had to be developed and other activities had to be designed to facilitate those options. As it was, the participants decided to reach out to existing community programs on existing radio stations to ask for donations of airtime. In this case, we worked together with the participants to develop sample radio content that could be used to demonstrate their concept and garner support for their project. To facilitate this, we designed a series of activities to help gather and structure content. Over time, as the underlying contours of the community became more apparent, we were able to gauge more generally what kinds of actions would fit with the commitments of the particular group we were working with and adjust our engagement accordingly.
Mitigating and Working with Conflict
What we were not able to do was mitigate the dissensus within the community. And frankly, even if we had desired to do so, there is much to suggest it would be counterproductive to the community. Difference is necessary to keep communities and democracy resilient. It’s through difference that a community is most able to adapt to change and explore a range of possibilities for action.
When expressed, this difference may often produce disagreement and contention. These ideas about conflict and difference are central to theories of agonism and agonistic democracy, which ground democracy in radical pluralism and contestation [2,5]. Of late, these theories are gaining purchase in design, particularly in participatory design [1,3,6]. This raises the question of the role of design with regard to conflict in communities. If we accept that conflict and difference are central to communities and democracy, then as long as the situation is non-violent and not oppressive we should not necessarily work to mitigate the situation. In the rush to mitigate conflict we may run the risk of thwarting the expression of difference and opportunities for action.
As we to continue to explore community work as HCI and design research, we must always question our assumptions about what constitutes community. Recognizing and appreciating the foundational role of conflict in communities is one way of reframing our understanding of communities. Still, we need better models for how to do community-based HCI and design research in the context of contestation and radical pluralism. Political theory provides useful frameworks for interpretation that are much needed in HCI and design research. We need to dovetail that theory with rich descriptions and analyses of projects that can inform our practices as researchers and designers. And in the process, we will hopefully continue to develop both the intellectual contributions and social relevance of HCI and design research.
3. DiSalvo, C. Design, democracy, and agonistic pluralism. Design Research Society; http://www.designresearchsociety.org/docs-procs/DRS2010/PDF/031.pdf
4. Hirsch, T. Contestational design: Innovation for political activism. Dissertation. MIT, Dept. of Architecture, Program in Media Arts and Sciences, 2006; http://hdl.handle.net/1721.1/46594
Carl DiSalvo is an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology, where he directs The Public Design Workshop. His research explores the political qualities and potentials of design. His first book, Adversarial Design: How Design Does the Work of Agonism, will be published by MIT Press in Spring 2012.
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