A few years back, I was asked to give a short presentation at the women’s (later renamed “diversity”) breakfast at the CHI conference. The main message in my talk was, I come to this conference as a researcher, not as a woman! I was angry and upset that we would need a special venue for women in a field that attracts such a diversity of people, with such varied disciplinary backgrounds.
My statement reflected more of a wish than a reality. There is no doubt that it matters whether I am male or female when I describe my research results. It matters in terms of whether people listen to me, whether they trust me, and how often they will refer to me. But wouldn’t it be amazingly relaxing if it did not matter? If I did not have to carry the weight of hundreds of years of readymade ideas of what women are or can do? Abracadabra—all prejudice gone!
But what does the “project of being a woman doing design research” really entail—beyond the prejudice? Does it matter that I am a woman?
I love being a woman. I love the transitions that a female life entails: childhood, menarche, childbirth, menopause, old age. I love that I have a female body—or rather a female soma, an inseparable mix of mind and body. I cherish the uniqueness of my soma and how it is colored by my experiences as a researcher, mother, grandmother, and wife (not to mention horseback rider!). As I do design research from a first-person perspective , my unique soma will and should color my design research .
A soma design position will, in my view, represent a pluralist position . Pluralism for HCI can be seen as a call to deconstruct the idea that we are designing for some universal user and that it is possible to reach universal usability. A pluralist stance will not assume only one universal way of being human. Instead, it will recognize that the category of human is “too rich, too diverse, and too complex a category to bear a universal solution” .
I argue that with a soma design position, we cannot design without engaging with our own bodies, our own first-person perspectives, as well as engaging with intersubjectivity—empathy with others and their bodily presence. In a sense, in a somaesthetic design process, pluralism will be in your face the whole time, acutely present, as you always must go back to your own as well as others’ felt experiences and their corporeal reality. When performing bodily exercises together or engaging/touching/feeling the design materials, you cannot avoid speaking of what different subjectivities bring to the table. All sorts of differences, such as body height or size, pains and aches, and visual, auditory, or haptic sensitivity, will keep popping up in your design discussions, but the discussion will not revolve solely around the surface of bodily differences. Deeper somatic differences will also be on the table—emotions, attitudes, beliefs, thought processes, a sense of the other and of the self and how it changes with the joint experience. I would not go as far as claiming that a soma design process will guarantee design pluralism, but there is a better chance that the discussion will arise.
As I do design research from a first-person perspective, my unique soma will and should color my design research.
Elizabeth Grosz speaks of how the ego is formed through the use of the body—in particular, its surface, the skin, which becomes a screen or a filter that helps us select and sort all the sensory information we actively seek through perception . The skin is what separates the body from the rest of the world, as well as being an important locus of exchange between the inside and the outside, a point of conversation: We touch and we can be touched through the same sense. Step by step, the ego emerges through a process of differentiation as our perception meets the reality around us. As Simone de Beauvoir pointed out, “One is not born a woman: One becomes a woman” . That is, human nature is malleable, and this process of being exposed to stimuli, engagement with others, language, and being introduced to practices, culture, and movements shapes our human bodies and ourselves. In this manner, our (nondualistic) somas are always constructed through meeting with our environment. In this equation, our perception is active; it seeks the world; it engages through movement to probe what is around.
In what way do these different subjectivities matter to design?
If our subjective selves are shaped by and shape our corporeal realities, and if those in turn differ between female and male, able and disabled, or young and old bodies, in an intricate interplay among corporeal reality, culture, and the development of the subjective self, then the design process and the resulting designs need to reflect this. It will not only be important to care about whether the body is tall, heavy, or fits other biological realities, as those biological realities cannot be separated from the sense of self—from the soma. The whole soma will be different, but not different in a generalizable sense. We cannot claim that female somas will behave, feel, think, and engage in certain manners, while male somas will always act in other ways. Instead, the idea points to the unique engagement with design from each subjectivity.
Richard Shusterman points out that the norms for women reinforce gender oppression, such as to “speak softly, eat daintily, sit with closed legs, and walk with bowed heads and lowered eyes” . Not only are these limiting bodily practices that hinder movement, they are also often taken for granted and so escape critical consciousness. As we filter our experiences through our own somas, we might not even be aware of these behavior and movement patterns. Their influence on how we behave, how we feel, and our attitudes are profound but entirely bundled up and therefore invisible. Only when we engage with our own somas, discerning different experiences, engaging with others intersubjectively, empathically, can we come to see these norms, which in turn means that they can be challenged and altered.
Shusterman sees somaesthetics training as a path to empowerment. Once we become more body aware, allowing ourselves to move in novel ways—ways that may, for example, not rhyme with our gender—our culture comes into focus and we can start questioning it. If we are not even aware of how our gender limits our movements, in turn limiting our reach, beliefs, and attitudes, we cannot change these limits. And so long as we do not change with and through our bodies, others cannot either and will respond to us accordingly.
I am therefore going to allow myself a second abracadabra magic moment where not only prejudice is gone, but also design research becomes more honest and engages heavily with who we are, beyond oppressing norms or readymade ideas about the human condition!
How relaxing it would be. How much work we would get done.
Note: This column contains sections of text from my recent book Designing with the Body .
1. Höök, K., Caramiaux, B., Erkut, C., Forlizzi, J., Hajinejad, N., Haller, M., Hummels, C.C.M., Isbister, K., Jonsson, M., Khut, G., Loke, L., Lottridge, D., Marti, P., Melcer, E., Müller, F.F., Graves Petersen, M., Schiphorst, T., Márquez Segura, E., Ståhl, A., Svanss, D., Tholander, J., and Tobiasson, H. Embracing first-person perspectives in soma-based design. Informatics 5, 1 (2018), 8. DOI:10.3390/informatics5010008
Kristina Höök is a professor in interaction design at Royal Institute of Technology [KTH), Stockholm, Sweden. Höök is known for her work on soma design, first-person perspectives on design, and epistemology for interaction design. firstname.lastname@example.org
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