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XXVII.5 September - October 2020
Page: 24
Digital Citation

Listening to others


Authors:
Gopinaath Kannabiran

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For researchers who work with other humans, one of the core aspects of their profession is listening to others. Developing system requirements, representing user group needs, evaluating the effectiveness of implemented design interventions, informing public policy decisions, advocating for consumer rights, detailing sociotechnical practices that evolve within communities as ethnographic records, and rearranging existing power relationships through participation in critical making, hacking, open source, and citizen science, among others, demonstrate the central role and relevance of listening to others for HCI and design researchers. This seemingly simple task of listening to others is our bread and butter, as we carefully prune our research methodology to achieve a rigorous study aligning with project goals. Listening to others is not just about research subjects but also about how we engage with other researchers.

Someone once asked me if there is one correct critical epistemology. I responded that, in my understanding, a critical epistemology appreciates the strengths and acknowledges the limitations of different epistemologies. Criticality is neither one correct perspective nor can be shirked off as plurality, but rather can be more productively understood as dialogic movement. As Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein write, engaging with the ideas of others "has an ethical dimension, since it asks writers not simply to keep proving and reasserting what they already believe but to stretch what they believe by putting it up against beliefs that differ, sometimes radically, from their own" [1]. They go on to assert, "In an increasingly diverse, global society, this ability to engage with the ideas of others is especially crucial to democratic citizenship" [1]. This kind of critical engagement with other researchers' work through research writing demands more than citations in the Existing Literature section. We must stretch beyond the confines of what we may be comfortable and familiar with.

Listening to others, when applied to how we approach the work of other researchers, is not only a form of ethically responsible democratic scholarship; more important, it also brings theoretical rigor. Peter Zima argues that an "encounter of heterogeneous points of view is a more serious test than discussions within a group of scientists and their sociolect" [2]. Distorted fantasies of research writing as a lone genius spouting original ideas must be remedied by pragmatically orienting one's own work as both starting from and returning back to a dialogue with existing research. Contrary to naive assumptions about a lack of originality, critical engagement with heterogeneous perspectives involves more than making a laundry list of existing works. Critical engagement provides a discursive suturing that requires: a) skillful appreciation for the strengths and a curated awareness of the limitations of different approaches, b) creative imagination to present a coherent narrative without reducing the complexity of various perspectives, and c) a pragmatic demonstration of commitment to action by prompting further dialogue in the research field. Viewed this way, the contributions of a research work can be meaningfully made sense of only in relation to existing ideas, practices, problems, and perspectives that are gained by listening to and engaging with others. But what does listening to others in the context of doing research entail?

Listening to others for research involves more than information gathering. Verbal engagements, such as asking clarifying questions, and nonverbal engagements, such as nodding, can be helpful in affirming to the other person that we are listening and paying attention. According to Salman Akhtar, some characteristics of empathetic listening include "putting one's own concerns aside," "receptivity," "not being in a hurry to interrupt the narrative," "containing without rushing to 'explain,'" and "a certain amount of slowing down" [3]. That is, listening to others entails more than just not talking over others. A defining factor for listening to others is that one's attitude toward others be one of receptivity, structured through the choice of research methodology in a project. Listening to Edward Said's critique of orientalism, Beki Grinter notes: "Othering happens when the people who control knowledge production represent those who do not" [4]. Depending on epistemic commitments, a human being participating in research can be: a) conceptualized and represented as an object of analysis through scientific writing, b) studied and discussed as a subject by experts in a specific research domain, or c) listened to and engaged with as a subject by another subject in an ongoing dialogue.

The above three configurations are neither exhaustive nor exclusive; our work as researchers interested in the design of technology often involves a combination of these. For instance, as a part of my research on design for sexual well-being (D4SW) [5], one of the research studies involved interviewing adult participants in person about their private sexual lives. I was surprised at how forthcoming some of the participants were about discussing intimate details of their past relationships, which helped me to better understand my own values, preferences, and priorities. At times, I wanted to stop the interview to reassure those who expressed negative body-image concerns and low-self esteem comments toward themselves, but I did not know what to say or if it was appropriate to do so. And at times, I had a good cry by myself after interviewing someone who had been through a lot of personal hardships and traumatic abuse. These are just a few examples demonstrating the complexity of listening to others for research and the spectrum of what that might entail.

What ought we to do as researchers while listening to others? It is vital to note here that objectivity for a research community can be meaningfully made sense of only by understanding the "norms that are internalized and enforced by appeal to ethical values, as well as to pragmatic efficacy in securing knowledge" [6]. Who we listen to, what we listen to, and how we listen through our research is inescapably political, with real-life implications for the design of technologically mediated shared futures. More specifically, research that aspires to be "critical must be connected to an attempt to confront the injustice of a particular society or public sphere within the society [and] thus becomes a transformative endeavor unembarrassed by the label political" [7]. This framing of critical research as a politically transformative endeavor is also intensely personal, since empathetic listening requires emotional labor. Listening to others with our full attention by being physically, mentally, and emotionally present, and staying receptive with curiosity for an hour-long interview is not an easy task. Listening to others requires more than letting others talk while waiting for our turn to respond.

Listening to others demands consistent practice in "containing without rushing to explain" [3] and becomes increasingly difficult when encountering viewpoints that have values opposing our own. For instance, I once assigned Elizabeth Churchill's Interactions article "Sugared Puppy-Dog Tails" [8] as reading material for a class discussion on gender and technology design with undergraduate students. When I asked the students what they thought about the piece, a male student said, "I don't know. It's like written from a woman's point of view." I engaged further with him and asked, "Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by that?" He responded, "It's written from a woman's point of view. I don't know why I am reading this or how this is relevant to me." This incident has stayed with me even after several years and taught me several valuable lessons about the painful necessity of encountering oppositional viewpoints with receptivity, while opening dialogues in a learning environment. Listening to others who do not share our worldview tests the limits of our own compassion, and challenges us to find new avenues for cooperation based on, as Virginia Burden Tower writes, "a thorough conviction that nobody can get there unless everybody gets there" [9]. Listening to others can undoubtedly help us to understand others better even if we don't always agree with them. The value of a research contribution to a specific community must be appreciated and evaluated beyond a narrow metric of novelty. What would our review processes look like if the originality of a research article was determined based on critical engagement with existing research? How can researchers become better listeners toward those with different perspectives and values from our own? Who do we become by listening to others for research? Where and when can researchers utilize their profession as a politically transformative endeavor to empower those who are oppressed and exploited?

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back to top  References

1. Graff, G. and Birkenstein, C. They Say, I Say: The Moves That Matter in Academic Writing. Gildan Media, 2006.

2. Zima, P.V. What is Theory? Cultural Theory as Discourse and Dialogue. Continuum, 2007.

3. Akhtar, S. The 'listening cure': An Overview. In Listening to Others. Jason Aronson, 2007.

4. Grinter, B. Representing others: HCI and postcolonialism. In Critical Theory and Interaction Design. J. Bardzell, S. Bardzell, and M. Blythe, eds. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2018, 723–736.

5. Kannabiran, G. et al. Design for sexual wellbeing in HCI. Extended Abstracts of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2018.

6. Daston, L. and Galison, P. Objectivity. Zone Books, 2007.

7. Kincheloe, J.L. and McLaren, P. Rethinking critical theory and qualitative research. In Key Works in Critical Pedagogy. Brill, 2011.

8. Churchill, E.F. Sugared puppy-dog tails: Gender and design. Interactions 17, 2 (2010), 52–56.

9. Burden Tower, V. The Process of Intuition. Theosophical Pub House, 1987.

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Gopinaath Kannabiran is a design educator, HCI researcher, and sexual rights activist currently working as a postdoc at IT University of Copenhagen. goka@itu.dk

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2020 ACM, Inc.

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